Harley Quinn Co-Creator On The Studio's Biggest Notes, Full-Frontal Animation, And More [Exclusive Interview]

(Welcome to My Most Ridiculous Note, a series of interviews in which animators talk about the weirdest and funniest notes they received from studio executives.)

"Harley Quinn" is one of the funniest, most subversive, and overall best superhero shows around today. What could have easily been just an over-the-stop, crude, and hyper-violent adult cartoon quickly revealed itself to be full of heart and emotion, with great character arcs not just for Harley and Ivy, but the supporting cast, too.

This is a show that takes us inside Batman's mind, gives us the definitive version of the Waynes' murder, and even provides Bruce Wayne's first therapy session (kind of), all while also turning Joker into a loving stepfather, making King Shark an essential DC character, and giving Bane a characterization we could only dream of.

The show was created by Justin Halpern, Patrick Schumacker, and Dean Lorey, all making their debuts in animation. (That's not to say that they had no TV experience, having worked on shows like "Arrested Development" and "$#*! My Dad Says," and Schumacker and Halpern serving as co-showrunners of "Abbott Elementary.") The trio managed to bring a sense of live-action sitcom humor and storytelling and marry it with wild physics and gags, resulting in a hilarious, over-the-top, absurd, yet heartfelt and earnest cartoon.

/Film spoke with co-creator Patrick Schumacker about giving the DC universe a fresh new look, the studio's response to some of their biggest changes to the canon, and how HBO Max encouraged them to make an "Eyes Wide Shut" episode full of phallic imagery.

BatCatgate, surfer bros, and loser police commissioners

From the very beginning, "Harley Quinn" made it clear it was not going to follow any one particular portrayal of the DC canon, and turned the freedom to play around with iconic characters into a key component of its irreverent, inventive tone and world. This was made clear in several ways, including killing major characters like Penguin and Mr. Freeze to making Batman a big co-dependent baby. It doesn't matter how familiar you are with DC comics and movies, there are bound to be at least a few surprises for you in "Harley Quinn," and the creative team had a surprising level of freedom to change things around.

"Their sticking point in the beginning, which made a lot of sense to us, was [they] want to protect, they called them The Big Seven, so the Justice League, essentially," Schumacker told /Film. "As long as you portrayed those characters, the sort of pillars of the DC pantheon, with respect, and treated them as pretty much how they have been characterized historically, then they let us do what we were going to do." Essentially, as long as Batman was still a brooding vigilante and Superman a boy scout, practically anything else was fair game.

There were, of course, exceptions. Schumacker recalls early on that DC Comics had issues with the show's portrayal of Aquaman. The original idea was to do a riff on Jason Momoa's portrayal of the character — many of the show's takes on the characters are exaggerated versions of movie portrayals, like Bane being inspired by Tom Hardy's take on the character from "The Dark Knight Rises." 

"We really ratcheted up this sort of surfer bro version of [Aquaman] where he had a flip-flop that had the beer bottle opener on the bottom of it," the executive producer and co-creator said. "I remember DC saying, 'No, he's a little too stupid.' And then we sort of reframed him as this almost like Disney prince, and he was kind of pompous and they were like, 'Yeah, that's cool.' And depending on who you ask, I don't know, that character could be equally stupid." The result, once actor Chris Diamantopoulos re-recorded the surfer bro lines, became closer to DC's answer to Gaston from "Beauty and the Beast" — still a big galoot, but without the bottle opener flip-flop.

The best-known studio note on "Harley Quinn" and the scene that DC had the biggest problem with — according to the internet, at least — was what Schumacker calls "BatCatgate." Back in 2021, it was reported that DC forbade the "Harley Quinn" team from having Batman perform oral sex on Catwoman in a season 3 scene (which eventually just portrayed the Caped Crusader giving his girlfriend a very bad foot massage). At the time, co-creator Justin Halpern said that DC let the showrunners know that "heroes don't do that."

According to Schumacker, things weren't as bad as people thought. "I definitely think that through the sort of game of telephone, things got a little bit misconstrued and it became a bigger story than it probably would've been," he told us. The way he recalls it, the DC executive who gave that note wasn't concerned about the portrayal of Batman as a pillar of DC, and more about kids watching the show — even if it is clearly not meant for kids. Still, in a season that also contains a whole episode set at an orgy, to fixate on this one scene feels a little disingenuous from DC.

Commissioner Gordon, perpetually tired

One character who almost didn't make it to the screen the way he was intended is Commissioner Gordon. In the show, Gordon is not the pinnacle of what law enforcement is meant to represent or an honorable man who works for justice. Instead, he is an overworked, stressed-out alcoholic who is constantly losing his mind on the job. As Schumacker tells it, DC was not happy with this version of Gordon "because he was such a sort of failure in so many respects and he was an addict." To the studio, old Jimbo was too much of a loser.

"They had issues with him needing to be a little bit more heroic and a little bit more capable," he added. But the way the creators justified the portrayal was that Gordon essentially lives "through a 12-hour shift of the movie 'Seven,'" which obviously is going to mess with your psychology. Gotham is the most dangerous place on Earth, and Gordon is constantly dealing with the deadliest and most eccentric villains, while only being able to rely on a man dressed up as a bat. Of course he's going to be a bit of a loser and a stressed-out addict.

Thankfully, the creative team convinced DC to let them take the character to the animatic phase (very, very rough versions of the final animated scenes, which Schumacker describes as "a little herky-jerky") to test out the scenes with audiences. When the response was overwhelmingly positive, the studio gave its blessing to the portrayal.

"Harley Quinn," much like "Young Justice," shows the promise of the DC Universe as an expansive world with lots of different kinds of heroes. Whether it's highlighting lesser-known characters or exploring Jack Kirby's Fourth World, nothing is off limits to these shows ... unless DC changes its mind. Though the days of DC forbidding TV shows from including Batman in their storylines to preserve the money-printing machine of the movies are over, Schumacker told us DC is still hesitant about the same character appearing on TV if they will be a big deal in future live-action movie projects. "They'll ask us to find creative ways to maybe shift focus away from certain characters. But we don't ever get a hard 'No, you can't have that character ever show up,' or 'That character doesn't exist.'"

Full frontal humor

It's not just that "Harley Quinn" is a good DC show, it's that it is a fantastic comedy in its own right, regardless of which DC characters show up. It has a good balance of absurdity and earnestness. You can have an entire special about Bane becoming a giant with a massive libido, but also have a rather heartfelt episode about Harley giving Bruce Wayne therapy. 

While it may seem like the show gets away with a lot — and it does — there are limits, both from the studio and even from the creative team. Schumacker tells of a moment during the making of the first season, when he was working on the final sound mix, and a studio executive called with a request. They did not want a joke in episode 3 where one of the Queen of Fables' henchmen, who is a gingerbread cookie man, says his job at a tax office beats "sucking d*** under a bridge for money." As the co-creator tells it, "We had to pause the mix and then we went back and because all the animation was finished, we had to figure out something else that fit inside of the mouth of, no pun intended, the gingerbread man."

Once the show moved to HBO Max in its third season, though, the notes decreased. "If anything, they said to us, 'Go harder. If you want to make it bawdier, edgier, go for it,'" Schumacker said. This is how season 3 ended up including an episode like Harley and Ivy going to an orgy hosted by the Court of Owls. HBO Max not only was okay with it, they suggested the writers and animators add "as many penises as you want." With the network's blessing, the original artwork made for the show included what Schumacker describes as "full-frontal nudity, anatomically correct genitalia, and everything." And yet, the final episode does show some restraint, and the crew polices themselves on how far they want to take things.

Schumacker is currently working on the new season of "Abbott Elementary"; he and Halpern are handing off day-to-day "Harley Quinn" showrunning duties to writer-producer Sarah Peters going into season 4, while Dean Lorey and Katie Rich handle the show's upcoming spin-off, "Noonan's," which is set at a Gotham City dive bar and will prominently feature the Kite-Man character.