Cat got your Tongue… in Clay

“Being something entirely different than anything in the primetime landscape is a tremendous advantage, in a way.  But it also means putting a square peg in a round hole.  In the end, the concept has to stand on its own.”
–Megan Lynn, production assistant, Creature Comforts

Documentaries on network television are rare enough, documentary series even more so.  A documentary series that is also a half-hour comedy produced by the entertainment division isn’t just rare, it’s an endangered species.  Creature Comforts was probably one of the most different concepts ever to make it onto a network schedule.  It had no stars, no drama, no actual plot or storyline… and no humans seen anywhere.  And yet, it was a show that was about every one of us.

Oh, yeah… and it was made of clay.

Cat got your tongue... literally

Creature Comforts aired on CBS in the summer of 2007.  It didn’t have any recognizable stars, or really even any actors.  Instead,  it featured the recorded voices of normal, everyday Americans from all across the country.  Throughout the previous year, a massive project was undertaken, and over 40 interviewers were sent out to record a variety of conversations from a diverse cross-section of people, of every age, social standing, and walk of life.  These recordings were then gathered together, edited, and assembled into documentary form.   Various quotes were split up by category and reorganized by the creators and producers of the show into seven- to ten-minute sections by topic (on “art”, or “flying”, or “honesty”, to name a few).  There were over FIVE HUNDRED HOURS worth of recordings taken over that year, which were edited down to 7 half-hour episodes dedicated to the various topics.

Most documentaries would just cut together the film at this point, in interesting ways.  But this was all audio, and this was no ordinary documentary.  These were just random recordings, with no timeline or event or pre-determined focus point.  Just the everyday observations of everyday people about everyday life.  And most, if not all, of the interview subjects had no idea at the time that their words were going to become part of a network TV show.

They also didn’t know their words were about to spoken by sheep, horses, and fish.  This is where the hard work and creativity on the show all started, and where Creature Comforts was born.

A young couple that loved to "horse" around....

That’s not quite true.  Although the series aired on CBS in the summer of 2007, the actual birth of the concept was a 5-minute British film made in 1989.  Also called Creature Comforts, it was the brainchild of filmmaker Nick Park and the production company Aardman Animations.  It used interviews with ordinary British citizens, juxtaposed with wry and occasionally ironic clay stop-motion animation of talking animals, whose voices were provided by the recordings.  That movie went on to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film in 1990, and led to a series of commercials in Great Britain using the same concept.  Those television ads were noted as among “The Best of the Century” in both a Sunday Times article series, and an ITV television special.  They were so popular with the British public that a series of television shorts soon followed there in 2003, featuring 10-minute films on various topics.

Much British television is structured without commercials during programs, and start times are not like American television where shows begin normally on the hour or half-hour.  Therefore, in order to make the transition to American television, the idea of roughly 10-minute segments was kept, but the new pieces were grouped in sets of two (or occasionally three shorter segments) and designed as half-hour episodes, with commercials in-between.  This was very different from typical American television, and proved to be one of the reasons that the show didn’t really catch on; there was absolutely no reason for any viewer to stay over the commercial, as there was no continuing plot or cliff-hanger ending to resolve after the break.

(over a blank screen, we hear glasses clinking, and the pop of a cork… and then we see two animated dogs begin talking…)

“It smells… pretty ripe.  I’m getting… {sniff} medium to dark notes.  I’m getting a bit of, like,  a cassis kind of smell.  {another sniff}  Also kind of like a dried fruit character to it as well.  Not, I wouldn’t say, raisin, but more like a dried cranberry kind of thing going on there.  {another sniff}  Grape?  Yes.”
–The two dogs, who have been sniffing at the back end of a third.

Taken on its own merits, the segments themselves are witty, ironic, and fun.  Interviews with nursing home residents are turned into quotes from animals talking about their life at the zoo, and the change in context makes the comments both humorous and rather pointed.  A stunt-flying pilot talks about how “any flight you can walk away from is a good one”, but he’s animated as a cardinal with a broken wing in a sling, standing with a crutch… and he falls off his perch at the end of the segment.  And you wouldn’t think a woman talking about her mild health problems would be funny, especially when she says “I’ve got dry skin.  Would you believe it?”  That is, until you see her animated as a fish swimming in a bowl.

the Lovebirds

Many of the interviews were rather wide-ranging and not limited to specific topics, so some of the “voices” and characters appeared in multiple segments.  An older married couple were animated as “lovebirds” in a cage, although their comments were a bit less than loving while arguing on various topics; and a rather embarrassed young couple talking about sex and romance were shown as… rabbits.

This type of contextual irony was what made ordinary conversation funny, and the show, while not consisting of actual jokes, was still rather hilarious if you watched what the animators did with the comments.  That’s where the real laughter of the series was, and of course, that meant (like I mentioned in last week’s article on Police Squad!) that Creature Comforts was a show you really had to watch to get the humor.  Which also meant that it was almost immediately on the endangered series list.

The company behind the show was the award-winning Aardman Animation, and the creators of the Wallace and Gromit series and the movie Chicken Run.  They were the leading producers in the world of the almost lost art of stop-motion animation, and it took them almost nine months of work AFTER the interviews were done and edited to actually create the animated footage for Creature Comforts.

Stop-motion animation is long and arduous work, but when it’s done well, the results are amazing, and at times better than anything that could be done in live-action.  (I swear, there’s one scene in Chicken Run that should win an award for the “acting”, it really can be that good.)  But given the hours of audio recordings, the real brilliance of the show was the way that the animators created animal characters that truly felt like they could say these things, if they could talk.  Facial expressions, offhand looks, occasional sight gags, and all those little things that are part of a great acting performance are here, done amazingly with pieces of clay brought to life, and the production people on the show did it all one frame at a time, moving each arm or leg or mouth just a bit between frames to give the impression of talking, or laughing, or whatever emotion was required.

Just tryin' to survive the city....

Just tryin' to get a second of film

And the sets and scenes are very different to work on during stop-motion animation.  Here are two pictures, the above being the finished product of two cockroaches complaining about how difficult it is to live in New York (okay, it’s two people voicing their complaints, but they’re animated as two cockroaches…).  And beside this paragraph there is the “behind the scenes” shot, of the human animators and the actual set of the New York City background.. a far cry from “location shooting” or even a typical soundstage.  Of course, the practical advantage is that you don’t have to deal with temperamental actors or troublesome locations… but you do have to deal with the fact that, if you’re lucky, a good animator can get one to five seconds of film done per DAY.  As I said, long and arduous work, but when it’s done well, the results can be terrific, and Creature Comforts was terrific indeed.

“We are extremely grateful to all the people who have shown their support since the show was pulled.  We always knew it would be a show that would grow in popularity through word of mouth, the trouble was that it wasn’t given enough time to grow.”
–Gareth Owen, producer of Creature Comforts

The show aired on Monday nights at 8/7 Central time, as a summer replacement series, but due to the lengthy nature of the creative process, the producers didn’t know originally even what month they were going to air.  So, the “Winter” segment in the third episode probably felt a bit out-of-place in the summer months, since they’d guessed they’d be airing in January or February.  But at least the third episode got to air… as the final episode of the American version, even though there were actually seven made.  And the first promo for the show actually was scheduled to air as a commercial during the Super Bowl in January of that year (ironically, the game itself featured the Bears vs. the Colts)… then the show wasn’t aired until June.  Way to use that million dollar ad time, CBS!

See? Horsing around.

The entire series was aired the following year on the cable channel Animal Planet (where else would it air?)  Of course, the animals got some measure of revenge, as Creature Comforts was nominated for an Emmy for “Best Animated Program” later that year, but lost out to The Simpsons (which has been almost a prohibitive favorite in that category for years).  The complete series is also available on DVD, as is the original British version, and the series DVD contains numerous “extra” scenes of some of the more popular characters, including the “horse and mule” shown as the second picture in this article.  And just as a bonus, here is a picture that has not only “horse and mule”, but the real life couple of Hanna Badalova and Jared Fischer, whose interviews made them one of the favorites on the show.

There are also some terrific websites out there, including the official Aardman Animation site which talks about all their projects, including both the American and British versions of Creature Comforts, the Wallace and Gromit adventures, and their most recent offerings.  For those wanting more information on the series and how it was made, I recommend eyeballs and fishlips, the blog of the production team for the show which talks about the process of its creation.  And the original CBS site for the series is still available, with pictures and more information from the creators of the show.

“If we had to do it all again, I don’t think there’s a lot we would change.  The main problem appears to be sustaining interest over a half hour show.  All the UK shows apart from one Christmas episode were under 10 minutes, which seems to be an ideal length for a ‘talking heads’ show.  However, writing plots, scripts, or storylines goes against the rules of Creature Comforts and is not something that we would ever do.”
–Gareth Owen

Creature Comforts is a great show, but it’s not, by any stretch of the imagination, usual American television fare, and that fact likely doomed its network run.  But a show with this much creativity, using ordinary Americans as its source, should really be seen and appreciated.  It really is that rare animal that finds itself on an endangered species list:  the kind of show that should be protected, nurtured, and allowed to grow… and appreciated for its contribution to all.

Vital Stats

3 aired episodes – 4 unaired (later aired on Animal Planet, and all are available on DVD)
CBS Network
First aired episode:  June 4, 2007
Last aired episode:  June 18, 2007
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  No.  It aired (very briefly) on Mondays at 8/7 Central.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

  1. Jeremy said:

    Nice article Tim, primarily because a) I watched the show when it aired, and b) I have the DVD set. However, the name of the show when it aired was Creature Comforts America, as opposed to “regular” Creature Comforts which aired in the UK.

    • Tim Rose said:

      That is the name on the DVD, and the way that it was differentiated by Aardman, but CBS advertised it as Creature Comforts, and aired it that way, so that’s why I used that title instead of putting the “America” on it.

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