The DC animated series Harley Quinn accomplishes a rare feat: making a meta, violent superhero comedy that’s both funny and rewarding. Harley Quinn is Deadpool without the self-satisfaction, a hard-R, adult-oriented cartoon that’s fast, hilarious, and out of control, yet surprisingly thoughtful. The show’s self-awareness of the DC universe is all-encompassing, and it uses the soul of its characters, the breadth of its history, and its recognizable animated aesthetic to ingratiate itself with its fan base without ever appearing subservient to them.
Each episode of Harley Quinn plays like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, except it’s set in Gotham and it’s about a murderous jester lady hellbent on proving she can be a successful villain without a man in her life—in this case, the Joker. It’s not a parody of sitcoms. It’s a sitcom from the perspective of Harley Quinn, a character with a contradictory history of exploitation, sexism, and empowerment who can turn the world on with her smile.
It’s no surprise Justin Halpern and Patrick Schumacker, who developed Harley Quinn with Dean Lorey, are the series’ showrunners. The duo also recently delivered one of the best workplace comedies going, the very funny albeit far less violent Abbott Elementary.
The A.V. Club sat down with Halpern and Schumacker after the Comic-Con premiere of Harley Quinn’s excellent third season to talk about the show, their tough early TV days, and what’s next for Harlivy.
The A.V. Club: You guys are having quite a year.
Justin Halpern: We’re having a good run. It’s like the ups and downs of this. Catch me five years from now, and who knows where I’ll be.
AVC: Were you guys working on Abbott Elementary in between the Harley seasons?
AVC: So there was no downtime?
JH: We’ve been working constantly on a show for—I don’t even know, man.
AVC: And Pat was working on $h*! My Dad Says, too, right?
JH: Yeah, we’ve been partners forever.
AVC: Where did you two meet?
JH: We were interns at A Band Apart Productions.
AVC: Oh, Quentin Tarantino’s company.
JH: Yup, we were in the commercial music video division back when that was like a big thing. They repped a bunch of commercial and music video directors. We worked on the *NSync “Bye Bye Bye” video.
AVC: Iconic video.
JH: I know. Well, I worked in the office. [Laughs]
AVC: Hey, it takes a village.
JH: Yes, it really, really does. And that’s how we met. I was in college. This is 2001. I was attending the University of Texas. We met there and after we directed a short film together. That was really bad, but we won a couple of little film festivals and then we just started working and writing together. Then I waited tables for, I don’t know, six years after that.
AVC: What was the concept of the short film?
JH: It was a musical called Genital Warts: The Musical. When you’re that age, you’re just ripping off whatever you think is cool. We were way into South Park back then.
AVC: Cannibal: The Musical.
JH: Cannibal: The Musical. I loved Orgasmo. So we just sort of did our bad version of it, but we maxed out our credit cards and shot it on Super 35. It took like eight or nine years to pay off. It was, like, 15 grand, but at that point, I was a waiter making 19 grand a year. I could barely pay off my credit card.
AVC: And so, you won some awards for that, and after that, it was $h*! My Dad Says.
JH: No, so [I was] a waiter for a long time. Then I got a job at this website called HolyTaco.com, and Pat got hired to run something called Screen Junkies. And so we were both working there. And then I got a job offer to write at Maxim magazine, which was pretty shitty. Maxim was a weird culture, not really my vibe, but I had a humor column. It was only online, so I could just do whatever I wanted.
AVC: And it’s a name people know.
JH: Yeah, I could put it on my resume. At that point, I thought that maybe this TV writing shit is not going to work out for me, so I’ll just keep working in magazines as long as I can do that.
AVC: Much more stable.
JH: Yeah, I had no foresight whatsoever. Then I moved. I was dating my now wife and she moved to San Diego. I was in L.A., and I was like, “Well, fuck it. I’m tired of living in L.A. if I’m not working in the business.” And I sort of sprung it on her that I was going to move to because I could work from anywhere with this Maxim job. And we, like, broke up, and then I moved in with my dad and that’s how I started $h*! My Dad Says.
AVC: The move breakup is always a fun one.
JH: Yeah, it’s so funny. Looking at decisions that I made back then. Life decisions that were so poorly thought out and stupid.
AVC: They made sense at the time, though.
JH: They did at the time. But I had no real-life experience to draw from to make good choices.
AVC: When did you start recognizing that you were making good choices? If that’s happened yet.
JH: Honestly, when we started $h*! My Dad Says, we both knew the show was terrible, so instead of trying to be like, “This show fucking sucks. Let’s argue with the showrunners. Let’s fight it.” We just said, “Look, it’s bad, but we’re not in charge of it. And it’s not our place, our job to say anything.”
We just put our heads down and worked as hard as we could on this, like, pretty bad show. I think that was the first time I remember I was like, “Oh, this is a good decision.” It ended up being right.
[Patrick Schumacker joins our table.]
AVC: [To Patrick] Justin and I we’re just catching up. I interviewed Justin about $h! My Dad Says says for a column I did for Splitsider a decade ago about how bad the show was. Justin was nice enough to reach out and we had a good talk about it.
JH: I also think you caught me when we had that interview in 2012.
AVC: You were about to start Surviving Jack.
JH: I think when you caught me when I thought it was not going to get picked up. So I was in a darker place. And I was just like, “You know what? I got to reach out to this guy.”
AVC: As a young aspiring critic, I was constantly afraid of having to defend what I wrote. But it was a real lesson for me and a really pivotal moment in my career.
JH: Yeah, I remember feeling so good after I got off the interview.
AVC: More people from canceled shows should do exit interviews about them. I feel like they’d feel better about it.
JH: A thousand percent agree. After Surviving Jack got canceled, Hilary Winston, who’s a TV writer, put together a dinner for everybody who had canceled shows that year, and she called it “TV’s Red Wedding.” We all went to The Smokehouse, which is like a historic old-school place. It was like us and Bill Lawrence and Dan Harmon and Hilary Winston and [Sarah] Haskins and [Emily] Halpern.
AVC: Sadly, all people no one ever heard from again.
JH: And it was like, I don’t know, it felt like, I mean, the dinner was kind of annoying because it was annoying people at the dinner. [Laughs]
Patrick Schumacker: Dan Harmon and Bill Lawrence talking at each other. [Laughs]
JH: Not a lot of other voices were getting in. But it was, like, now that we’ve been doing this job for 13, 14 years, it’s like this shit happens, man. It’s like sometimes you make a show that you want to be good, and it sucks. Sometimes you make a show, and you’re like, “I don’t know if people are going to like this, and people love it.” It just happens.
AVC: What’s funny now is you guys are working on a show with Harley Quinn that should suck, but is actually incredible. So much about the show feels indebted to everything that happens in superhero narratives and these massive universes and continuities but also feels very removed from it. It’s a difficult balance.
PS: A lot of that goes to the makeup of the staff that we have had over time because it’s a real salad bowl, whatever you want to call it, of like people with varied backgrounds, right? There are comics nerds, but there are also just pure comedy nerds that know nothing about the DC canon. I think that we created alchemy that made that thing work that shouldn’t have.
JH: He and I always said that we’re not going to be able to do superhero stuff, like big battles and fights and shit, better than what’s being done. And that’s not even interesting to us. To us, the show lives in what are the mundane moments in between all those things you see in the movies, right? But you’ve got to drive to that battle or you have to get some food afterward.
PS: Like the Legion Of Doom coffee klatch.
JH: Yeah, their corporate culture. What are those things like in those mundane mood moments? We were nervous about it because you go to watch something that has superheroes in it, you want to see superheroes doing superhero shit. So we were a little nervous for them out because this entire show lives in the small moments that are funny to us, but I don’t know if they’re going to be funny to everybody else.
AVC: The show reminds me of cartoons from the ’90s. Part of that is because King Shark is a Street Shark kind of guy. But the backgrounds look so nice and painterly. The character movements are really elegant. Is that part of the makeup of the show?
PS: That speaks to the personnel that we had on the show, like our art director the first couple of seasons was Bill Wray, who came from Ren And Stimpy, and before that, comics. He was the colorist on Batman: The Cult.
JH: That’s also what we grew up with. Pat’s an enormous comic book fan. I’m not really. Though I’m not a huge comic book fan, I watched every episode of Batman: The Animated Series, every episode of the X-Men cartoon and that’s what I wanted [the show] to look like.
PS: Later in the season, we have an episode where we go inside Bruce Wayne’s mind and we actually use original backgrounds from Batman: The Animated Series.
JH: They had to dredge them up out of a place called Iron Mountain in Tennessee, where the actual physical art is being kept in like a humidifier or whatever it is.
AVC: So just as Batman: The Animated Series is told from Batman’s perspective and the look reflects it, Harley Quinn is from Harley’s and it’s much more neon and vibrant.
JH: Yes, that’s exactly how we pitched it.
PS: That was inspired by Grant Morrison’s book Super Gods. In it, he talks about how, when he was doing Gotham Knights, he didn’t want to do the classic gothic, gritty, grayscale look. So I thought, if we’re telling the story through Harley’s point of view, that will inform the look of the show.
JH: It’s a playground for Harley. Batman’s fucking depressed and hates life, so that’s what Gotham looks like to him. But to Harley, it looks different.
AVC: Is there a rule on how much you allow yourselves to use Batman?
PS: There’s no hard and fast one. Obviously, there is a protection of the character, but we know what that line is, I think, and we kind of police ourselves on that. [To Justin] You should tell the pants peeing thing.
AVC: What’s pants peeing thing?
JH: Oh yeah. Characters like Batman and Joker, when they’re in a scene, they tend to take over the scene, and it’s not their show. So you’ll see in the first season, technically, we did a standalone Batman episode, and this season we did a standalone Joker episode, but we rarely kind of like do too much for them.
Anyway, this season, there is that Thomas Wayne biopic movie that’s happening, and we had a thing in it where at the end of the season, Bruce goes to the premiere of the movie. And you know how [shuttered L.A. movie theater] the Arclight has the glass case with the costumes on display in the lobby for whatever’s playing? He’s going there and he sees in the glass case that they have the costume they use for little Bruce.
JH: And it’s got a piss stain on it because, in their version of it, he pissed pants when he watched his parents die, and Bruce is like, “That didn’t happen!” He’s annoyed about it.
PS: Why are they preying on his family?
JH: And then he watches the screening, his parents get killed and he just pisses himself.
PS: It was like a Team America style.
JH: And so that was in our original outline. Then we were like, this feels really mean. We know Batman’s not a real person and Bruce Wayne’s not a real person, but there’s something about it that felt like it was like punching down, like reveling in someone’s pain to an extent that it just doesn’t feel right for Batman and Bruce Wayne, so we took it out.
AVC: Batman’s reaction to them making the biopic, where he complains about how derivative the pearls are, are criticisms people have of Batman movies. It’s interesting to see Batman vocalize them. How do you keep that from being annoying?
JH: The big thing is to never be meta to be meta. Would Batman be sick of watching movies about his family and TV movies where his family is murdered all the time? I think he would be. We have this dumb joke in the premiere where Superman catches Harley and Ivy watching TV in the Fortress Of Solitude, and as they’re leaving, he asks, “Did you sign up for HBO Max? I already used my free trial.” That was born from something you wonder when somebody says at your house, like, “Did you sign up for some apps?”
AVC: And it’s not like Superman has superpowers to give himself free Apple TV or whatever.
JH: You still have to pay bills, Clark.
AVC: On a journalist’s salary.
JH: It sounds stupid, but that is how we discuss meta jokes in our thing.
AVC: The show’s also kind of in conversation with itself. In the first season, you’re mowing down classic villains, and this season, you have the In Memoriam section at the Villy Awards, which feels definitive. I know Ivy dies at one point and comes back, or maybe there’s going to be a Lazarus-Pit situation. There’s always that in your back pocket.
PS: I think, recently, in Batman #125, an issue that just came out, they killed the Penguin, and I was like, “Oh, they did it in the books. We did it first!” I think Penguin is going to stay dead in our show forever.
JH: We always talk about the Lazarus Pit and we’re always about to use it. But if we use it once, then suddenly, nobody can really die. And part of our whole pitch for the show is we want violence to have consequences. Ivy coming back to life because of the soil, you can make a case why you wouldn’t need the Lazerus Pit, but not everybody can do what Ivy did.
AVC: There is something about the violence that’s very South Park. Like it’s very quick and very not commented upon. There’s a little Monty Python in that “I’ve been stabbed, I have no limbs, I’m bleeding, but I’m not really expressing pain” kind of way.
PS: Gotham’s a rough city. People are neutral or desensitized.
JH: 1970s New York. You see a dead body and you’re like, “Ah, sucks.”
AVC: Is there any part of the canon that you don’t even want to bother with?
PS: For me, we still have the occasional fan reaction of “I don’t like Harley and Ivy together. She should get back with the Joker,” which we’re never going to do. Harley and Ivy will never break up in the series as long as we have a say. That’s something that we never want to touch again.
JH: We also didn’t really care to do the Punchline stuff. A lot of people were like, “Is Punchline going to be in this?” That felt like a creation in the comics that was born from whatever they were doing, and our Joker’s different.
PS: Also, what does Punchline serve at this point? She might show up if we get another season or something. I don’t want to discount anything. But that was something that we let sit.
AVC: So season four has not been announced yet?
PS: We’re waiting to find out.
AVC: But thus far, DC and HBO like this version of Harley Quinn?
PS: Yeah, very much. We had that weird migration from DC Universe to HBO Max. HBO Max swooped in, saved the show, and from the jump on season three, they were like, “We love what you guys are doing. Don’t try and fix something that’s not broken.” If anything, they’ve been like, “Go, go harder. If you want to be even edgier, we’re all for it.” So the next episode that you’re about to watch is big Court Of Owls episode, and that gets pretty gonzo.
AVC: The third episode of the season felt like a turning point. Like the show was letting season two end and allowing the character jokes to run wild. It’s all payoff in that episode. Plus, Billy Bob Thornton is there.
PS: The Billy Bob thing was so funny because he was in the recording booth, and I got to direct him. I asked, “Can you scream while you’re being, like, mauled by the tiger?” He gave me this five-minute-long explanation for why he’d prefer not to scream and lose his voice. I was like, “Okay, can you just say, ‘Holy shit, is that a fucking tiger?’”
AVC: I really like that episode where Harley visits her parents. Was she always canonically Jewish?
JH: Every iteration that I’ve read where they specify, it’s been that she’s Jewish. You know, that’s what I read. I mean, I’m Jewish.
AVC: Yeah, same. I just never heard that. It’s a great get. Happy to see it. I was overjoyed to find out she was chosen.
JH: Look, we need some wins.
AVC: So like you said, Harley and Ivy are always going to be together. Was that always part of the plan?
JH: It was always a place we wanted to get to, but we wanted to make sure that we were telling a story first. How is Harley figuring out her own identity? What sort of self-discovery is she doing after this relationship with the Joker, right? And so if you just had her jump right back into another relationship right after that, because the fans are like, “Why aren’t they together right away?”…would you want that? This person is so fucked up and just coming out of a terrible relationship. When have you ever in the history of human beings seen someone leave a terrible relationship that they’ve had for a really long time and instantly make the next relationship work perfectly? It doesn’t happen a lot. So we wanted to sort of taking our time with that.
AVC: I don’t want to assume your sexual orientation, but you two are telling like the preeminent superhero queer love story.
JH: We’re two straight white dudes.
AVC: Yeah, how is that working out?
PS: It’s a big responsibility.
JH: We have a lot of people in the room who are queer.
PS: Yeah. We would credit probably Sabrina Jalees, who was a writer on season two and is queer, for being the one to tell us, “Please don’t do a coming out story.” And she’s the reason that we didn’t do that. I think that was maybe our initial instinct.
JH: Which is a perfect example of why when you populate a room with other voices who aren’t afraid to tell you what you’re about to do is stupid, your show just comes out better. Probably left to our own devices, we would have fucked up. But because we had other people there who were like, “Hey, this is how it should be done.” It was like, “Oh, all right. Yeah, you’re right.”