Duane Capizzi Remembers "Men in Black: The Series"
With The Batman Versus Dracula now on shelves, and the third season of The Batman off to a great start, Toon Zone sat down with writer, editor, and story producer Duane Capizzi to talk about one of his earlier Kids’ WB cartoons, Men In Black: The Animated Series.
Based on the popular live-action movies, this animated series thrived on American TV, lasting four strong seasons before the final curtain in 2001. The series follows the further adventures of Jay, Kay, and Elle alongside a wealth of new characters as they deal with extraterrestrial problems in New York and beyond. In this interview, Capizzi discusses how the franchise went from the big screen to the small screen, and how it became a network success.
Toon Zone: What difficulties did you have translating the movie into an animated television series?
Duane Capizzi: It was fairly smooth sailing. It helped that the feature was in many ways a live-action cartoon. And I mean that in a good way! Perhaps the trickiest thing was to strike the balance with Agent Jay’s personality. He’s the audience’s point of view to the weirdness that is MiB and aliens on Earth, because he’s the newbie. And at the same time you don’t want to lose that Will Smith coolness. We had to strike a balance between his cool and his constant state of disarmament.
TZ: The show evolved over time, bringing in a host of interesting plotlines and the occasional revamp of character designs. Was this done to keep the show from getting stagnant?
DC: I was involved 24/7 with the first two seasons, but after the first couple of episodes of season three I turned over the writing to other story editors, though I continued to “consult” on stories and scripts.
Sony TV Animation had acquired the rights to one of my dream projects, The Big Guy & Rusty the Boy Robot, and I wanted to turn my attention to making that as great a series as MiB was. There was some recasting over time for a variety of reasons; the look and the aliens gradually evolved because any renewed season of a series gives you an opportunity to look back and take stock of what’s working and what’s not. It’s a natural part of the process to refine things as you go.
TZ: Given how the premise allowed for comedy, action, and drama, what episodes were you especially proud of?
DC: There are so many episodes that I am fond of, though I must admit that the animation quality was less than consistent. So I tend to like the episodes where animation quality really stepped up to the level of the story.
Our pilot episode had atrocious animation. It makes me cringe to this day. But some unforgettable moments are in that episode: Kay’s unflappability about Jay getting himself “marked” for death, Jay’s response to Kay seemingly taking the hit for him, and of course the image of Kay being lowered neck deep into molten liquid before revealing that things aren’t what they seem. Ditto with our third episode, “The Irritable Bow Wow Syndrome.” Atrocious animation, but fast and funny. Frank the Pug passing the bomb at the end – classic!
The episodes comprising the “Alpha” saga, MiB’s ex-head turned cosmic renegade/alien Frankenstein, were among the most compelling and bizarre. If you put a gun to my head, perhaps I’d have to say season two’s “Quick Clone Syndrome” is possibly my favorite, in large part due to the amazing animation by Korean studio Dong Woo, but that episode was packed with so many twisted ideas: “quick clones” running amok, Zed’s talking brain in a jar, et cetera.
There are other moments that really stand out for me as well, which I’ll list through: Jay suspecting that Kay is an alien in our first season finale written by Steve Roberts. “The Head Trip Syndrome,” written by Tom Pugsley & Greg Klein, wherein Jay’s brain rapidly enlarges and he is the only one witnessing MiB agents vanish in thin air due to a time-travelling assassin, was another great one. Very “Philip K. Dick.” I’m also particularly fond of “The Worm Guy-Guy Syndrome,” wherein Jay’s DNA gets crossed with that of one of the Worm Guys and vice-versa. It’s another bizarre but humorous premise increasingly played for stakes, and by the end you actually feel for Jay. And the animation on that one (partially by Dong Woo again) was incredible!
“The Star System Syndrome,” written by Greg Weisman, involves “alien” actors in Hollywood being vaporized. So Kay and Jay head to Tinseltown, hook up with the West Coast MiB “agency,” and discover that a Teletubby-like alien is perpetrating the crimes. Some truly inspired sick moments with the various “murders!”
“The Out to Pasture Syndrome,” written by Dean Stefan and directed by Darwyn Cooke (of DC: The New Frontier fame), was a great episode that I had little to do with. It features an amazing sequence with Jay being brain-probed by Alpha to reveal the retired Zed’s location. A nice running with the ball on the Alpha saga. I could seriously go on all day.
TZ: When was it decided to add new characters like Agent X and Zan’Zozz Zeeltor to the cast?
DC: We recognized that one thing bringing kids to our series every week was the constant flux of weird and wacky aliens. So a concerted effort was made to bring in more of them, and what better way to foreground them than make them core members of our cast.
TZ: In the first episode of the fourth season, Agent X asks “What in the name of Capizzi’s comet is wrong with you?” Is it safe to assume that many aliens, galaxies, et cetera, are commonly named after the show’s cast and crew?
DC: Usually when I need to name a character, I look around the studio and see who I could hand 15 nano-seconds of fame to. Dean Stefan, the story editor who took the reins of season three of MiB for me, wanted to return my generosity, I guess.
TZ: As the series progressed, you must have realized the end would be coming up quite soon. How did you begin to prepare for the show’s conclusion?
DC: We thought the third season might be our last season so we decided we’d go out with a bang by bringing in the bug invasion of Earth and having Jay finally get to drive the LTD. We were actually surprised to get a fourth season, but I can’t get into specifics on the final episode because my memory of that season is particularly foggy. I was in full bore The Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot mode by then. Sorry!
TZ: Was the ever the possibility for a fifth season?
DC: The network loved the show, as evidenced by the fact that we got a fourth season even though, by that time, our ratings were slipping. The large gap between the first feature and the sequel probably had something to do with it; had the sequel come out earlier, it would have no doubt stoked more interest in our series. But that’s showbiz.
TZ: Is there a chance we could see the complete series on DVD at some point?
DC: Man, I hope so!
TZ: Thank you very much for looking back at one of your earlier Kids’ WB Efforts with us!
DC: You’re welcome! And those interested, a young Rino Romano played Zanzarkanicus the Symbiote on the cartoon. As many of you know, is now the voice of the Caped Crusader in The Batman!