In the clearing of a dreamlike, pastel-shaded woodland, a big blue moose named Lumpy spins a merry-go-round carrying three candy-colored cuties: Cuddles the bunny, Giggles the bear, and Toothy the squirrel. 'Round and 'round they go, smiles stretching in the wind, as Lumpy (whose left antler points upside down, both to signify his haplessness and to distinguish him from that other cartoon moose) whirls the carousel faster and faster. It's a pleasant pastoral scene until, suddenly, tragedy hits: Toothy loses his grip, wails in surprise, and spirals off into the sky. We see a tree, hear the approaching scream, and watch the bone-crunching, blood-spraying splat as Toothy's purple corpse wraps around the tree and slides, slowly, down the gore-smeared trunk. Two buckteeth, lodged in the bark, are all that remain.
Back on the merry-go-round, spinning ever faster, Giggles, a rouge-hued bear with a heart-shaped nose and a pink bow, clings to a bar for dear life — only to watch it snap in two and send her flying. A tree stump slices her in half, and a heartbeat later the broken carousel bar follows, impaling her throat. Cuddles, still whirling on the carousel, flutters in the wind, his arms stretching like rubber to hold on. Then, rip — Cuddles' arms tear above the wrists, and he's thrown off, into the engine of an airplane, which promptly churns his corpse until blood coats half the jet. Lumpy doesn't realize what's happened until he stops spinning the merry-go-round and spots Cuddles' severed hands, still clinging to the bar. Abashed, the moose slides his hooves into his pockets, whistles in affected nonchalance, and slinks away.
And on a Saturday night in November, the 50 people seated around a big-screen television in Borderlands Books cheer wildly as the credits roll, accompanied by a theme song that's all childlike lalalas, as catchy/annoying as any Saturday morning jingle. Borderlands, with cardboard cutouts of Lumpy and the gang straddling shelves of science-fiction tomes, makes a strange milieu for an evening of cartoon-watching, but as the store's owner tells the crowd, “Humor and horror are often intertwined.” And that's certainly true in the absurdist world of Happy Tree Friends, where the chaste and cheery lives of woodland creatures inevitably lead, through misadventure and circumstance, to untimely and unwarranted slaughter.
Judging by the laughter, most of the audience members are already familiar with Happy Tree Friends, a series of minute-long cartoons, animated with the Macromedia computer program Flash, that began popping up on the Internet about three years ago. In the brief period when cartoon “mini-shows” were hailed as the Next Big Thing, Happy Tree Friends stood above the crowd, distinguished by its sharp comic timing, no-holds-barred gore, and universal theme of bad things happening to good people. (It's huge in Germany.) Happy Tree Friends quickly became the most popular in the stable of mini-shows produced by San Francisco's Mondo Media, gathering a dedicated following among college students and those with a fast Internet connection. MTV showcased an episode, and Spike & Mike's Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation has made Happy Tree Friends a prominent fixture on its annual tour. Now Mondo Media is taking the bold step of releasing a DVD, Happy Tree Friends Volume 1: First Blood, in the hope that a cartoon created by and for the Internet can parlay an underground following into a wider, more mainstream audience.
But if the fans at the Borderlands screening are eager to see their beloved Internet shorts in the sparkling clarity of DVD, they seem even more curious about the two guys flanking the television: Rhode (pronounced “Roadie”) Montijo, 29, and Kenn Navarro, 28. They are the creators of Happy Tree Friends, the men whose brains hatch plot after plot to send innocent and adorable critters to pitiless and gruesome deaths, and this is their first public event in support of the show.
“We have a lot of weird conversations, like, 'Where can we get the sound of a tongue being grated?'” Navarro tells the crowd. “If you just walked in without knowing who we were, you'd think we were serial killers.”
The truth, however, is far geekier than that.
The South of Market offices of Mondo Media are divided into two sections: one for animators, one for everyone else. On a midweek morning a few days after the Borderlands screening, the artists' side is largely unoccupied. The shades are pulled, providing the appropriate amount of gloom for illustrators squinting into computer monitors, but most of the animators don't roll in until later in the day. Navarro's desk squats in front of a backdrop of toy Simpsons characters, a nearly complete collection that hovers like a shrine over the clutter on his desk. Montijo, a pencil-and-paper artist who lost his permanent job at Mondo during the dot-com crash (he harbors no ill will; he still freelances for Mondo and admits he doesn't have the computer skills to stay on full time), stands at an illustrator's desk in the far corner.
Montijo, whose angular features break into an eager smile at even the hint of a joke, wears a Dickies-style canvas jacket, drab pants, and a button with the name “Zooky” printed above a smiley face. (He doesn't know what the button means, but he bought it the second he saw it.) In contrast to the diminutive Montijo, Navarro, who grew up in the Philippines, is stocky and round-faced, with broad, jolly features, a gold loop in his left ear, and a deep, full-bodied laugh. They're both instantly likable, and when they adjourn to an empty conference room to retrace the history of Happy Tree Friends, Navarro and Montijo riff with a complementary deftness that suggests they spend a lot of time cracking each other up. (At one point, when Mondo's director of marketing knocks and enters with water, Navarro doesn't miss a beat as he leans into a tape recorder and says, “So, anyway, after the sexual harassment, Rhode was acquitted of all the child pornography charges.”) [page]
Navarro and Montijo are still clearly excited about the turnout for the DVD screening. “We were expecting two people,” Navarro says. “But we noticed there were a few young kids there, and Rhode wanted to do a slow-motion dive, screaming, 'Noooooooo! Don't watch this!'”
Montijo cuts in, miming a superhero leaping across the room to shield the unwitting children's eyes. “Knocking over the bookshelves on everyone,” he narrates, “I save the kid, but I kill everybody else.”
Navarro sighs. “A classic Happy Tree Friends moment.”
Although Montijo was raised in Stockton and Navarro lived there for portions of his childhood, the co-creators didn't meet until they landed at Mondo Media in the late 1990s. Both arrived as impassioned fans of comic books and graphic illustration. Montijo draws his own underground comic book, Pablo's Inferno, about a boy who gets run over by a car and goes to hell; Navarro says flatly, “I live and breathe animation.” Montijo earned a degree in illustration from the California College of Arts and Crafts, and Navarro got his animation diploma from San Francisco State. In a twist of fate that now seems prophetic, Navarro and Montijo were inadvertently hired for the same illustrating job at Mondo Media. Montijo eventually got it, and Navarro was moved to other projects, including animation work on some of Mondo Media's first Internet cartoons, show-biz sendups like Thugs on Film and The God and Devil Show. The seed for Happy Tree Friends was planted by a Mondo Media client who wanted a few seconds of cartoon carnage for a commercial; as Montijo, Navarro, and their colleagues filled the request, they found themselves mulling the idea of an entire series of mini-shows built around the idea of cute creatures meeting graphically violent ends. But when pressed on why, exactly, they thought their torturous visions would strike a nerve, Navarro and Montijo exchange blank stares.
“For me, it all started when I got my arms ground up in a garbage disposal,” Montijo deadpans. “And I thought, 'This would make a great idea for a show.'”
“Nice try, Rhode,” Navarro chimes in.
“Well, this is deep,” Montijo shoots back. “I don't know, I guess we grew up with Warner Bros. cartoons, stuff like that, and they were a blast to watch, but we didn't go around shooting all the kids at our school or anything. It really all came down to making us laugh. It's sick and twisted, but we get a kick out of it.”
Others at Mondo Media, however, were not so sure, and Montijo and Navarro faced some major hurdles in getting their idea approved.
“For the longest time, it was a hard sell,” Navarro recalls. “The concept of a violent show, with all the characters dying in each episode and not even speaking a recognizable language — at first we got, “What are you guys doing?' When we hit the marketing department, they were like, “We can't market this. How can we get advertisers?' They just didn't get it. And it's one of those things, you either get it or you don't.”
Eventually, with the help of $1 bills slid into the proposal they presented to Mondo Media higher-ups, Navarro and Montijo got their show. They churned out an episode a week, enlisting a large crew of writers, animators, colorists, and sound technicians. Inspiration came from children's books, and Navarro and Montijo scoured the shelves for virtuous pursuits and character archetypes to satirize. They were burdened by a number of constraints, including the show's minute-long length and the limitations of Flash, a program originally designed to animate elements of Web sites, such as moving advertisements and dynamic interfaces, not to illustrate intricate characters and cartoon scenes. The crew at Mondo Media, however, devised a look and sound for Happy Tree Friends that turned those constraints into a confident, original style. And they stuck to the blueprint: no guns, no fighting back, and no episodes too cumbersome to download with a 56K modem.
The projected home for Happy Tree Friends was the ill-fated Web site pop.com; when that venture fizzled before it started, the cartoon briefly languished without a showplace. Eventually, Underground Online (www.ugo.com) picked up a few episodes, and Netscape followed suit. When Mondo Media began syndicating the show to far corners of the Web, Happy Tree Friends found its way to the desktops of college kids, Internet geeks, cartoon addicts, and even a few moms.
“The positive feedback is fine, but we really live for the negative feedback,” Navarro says. “Rhode and I have a penchant for crazy people. We'd gather, read the e-mails, and they'd be like, 'How could you do this to animals? They're so cute! We hope you die horribly.' It's so funny. They're cartoons! If you're not watching what your kids are doing, it's your fault. We're not going out there and putting them on Nickelodeon.”
Fans, of course, also wrote in, and Navarro recalls one Friday afternoon last year when two guys in their late 20s walked up to the reception desk at Mondo Media and asked if they could meet the creators of Happy Tree Friends.
“They brought them over to my desk,” Navarro says, “and the guys said, 'We're here on vacation from Wisconsin; we're visiting our friend down the street, and we saw the Mondo Media sign. We're huge Happy Tree Friends fans.' We sat for about a half-hour, just talking, and they were completely cool. And at the end, one of the guys said, 'You know, I thought you guys would be these weird goth kids, with all that sick and demented shit,' and I'm like, 'No man, check out my Simpsons toys.' I think it's kind of weird — the perception is we're these death-mongers.”
“Maybe we should start dressing like that,” Montijo suggests. “I could put on my Kiss makeup.”
John Evershed, Mondo Media's CEO and co-founder, stops himself in midsentence, having just used the word “e-commerce” to describe his strategy for growing what he hopes will be a Happy Tree Friends franchise. “God, I haven't used that word in two years,” he says. “That's a taboo word now, but at least I'm self-aware.”
Evershed founded Mondo Media with his wife 15 years ago, establishing the company as an animation-effects house for computer games, television commercials, and the occasional feature film. Over time, the company formed partnerships with Web portals to distribute original animated content, seeking to mirror the syndication models of television, radio, and newspapers. Eventually, with a steady influx of cash from its contracts for gaming animation, Mondo Media turned its eye to producing mini-shows for the Web. Mindful of the adult appeal of groundbreaking cartoons like The Simpsons, South Park, and Ren & Stimpy, Evershed encouraged his employees to aim for an older audience. Although the foot of Potrero Hill was once a veritable 'toon town of starry-eyed Internet animators, most churned out mini-shows that were, on the whole, violent or outrageous, but only occasionally funny; Mondo's shows were irreverent and edgy, but also professional and accountable to the bottom line.
“Even though the vibe out there is that the Internet is just a big sinkhole that nobody can make money from, that's about as stupid — or maybe stupider — than the idea that the Internet is a moneymaking machine that won't end,” says Evershed, who has a degree in English literature and an easygoing manner. “You can find an audience for content on the Net. The question becomes, 'How can you make money?'”
The answer, Evershed hopes: Grow a loyal audience online, then cash in with DVDs and merchandising. Unfortunately, the dot-com crash slashed Mondo Media's payroll from 120 to 30, forcing the company to stop producing its own mini-shows and to renew its commitment to gaming animation and other more profitable ventures. And as advertising revenue for the Internet dried up, Mondo Media began to take down archived mini-show episodes from its syndication network.
“When we did that,” says Christina Chavez, the company's director of marketing, “the reaction we got from Happy Tree Friends fans was far and away the strongest of any of our shows. People wanted to know where Happy Tree Friends had gone, if they could buy episodes and T-shirts, what the creators were up to. There was a good year of that, and when you have a show that's out there in reruns and the fan base is still that strong, you have to do something with it.”
So Mondo Media decided to produce a Happy Tree Friends DVD, and by August, the company's Web site was selling it. Chavez is amazed at the response: She sells 40 to 50 Happy Tree Friends DVDs or T-shirts a day, and 35 percent of the purchase requests come from foreign countries (Spain, France, England, and Japan are especially enamored). Mondo has partnered with a distribution company, StudioWorks, to put the Happy Tree Friends DVD in Best Buys, Tower Records, and other retail stores in February, in conjunction with a marketing campaign aimed at college campuses.
But Evershed is quick to say he wants people to continue to “find” Happy Tree Friends, and although he hopes the rest of the company's mini-shows can someday enjoy a similar crossover to DVD, he wants them to stay true to their underground, geek-chic roots.
“We're pretty fierce survivors, and I like the place we're in at the moment,” Evershed says. “The landscape is clear, the nuclear dust is settling, and we're the happy cockroaches. Out of all our shows, I wouldn't have guessed this would emerge as our strongest. But we stuck with it, and we're trying to prove this medium out.”
Mondo Media has tentatively explored whether Happy Tree Friends could fly on television, and the company has pitches circulating in Hollywood. But the show works best in small doses, and unless Mondo could land a variety show featuring all of its Internet shorts, it seems a stretch to imagine Happy Tree Friends sustaining a full half-hour. Nor does a return to the Web appear likely: Although Navarro and Montijo dashed off several Happy Tree Friends holiday cards for the Internet this Christmas, Mondo Media has no plans to resume production of regular episodes. The future of Happy Tree Friends seems tied to the success of the DVD, and the creators are content to leave the marketing to Mondo.
“We were worried about the show at first, but now they're behind us,” Montijo says of Mondo. “It's done pretty well, so now they've got our back. We just had to prove ourselves.
“When we see bootlegged Happy Tree Friends, that's when we'll know we've made it,” he jokes. “When we get ripped off, that's the big time.”
A ladder with paint cans resting tenuously on its steps leans against a building on 10th Street, and Montijo, walking down the street to lunch at a Chinese restaurant, gives it a wide berth. “It's a Happy Tree Friends moment waiting to happen,” Montijo says, only half-kidding. “This is how we get our inspiration.”
In truth, however, ideas for episodes come from everywhere: children's books, Saturday morning cartoons, even Montijo's dreams. Back at the Mondo Media offices, Navarro and Montijo commandeer a conference room and dump a huge sheaf of papers on the table. This is “the file” — a collection of sketches, brainstorm lists, storyboards, scripts, and nearly every other scrap that's a part of Happy Tree Friends history.
Most curious among the detritus is a folded paper plate with a list scrawled down its center. “See, this is stuff from my dreams, because it makes no sense,” Montijo says, reading from the paper plate. “'Kids, cereal, prize, handbooks, spray-on, swami, cobra.' At least it's readable.” (Indeed, not everything in “the file” made it into an episode, and it's probably for the best that Navarro and Montijo chose the name Happy Tree Friends over another working title: “Tree Amigos.”) [page]
The idea for an episode begins when Navarro and Montijo settle on an idyllic situation and setting, then brainstorm potential ways to make it go awry. Next, with the help of Mondo Media's writing team, they devise a loose script. After Navarro sketches the storyboards, sound engineer Jim Lively records the necessary voices, which consist mainly of cooing and grunts. Lively is also responsible for the sound effects that accompany the disemboweling so central to Happy Tree Friends, so it falls to him to decide, for instance, how to produce the sound of a tongue being ripped apart by a cheese grater (his solution: shredding carrots).
Tapping into a computer in the conference room, Navarro calls up Flash, loads an episode, and begins smiling the moment his furry creatures appear on an overhead projector. Once the episode begins, however, his deep-throated laughter turns into a regretful wince. “I see it every time and I cringe,” he says of the Flash animation. “I see everything between the frames, so to me it's chunky. But I don't know if we would have ended up with such an interesting look if not for the constraints.”
Flash, of course, was never intended for this kind of detailed, character-based animation. (The program's makers have been so impressed with Mondo's mini-shows that they invited Navarro and some of his colleagues to suggest improvements for future editions of the software.) Happy Tree Friends moves in a broad, stark style, but the animation is complex enough to accommodate Montijo and Navarro's hidden details — for instance, they've decided Lumpy the moose likes cheese, so there's a framed picture of a Swiss wedge on his wall — yet simple enough to stream over the Internet.
“Back in the day, it was a crazy idea,” Navarro says. “At the time, people hadn't even heard of broadband. So all of the early stuff was focused on making it work. … And we knew shorter shows worked, because it was a smaller download. But there was a lot of trial and error in those days.”
They have reworked the occasional episode because they deem the violence too calculated and insufficiently circumstantial; fans protest vociferously whenever a Happy Tree Friend displays malice. Still, Mondo Media doesn't censor the cartoons, and Montijo and Navarro have rarely scaled back the level of gore. “If it's wrong, and it's not that funny, we'll give up on it,” Navarro says. “But it's got to be pretty wrong, and not that funny.”
Asked to name the sickest episode, Montijo doesn't hesitate: “That one where they're at the campfire,” he says, naming a show starring Flippy the bear, who has the temperament of a traumatized war veteran. “Flippy chokes one of his victims with his own intestines.”
“Good times,” Navarro says with a chuckle. “We also get a really good reaction from 'Nuttin' Wrong With Candy.'” In that episode, Nutty the squirrel tries to free a dangling candy bar from a vending machine, only to rip off his arm and trap himself under the toppled machine. Nutty gets his candy, but he also gets his comeuppance: The machine's coils spring to life and gouge out the squirrel's eyes. “There are only two frames where it's touching his eye, then we cut away for a shot of the blood spilling out from under the vending machine,” Navarro says. “That's one of my favorites.”
Indeed, Navarro and Montijo blanch only when the blood is real. “My dad can handle watching those open-heart surgeries on the Discovery Channel, but I can't,” Montijo says. “I saw a brain one where the patient was still alive and they were poking around, the guy was twitching –”
“That's medieval,” Navarro says with a shudder. “That's Hannibal Lecter. I tried to watch a knee surgery once, but it was too tough.”
Jerry Beck knows almost everything about cartoons. A longtime animator, consultant to Warner Bros., and prolific author, historian, and teacher of cartoon history, Beck runs his own Web site, cartoonresearch.com, which lists descriptions of every animated feature film released since 1937. Beck fills his site with all the latest buzz, reviews, and news from the cartoon-watching world, and provides impossibly obscure answers to readers' questions about long-lost episodes of their favorite shows.
And he really likes Happy Tree Friends.
“This may be, finally, what I've been hoping for from all the kids who came out of the Care Bears era,” Beck says after watching the DVD. “A lot of us who liked cartoons really hated what happened in the '70s and '80s, when all these innocuous TV shows came along that were supposed to be safe and nonviolent. We knew that stuff was more perverted than the Road Runner, and we knew there was going to be a backlash. And Happy Tree Friends is it. They're saying, 'This is what you taught us, and now we're going to destroy it.'”
Beck places Happy Tree Friends squarely in the tradition of South Park, Ren & Stimpy, and the “Itchy and Scratchy” interludes from The Simpsons. (“In fact,” Beck says, “I prefer this to South Park.”) And though he hails from the pencil-and-paper school of animation, Beck appreciates how Happy Tree Friends uses the limitations of Flash and the Internet to its advantage.
“The character design is really clever, and it's obvious real artists worked on this,” he says. “If you didn't know it was from the Internet, you wouldn't guess, and that's how it should be. Flash has evolved to such a level that it's equivalent to the TV cartoons of the '60s, and I think Happy Tree Friends has the smell of a hit, even if it's a foul smell.”
Still, it's difficult to explain the show's appeal, although everyone connected with Happy Tree Friends has tried. Lively, the sound engineer, calls himself a dedicated pacifist, but he was stunned when an outside technician working on the DVD pronounced himself “horrified” by the imagery. [page]
“I really started thinking about it after that,” says Lively, pensive as he sits at the control board in the Mondo Media sound studio. “I've been a longtime anti-war activist, an anti-nuke activist, and Happy Tree Friends doesn't bother me at all. It's a fucking cartoon. And why someone would take exception to that …. We should be disgusted by violence, and I am, but I'm not disgusted by cartoon violence.”
Chavez, the marketing director charged with selling the show to the uninitiated, suggests Happy Tree Friends functions as a humble little allegory for our time, even as she admits to being apprehensive about applying such a serious line of thought to something so hilarious. “But it's true: You can relate to just going about your day, not harming anybody and just doing your thing, when something comes out of nowhere and smacks you,” she says. “I think everybody can identify with that.”
Evershed, the CEO, thinks a major part of the cartoon's appeal lies in the classic look of its characters, who blend familiarity with freshness. And he doesn't want to go much deeper than that.
“All good cartoons have a universality about them,” Evershed says. “And this is not Oedipus Rex, it's just a goddamn cartoon. But even the smallest idea can have an imprint — Dilbert resonates with people because they have to sit in a cubicle and deal with an idiot boss.
“Happy Tree Friends takes violence to a new level, but it's funny, and there's an underlying sweetness to it,” he continues. “The way Kenn and Rhode do it isn't deliberate and crass, it's who they are. These guys are very sweet, creative guys, and I think that comes through.”
Every week, Navarro and Montijo celebrate what they call “Comic Book Shop Wednesdays,” a rite of nerdiness that sends them scurrying around San Francisco's comics stores in search of the newest issues of their favorite series. And they have many, many favorite series. Navarro's apartment is stacked with long boxes of comics, all of them cataloged, and he and Montijo discuss the subtleties of graphic illustration with the gusto of wine connoisseurs arguing their favorite vintage. Montijo, whose van is plastered with ads for his own comic book, prefers underground titles, while Navarro gravitates toward mainstream superheroes. Navarro believes stores should display the books in clear plastic sheets; Montijo likes the freedom to flip through the pages. Both, however, credit the same comic with setting them on their path to edgy, sinister illustration.
“Dark Knight Returns,” says Montijo, on his knees in a Richmond District shop, holding up a copy of the famous 1986 comic that features a climactic clash between Batman and Superman. Montijo flips to the page of their epic battle, and Navarro begins quoting the dialogue from memory. Although both Navarro and Montijo have been drawing since they were old enough to hold a pencil, they didn't encounter Dark Knight Returns until high school — and that's when their sketches moved from imitations of skateboard graphics and Saturday morning cartoons to more violent, graphic imagery.
“I kept to myself a lot,” Montijo says of his school days. “But I remember one time in high school, I painted a mural for my art class. I put a lot of stuff in there, and I hid a lot of stuff — faces in the clouds, things like that.” His thin lips tighten, and an uncharacteristic edge creeps into his voice. “Later on, this teacher who had it out for me led a brigade to have it erased, and it was.”
“Is he telling the story about his teacher again?” Navarro mutters, his eyes glued to the shelves and his arms full of comics.
“It was erased,” Montijo continues, “and the teacher convinced the [school] board it was satanic. Which was not the case at all, but I can see how they might have thought that.”
Montijo shakes his head, and mentions that earlier in the day, he interviewed with a company that publishes children's books. The firm was looking for a character-design artist, and Montijo — still in search of a regular illustrating job to supplement his freelancing — rushed over to show off his work.
He didn't get the job.
“They said my portfolio is too dark,” he says, and for a heartbeat, he turns genuinely crestfallen. “Man, they just don't know who I am on the inside.”