Frank Lesser exclusive interview: It’s Halloween, But You’re Not a Monster (although Kelsey Grammer is)

You're Not A Monster
Kelsey Grammer’s vampire Dr. John Seward, in bat form, pops in on a session between his psychiatrist descendant Max (Eric Stonestreet) and Medusa (Amy Sedaris). Pic credit: IMDb

This week, just in time for Halloween, IMDb helps you sort out your inner demons, via the release of its first scripted series, You’re Not a Monster.

Created by former The Colbert Report writer and four-time Emmy winner Frank Lesser, You’re Not a Monster actually introduces us to a host of literal monsters, all patients being treated by psychiatrist Max Seward (voiced by Modern Family’s Eric Stonestreet), a human doctor who has reluctantly inherited his booming practice from his great-great-grandfather John (Kelsey Grammer), happily retired — and happily a vampire.

Throughout its ten animated, somewhat serialized short episodes (approximately 4 1/2 minutes each), You’re Not a Monster boasts a comedy who’s who of regular and guest voices, from Stonestreet and Grammer to a Medusa played by Amy Sedaris, the Invisible Man voiced by Patton Oswalt, Max’s ex-girlfriend (Ellie Kemper), a zombie brought to life by Adam Pally, and many more.

If all goes according to Lesser’s fiendish plan, the episodes will continue to be available separately on several platforms (at IMDb on IMDb’s YouTube channel, and via Amazon Prime), but will also be sewn together to create an approximately 40-minute pilot.

But for now, as we wait to proclaim that such a Frankenstein-sized megapilot is alive, Monsters & Critics asked Lesser about the inspiration for the series, as well as about some of its deep, dark, lurking secrets.

Monsters & Critics:  Let’s start from the beginning here. Where did this idea come from?

Frank Lesser:  For whatever reason, I’ve always been very interested in monsters. When I let my mind roam free, it generally goes into darker, weirder places. But because I’m a comedy writer, it’s done as a comedy. A weirder twist on it.

Wouldn’t it be more interesting if, instead of just being a patient who’s going in to his therapist, all the other people in the waiting room were secretly monsters? Because you don’t see all of the neuroses and mental issues of other people on the street.  Until they walk into the therapist’s office and reveal it, you wouldn’t know that these are actually all these horrific, hideous monsters.

So I think there was always something that I found fascinating about that aspect of monsters, as having to hide their true selves. Obviously, all monsters just represent different facets of actual human life and behavior. There’s no such thing as real monsters. So they are just us, to begin with.

I wrote a collection of short humor called Sad Monsters: Growling on the Outside, Crying on the Inside. Those are short, 800-word humor pieces. But thinking through that, I realized it would be interesting if there’s the therapist who was treating all of these monsters, a human character who has to deal with inhuman characters. Well, how would the human get into that position? Oh, his great, great grandfather, his ancestor, is a vampire who has finally met his the reincarnation of his lost love and is forcing his descendant to take over his practice.

Monsters & Critics:  How did the show end up at IMDb, as their first scripted series?

Frank Lesser:  IMDb was very excited when they saw [the animated short we made as a pilot] because the show is about monsters, and monsters are generally in movies, which is their area. They’d been doing some original content, but they were looking to expand into scripted original content and original animated content. So this was a perfect match for them.

Monsters & Critics:  What made you want to do an animated show, as opposed to live-action?

Frank Lesser:  Actually, when I originally was conceiving of it and even writing it, in my mind it was all going to be live-action. I’m a fan of subtle jokes, especially when you have a monster saying something. I think it’s automatically going to be funny, especially if it’s a zombie or a Frankenstein speaking in a way that you’re not expecting.

So I was planning on doing it live-action and then it ended up, my manager sent it to Kelsey Grammer and his producers. He wrote to me and said, “What do you think about Kelsey Grammer? He’s into it!” And I’m like, “What?!” So once Kelsey Grammer signed on, I didn’t necessarily think that he was going to want to put on a Dracula cape and fangs and have his face painted for an hour and a half or two hours every day going in.

Kelsey is one of the greatest voice actors and was just such a perfect match for this. So then, of course, I was like, “Yes, oh, of course, it’s animated!”

I never actually asked him if he’d have been okay doing it live-action. So conceivably, we could have done that. I think at the same time. I mean, it’s in some ways good that we didn’t, because What We Do in the Shadows came out and I think there’d be too much of an overlap if they were both live-action.

Monsters & Critics:  Do you think the animation format helped you land such an amazing voice cast, in that they were able to work separately and on their own schedules? Did anyone record together?

Frank Lesser:  We actually were lucky enough that it worked out for Kelsey Grammer’s and Eric Stonestreet’s schedules that they were able to record all of their lines together. And then we went back and we picked up a couple things here and there.

That was a really delightful experience, to sit there and actually watch these two Emmy-winning actors deliver these lines that I had written. It was also a very harrowing and stressful experience because occasionally I would have to stop them and be like, “Oh, hey, uh, can you go back and you know, maybe just do that one more time?” I’m a writer, I’ve directed things, but I just felt like a little bit of an idiot doing that with those guys! In some ways, it was a little easier when we were just working with one person, because they’d just go line to line.

Monsters & Critics:  How did you cast the show? And keep in mind, if you do more, I’m going to pitch you my husband Frank DeCaro [from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart] as a gay wolfman.

Frank Lesser:  That would be great! One of the fun things is thinking of either people I know who I think are funny or other people where I’ve always really enjoyed their work, and thinking “Well, what would be the best character?”

Actually [in the original, half-hour pilot script] there was a werewolf who was having some personal issues because as a human, he’s straight. But whenever he’s a wolf, he’s, he’s humping other male dogs and he’s attracted. And actually the funny thing was there was a reference to Eddie, the dog from Frasier. And so I never really knew what Kelsey Grammer thought when he read that particular line!

Monsters & Critics:  …Which didn’t end up in this current batch of episodes.

Frank Lesser:  No. IMDb has been a really wonderful creative partner and is very open to giving me a lot of creative freedom. They did have certain concerns with certain issues, anything that was too sexual. There wasn’t that much stuff that was violent, but we avoided any sort of hot-button issues because it’s a branded platform, but it’s not rated or anything.

So there were several rewrites on my end involving Aparna Nancherla’s sex demon receptionist, to the point where we’re actually calling her a “retired” sex demon — and doing that makes it even maybe weirder, like, wait, so is she a prostitute?

If we were doing this just anywhere, there might’ve been other jokes. There were definitely a lot of other jokes that I wanted to explore on other, more hot-button issues. It’s not a particularly political show, but I think having monsters, these creatures that so-called normal humans fear, is a very good way to deal with a lot of other issues, a lot of other political and, and topical things at this point.

Monsters & Critics:  Speaking of other shows about monsters, obviously, What We Do in the Shadows has a similar theme and is live-action. There are also shows out there now where animation really seems to be treading a similar territory. There was Ugly Americans, and there’s also Big Mouth, which has sex, demons and stuff. How would you compare your show to those shows, and what would you say to their fans about why they want to watch your show?

Frank Lesser:  I would say I think it’s a good thing that there are more and more people writing about these creatures and manifestations of our fears and anxieties. I really love how Big Mouth is doing it to represent the weird things that happen to you as you go through puberty. With Ugly Americans, I didn’t really watch a ton of it because it was coming out when my book was coming out.

I think the big difference with this show is it is tying a little more directly to the therapy setting and a little more to the Max character’s relationship with the vampire ancestor. Almost riffing a bit in an interesting way on “Frasier” — although not intentionally, since I wasn’t writing it thinking of Kelsey Grammer. I would also say this show is a bit more focused, partially due to IMDb’s influence, on classic movie monsters, and the specific issues that they’d all be going through.

Monsters & Critics:   In Frasier, Kelsey Grammer played one of the most famous psychiatrists ever, and now he’s playing a psychiatrist again — and again, it’s about two psychiatrists in the family and their relationship both personally and professionally. Was it a conscious idea on your manager’s part to send it to Kelsey because he had played Frasier Crane? Or was it just because he has such a great voice?

Frank Lesser:  I think it was a little bit of both. I heard back after Kelsey had looked at it that he had been looking to do some animated stuff. Obviously Sideshow Bob is one of the funniest characters on The Simpsons, which is one of the funniest animated shows of all time.

I think actually initially he had had a little bit of hesitation because he doesn’t want to play the same character. But I think this character is very, very different from Frasier Crane. When Kelsey was a little worried about playing a therapist again, his producer said, “No, no, it’s different — he’s retired.” And then Kelsey went “Oh, okay, that’s totally different.”

In my mind, of course, I would say the biggest difference between this character and Frasier is, this character’s a vampire!  And actually the thing that’s interesting, and I think Kelsey enjoyed this when he realized this as well, but his character is actually John Seward, who in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and most of its film adaptations, is the psychiatrist who runs the insane asylum next to the Carfax Abbey which Dracula purchases and makes his home base in London. He’s one of the suitors of Lucy, who’s Dracula’s first victim in London. This is getting, is getting very deep into things.

Monsters & Critics:  Actually we’ve all seen the Coppola Dracula, and now there’s a new BBC Dracula. So you’re having fun with a very famous story. What I love in your show about how John is dying to talk about Dracula and just wants to be asked. He should wear a tee-shirt, “Ask me about Dracula.” We know that he’s John Seward — but in the book, John Seward doesn’t become a vampire. So what is your John Seward’s back story and when will we find out?

Frank Lesser:  I have a concept for the back story, and I do want to explore that more in any later seasons. For now, in episode 10, there’s a bit of a flashback, mostly covered by different photos, getting a little bit more into John’s vampire life. But the main back story is that Bram Stoker was actually just this loser writer who hung out with the whole crowd and they didn’t really like him. So he wrote this really mean, gossipy, thinly veiled novel, making Dracula a bad guy.  In any case, I do want Dracula to show up. I was actually trying to track down someone to do a little cameo.

Monsters & Critics:  Who is your ideal casting?

Frank Lesser:  I did actually track down Bill Murray’s secret phone number to call to try to pitch him things. I was going to see if he would just call back, leave a voicemail that we could use and have that be Dracula.

But otherwise would want to do Gilbert Gottfried, who I think would be a very funny Dracula.  Even with other parts of the novel, that’s where I would love to do any humorous stunt casting. If Kelsey’s on board with this, maybe have David Hyde Pierce voice Lord Holmwood, or you Peri Gilpin voice Lucy, or Jane Leeves as Mina. Just as quick cameos in a short episode. And I would love to have Bebe Neuwirth show up to voice Lilith, the queen of all demons!

Monsters & Critics:  The show also has all these fun interstitial moments, with ads for things like “Carrie’s Formalwear.” Like so many of the best-animated comedies, it’s packed with layers of jokes.

Frank Lesser:  It was a lot of fun to do a lot of those. And actually Lily Streiff, the animator, came up with several of those on her own. We were discussing doing a couple and she just was inspired to come up with some that were very funny. You have to keep your eyes peeled.

Monsters & Critics:  Another thing I wonder if you were influenced by here is the 90s trend of mafia/analyst shows and movies — The Sopranos, and also the movies Analyze This and Analyze That. If you think about it, those were also about therapy for people who looked average on the outside but were monsters within.

Frank Lesser:  Oddly enough, I had never watched The Sopranos. My mom is actually from Belleville, New Jersey, where some of the scenes are set. So I’ve seen little bits growing up when she was watching it. I ended up watching all of The Sopranos about six months ago. A good six months after I’d written all the scripts, and I didn’t realize how therapy-based The Sopranos actually was. Now I would love to have a Dr. Melfi cameo with Lorraine Bracco.

Monsters & Critics:  You worked on The Colbert Report for many years. Anything that you learned there that you put into this?

Frank Lesser:  Yes. Just in general I learned so much about comedy and writing and just humanity from working with Stephen Colbert for such a long time. In many ways, it was tough with this show because I was writing all of these scripts myself. I did have some people I would show to the scripts to and ask for their feedback — “Can you think of any better joke here?” Because I would always try to add and change some of the jokes. One thing that I learned [on Colbert] is, don’t just settle for the first thing you think of necessarily. Try to rewrite, to work things over it.

In general, the medium of animation is a little bit slower. We had a lot of time deadline issues, and budget issues, and there wasn’t as much back and forth as I might have otherwise had. Our animation director Lily Streiff was in LA, directing a couple of freelance animators in Manila — several of whom, I later found out, were just doing the animation at coffee shops and cafes.

It was an incredible, interesting process, and we were able to make a lot of visual jokes. One of my favorite shows was 30 Rock and I think, comedically, that’s what my sensibilities are a little bit. And The Simpsons as far as what I would say, aspirationally, comedically, what I was sort of aiming for.

Monsters & Critics:  Will there be an upcoming role for Mr. Colbert, who has another amazing speaking voice?

Frank Lesser:  Oh, I would absolutely love to have him. He was in Ace and Gary, the Ambiguously Gay Duo, and Harvey Birdman. On The Colbert Report, we did Tek Jansen, this sort of space parody hero thing. I would absolutely love to have him voice a character. I know he’s incredibly busy. If I had him in there, I think I’d want it to be a character who interacts with Amy Sedaris’ Medusa, as a different mythological creature.

Monsters & Critics:  How about a centaur?

Frank Lesser:  Oh, that’s great, because it’s still his perfect 1950s gentlemanly dad image, but then like no shirt and just like the body of a horse. I think Stephen Colbert is a centaur.

Monsters & Critics:  You’re welcome. So tell me about the animation style. What did you want, how did you communicate that? Were there influences to that?

Frank Lesser:  Initially, when we were producing the little teaser [pilot], some animators did a pass on drawing the characters based on the pilot script. There were different styles, and when I saw Lily’s, she got it right off the bat, the exact look that I had in my mind because I do enjoy The Simpsons/Futurama TV animation style where it’s not overly mannered or overly distracting.

I also really did like that she has a very adorable quality to her drawings. So, even when it’s a horrific zombie, it’s not going to look too gross. It was a lot of fun working with her and bouncing ideas back and forth with her. It was just amazing to see them actually come to life. That’s what’s so interesting about animation. Here it’s all being drawn and created in someone’s mind or multiple people’s minds.

Monsters & Critics:  Lastly, with this being Halloween week, I have to say that when I told someone that I was going to be contacting “Frank Lesser,” he suggested rather than a phone I should use a ouija board. How often do people think you’re the dead composer Frank Loesser?

Frank Lesser:  I used to always say, “There is no relation? And I spell it the right way.” But I’m a big fan of Frank Loesser’s. I was named after my grandfather who was yet a third Frank Lesser, who lived in Cleveland and ran a Firestone tire shop. So, unfortunately, not the one who wrote Guys and Dolls.

It’s funny because I used to always say “Oh, it’s great because anyone who recognizes the name loves me because nobody has anything bad to say about Frank Loesser.” And then came all of the controversy about Baby, It’s Cold Outside. And now I keep thinking, “Oh no, I hope they don’t cancel the wrong Frank Lesser! I had nothing to do with that!”

The whole first season of You’re Not a Monster is available to watch now on IMDb’s YouTube channel.

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