Celebrating Jim Davis with Lasagna Cat: An Interview with Fatal Farm

on July 28, 2017, 2:45pm

On this day, 72 years ago — July 28th, 1945 — the world was gifted with the birth of Jim Davis, creator of Garfield.

It was not a happy day. The morning of Davis’ birth (some say at the exact same time) a B-25 Mitchell bomber crashed into The Empire State Building, killing 14 people. Meanwhile, World War II was winding down. Only days before, President Harry S. Truman had approved the order to drop atomic bombs on Japan, and within a week of Davis’ birth they would fall; a baptism of fire ushering Baby Jim and the human race into the Atomic Age.

In the 72 years of his life, Planet Earth has fundamentally changed. Miraculously. Irreparably. If this age is to be humanity’s swan song, truly we have known the greatest merriment and drunk deeply from the cup of laughter. A cup that has been filled time and time again by Jim Davis; rosy cheeked like Dionysus, but whose reflection in the pouring libation we can clearly see is that of an orange cat. Every day, hundreds of millions of people the world over delight in exploits of the sardonic Garfield, the long-suffering everyman Jon Arbuckle, and the lovable oaf, Odie. Through his art, through his passion, Davis inspires laughter and inspires others to devote their talents to do the same.

jim davis Celebrating Jim Davis with Lasagna Cat: An Interview with Fatal Farm

So, today we celebrate “Funny Man” Jim Davis and his beloved creation, the Garfield comic strip, by viewing his work through the lens of two of his most innovative disciples: Zach Johnson and Jeffery Max aka Fatal Farm – the masterminds behind the cult webseries phenomena, Lasagna Cat.

Chances are good that you’ve seen a video created by Fatal Farm at some point in your Internet life. They’re a duo of FX wizards who specialize in subversion and surrealism, and whose work is as hilarious as it is head-scratching. They’ve done sketches for Key & Peele, had a hand in two Adult Swim specials, are the brains behind the notorious penis-exploding scene in Our RoboCop Remake, and nearly 10 years ago, unleashed a web series tribute to Jim Davis. These videos have been an Internet staple for the better part of a decade.

Meanwhile, their creators went on to direct some of the most insane installments of Old Spice’s advertising campaign and climb the ladder to increasingly higher profile gigs. No one really expected more Lasagna Cat, and they definitely didn’t expect a 1-800 number sex survey. Preempting the release of 12 new Lasagna Cat tributes was a balls-to-the-wall Hollywood style trailer demanding that fans leave their personal information on an answering machine. Sound confusing? Never fear – in Fatal Farm’s first ever tell-all interview, everything will be explained.

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Lasagna Cat got its start when they found a “really gnarly looking Garfield costume” at a costume shop in Compton. Johnson and Max bought it on a whim, knowing it was destined for greatness. Their first idea was to reenact every day’s Garfield strip in live action…

Johnson: Everyday we’ll wake up, we’ll get the newspaper, and by lunchtime we’ll have it out—that was the original plan. And then we were like, “I don’t think we can keep this up,” because John and Garfield would go to the beach or go to the vet… we can’t produce that at nine AM. So we were like, we’ll do “100 Days of Garfield“, and then we actually shot 80.

We started editing them together and there was no legs to it. You saw three and there was no incentive to click further; which is a commentary on the strip itself, I suppose. So we were like, “Let’s take all the work we’ve done and make at least one video out of it.”

When you saw it all cut to some music, like some tribute montage music thing — which was a thing back in 2007, 2008, when we were doing it — people were just cutting tribute videos to actors and anime characters. Like a six-minute Dragon Ball Z montage set to “Dust in the Wind” or something. We made one of those for Garfield and liked it, and they were like, “Well, let’s just make tribute videos to Jim Davis.”

Max: We realized this is something that people can run across and wonder why it exists, and that’s always kind of been a thread through which we operate. We held onto that idea working on the new release too.

Johnson: If there’s one of it, or there’s two of it, or there’s five of it, it’s not anything, but if there’s a dozen of it, then it’s notable. We always try to do things en masse, otherwise it feels like a sketch, and I don’t think as a sketch they’re funny enough, to be honest. The biggest joke of it is that there’s so much of it and that it exists.

Max: At this point, we’ve dedicated a fair amount of our lives to making fun of Garfield, which is really unfortunate.

So what prompted a Lasagna Cat revival?

Johnson: We actually started shooting it pretty shortly after we released the original series. And similarly, we overshot it, we shot I think 22 of them and then we backed ourselves down to 12; not withstanding the sex survey business. We had been working on it for two or three years in between jobs.

Max: Very early on we decided, “Let’s take a different approach to these, let’s make these seem higher production value than the originals.” The originals became what they were sort of by accident, but now that we know what Lasagna Cat is, and we know that it’s a reenactment of this strip followed by some bizarre music video medley thing, let’s take that idea and produce fully-realized music videos for each one. That was the onset of what we wanted to do when revisiting it.

Johnson: The original series felt pretty original back in 2008, and I don’t know if it did to us in 2013 when we were ready to go. And so it just kind of back-burnered for awhile until the last year or two where we had the idea for the sex survey. That’s what turned us around and said, “let’s put this out, let’s do this because I think that’s fresh.” It’s really obnoxious to call yourself and your work “fresh,” but it felt like it was something that was new, or interesting. If I came across it, I would be like, “What is this?”

Your final Sex Survey video is over four hours long – features an insane number of calls, weird moments throughout, and the final short film that ends it is a tour de force. How did it all come together?

Johnson: We had the trailer shot… about a year ago, and we were like, “We’ll have this 1-800 number and we’ll have this information, and now what do we do with it?” We didn’t know every single step along the way. We built an Excel spreadsheet scripting thing that would drop audio and ripple the timeline to the appropriate length of the audio track duration for all of these callers. It’s not everybody that called in, it’s just the first usable thousand calls. What we had done was that we had shot the area between Jon’s recliner and the door. It’s like a drop zone. We shot Jon answering the door after the fact, so all of those are original, but those get dropped into the video that we had shot a year prior.

lasagna cat bts11 Celebrating Jim Davis with Lasagna Cat: An Interview with Fatal Farm

It’s sort of like a knock-knock joke that never ends. Which is a commentary on Garfield, pretty obviously. It’s a really just simple joke and it keeps going and going and going, and it’s not particularly funny, you get it, and it just goes on forever. That’s Garfield.

Max: After that, we said, “well how do we end this?” What if we just end it with this ridiculous art piece that you’re watching it – not even understanding how someone would take this concept so seriously and have it, at the end of the day, just be about Garfield?

Johnson: 2001 and Holy Mountain are the two major influences in that ending.

Max: People were trying to find clues as to what things mean or is this real? It’s a level of detail that I think is pretty much only appreciated on the Internet.

Have you and Jim Davis’ camp ever clashed over Lasagna Cat?

Max: One of the new Lasagna Cats was taken down because of a copyright claim from Paws, Inc., which is the first time I think there has been any acknowledgment that Lasagna Cat exists.

Johnson: I think we crossed the line on that one because we posted the contact information for the public relations department of Paws, Inc., and encouraged viewers to arrange a breakfast with Garfield — which is silly, but we have the kind of fans; they did that. We found out of the fact that people were contacting them and I saw some Tumblr post saying that [Paws Inc.] can’t take a joke, and they absolutely can take a joke. They’ve been so sporting, what is a full-frontal assault on their property.

I honestly felt kind of bad revisiting [Lasagna Cat] because I don’t think it’s fair for an adult to attack a cartoon that’s used to encourage children to read. Not every comic strip has to be Calvin and Hobbes, you know? We tried to steer it away from the formula, and we’re kind of left painting ourselves in a corner. Like, we have to keep to the formula, they have to end in Jim Davis’ face, but at the same time do we need to do this to this man that’s just a nice guy? We tried to steer it a bit more obtuse and make it like some Campbell Soup cans, some modern art piece with the sex survey business; which I hope we did. I think that it exists as more of an exploration of interactivity and post-modernism.

Max: Garfield has been running for over 30 years. The Simpsons has been on television for most of our adult lives. These things exist in our culture and are omnipresent. Even ignoring their actual source media, you’re surrounded by the advertising for them. You’re surrounded by the merchandising for them. It’s hard to imagine a world in which artists wouldn’t be deconstructing all of those things that exist in their universe.

The biggest standalone Fatal Farm project in the past 10 years was your scene from the fan remake, Our RoboCop Remake. It’s absolutely mind-blowing. And penis-blowing. But not in the sexy way. It looks like Verhoeven himself filmed it 30 years ago. How the hell did you make it?

Johnson: We were like “What’s still left?” And for some reason the rape scene was still available. That would’ve been the first scene we would’ve requested!

Max: Someone getting shot in the dick is … I mean, how is that not the first scene to go? [As for filming] RoboCop is one of those movies that has fanatics.

Johnson: You know there’s Storm Troopers everywhere and there’s Ghostbusters‘ proton packs at every Comic-Con. We knew that somewhere, there was a RoboCop suit. We just started going on RoboCop fan forums and found a guy. He’s got the gun, he’s got the gas-powered Auto 9, he’s got the 1989 Ford Taurus that’s matte black. We didn’t tell him about the penises until he was on site.

Max: He provided 75% of the production value on his own. It was incredible.

Johnson: We were just cruising; no traffic on RoboCop. Everything went smoothly, it was such a wonderful experience. We called up our friends and we’re like, “hey, does anybody want to get their dick shot off?” and like 40 people showed up. It was great.

For a long time on the Fatal Farm website there’s been a listing for a forthcoming project called Tales of the Old West. What’s the story with that project?

Johnson: This would be our pivot into self-authored, totally original content. The aesthetic is the old west and it’s practical effects – like John Carpenter, David Cronenberg – monsters and weird prosthetic work. We’ve shot three or four of them, but as our ambition keeps escalating… hopefully it’ll become a TV maxi type thing, like Stranger Things. Stranger Things is the love letter to those coming-of-age Stand By Me, Poltergeist… ’80s movies. This one would be creature horror like The Fly, The Thing, maybe some Nightmare on Elm Street.

Max: We want to use old effects for comedy. Zach will send me some horror trailer and I’ll laugh hysterically at someone’s mouth opening way too wide and then they’re crawling around backwards or something hilarious – it’s just so funny. I don’t know how these horror movies think they’re scaring anybody with some of the shit they’re pulling.

Johnson: It’s very taxing to do practical effects and that’s why I don’t think you see very much comedy surrounding it, because it kills improve. It fatigues performers. It’s probably easier to scream at something than joke with it when you’re doing lots and lots of takes. It’s really impressive that Ghostbusters can exist and feel as off-the-cuff as it is, knowing how laborious and technical the shoots can be.

talesoftheoldwest 03 Celebrating Jim Davis with Lasagna Cat: An Interview with Fatal Farm

We’ve always said wait until we finish Lasagna Cat before writing a script, and I think that’s what we’re going to do now. The waiting is over and I think we’re actually going to just sit down and write a TV show and try and go out with it. But if we hit a wall with that … then we’ll finish them up and release them like we did with Lasagna Cat, because three of them are done.

Max: When we had the idea, western was kind of a dead genre, and it’s been a little frustrating for us that it’s kind of come back in full force with West World.

Johnson: When we shot originally, we lost our location to Django Unchanged. That’s how long ago we started it. Not Hateful Eight, but two Tarantino Western’s ago we started working on ours, thinking no one is doing westerns, and then it just came back. But as I said, if we get too frustrated with how slow [selling it as a series] develops, I’m sure we’ll end up shooting a short film or something some time in the next year.

Max: We tend to not want to sit around too long without making something.

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Below, check out a gallery of behind-the-scenes images and get an even deeper exploration of the new Lasagna Cat and Fatal Farm’s other classic web series Alternate TV Themes and Infinite Solutions in our full-length interview:

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