These days, Phil Lord and Chris Miller are prolific, multifaceted writers and directors who skip from winsome children’s animation to foulmouthed R-comedy perfection seemingly without a hitch. In 2012, they gifted us with 21 Jump Street, and the sight of high-as-balls Channing Tatum leaping through some sort of percussion instrument. This week, they follow that up with The Lego Movie, a trippy, kinetic action-adventure. But before all that, they were the cracked creators of what was indubitably the greatest-ever animated, Abe Lincoln–starring teen-drama parody to have ever existed.
The show was called Clone High, and it was too beautiful for this world. It lasted barely a season on MTV in 2002. The concept, as paraphrased from the supremely catchy theme song: Way way back in the 1980s, secret government employees dug up famous guys and ladies and made genetic copies. Now the clones are sexy teens, yeah, they’re gonna make it if they try.
Lincoln — voiced by a young Will Forte — was the lovesick Seth Cohen type. Joan of Arc was Joey Potter, forever pining for her supposedly platonic best friend. Cleopatra was the hot chick, JFK was the popular dude. And best of all was cartoon Gandhi, a horny, motormouth sidekick, complete with his own dumb catchphrase: “Say whaaaaat?”
It was a sharp, loving parody, littered with historical allusions, bizarre tangents, and Dawson’s Creek references. And I miss it every day. So, with The Lego Movie out now, we thought it’d be a good time to call up Phil and Chris and reminisce about the days when Abe loved Joan (d’Arc), Cleo was really into O-Town, and all Gandhi wanted to do was find the next rager.
How did you guys come up with the original concept? And was there any kind of chemical ingestion involved?
Lord: You would think that we did a lot of drugs. The truth of the matter is that we just have deranged minds.
Miller: When I was in college I had this idea for clones that go to college together. Then I graduated and we started working together, and we decided it’d be a high school.
Lord: It was right in the Dawson’s Creek era, when teen angst-y shows were a big part of the staple of television. And we thought they were pretty ridiculous, and so overdramatic, and the idea of combining the weird concept of people throughout history with the structure of a teen drama was a really special thing. It was chocolate and peanut butter.
There’s a lot of material to work with. Was it always gonna star that quintet of Lincoln, JFK, Gandhi, Cleopatra, and Joan of Arc?
Miller: I think at one point there were gonna be a lot more presidents. It was George Washington, and Lincoln, and like … James Madison?
Lord: When we started making lists, we’d cross-reference people that everybody has heard of, and people that are in the public domain. You wanted to avoid the litigious estates, like Einstein and Marilyn Monroe. Stuff like that was off the table.
Miller: You can do one-off jokes with them, in the name of satire.
Lord: Yeah, but no one can profit off their likeness. Except, like, Einstein’s family. They profit off his likeness all the time.
Miller: So the Venn diagram is actually pretty small [considering whom people have heard of]. You’re not gonna do a show about early U.S. labor leader Samuel Gompers.
Lord: We just quickly ran out of people that MTV viewers were aware of. And, honestly, I feel like if you put a thousand monkeys in a room with typewriters, those are the characters they’d probably arrive at. They sort of fit all of the archetypal high school roles. JFK was the one we were nervous about. Like, “Oh, I wonder if we’re just gonna get a knock on the door, and it’s gonna be the Secret Service and they’re gonna tell us to quit it.”
Miller: Or the Kennedy family’s gonna be mad at us. MTV was also really worried about the intelligence of the viewership. One episode we had a joke with Sigmund Freud in it, and they were like, “Ah, you might have to explain who he is.” It was like, “You guys really are expecting the worst of your audience.”
Lord: In fairness, they had probably researched their audience more than any network.
What were the pitch meetings like?
Miller: We pitched it to the Fox network and they bought it right in the room. Then the guy who bought it left, and it took about a year to get to MTV. But it was the easiest pitch ever. We had drawings and everything. It’s not, “Oh, it’s about people living in an apartment, and they … don’t get along.” It’s, “You’ve heard of Abe Lincoln — here’s what he looks like as a teenager!”
You reimagined Gandhi as sort of the Stiles to Abe Lincoln’s Teen Wolf. Which, unexpectedly, made perfect sense.
Lord: We both knew people in high school and college that were of Indian descent that had a lot of expectations put on them by their family, and they sort of buckled and went the other way. And we thought, if anyone’s gonna buckle under the pressure of living up to something, it’s gonna be living up to the pressure of being the most saintly person on earth. And then when we did some research on Gandhi, it turned out that when he was young and in law school, he was kind of a party guy. He would go and tell jokes and drink. And it wasn’t until he visited rural India and saw the suffering of the people that he changed his whole attitude. And so we thought, That’s a funny take on Gandhi.
Miller: It’s also just a real emotional problem, to have the genetic material of a demigod basically. And the political and spiritual savior of a billion people. That’s a lot of pressure! And we had friends that did the [fake] Gandhi thing. You know, “People thought I was nerdy my whole life and what I really wanna do is prove to them that I can party really hard.”
You mentioned Dawson’s Creek as source material. Did you watch a lot of Dawson’s, or did you have to do research?
Lord and Miller: We watched a lot of it!
Miller: You know the episode where Ponce de León dies?
Lord: It’s very, very similar to an episode where Dawson’s dad dies. He dies from ice cream … this is not a parody.
Miller: He and Dawson get into a fight …
Lord: … and Dawson says, “I hate you, Dad,” or something like that. And then Dawson’s dad goes to an ice cream parlor, which I guess he does all the time when he needs to think about life and stuff?
Miller: And he tells the ice cream guy, “I’m really proud of my son, I love him, I should probably tell him that.” Then he gets his ice cream, which has a very ill-placed second scoop on top, which is very teetering. And he’s driving back home, happy that he’s gonna go resolve things with his son …
Lord: And then it’s that song, [Sings.] “Give me the beat, boys, and lose my soul, I wanna get lost in your rock ’n’ roll” and he loves that song so much and he’s pumping his fist and he kind of flicks the ice cream ball onto the floor. And he’s on the lonely road, and it’s all dark. But he decides to lean down to pick up the scoop. I guess he’s gonna put it back on the ice cream cone? Which doesn’t sound delicious. The floor of a truck has road salt, and dirt, and whatever else is in there. [But] he looks up and the light is coming and that’s it.
Miller: Anyway, I know you did want this to mostly be about Dawson’s Creek.
Eventually, you guys ran into trouble when some folks in India picked up on your take on Gandhi, and were not very happy with it. [The Guardian, covering the controversy very seriously: “Clone High introduces a character called G-Man, a fictitious clone of Gandhi, who wears dangly earrings, eats junk food and is the ultimate party animal.”]
Miller: We had finished the first season, and I was on vacation in Costa Rica, in the jungle, with no access to phones or Internet. And I finally make my way to a hotel that has a computer station and I see there’s hundreds of articles about our show. “Oh wow, this is exciting! [Pause.] Oh no, this can’t be good. There’s a … hunger strike … in India.” [The protesters] had never seen the show ’cause it hadn’t aired there, but they’d read on the Internet about it. They were very upet that he wore an earring and ate junk food and went to parties. So 150 politicians and Gandhi’s grandson sat in a hunger strike at the MTV India offices, right when the head of Viacom, Tom Freston, was visiting, and he was trapped in the building. And they basically threatened that they’d revoke MTV’s broadcasting license in India if they didn’t take the show off the air. And then the show went off the air. So I guess not any publicity is good publicity.
Was there any chance they would have just waited for it to blow over?
Miller: Everyone at MTV really liked the show, so when the edict came down, they said, “Hey, pitch us a version of the show’s second season that doesn’t have Gandhi.” So we had two different versions: One was just that he was gone and nobody talked about it, and the other was where we kept the same character, but they realized there had been a mistake, and he wasn’t actually the clone of Gandhi, he was the clone of Gary Coleman. And we just called him Gary and everything was exactly the same. And we pitched that, and it went up to the top at Viacom again and it got a big no.
Did you get any backlash from, like, the Lincoln Appreciation Society of America or something?
Lord: No! Nobody noticed the show! It was just like one random person in India decided to write about [it].
Miller: It took awhile to catch on [after it was canceled]. The show went off the air and they replaced it in the time slot with the show Punk’d? The Ashton Kutcher show? Which was an enormous hit. It got like three times our ratings.
Do you have any particular scenes or lines that you think back on fondly?
Miller: I think Phil’s portrayal of Principal Scudworth is something that sticks with you. And his meltdown about John Stamos [beating him out for prom king] is something that I think about.
Oh yeah! How did you break it to Stamos that he was gonna have his eye ripped out by a prom crown?
Miller: The pitch was, you’re his rival. And he’s gonna murder you.
Lord: He’s gonna brutally, brutally murder you, and you’re gonna be cool with it. ’Cause you’re that good of a person.
Miller: It was very dark. But it is kind of the truth of him. He charms everyone that he meets. During the Super Bowl I was like, oh, there he his! He’s eating yogurt! And he still looks great! Who wouldn’t wanna hang out with this guy as he’s eating yogurt?!
Did you have plans for a second season?
Miller: We talked about it.
Lord: A lot of wormholes and stuff.
Miller: There’d be some sort of wormhole which would make them stay in high school and have their senior year over again.
Lord: We [also] thought about them walking into school and everything’s totally normal … and then each episode, they start having horrible flashbacks to what the scientists did to them when they were [frozen]. It’s kind of Bourne. I think The Bourne Identity probably took a lot of its inspiration from us.
Miller: From unproduced Clone High episodes.
Would you ever consider doing a movie?
Lord: We’ve been talking about it a little bit. We would just have to convince Viacom that it was worth reopening that world.
Miller: What’s crazy is, we’re doing this movie 22 Jump Street — the cleverly titled sequel to 21 Jump Street — and there’s a lot of jokes that we ripped off straight from Clone High. It’s kind of like, “Oh, man, are these all the tricks we’ve got in our handbag?”
Lord: We really don’t have any ideas. It’s all out there. You can murder us and it’ll be fine.
Miller: The Lego Movie — which, by the way, is in theaters February 7 — has [Lego] Abraham Lincoln, played by Will Forte.
Lord: Do people even … like, your editors at Grantland, you were like, I wanna do something about Clone High, and they were like, “What?”
My editor was extremely supportive!
Lord: I hope you get us a second season. Our entire career has just been about …
Miller: … getting Clone High back on the air.
Lord: It’s all been a super-long pitch to Viacom to get it back on the air. I hope this article gets picked up a bunch of places. I hope people link to it. I hope people tweeter about it. I hope that you make our dreams come true.