There are many people I love in the game industry. Sitting towards the top of that list is Jonathan Holmes. He's such a genuinely nice, caring person. He also has a crazy sense of humor and a quirky personality, which is why I always look forward to chatting him up.
You most likely know him from his work over at Destructoid, but he's also been toiling away on Teenage Pokemon, an animated series that comes from his warped mind. After a short hiatus, the series is back in action. You can check out the latest episode below, alongside a lengthy chat with Mr. Holmes himself. Thanks to Jonathan for chatting with us!
1. Pretend I'm uncultured. What is Teenage Pokemon?
Teenage Pokemon is a cartoon show about Pokemon in their middle stage of evolution. They aren't as cute as kids, they aren't as cool as adults. They are stuck in the middle, with all of the weaknesses and none of the strengths that come with that. It's a frustrating stage of life, one that lead to a lot intense emotions, exaggerated reactions, and bad decisions.
Though it may not be immediately apparent, the show really is a love letter to my teenage years, and to teenagers everywhere. Looking back, I can't help but laugh about some of the things that my friends and I said and did when we were teenagers; so sure that we were acting so grown up, that we had it all figured out. In a way, I wish I could go back to that time in my life. For all it's ridiculousness, it was a lot of fun to be so unbridled and unfettered by the shackles of the adult brain.
Teenage Pokemon is my opportunity to get back to that, and hopefully make something worth watching in the process.
2. When did you first get the idea for the show?
I first had the idea for the show in mid 2011. I had been the host of the Destructoid show on Revision3, but for a variety of reasons, I chose to hand over the hosting duties to my friend Max Scoville. That left me in a position where I could do anything I wanted, though without an entire production studio to back me up.
I can't remember the exact details, but I remember I was driving somewhere, and that I was suddenly hit with two ideas, Talking to Women about Videogames, and Teenage Pokemon. I was really excited, and I knew I really wanted to make these two things, but I wasn't sure what they were and I wasn't sure why I wanted to do them.
Talking to Women about Videogames came first, as it was much easier to put together than Teenage Pokemon. I also had a lot less internal pressure to succeed on that show, as I knew from the outset that the show didn't have much of a chance of turning into something huge, at least, not the way I wanted to do it. I had talked to some bigger sites about funding it, but they only wanted to put money behind it if I changed the bent of the show to focus on making fun of women for not knowing a lot about videogames. That's the exact opposite of what I wanted to do with it, which was a little depressing, but I still had a good time putting it together.
Teenage Pokemon was different. I knew that the show had the potential to get a lot of views, which means more pressure to make something that's worth getting a lot of views. That led to over a year of gained and lost confidence in my ability to put the show together, false starts, and the eventual push to just get something out there before the idea grew too cold in my brain. I'd never spearheaded the creation of an animated show before, and it was scary as hell to try, but thankfully, we managed to get something together that some people really seem to like.
3. Why did you decide to focus in on Pokemon?
I am huge fan of the Pokemon games. I played through Pokemon Black/White twice, once in Japanese and once in English. I love the music, the character designs, and probably most of all, the surrealism. The Pokemon games exist in a world where everyone is obsessed with Pokemon; Little Kids, Middle Aged Men, Environmentalists, Police, The Mafia, EVERYONE. Whether it means to or not, the Pokemon series is a great parody of how seriously people take all sorts of things -- Celebrity gossip, professional sports, and videogames immediately come to mind. The profound feelings that millions of people feel for these relatively unimportant things is astounding, and sometimes adorable. Pokemon points that out, but without being mean about it.
A big part of what I was hoping to do with Teenage Pokemon was to point out things that I find astounding, and sometimes adorable, about teenagers, but without being mean about it. On top of that, middle stage Pokemon are pretty much the most perfect metaphors for what it's like to be a teenager in the history of everything. Combine that with the fact I'll take any excuse I can to listen to Pokemon music, ask people to draw pictures of Pokemon, and to just think about Pokemon in general, and you have a guy who is willing to spend hundreds of hours of his life making a show called Teenage Pokemon.
I don't get a cent for making the show. In fact, it's even lost me some money. It's all worth it though, because it's so much fun to do.
4. You're quite well known for liking rather strange humor (which I LOVE). Where do you think this comes from?
I'm old, and I've loved comedy and videogames for a long time. When you've loved something for a long time, you're going to chalk up years thinking about it and exploring it, which is a double edged sword. The more videogames I play and the more comedy things I analyze, the harder it is for me to find a game or a comedy thing that gives me something new, that surprises me. I'm chasing that feeling of the first time I played Pac-Man, or the first time I ever saw Monty Python, and it's not easy, as my tolerance to videogames and comedy has been built to huge levels over the years. The only way I can get that feeling anymore is from stuff that's like nothing I've ever seen before, which is pretty much the definition of "weird". The founder of Destructoid, Niero Gonzalez, has gone through something similar, which is why we like a lot of the same stuff.
There are only two "comedy" shows that I watch consistently -- Adventure Time and Check It Out! with Dr. Steve Brule. These two shows don't have much in the way of "jokes"; instead, they just give you some charming, ridiculous characters to think about. While they don't always make me laugh, they always keep my attention, and make me feel like I got some truth from them.
I'm much more like likely to laugh at something that wasn't intended to be funny, like Bob from Sesame Street rubbing a muppet's hair in a failed attempt to be innocently affectionate before singing "Glibby Glop Glooby" into the sky, or Ryo and Nozumi's phone skills in Shenmue. I can totally relate to both of those guys.
Comedy is at it's best when the "comedian" isn't trying to be funny. It's the same with being attractive. I'm much more likely to be attracted to someone who is just being themselves than someone who is obviously trying to look sexy or cute. The less comedy relies on surface level tricks and and techniques, the more genuine the feeling of connection. That's pretty much true of everything.
That's my best guess as to why I like what I like. I know for certain that when I was younger, I was a lot easier to please. If it sounds like I'm a snob who doesn't think that most things are good enough for him, then fair enough. I'm pretty forgiving towards people, but when it comes to stuff, I'm a pretty harsh critic.
5. Have you heard anything from Nintendo or Pokemon Co. about your show?
I have not talked to Nintendo about the show. I'm guessing that they just take it like they do the multiple other "Pokemon parody" videos on the internet. I hope they never watch it with the sound on, because the stuff I do on the show (writing and voice acting) isn't good enough yet. They deserve better, but the only way I'll ever get there is by continuing to make the show as best I can, learning from my successes and missteps as I go along.
6. How has the reaction been to pilot episode?
The reaction has been incredibly mixed. It seems that the less people go into the show expecting something specific, the more they end up enjoying it. A lot of people told me that they didn't think they'd like it as they don't enjoy the Pokemon games, but they ended up liking it a lot. Others have said that they guessed the show was going to try to cater to teenagers (as that's the biggest audience for this kind of thing on the internet), and were pleasantly surprised when they saw it was something made from an adult's perspective on what being a teenager was like.
The people who didn't like it have a variety of explanations for why the show isn't for them. Some hated the sound quality. Some find the characters to be annoying. Some felt that the show was directly insulting to them as individuals . Some said "It's just swear/dick/fart jokes, and that means it sucks". Others have said that it's a failed rip off of Egoraptor's extremely popular Pokemon short. That's strange to me. For better or worse, I don't think Teenage Pokemon has much in common with Egoraptor's stuff, or the other "Pokemon Parody" cartoons on the internet. Honestly, I wouldn't be happy with the show if it were more like Egoraptor's cartoons, for a variety of reasons. Even stranger is that these same people love Egoraptor's stuff. If my stuff was like stuff you like, wouldn't that make you more likely to enjoy it? The fact that a lot of Egoraptor's fans didn't like the pilot episode is more of a sign to me that it's different from his take on Pokemon, which is a good thing.
That's just a start the list of very specific expectations some had for what Teenage Pokemon should be. I feel like I have an understanding of what George Lucas went through with the Star Wars prequels, but on a x1,000,000 smaller scale. People knew exactly what they wanted those movies to be and how they wanted them to make them feel. They'd pretty much already made the prequels in their minds, and when the reality didn't match their pre-formed fantasies of what the movies were, they weren't just unimpressed, they were angry, sometimes even vindictive.
There's been a similar thing with Teenage Pokemon. People were sometimes angry that the show wasn't exactly like the "Teenage Pokemon" show they had already created in their heads. I didn't expect that, which is pretty ridiculous of me. I never enjoyed the Pokemon anime, and grew up 10 years apart from the generation that did, so I hadn't had that much first hand experience with the people that love animated Pokemon adventures even more than the Pokemon obsessed NPCs in the games. Now that I have a better understanding of those expectations, I'm even more determined to make the show something that effectively communicates my ideas.
7. What can we expect to see in the next batch of episodes?
Machinima liked the pilot enough to pick up four more episodes, which are set to start airing every weekend from now until March 10th. They're all takes on different topics, as I knew going into it that I may not have this opportunity again, so I tried to comment on as many different things as I could. If you like one episode, you may not necessarily like the next, and vice versa. You can't please everybody, but hopefully there is at least one part of one episode of Teenage Pokemon that will find a place in the heart of every individual on the planet.
I've taken all the feedback I've gotten from both Machinima and the audience at large, and worked it into the show in the best ways that I could. Actually, the Machinima staff came up with the concept for the first minute of the "console war" episode, which was interesting. I'd never had to take someone else's ideas and adapt them to my own vision before, but it was a fun challenge.
That speaks to the whole process of altering the show to fit the audience's expectations. Some people said "needs more Pokemon references and aesthetics". I do too! That's why there will be much more Pokemon-flavored stuff in these next four episodes. Other people said "Needs better comic timing". That's like telling a song writer "needs better arrangement of musical notes". I'd need to reprogram my entire brain to make that happen. I don't think that's possible.
In short, if an outside idea worked to further the goals I already had for the show, or at least didn't interfere with them, then I tried to work with it. And I bought an expensive microphone, so hopefully the sound quality is better this time around.
8. What's been your favorite part of creating the show so far?
That's tough, as I love everything about making this show. When I first saw the initial character designs come in from Lindsay Collins back in 2011, I was ecstatic. I'd stare at them for hours and think "This is so awesome I love them so much!" The same thing happens when I get files back from the animators. It can take weeks, even months, to get the animation back from the team, but it's always worth the wait. There's nothing like seeing your ideas come to life.
Oh wait, yes there is! When you suddenly have an idea that you didn't ask for and didn't expect! That's just as amazing, and in the exact same way. Like most of the videos I've done for Destructoid over the years, Teenage Pokemon is planned, but not scripted. When you allow yourself to make it up as you go along, you invite weird parts of your brain that you didn't know existed to come out of hiding and show themselves to the world. When I start pretending that I'm a Teenage Pokemon and just start talking, I truly don't know what I'm going to say. That's pretty great.
That said, I absolutely HATE listening to the show later on. It's incredibly embarrassing and nerve wracking. I always have ideas for stuff that I could have done better after the fact, and am really disappointed with myself all the time. If I could be in the creation inspiration phase all the time, and never have to deal with the consequences later, that would be ideal. That said, it's only through self critique and criticism that you'll ever do anything you're remotely happy with, so it's a necessary evil.
9. If we cross our fingers/toes really tightly, can we hope for another round of episodes?
Teenage Pokemon is the #1 thing in my life right now outside of my friends and family. I already have four more episodes beyond the four Machinima asked for planned in my brain, and I may try to bang out the audio for them next week, but there is no guarantee they'll get made. It's too bad, as the ideas I have now feel a lot more focused and effective than the ones that went into the episodes that are set to air, but it is what it is.
If these episodes go over well and Machinima likes them, then hopefully they'll pick up four more. If so, I'll do my best to make them. It takes an huge about of time and energy to get this show together, from the initial concept phase to the character design to the audio to the animation to the post-production editing, but I never want to give up on it. It's an incredible opportunity to have an audience of thousands that seem willing to at least give the show a chance. I don't want to squander that. Even if Machinima drops the show, I'll keep trying to make more until I am a dried up husk on the floor muttering "I wonder what would happen if Wartortle went on a date with Ivysaur? Would her parents approve?" to myself.
That's a life I can look back on and feel proud of.