The Onion, Adult Swim, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. For designer Daniel Spenser, these names aren’t just a list of the best satirists and comedians working today, they’re who he gets to write on the career section of his CV—the lucky b*****d. Since finishing his Bachelor’s degree, Daniel has found work as a designer, illustrator, and animator at all manner of comedic enterprises, to the extent that only a smattering of his portfolio is concerned with anything else.
Don’t go getting any ideas though; not just any old graphic designer can bag themselves a gig with Samantha Bee. Spenser is also a funny man in his own right, and a life-long creator of witty sketches and videos, made to amuse and delight friends and family alike. Which makes him what, a designer/comedian? An animating satirist? Truth be told I’ve never come across anyone else like him, so we had a sit down and a chat about what it’s like to occupy this unusual space between drollery and design.
Let’s start with the design. How did you get into graphics initially?
I studied design and typography in Westchester, New York, but I originally had it in my head to study film because I wanted to write jokes. I guess I kind of had the habit, growing up, of creating as much and as often as I could; I was playing music, and I would draw, and I would make videos with friends. I applied to a couple of different schools after college for film and for design, and I ended up going to design school. I’d been making comedy videos with friends, and in the back of my mind I was kind of set to go back to writing jokes and making videos.
After college I did design jobs, but was still trying to make a living making these videos and writing jokes. I had freelance jobs writing and making videos, and freelance jobs doing design work, layout, and illustration. Then, my first full-time job after college was at The Onion. I thought, “this is perfect, I get to combine comedy and design.” It was like a playground: illustration, layout, and the usual Photoshop compositing, but I got to do custom illustration and motion graphics and animation. I developed a network of designers and comedians, and I found that the New York production and TV production world had this very small design network. So most of the opportunities and jobs that I’ve gotten since then have been through either writers or designers I met there.
Was studying design a restrictive thing for you, after making all those films with your friends?
I think it was the right choice. It’s actually a little strange, because I have an identical twin brother, and we ended up going to the same school. And he ended up studying film—I’m not angry about it—and we would do a lot of projects together. My brother and another friend of ours from home made a lot of work together, and this friend also studied animation in New York, at the School of Visual Arts. The three of us would combine what we were learning in school and make things together. It was a nice triptych, a nice combination of things.
Was that your master plan when you all left home, to keep the team together?
I’ll start telling people we planned it that way.
Is there much crossover between the design, writing, and making films that you do?
Professionally I feel a little more successful in the design department, but I definitely think in my current position at Full Frontal, that my comedic sensibilities are valued, and they’ll definitely allow me to put in my own flavor and my own gags into the work I’m doing. My main goal would eventually be to find something in comedy writing, and I’ve got my own production company. I’ve worked on a couple of pilots, and I’m actually still making a lot of work with my brother and that one friend from when I grew up.
Is that Captain Hippo?
Yes, my identical twin brother, a friend of mine from kindergarten, and a newer guy, but we don’t have to talk about him. He’s fine.
He wasn’t part of the original plan?
He’s like Neil Peart in Rush—he’s still the new guy, but he makes everything better.
Tell me about Captain Hippo then.
I’m not sure if this is endearing or sad, but the plan of my life was that one day we would end up making things together again, because making things with those guys is so fluid and organic, and we like wearing so many different hats: illustration, animation, cartooning, film, and photography. So the plan is that every time we go and do our separate jobs, we always come back to making things together. We worked on a television project a little while ago, and that didn’t play out. So now we’re working on something else, but there’s always freelance gigs, and there’s always some kind of steady output on our end. We’ve got great relationships with Funny or Die and Above Average.
Part of the fun for me in that company is that there’s no outsourcing. We have all the film equipment, the green screens, the animation capabilities, the software. Whatever we think of, whether it’s a cartoon, compositing, a music video, or music production, the four of us can put that stuff together easily, and it’s extremely fun.
Is this something you guys do in downtime or do you focus real time on it?
It goes back and forth. If none of us are working on anything full-time, we’ll kind of meet every day and make something. These days it’s more after work or weekends, and we’ll have a lot of Google Hangouts. We’ll send each other treatments and scripts. When it’s time to pitch, or when it’s time to shoot something, we’ll all meet to do those things. We’re bicoastal now, too.
This all sounds much more relaxed than your day job, which must be stressful. What’s it really like to work on a show like Samantha Bee’s or John Oliver’s?
It’s pretty hectic. Those shows are weekly, so it starts out pretty slow in the beginning of the week, and then as it gets closer to Sunday, the scripts are changing and, especially nowadays, you cannot account for what’s happening in the news on a daily basis. A couple of months ago it was, “We’ll leave the script for now and everybody have a nice weekend and we’ll pick up on Monday where we left off.”
“These days we’ll leave on Friday and on Monday everything will have to be rewritten because something horrible has happened.”
Everybody has access to the scripts, which are edited in real time; you can go in and see which writers are working on what. A post-production coordinator will divide up the work and we’ll see how many drawings, Photoshop mock-ups, and pieces of animation there are. For example, John Oliver has—let me count here—three to four people would be working on that.
I’ll see the joke, I’ll see this is about a mouse wearing a baseball cap and riding on a skateboard, and I’ll have the context of a little piece of the script before and after the joke, so I’ll know what he’s talking about. I’ll either start drawing or cutting up photographs to make that image. That will go through the show runner, the producer, the head writer, and then to John Oliver for approval. And then I’ll do that 100 or 200 times until the show hits.
That sounds like a crazy workflow. Is it the same on Samantha Bee?
On Full Frontal I’m doing a little more animation, which is very fun. On John Oliver my priority was what they called the hero graphics. If he’s talking about Brexit, then I would make the graphic that says “Brexit.” John Oliver was an opportunity to make things a little nicer and access the part of my brain that was very tedious and very judgmental—very typographic.
At Full Frontal, they asked me what my interests were and if there was anything I hadn’t had the chance to do that I’d like to. I have a major soft spot for cartoons, and up until pretty recently I exclusively watched cartoons. Growing up I did an apprenticeship with a traditional animator who worked on some Saturday morning cartoons that I watched as a kid.
I knew the basic foundation of pencil animation and drawing 24 frames per second, but I never really dove into computer animation, or character animation using After Effects. I’ve primarily been doing that on Full Frontal, and then when I’m done with those tasks, I’ll go back to putting Trump’s head onto other people’s bodies, and doing Photoshops and layouts.
Does the team ever screw with each other on shows like this? Are there antics?
Not really. It’s pretty polished, actually. The people who work on both shows have a Daily Show pedigree, and from what I’ve heard that show was a very wonderful place to be. I think the people who come from there, that school, prioritize working with good people and establishing healthy relationships. So far it’s been poison-free. When I started there I assumed it was going to get crazy. There is a lot of screaming, but it’s almost always happy screaming.
I hang out with people from work on weekends. Some people are like, “Oh, but you just saw them. You see them 14 hours every day.” But I miss them. I want to hang out with them more. These are my colleagues, but they were also immediately my best friends.
You mentioned earlier that it’s now almost impossible to get a firm grip on the political landscape. That obviously makes satire a lot harder, but does it also make it less relevant?
I think it’s more relevant. Issues need to be unpacked, problems need to be called out, and people watching these shows need to know that we’re all in this together. I think you have to be a little smarter about how you attack things. You really have to know your stance on an issue and you’d better have your facts right. When you joke around about divisive issues, you need to be pretty firm in your convictions. There are a lot of combating forces you need to wrap your head around; you have to be careful about who you’re giving a platform to, but you also need to be fair. You’re angry, but you need to be compassionate. I don’t know how the writers do it. I just get to draw the cartoons. Maybe they all go to fight club together after work? Maybe SoulCycle.
After the election, we all knew we’d have to focus on Trump for the majority of each episode. It feels like he’s already been president for a thousand years, but most satirical outlets are still figuring out what it means to write jokes in this version of America. People are watching and they’re ready to pounce, but they’re also ready to join you in support. It’s like a double-edged sword, but one edge is… what’s the opposite of a sword? One end is a sword and the other end is SpongeBob. That makes sense. Yeah, the clearest metaphor for the current political landscape is some kind of SpongeBob sword. You know what, I’ll just draw it:
That must kind of be exhausting to have to work with his image week in, week out.
I’ve had that conversation with people, too, where I just don’t want to draw this man. We use stock images for our Photoshop mock-ups, where there’s just hundreds and hundreds of pictures of this disgusting man. Now I know every corner of his face and I just don’t want to look at him anymore.
Also, as a cartoonist, I was a little upset when he picked Mike Pence, because he’s not a funny person to draw, at all.