A Conversation with Legendary Animator 'Joe Cartoon' on Life, Music and Frogs in Blenders

YouTube cartoons today, such as Happy Tree Friends or Baman & Piderman, grew out of the anything-goes style and in-your-face attitude that Joe almost single-handedly invented -- just him and his copy of Flash in a barn in Michigan.
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Back in 1998, a company called Macromedia had just released a program called Flash 2, a platform for creating interactive websites and banner ads. It sounds so paleolithic now, but at the time, Flash 2 was the first software package to integrate digital hand-drawn animation and sound allowing, among other things, cartoonists to produce and stream animation online even through old, slow dial-up modems. It revolutionized internet content, and was a major force in the subsequent "dot-com" boom of the late 1990s.

One of the first cartoonists to successfully create and stream web cartoons -- ever -- was my friend of 17 years, Joe Shields, popularly known as "Joe Cartoon." Joe started out as a t-shirt designer and, like me, began to tinker with Flash animations before anyone knew how to install the Flash plug-in on their Netscape browsers.

What happened next was nothing short of an internet phenomenon. When the history of internet-based entertainment is written, there should be at least a solid chapter dedicated to Joe's work. His viral hits "Frog in a Blender" and "Gerbil in a Microwave" were household names -- the flagship cartoons for an insane era of digital creativity, when millions of dollars were hurled in the direction of anyone who could draw and voice their own shorts. YouTube cartoons today, such as Happy Tree Friends or Baman & Piderman, grew out of the anything-goes style and in-your-face attitude that Joe almost single-handedly invented -- just him and his copy of Flash in a barn in Michigan.

Now Joe is diving into music, with his first backwoods blues album debuting this year and a follow-up on the way. The following is a conversation I had with Joe about life, cartoons, music and the old dot-com days.

PHOTO: Joe at his Michigan barn, from the documentary "Cousin Joe" by Robert Thompson.

BOB CESCA: I don't know if you know this, but you're responsible for my career as a political writer. Back in 2005, a website called The Huffington Post had just launched, and your CEO at joecartoon.com, Mike Tuinstra, was friends with Roy Sekoff, the founding editor of Huff Post and Arianna's second-in-command. Completely unsolicited, Mike recommended me to Roy, and within a week I was posting articles on Huffington. So, before we get into your music or cartoons or the dot-com days, I'd just like to say thank you.

JOE CARTOON: Ha! Thank you! You were the first person to share my cartoons way back in the day at Camp Chaos [Bob's now-defunct cartoon site]... so we are even! And just so you know, I got guys coming into the barn right now to record for the second album!

BOB: Regarding the Cousin Joe Twoshacks album ["Rocks & Toads" -- Order Here], your cartoons were/are one-man bands where you do everything, voices, sound effects, animation. How do you like working in a collaborative situation with the other guys in the band? Or do they just play whatever you ask them to play?

JOE: Yeah, all the joecartoon stuff is me. Music is a new thing. I got very tired of animating and doing the same thing over and over again, it was a rut. Buying a guitar 5-6 years ago gave me a new creative purpose! The guys in the band are super pro and my producer michael crittenden just turns them loose.

BOB: I actually got to the point where I couldn't even open my copy of Flash without feeling a little barfy. Did you get tired of the process of animating or the material or both?

JOE: Yes and yes. Flash was and still is the tool if I animate. But that old material was the most depressing. Especially the button push stuff... How many ways can you say, "You ain't got the balls...no balls"? It was great fun for awhile but it just got old. I just lost passion for it. In the beginning it was a fresh new discovery for me. So I guess my three chord guitar skills have replaced all that!

BOB: And as Crittenden said in the Cousin Joe documentary, those 3 chords make some excellent songs. By the way, now that I've told you that Flash makes me barfy, I guess I won't be animating anything for the second Twoshacks album. Or will I? Going back to the dot-com era, I remember the two of us at a post-awards-show dinner in San Francisco at the height of the dot-com bubble. We were like the Gatsbys of Flash cartoons.

JOE: Oh hell yah! That was a very fun time!

BOB: Even though it wasn't easy to recover after the bubble burst, I still look back at that era fondly, especially the crazy stacks of cash. What kind of deals had you signed? I remember being paid hilariously large sums of money by places like Icebox, The Romp and Pop.com, the latter of which never actually launched a site.

JOE: I had deals with Shockwave and Atomfilms. The ad revenue was great at the time and the deals with those guys were lucrative! But... right at the height of it all just before the crash I lost an adrenal gland. It was pumping fight-or-flight hormones into my body and I crashed same time the bubble popped! Took them a while to figure out what was wrong. So now I have one adrenal gland left! Ha! I pretty much fell out of the whole thing. Shockwave let me out of a deal we had for ten more animations because basically I couldn't do them. I had, like you, a two year party maybe, then I exploded! In a bad way! All is well now! What was really cool about the whole thing was a whole bunch of us were like this weird internet cartoon family, Camp Chaos, Rock School, Joe Sparks, Doodie, Fatty Big Eye, Tyler Gibe, joecartoon, Killfrog -- we were like the anti-Hollywood bad asses for a year! I do remember that fondly!! It was a blast!

BOB: It was great to see a lot of those guys doing animated videos for the songs on the first Twoshacks album.

JOE: Love the fact that the new stuff is animated by some of the old guard and some of the new!

BOB: Along those lines, let's rewind and start from the beginning. I think you and I were sort of the charter members of that group of cartoonists. It began, I think, in 1998 when I somehow landed on your "Red Dot" cartoons, which featured a big fat bald doofus chasing a laser-pointer dot, then getting his head blown off. You were kind enough to allow me to post your cartoons with my cartoons on Camp Chaos -- though I have no idea if money ever changed hands. I might still owe you some ad revenue. Shortly after that, you hit the big time with Frog in a Blender -- the first real "viral" hit ever on the internet. It was an interactive Flash cartoon in which viewers could decimate a smack-talking frog in a, you know, blender. How did that come about? What's the origin story of that cartoon?

JOE: "Frog in a Blender" started as a self-promo piece. I received a "fan" letter that I just loved that said that I was a "cross between Gary Larson and Stephen King." I thought that was great! So I started making a little joecartoon promo that asked, "What do you get when you drop Gary Larson and Stephen King into a blender?" And of course the blood spatter across the screen would have spelled joecartoon.com. I was working on that for about five minutes when I remembered the very ancient joke, "What is red and green and spins around really fast? Frog in a Blender." I think I had just learned about "buttons" [in Flash] and oh hell -- it was just too obvious!

And you ended up with the "Red Dot" series after I was searching for other people like me! I found Camp Chaos and sent them to you! You dug them! The rest is history. You were responsible for a lot of traffic as I remember! We were communicating all the time after that! Those were really fun times. Especially since the emails between us were just big "curse fests!" The non-professionalism of those emails would not fly in corporate America.

BOB: Ha! When I called you a dipshit via Facebook DM the other day, I worried that you might not remember our obscenity-filled emails. So anyway, did "Gerbil in a Microwave" top "Frog in a Blender" in terms of traffic, dipshit?

JOE: "Dipshit?" That's all you got? I remember full obscenity-laced paragraphs that would make the devil blush! Ha! You are slowing down! Gerbil and Frog were way up there. I would give Frog in a Blender the lead but the gerbil was not far behind.

BOB: Did Atom and Shockwave expect you to just churn out new iterations of your button cartoons or did they encourage you to do other things?

JOE: Atom and Shockwave really put no constraints on the content. I delivered a piece and that was it. Only one was rejected and that was because some producer there wanted a little creative input. Russ the Barbarian basically told him to fuck off. "Joe don't do that!" It was pretty funny. So we posted it and made them another one.

BOB: Is that when Super fly came about?

JOE: Super fly just appeared. I was just drawing stuff in Flash, a fly flapping his wings, a frog, then i just started saying shit into the mic. And there it was. Just another stream-of-brain-spasms that turned out well.

BOB: We never, or rarely, talk about your family. I always envision you in one of two ways: 1) a thoughtful artist with a wicked sense of humor, and 2) as a hillbilly who lives alone and talks to his jackalope. Are you married? Kids? Prisoners in a creepy crawl space? Your son is in the band, yes?

JOE: I am actually a thoughtful artist with a wicked sense of humor and hillbilly sensibilities who spends most of his time secluded away from normal society in a 100-year-old barn. Despite popular belief I pose no threat to God's smallest creatures unless you're a trout of some kind, and those i release with at worst a toothache. I am married for 26, 27 maybe 28 years -- cant remember! Ha! Now I'm in trouble! I have three kids: a 24-year-old daughter, 21-year-old daughter and an 18-year-old boy rocker. We have a spoiled mutt and an old cat. We live in a house on 10-acres of beautiful Michigan woodlands. Turkey and deer and coyote are plentiful but as of yet I have not hunted because I just don't need another hobby.

My son is just flat out a bad-ass guitar player. He attends a very small school up in Northern Michigan so hasn't really had a band. He plays on my record. When you hear a searing start, that's him. When he comes home from school he and his buddies tear this old barn down. When the chicks show up they kick me out. There's a guy out there attending Berklee in Boston -- Nick Stevenson, has a few albums out. Easy to find on the internets. He basically grew up in my barn with Joejoe and his buddies. Been a lot of music in here. It's been a great place for those kids and me, but...they have reached the age where I get kicked out. It sucks getting kicked out!

BOB: What do your kids think of your cartoons, especially when they were younger?

JOE: My kids -- I'm just their douchey Dad. Every once in a while they get the "joecartoon is your Dad!!!" thing and I think they think that is kind of cool. When Joejoe was a kid in grade school I got called into the Christian school he attended because my son was making "inappropriate" drawings. They showed them to me and I was laughing my ass off because he was copying my art work. I believe it was "will work for head" cartoon and if I remember correctly some drawings from "monkey lover" maybe. Regardless they were in fact inappropriate and exact duplicates of my work. We then had a discussion about what I did for a living.

BOB: HA! That's a great fucking story. I can't imagine a more perfect drawing to be caught with in a Christian school than "will work for head."

JOE: The teacher was not amused! But I was and still am.

BOB: Didn't you shut down the JoeCartoon.com website for a period of time? What happened?

JOE: I can't remember why we actually took the site down. We moved it just to YouTube for a while, probably no ad revenue. There is a ten year post-tumor area that is kind of a blur. We actually sold out to Hollywood for a couple years and that was a horrible idea. I eventually bought it back and, well, I'm back to square one.

BOB: Was that the deal with Mondo Media and G4? How did that come about?

JOE: Mondo and G4 -- that was so long ago. Mike Tuinstra would know. I don't remember at all. Ha! I don't think I actually ever saw it! Going to Hollywood was kind of hoping we could get other minds involved in the process of turning my creations into kind of a hillbilly Simpsons. It just didn't work. We got close with Comedy Central but after a year of work, the executive on the "project" left Comedy Central. Whoever replaced them was not interested in the projects of the guy before him so, nuthin.

BOB: Didn't you actually sell the company?

JOE: Yes. Endemol USA. Some nice people there. We just couldn't make it happen. It sucked. I bought it back.

BOB: Endemol's huge. They did Black Mirror, which is a massive hit on Netflix now, and gameshows like Deal or No Deal. Why did you sell?

JOE: I sold because I was a dumb-ass idiot shithead douchebag thinking that maybe Hollywood could push to the next level. Get to places with the help I couldn't get to all by myself, and I was tired of doing it all by myself. It was a tired broke-ass mistake. I envisioned a team of writers scouring my brain and making it happen. I envisioned it becoming, with the right help, fun again!! I envisioned a kind of messed-up Northern Exposure kind of world. It just didn't happen, and I am now very happy to have all my creations back. It was very depressing! It's all good now. Doing what I like. Hell or high water, starting over.

BOB: Before we wrap this up, which cartoon are you most proud of -- if you could have one cartoon mentioned on your grave stone, which one would it be? Would it even be one of yours? You're welcome to choose one of mine.

JOE: Cartoon most proud of: I think right now it would be "I'm a Little Catfish." For me it signifies a turning point. Silly on the surface, it is actually a pretty serious song. Everybody at some point in time would like to just disappear. I have been there but as of yet have not run away from home! Ha! The (U.P.) upper peninsula of Michigan is a very beautiful place. If you can't find me some day, look for me there. And on my gravestone it should read: "I did not do Napster Bad so quit asking me for it, Bob Cesca did that one!! I'm the fucking frog blender guy!!!"

BOB: HA! The best thing ever to come out of that Napster cartoon was during the audio commentary track for their documentary, Some Kind of Monster, when the cartoon appears, the real Lars gets pissy and corrects my deliberate mispronunciation of his last time, "It's UL-RICK," he said, "Not UL-RICH! Cocksucker." This May will be the 15th anniversary of the Metallica/Napster fracas and that cartoon I did. Maybe I'll do a special edition Blu-ray.

JOE: Ul-RICH...NOW that is funny! I did not know that! Hilarious! If that guy was serious he takes himself way to seriously! That cartoon was classic! My favorite memory of that is the baby crawling all over the place! Brilliant!

BOB: When can we expect the next Cousin Joe Twoshacks album?

JOE: The next album could be Spring, Summer or Fall. It will be released with the full hour long documentary/fishing/making of movie. I would like to get all the songs animated by old friends and new and YOU! Ha! But we really need some financing for it. Might Kickstart it, might not, just depends.

BOB: Pencil me in! Wrapping up, how would you describe your music?

JOE: My music is -- I dunno -- I guess it's folk-ish blues-ish rock-ish singer songwriter-ish. It's a 53-year-old northern Michigan guy with a guitar, some beer and some good friends. Some of it's funny, some sad. It's a calling. Something I just have to do. It makes me happy so i'm a just keep doing it?

BOB: Thank you so much for doing this, you assneck shit-for-brains fucknut patsy.

JOE: Ha! Thank you, Bob! Great talking to you again. Always a big fan of yours from way back in the day. Someday I'ma come out there to that Hawaii place and buy you a beer, give you a nice neck massage, paint your nails, dress you up like the slutty whore you are and then push your pussy bike-riding ass into a volcano! Ha! Ahhhhhhhhhyeeeeeeaaaaaahhhhh! Beers, my web brother!

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BobCesca.com Blog with special thanks to Karin Porter.

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