China, IL (meaning China, Illinois) is an American adult animated sitcom created by Brad Neely for the Adult Swim programming block on Cartoon Network. The series takes place at The University of China, Illinois, dubbed the "Worst College in America" and located at the edge of town. The school's poor reputation is celebrated by the school's uncaring faculty and staff, constantly shown drinking while teaching and/or trying to avoid teaching altogether.
The series was originally conceived as a web series on Adult Swim's defunct comedy website, Super Deluxe, in 2008. Neely, who had done I Am Baby Cakes and The Professor Brothers shorts for Super Deluxe in 2006, envisioned the characters in each series to coexist in the same universe. With the relationship in mind, he produced a four-part internet series entitled China, IL, which was published on Super Deluxe in 2008. An 11-minute television special combining the shorts, titled "China, IL: The Funeral", aired on Adult Swim on May 25, 2008. Neely stated that a major inspiration behind the premise of the series derives from his lack of college experiences and his Arkansan upbringing. Episodes are written among a writing staff headed by Neely of six-to-eight people; for voice-over work, the crew works on two or three hours of dialogue for a certain character, followed by storyboard meetings, dailies, and rough cuts, with Neely directing other actors who come in after him.
China, IL ended on June 14, 2015, with a total of 30 episodes, following the series finale "Magical Pet".
The series takes place at the "Worst College in America", located at the edge of town. The school's uncaring faculty and staff celebrate its poor reputation; they're constantly shown drinking while teaching, or trying to avoid teaching altogether.
- Steve Smith (voiced by Brad Neely) – The laid-back and hedonistic older brother of Frank Smith who is a history teacher at the University of China, IL.
- Frank Smith (voiced by Brad Neely) – The narcissistic and insecure younger brother of Steve Smith who is also a history teacher at the University of China, IL.
- Pony Merks (voiced by Greta Gerwig) – The teaching assistant of history at the University of China, IL.
- Mark "Baby" Cakes (voiced by Brad Neely) – A large undergraduate who is the son of Leonard Cakes and is often seen with Frank, Steve, and Pony.
- The Dean (voiced by Hulk Hogan) – The unnamed head of the University of China, IL.
- Professor Leonard Cakes (voiced by Jeffrey Tambor) – The father of Mark "Baby" Cakes who is a teacher of "super science."
- Dr. Jack Falgot (voiced by Gary Anthony Williams) – A Physician and wrestling coach who runs the campus health center at China, IL.
- Sammy Davis (voiced by Jason Walden) – An elderly female history teacher at the University of China, IL.
- Crystal Peppers (voiced by Chelsea Peretti) – A professor of Spanish, history, and philosophy who is Steve's competitor. It is revealed that she is a transgender woman.
- Matt Attack (voiced by Hannibal Buress) – A student at the University of China, IL. And the star quarterback and pitcher for UCI's football and baseball teams, respectively.
- Gang Sang – A giant panda who is the mascot of the University of China, IL. He is often seen standing around the campus.
- Golden Bowl (voiced by Gary Anthony Williams) – The golden-haired newsman of Channel 3 News and Channel 8 News at China, IL.
- Ronald Reagan (voiced by Dave Coulier) – The 40th President of the United States who has made appearances on this show.
- Mayor (voiced by Tommy Blacha) – The unnamed Mayor of China, IL who is the Dean's nemesis.
- Transfer Billy (voiced by Donald Glover) – New transfer student at UCI.
Concept And Creation
The series was conceived as a web series on Adult Swim's defunct comedy website, Super Deluxe, in 2008. Neely, who had produced I Am Baby Cakes and The Professor Brothers shorts for Super Deluxe in 2006, envisioned the characters in each series to coexist in the same universe. With this relationship in mind, he produced a four-part online series entitled China, IL, hand-drawn by him in his apartment in Austin, Texas. The series was published onto Super Deluxe in 2008. Intended for online consumption, he considered the web series independent from China, IL, due to the differences in format and structure that he stated he feels his work should be dictated by.
Executive producer Daniel Weidenfeld stated in an interview with The Huffington Post that before they knew Super Deluxe would be folded into Adult Swim Video, he talked to senior executive vice president of Adult Swim, Mike Lazzo, about translating the online series to a television special. The special, entitled "China, IL: The Funeral" combined the four-part series into an 11-minute television special, which aired on May 25, 2008. Weidenfeld explained the special "was great, and it was insane that they would have ever put that on TV, but that itself never would have worked as a show." Weidenfeld explained the plot outline for the short, consisting of three stories involving the four main characters; he explained in the interview that having to do "four beginning, middle and ends with one larger beginning, middle and end is the craziest sort of storytelling imaginable." Weidenfeld had previously stated in an interview with MovieWeb that the combination of the shorts "isn't representative of what we've turned this show into. Or what the [original] shorts were, even."
Shortly before Super Deluxe ceased operations, Weidenfeld moved to Los Angeles, while Neely started working as a story consultant for South Park in 2007, during the show's eleventh season. Neely eventually got a deal to write another script for Adult Swim; Weidenfeld and his brother Nick Weidenfeld, who oversaw development for the network encouraged him to use the existing characters in China, IL. Neely stated that he had never done third-person narrative stories for television before, but collaborated with the Weidenfelds anyway and produced a pilot for the network (unrelated to the Super Deluxe shorts); he jokingly stated that "nobody will ever see [it]."
Neely stated in an interview with The A.V. Club that a major inspiration behind the premise of the series derives from his lack of college experiences: "I had this very small slice of an understanding of how college life is. To me, it's high school for adults, and I guess I'm depicting it that way. My sister is a professor. ... I'm around professors, but I'm kind of misinformed a bit. My information is broken and that's what makes China wonky and interesting, because it's what's so fucking wrong about college." Similarly, in the series, Neely parodies popular culture elements that he knows only through passing mentions. The season two episode, "The Diamond Castle", parodies the Mad Men episode, "The Other Woman", which Neely stated he had never watched before; he explained that "We do that often where we'll just take my ignorance and run with it." The A.V. Club interview also has Neely describe aspects of the series inspired by his Arkansan upbringing; he admits that he "talk[s] about [Arkansas] all the time, it turns out. The final episode of the season is about hog infestation. It's happening all over southern United States, where wild boars are just overpopulating—they tear up the land and land owners and cattle ranchers have to hunt these things and put Kevlar vests on their dogs because they have horns and shit."
The second season doubled the running time of the first from 11 minutes to 22 minutes; according to Weidenfeld in an interview with USA Today, this was done in accordance with the network's expanding timeslot. Neely stated that "I think we decided, in concert with the network, that it would benefit the show. The show kept growing, and our storytelling style and structure just needed more room. I didn't know what I was doing when I was writing in the 11-minute format; I was just cramming 22 minutes in there." Weidenfeld considered the first season "essentially 10 mini-pilots" converging into a larger show. He stated that the network thought the increase in length led to a "perfect fit" for the show's expanding universe. He stated that he and his crew had developed up to 300 named characters which will be inserted throughout the series.
In writing for season one, Vernon Chatman, a consulting producer for the series, would assist in outlining and "weighing in" on scripts, while Neely would write all the scripts himself. During season one, Neely said his staff would make each episode encapsulate various genres, stating "We're trying to tell as many different things as we can do in a quarter-hour." Since season two, with the episodes being 22 minutes, the series employs six to eight writers per episode. In their writing room, the crew discusses a given episode synopsis and create a detailed, 22-page outline, which gets sent to the network for notes. After the network approves of the outline and the crew is satisfied with it, the outline gets made into a script, which also goes through the network for notes. According to Neely in the Huffington Post interview, at the height of production of the second season, the production crew was working on six or seven episodes simultaneously, all at various stages of completion.
In the United States, the special was rated TV-MA, while the series is rated TV-14. When asked about the network's Standards and Practices, Weidenfeld stated that "I find when something comes back that you can't say, we're able to skirt around it and make something funnier." According to Neely and Weidenfeld, the network forced them to cut smoking out of the show; Jack Falgot, a character in the series, was planned to smoke on a cigarette in every scene he appeared in. The network issued to have the cigarette changed to a lollipop for broadcast. Neely revealed that his team try to incorporate some of the "hallmark components" of his shorts (e.g. first-person narrative and flashbacks), but find their audience not "really have the patience for that sort of thing". In sticking to a mostly third-person narrative, his team is more confident in the reception toward the series.
An episode takes approximately one year to complete; Neely states that six or seven episodes may be produced simultaneously, all at various stages. Animation is done at Titmouse, Inc. in Los Angeles. When asked about the slideshow presentation of his animated shorts in an interview with The College Hill Independent, Neely felt that the approach was not "an aesthetic choice, it was sort of the only thing I was able to do. I'm not an animator." He stated that, out of "ignorance and not having a whole lot of options", he hand-drew each frame on paper and scanned them into a computer; he felt the restrictions "really paid off and I enjoyed the form. ... But, it never was something I felt I was needing to defend or stick to, or that it represented me artistically." Other changes to the art style from the shorts were dictated by animation director, Mike L. Mayfield. Weidenfeld stated that Mayfield "was instrumental in turning Brad's original style into what we had the first season." Among them were the addition of pupils which, according to Weidenfeld, some of Neely's fans were unhappy over. Neely states that "I had a long run of drawing those Orphan Annie style of eyes. That worked well for print. But as soon as things move, the characters start to look like zombies."
Brad Neely provides the voices for Steve Smith, Frank Smith, and Mark "Baby" Cakes; Weidenfeld states that Neely does "the heavy lifting with the voices ... every episode, he's probably at least 40% of the lines." According to him, it allows for production to run more seamlessly: "Rather than hav[ing] to wait for somebody else's schedule, we just go next door and do it." Neely also records temporary "scratch" lines for other actors to speed up production. Neely stated that in voicing "a full episode's work of somebody, we start the day as an actor." For voice-over work, the crew works on two or three hours of dialogue for a certain character, followed by storyboard meetings, dailies, and rough cuts, with Neely directing other actors who come in after him.
Greta Gerwig voices Pony Merks, and Hulk Hogan portrays the Dean. Neely states that both were enthusiastic upon reading sample scripts given by them. Jackie Buscarino, Jason Alexander and Brooke Hogan voice various characters throughout the series. According to Brooke, she got involved in the series after being recommended by her father, Hulk Hogan, who voices the Dean. For the recurring cast: Tommy Blacha plays The Mayor, the Dean's long-time nemesis; Dave Coulier portrays Ronald Reagan; Chelsea Peretti voices Crystal Peppers (and Kim among other various characters), Steve's competitor and a professor of Spanish and History; Jeffrey Tambor voices the father of Baby Cakes and professor of "super science", Leonard Cakes; Jason Walden plays Sammy Davis, a history professor, and Gary Anthony Williams portrays Dr. Jack Falgot, who runs the campus health center.
Neely, who started recording songs at age 14, drew musical inspiration from improvisational sessions between him and his friends as teenagers. Neely stated in the Huffington Post interview that over 50 songs had been planned for the second season throughout, though only 50 had been selected. In an interview with Comic Book Resources, Neely and Weidenfeld have stated their intentions on doing a musical episode (which they did, the third season's finale). Weidenfeld stated that producing one "would be a difficult thing to write up front, but a Music Man style episode would just be incredible to do. And Brad could do it."
|Title||Directed by||Written by||Original air date||Prod.code||US viewers
|1||1||"Rewind, Pause, Pay!"||Mike L. Mayfield||Brad Neely||October 2, 2011||101||0.888|
|A time-traveling Ronald Reagan attempts to have his revenge on Professor Steve Smith for doing Reagan impressions in a talent show.|
|2||2||"Dean Vs. Mayor"||Mike L. Mayfield||Brad Neely||October 9, 2011||102||1.062|
|The Mayor is tired of the riots sparked by UCI after the latest one following a math competition and challenges The Dean to an arm wrestling contest for control of the school.|
|3||3||"Baby Boom"||Mike L. Mayfield||Brad Neely||October 16, 2011||103||1.099|
|When a freak accident causes a science experiment to go horribly wrong, the college has to deal with a giant baby on campus.|
|4||4||"Coming Out of the Casket"||Mike L. Mayfield||Brad Neely||October 23, 2011||104||1.072|
|The ghost of a dead professor (Jason Alexander) becomes a little too friendly with Professor Frank, while Steve and Crystal wage war over who will have more students for the upcoming semester.|
|5||5||"Secret Society"||Mike L. Mayfield||Brad Neely||October 30, 2011||105||1.150|
|Steve becomes a tenured professor while Pony blackmails The Dean, threatening to expose his sexual fetishism for old strippers, to gain tenure herself.|
|6||6||"Prom Face/Off"||Mike L. Mayfield||Brad Neely||November 6, 2011||106||1.067|
|The staff-only prom is held in a condemned building formerly used by Professor Cakes, and Baby Cakes falls for a feral girl with a dark secret.|
|7||7||"Chinese New Year"||Mike L. Mayfield||Brad Neely||December 27, 2011||108||N/A|
|The students all fail their finals and the governor threatens to shut down UCI unless they retake the exams and pass. Professor Cakes builds robotic replicas of the professors so they don’t have to teach, but the robots revolt when they learn that the New Year’s ball drop will trigger a self-destruct mechanism.|
|8||8||"Frankensteve"||Mike L. Mayfield||Brad Neely||February 19, 2012||107||1.280|
|After suffering near-fatal internal injuries from the annual Faculty League Wrestling match, Professors Frank and Steve are joined at the hip to save both their lives, but use their newly joined body to start winning wrestling matches instead.|
|9||9||"Dream Reamer"||Mike L. Mayfield||Brad Neely||February 26, 2012||109||N/A|
|Baby Cakes "friends" his imaginary friend Dream Reamer on Facebook. Now Baby Cakes must go back into the dream world to defeat Reamer.|
|10||10||"The Dean's List"||Mike L. Mayfield||Brad Neely||March 4, 2012||110||1.046|
|The Dean issues his Dean's List, which forces professors and students to form teams and compete in a scavenger hunt, which he watches on monitors with China, Illinois' elites, including Baby Cakes. However, to make the contest more interesting, the Dean turns the scavenger hunt into a Running Man-style fight for survival.|
Season 2 (2013)
|Title||Directed by||Written by||Original air date||Prod.code||US viewers
|11||1||"The Perfect Lecture"||Griffith Kimmins||Brad Neely||September 22, 2013||201||1.285|
|Frank wants to give a perfect lecture on the first day of school, then repeats the process over and over when he stumbles onto the perfect one about Benedict Arnold. Meanwhile, Pony is paranoid about aging after finding a grey hair.|
|12||2||"Is College Worth It?"||Griffith Kimmins||Story by : Brad Neely
Teleplay by : Rebecca Addelman & Brad Neely
|September 29, 2013||206||1.286|
|Pony must take drastic measures to afford UCI's recently raised tuition, while Baby Cakes turns himself into Robin Hood, prompting The Dean to call for Kevin Costner's head. Frank and Steve con their students into giving them extra cash so they can afford to buy jetskis.|
|13||3||"Do You Know Who You Look Like?"||Griffith Kimmins||Brad Neely||October 6, 2013||208||1.517|
|The history department hires two new professors: One looks just like Steve and starts impersonating him on campus, the other is a Southern belle who captures Frank's attention. Later, Pony is forced to take an extra language course and reveals she doesn't know how to speak Spanish.|
|14||4||"The Diamond Castle"||Griffith Kimmins||Story by : Brad Neely
Teleplay by : Jack Kukoda & Brad Neely
|October 13, 2013||205||1.436|
|Frank, Baby Cakes, and Ronald Reagan search for Thomas Jefferson's secret diamond castle. While they're gone, Steve has to show an inspector named Polly a good time so she'll give UCI's history department its accreditation.|
|15||5||"Kenny Winker Rules"||Griffith Kimmins||Brad Neely||October 20, 2013||203||1.407|
|Kenny Winker performs a concert in China, IL and is giving away one ticket to hang out with him on his tour bus, The Garden of Hedon. However, a meeting with Baby Cakes makes him question the lyrics of his own songs. Elsewhere, Pony enters into a relationship with a giant bed bug.|
|16||6||"China-Man Begins"||Griffith Kimmins||Brad Neely||October 27, 2013||207||1.731|
|Frank bets everyone a plate of cheese sticks that he'll become the "Person of the Day" on the local news within a week. Steve and Pony go to extremes to prove to everyone that they're not in love. Baby Cakes tries to deal with new feelings brought on by a salacious chicken nuggets commercial.|
|17||7||"Total Validation"||Griffith Kimmins||Brad Neely||November 3, 2013||209||1.553|
|Professor Cakes and Baby Cakes go to Total Validation, a new clinic designed to help those in troubled relationships. Steve lets Frank and Pony borrow his Miata while he and his latest girlfriend spend the weekend at her parents' lake house. Things quickly go sour when Steve argues with her about Toy Movie 3.|
|18||8||"Surfer God"||Griffith Kimmins||Story by : Brad Neely
Teleplay by : Rebecca Addelman & Brad Neely
|November 10, 2013||204||1.575|
|God returns to Earth in the form of a surfer dude and starts rewriting his own Ten Commandments, but his appearance leads to the spread of a Beach Boys theme around campus, which Steve can't tolerate. Meanwhile, Professor Cakes uses Frank to test out his new invention, the "Haardvark."|
|19||9||"Prank Week"||Griffith Kimmins||Brad Neely||November 17, 2013||202||1.566|
|Frank becomes a Buddhist monk after being exiled from the university for playing a forbidden prank on Steve during "Prank Week". After dreaming about Joe McCarthy's "witch hunts" during a lecture, Baby Cakes decides to capture various professors who he suspects are witches, leading to rumors of a serial killer roaming China, IL.|
|20||10||"Wild Hogs"||Griffith Kimmins||Story by : Brad Neely
Teleplay by : Jack Kukoda & Brad Neely
|November 24, 2013||210||1.141|
|The UCI history professors place suggestion boxes in their classrooms, but one student's prank message in Frank's box convinces him to turn anorexic. Baby Cakes helps a foreign transfer student he calls "Aladdin" around campus, convinced that he's a genie. Overwhelmed by his worst fear, an infestation of wild "brown hogs" on campus, The Dean shuts himself off from the world and gives Pony carte blanche to bring the problem under control.|
Season 3 (2015)
|Title||Directed by||Written by||Original air date||Prod.code||US viewers
|21||1||"A Gentleman's Bet"||Griffith Kimmins||Brad Neely||April 5, 2015||301||1.522|
|Frank and Steve make a bet involving their students, while Pony and Baby Cakes get caught in a think tank.|
|22||2||"Best Face Forward"||Angelo Hatgistavrou||Brad Neely||April 12, 2015||302||1.443|
|Frank's anus learns to speak, and quickly becomes a world-famous stand-up comedian. Meanwhile Steve becomes ensnared in a net of white brothers.|
|23||3||"Charlize"||Griffith Kimmins||Brad Neely||April 19, 2015||304||1.128|
|When a fog leaves Earth almost uninhabited, Pony searches for clues as to what happened..|
|24||4||"Crow College"||Angelo Hatgistavrou||Brad Neely||April 26, 2015||309||1.411|
|Crows have the intelligence of 4-year old humans, so The Dean enrolls a murder of them at UCI as new students. Baby Cakes has deep thoughts.|
|25||5||"Bi-Topping-Ality"||Angelo Hatgistavrou||Brad Neely||May 3, 2015||303||1.166|
|The Mayor bans eating anchovies in China, IL, while Trump's Kid joins UCI as its newest student.|
|26||6||"Parent's Day"||Griffith Kimmins||Brad Neely||May 10, 2015||305||1.363|
|Students, staff, and their relatives party on campus. Baby Cakes tries to get his parents back together.|
|27||7||"Displays of Manhood"||Griffith Kimmins||Brad Neely||May 17, 2015||306||1.016|
|Frank proves his masculinity by challenging a boxing legend to a fight. Baby Cakes and Pony battle in a game of Dungeons and Dragons.|
|28||8||"Life Coaches"||Angelo Hatgistavrou||Brad Neely||May 31, 2015||307||1.309|
|Steve, Frank, Pony and Baby Cakes become life coaches for each other.|
|29||9||"Gummie World"||Angelo Hatgistavrou||Brad Neely||June 7, 2015||310||1.276|
|Steve and Baby Cakes strike it rich by using a 3D printer to make everyday items out of gummi candy. Frank falls in love with a pubic hair. Pony suspects Sammy is guilty of causing harm to Kim.|
"China, IL The Musical"
|Griffith Kimmins||Brad Neely||June 14, 2015||308||1.059|
|Hour-long musical episode. Baby Cakes asks his dad for a magical pet to avoid willing himself to death, Frank tries a hair-growth treatment. Steve dates a satyr while Pony dates cyclops.|
The series has completed three seasons with ten episodes each. The first season premiered on October 2, 2011, in the United States; it concluded on March 5, 2012. The second season premiered on September 22, 2013, in the United States; its season finale aired on November 24, 2013. A third season premiered April 5, 2015, continuing the previous seasons 22-minute run time; its season finale, also the series finale, "Magical Pet", aired on June 14, 2015. Brad Neely has confirmed on Twitter that the show is "done forever".
The series premiere was broadcast on October 6, 2011 and was watched by 888,000 viewers. According to Turner Broadcasting, the premiere increased viewership among men aged 18–24 by 177,000 viewers, meaning that viewership increased 9 percent in its premiere timeslot. Another press release published by Turner reported that the second season saw a double-digit percentage increase in viewership from the first; the second-season premiere was watched by 1.285 million viewers, marking an increase from the first-season premiere.
The series has received positive critical reception; in reviewing the series premiere, Phil Dyess-Nugent of The A.V. Club stated that "Neely's talent is still most evident in the strange twists and turns of his imagination and odd spurts of verbal surrealism". He wrote that "the look of the thing is just the delivery system, though there are some striking images and even the occasional striking piece of 'acting'". He described the animation as looking "fairly cheap"; however, he complemented the "soft, pastel-colored style that blunts the obnoxiousness of some of the jokes without blurring out the edge", he stated, that contrasts the style of Adult Swim programs. Jason Zinoman of The New York Times called the series "gleefully deranged", stating the writing of the series "threatens to but never quite tips over into the overwritten cleverness of so much television comedy these days." He compared the art style of the series to South Park, calling it "more lifelike [...] but not by much."
Charles Webb of MTV Geek summarized the first season as "one of the most enjoyably demented shows to make its debut in the Adult Swim lineup this year". He compared it to Superjail! in terms of reaching the aforementioned series' "sweet spot of animated mayhem for me while merrily bouncing along with its boozed-up, sexed-up, lazy, spiteful, underdog faculty all under the employ of a dean voiced by Hulk Hogan." Bradford Evans of Splitsider listed the series as one of the best comedy television series to premiere out of the 2011–12 television seasons. He summarized the first season as a "fast-paced 11-minute animated series ... worthy of catching up on", and praised it for retaining "[Neely's] sensibilities that made him an Internet sensation". Terri Schwartz of Zap2it, in addition to interviewing Neely and Weidenfeld at Titmouse, Inc., gave the second season a positive review. She stated that "Viewers who didn't watch China, IL Season 1 can jump into Season 2 without feeling like they missed anything major."