Rob Corddry is pretty well-known, at least among those of us who used to watch his hilarious, no-holds-barred segments on The Daily Show, between 2002 and 2006. But forging a post-Daily Show career can be more complicated than it looks. Since he was a comedian, Corddry’s agents figured their client was all set to write his own material. But, says Corddry, he had “almost zero experience” with that. Plus, he was intimidated by it.
When the writers’ strike hit and Hollywood production halted in late 2007, Corddry decided to take matters into his own hands. “The first step for me was admitting that I was a writer, which you can’t really do without, you know, a little experience to boost your confidence,” says Corddry, who decided to get that boost by creating Childrens Hospital. “It was a thing to keep my hands busy, essentially, during the strike. It was an opportunity to work with all my friends who were also bored, with people that I love and shared a sense of humor, or tone with.”
Five years later, the show has evolved from a handful of five-minute sketches into an Emmy-winning Adult Swim series. Corddry tells Co.Create how it all happened.
Children’s Hospital started out as a satire of the melodramatic hospital genre. The show debuted at the end of 2008 on TheWB.com. Like Grey’s Anatomy, and ER before it, Childrens Hospital has a large ensemble cast, including Malin Ackerman, Lake Bell, Megan Mullally, Henry Winkler, Ken Marino, Erinn Hayes, and Corddry, as Dr. Blake Downs, a bloody, clown-faced doctor presumably modeled on Patch Adams.
Doing that first season helped Corddry feel like a bona fide writer. He likens the experience to that of a businessman climbing the corporate ladder. “I’m sure a CEO goes through a period where they’re like, ‘Oh my god, I can call myself a CEO?’ It’s crazy. Then when you finally do, then you’re it.”
Once he was it–-a writer–Corddry figured that Childrens Hospital would be a fleeting experiment that couldn’t possibly have any sort of future on television. “While we were promoting the first season I swore that I would never do it on TV,” he says. “I couldn’t even envision that because I couldn’t see the show being longer than five minutes, first of all.” But then networks started to show interest, including Adult Swim, which is an overnight block of mostly 15-minute programming. “They came to us,” Corrdry says of the Adult Swim deal. “We got involved in a very low-stakes bidding war.” For season 2, the show went to Adult Swim and expanded to 15 minutes.
Still, Corddry was unsure. While the medical genre is ripe for parody, could such a parody sustain 15 minutes a week? He recognized that satirical movies don’t often succeed in their full-length missions. (Corddry concedes that some ’80’s classics like Airplane and Top Secret worked, but he cites the brilliant-but-short-lived TV series Police Squad as a quality effort that never found its audience.) Corddry knew that the show would have to evolve beyond pure satire. It was clear to him the direction: Complete absurdity.
Even his first season on Adult Swim was an experiment. “I kind of eschewed story, plots, and character development in the first two seasons because I didn’t see why it was necessary in that sort of comedy,” Corddry says in all earnestness. “But I have learned about absurdities: There’s nothing like story and character to provide a joke engine. We’re essentially just a joke-based show. So five minutes isn’t a ton of time to do the stories we’ve come to find out we love doing in the last two seasons or so.”
Like most absurd work–say, the Airplane movies–Childrens Hospital began as a full-on parody of Grey’s Anatomy and other hospital shows, but Corddry found it hard to make that last. “It’s hard to sort of take them beyond that, I guess. The medical genre is just a real shallow pool. As something to parody [long-term], it’s like, who cares?” Corddry says he can barely even make jokes about the genre anymore because the real hospital shows have gone so over the deep end. “It seems like some of the absurd story ideas we come up with are completely plausible for Grey’s Anatomy to do.”
The 15-minute format has been gaining credibility quickly. Last month, Corddry and his team won an Emmy in the newly created category “Outstanding Special Class: Short Format Live-Action Entertainment Programs.” They beat out Web Therapy and webisode offshoots of the series Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, and The Daily Show. But it’s still online where Corddry sees the future of content taking shape — at least in terms of comedy — on sites like Yahoo, which has been airing his friend Ken Marino’s Bachelor parody, Burning Love. “They are legitimately competing with networks right now,” reports Corddry. “They outbid Comedy Central and Adult Swim for the second and third seasons of Burning Love. That, to me, was a real line in the sand. It was just a real benchmark for what the Internet should become. It should be just another network.”
Corddry is now editing the first season of a Childrens Hospital spin-off, called Newsreaders. He’s ceded some of the control over that to showrunner Jim Margolis, but he has yet to let go of the original, nor will he. “I would not be interested in sort of handing over the reins of Children’s Hospital and saying, ‘Look, I’ll collect an executive producer check. You guys do it because I’m busy doing this other thing,’ says Corddry, putting on his over-it voice. “I think once I am unable to provide the time necessary it simply won’t happen anymore.”
Childrens Hospital has not only taken on a life of its own, it’s helped Corddry break out of the power vacuum that can be the life of an actor, even one perceived by many to be successful. “It’s just fighting for a pilot every year and, you know, kind of just hoping that something comes along,” he says. “It’s not a way to live. So, you know, I’m just I’m definitely, at least if nothing else, trying to provide myself with some kind of path, because you know there isn’t an easy one out there.”
He’s also developing work for other people. For instance, he’s shopping around a pilot to star his brother, Nate. And he’s open to simply acting in a show that someone else has written.
Meanwhile, Corddry has become a writer. But unlike so many in Hollywood, he’s not the kind of guy who goes around tooting his own horn. “Boy, I don’t know,” he says. “Speaking very generally, I’ve gotten comfortable and confident maneuvering within [the business]. I realize that I am a writer and I guess I have confidence in my ideas and the best way to go about executing them with the least amount of friction.”
[Images: Adult Swim]