There's a line in Greg the Bunny's mock music video, called "Dignity on Ice," that goes, "There's a bottomless pit inside your wishing well." But inside the wishing well of Greg the Bunny creators Dan Milano and Spencer Chinoy, everything's just hunky-dory, thank you. If you haven't heard of Greg the Bunny - and you probably haven't - as AT&T used to say, you will. The hilariously whiny and neurotic hand puppet started his career on a show called Junktape on Manhattan public access in 1997, graduated to an 18-month run doing movie intros on the Independent Film Channel and now, with the assistance of Just Shoot Me creator Steve Levitan, he's got an eponymous 13-show Fox sitcom in development, possibly to air around January as a midseason replacement.
"We're pretty amazed that things have developed as quickly as they have," says Milano, 28. Just wait till the merchandising kicks in. The industry buzz on the show, which will be a Larry Sanders-inspired behind-the-scenes look at life on and off the set of a puppet show called Sweetknuckle Junction, says it has legs, even if Greg himself doesn't. The puppets interact with real actors, just like on IFC, but in this case the cast includes comedy pros like SCTV's Eugene Levy and Scott Green, Dr. Evil's son in the Austin Powers movies. The earlier versions of Greg were also foul-mouthed and adult-oriented, as only cable can be. "Of course, now that we're on network television, that's become PG-rated," notes Milano. There were some discussions with HBO, but they didn't go anywhere. "It's been a difficult compromise, but I think the show maintains adult themes and it's for an intelligent audience," he adds. "It's not a kiddie show, but certainly you have to operate within the confines of Standards & Practices. If the show is a hit, we hope it'll evolve."
"We felt that going to the network that created The Simpsons was OK," adds Chinoy, 29.
But enough about a hand puppet with buttons for eyes. Let's talk about a man in a polyp suit. Milano and Chinoy are also a fledgling commercials directing team, known as Dan & Spencer, working out of Hollywood's The Industry, a Moxie Pictures spinoff. Their first and only campaign to date is a remarkable series of colon cancer prevention spots, for Campbell-Ewald/Detroit, the American Cancer Society and the Ad Council, that star the aforementioned walking, talking polyp, who looks and sounds a bit like Jon Lovitz. In four inspired spots, he gets busted Cops-style by lab-coated "police," the point being early testing gets the polyp. It's an auspicious debut, and surely the most entertaining and memorable colon cancer PSAs in the history of the genre. How'd they get this weird gig? It was originally discussed for Moxie's Christopher Guest, but he wasn't available and "they figured who better to do something as strange and potentially ridiculous as this than us?" recalls Chinoy.
The Dan & Spencer directing team, by the way, is not a directing team, per se. "Our work together is more as a creative team," explains Milano. "Spencer really directed the spots and I was a creative consultant and a co-producer. Spencer has the stronger lust for directing. I'm more interested in performing and writing." Milano was the voice and the hand of all the puppets on the IFC Greg, and Chinoy was the on-camera live guy and the set designer. They won't be directing any episodes of the Fox series, at least not the first season. "It's better to control things from behind the scenes than take everything on directly," says Milano. "We're wearing a lot of hats."
Speaking of hats, Greg's co-star and sidekick is the oddly helmeted Warren the Ape, who's sure to have his own line of coffee mugs and beach towels. He's a perfect foil, sort of Tony Roberts to Greg's Woody Allen. "Greg is most often compared to having neuroses similar to Woody Allen's," says Milano. "Woody and Albert Brooks are both very strong influences on us. Greg is a nebbish innocent with a really good heart, he's very naive. Warren is sort of a stodgy, pompous John Cleese type given to decadence. It's really the dark vs. the light."
Milano and Chinoy met as NYU Film School undergrads in 1994, where they made a bunch of live-action comedy shorts on 16mm, though Milano has been "obsessed" with puppets since he was a kid and Chinoy had mainly an animation background. Though Greg is clearly the key that unlocks many commercials doors for the two, you can bet they don't want to be pigeonholed as puppet guys. "It's not that we want to stay away from puppet boards, but I want to show that I can do anything from live action to animation to, possibly, puppetry," says Chinoy.
So how are they positioned for commercials? "When these boards came in for Christopher, it was the easiest sell-off ever," says their rep, Lizzie Schwartz. " `He's not available but we have something so fabulous to show you.' They were mad for it." The Greg the Bunny highlights reel is indeed quite the comedic rabbit punch. Greg eating spaghetti in the bathtub or suffering a bout of pure existential dread when Spencer explains to him he doesn't exist when the camera is turned off are marvels of comic invention. "Getting them out there and showing their stuff, the feedback has been unbelievable," says Schwartz. "But people are saying, `I can't wait till I have something right for them.' And it's hard to say what that is. It's definitely comedy for now, that's what people see in them right away. We'll see what other genres can come out later."
In the meantime, they've got this great polyp character popping up in those late-night PSA slots. Hey, consider those merchandising possibilities. Does the polyp have a name? "We were calling him Sydney," says film-buff Chinoy. "Sydney Polyp."