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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 09/19/2008

The Interview: HBO Animator Steve Dildarian

By Michael Cavna

Rising HBO animator STEVE DILDARIAN has never feared sacrifice in the name of gainful employment. He has toiled over scalding asphalt. He has been locked in a cage. And he has voiced a talking toilet. The man is fearless, if not sometimes shameless.

"You can keep it smart and understated, or ratchet it up," he says of his show, "and I thought HBO would do smart and understated." (HBO/Jason Merritt)Enlarge Comic

And all that -- plus his role as a domesticated jackass in an animated beer ad -- appears to have been the perfect career path toward becoming "Tim."

Dildarian's edgy-quirky new show, "The Life & Times of Tim," debuts Sept. 28 on HBO, and the creator hopes the title character -- a low-key, 25-year-old dude with a penchant for outrageous social situations -- will strike a chord with viewers who like their humor sliced sly and deadpan. (Our blurb-y verdict: "We laughed, we cringed! And not necessarily in that order.") Dildarian, 38 -- whose self-paved path to "Tim" includes a highly successful career as an adman -- called recently to discuss his new show:

MICHAEL CAVNA: Congratulations on the show, Steve. Is this something you always wanted to do -- is this the realization of a dream?:
STEVE DILDARIAN: To be honest, growing up, I wanted to write for TV and write a TV show. But in college, I shifted gears to advertising and for a long time, I didn't shift back. I wasn't doing my day job and wishing I was doing animation. I was lucky to work with some good agencies.

MC: So how, and when, did you transition into animation?
SD: It was a slow evolution. [With advertising partners,] we were starting to dabble with animation -- basically, it was me scribbling line drawings. It was stills. The [breakthrough] was the "Budweiser Rejected Ads" that aired only on the [company] Web site. It was just me and another guy talking about ideas. We won a bunch of awards even though it wasn't seen by a lot of people, and that was the takeoff.
It opened up an area for me. I liked making my own movies -- I liked working in a crude format. We made half of the Fox [development] pilot in iMovie. It's the only reason the show exists, is because of iMovie.

The character Tim lives in the East Village, evoking Dildarian's time spent there in the '90s. (HBO)Enlarge Comic

MC: In terms of influences, in "Tim" we can see a little Ben Stiller and a lot of "Curb Your Enthusiasm." Are we getting warm?
SD: For sure, "Curb Your Enthusiasm" is the first thing [I] go to. That show and [Larry David's] sensibility, I just really reacted to that. ... A year before I ever saw that show, people kept telling me: "Oh my God, you are Larry David." He's a kindred spirit. ... If I ever met him, I'd be nervous.
On that note, Ari Emanuel [who represents David] called and said he was a big fan. He was raving [and he said:] "Trust me, I'll personally take it to every network head." He said it reminded him of the first time he saw Larry's David's work and Mike Judge's work.

MC: Have you had the opportunity to meet Mike Judge yet?
SD: It's funny -- I got to meet Mike Judge recently because he does "The Animation Show" and he selected "Angry Unpaid Hooker" and he came out to the L.A. screening and had some nice things to say. [He said] it reminded him of the way he made "Beavis" and that it had that raw, stripped-down quality.

MC: Is Tim totally autobiographical and an avatar of you?
SD: Well, it's hard to deny it. It doesn't help that I drew him to look like me.

MC: So you wear Banana Republic like Tim, then?
SD: Maybe I do favor Banana Republic and Gap more than I like to admit.

MC: So while an adman, you were the Budweiser donkey. Was that a highlight -- your voice heard the world over in a Super Bowl commercial?
SD: I had never done a voice-over when I did the donkey. But for whatever reason, I laid down a "scratch" track. We couldn't have tried harder to replace me, and [we tried] hundreds of actors. [Anheuser-Busch executive] August Busch made the call. He said: "This guy [Dildarian] sounds the most like a donkey." After that it encouraged me. Soon, I was a talking toilet in an Ace Hardware commercial.

MC: Tell us about "Angry Unpaid Hooker" [the first episode of "Tim"] -- is that based on any real-life events?
SD: No, but the core story is probably something relatable to me.

MC: So you've always paid your hookers in a timely fashion, then?
SD: (Laughs) Exactly. But take the bachelor party episode. The idea of going to a party that's lame, that's the start -- though the less funny version than the show.

MC: After "Unpaid Hooker" generated buzz at the Aspen Comedy Festival, how did you end up at HBO?
SD: I always thought it would end up on Comedy Central, then we developed it for Fox, who eventually passed on it. HBO was off my radar because they weren't into animation. In the end, [HBO] was the perfect home. HBO and Comedy Central made offers. It was a tough decision -- you can't have a better decision to make. ... I liked the idea that HBO had nothing to compare it to. Their reputation is for doing great work. We knew our film could be tweaked in different directions. You can keep it smart and understated, or ratchet it up, and I thought HBO would do smart and understated.

MC: So you said you like having a raw, crude look to your work, like when you started using iMovie. Now that you have an HBO budget, do you have to resist the look becoming more polished?
SD: I try my best to keep the spirit of the production to be like friends in a basement, so it doesn't feel like the professionals got their hands on it.

By Michael Cavna  | September 19, 2008; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Interviews With Cartoonists, The Animation  
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