Creator Frank Lesser Interview: You're Not a Monster

We spoke with Frank Lesser, creator of You're Not A Monster, the original animated series created exclusively for IMDb. Watch the first episode here.

You're Not a Monster Cover Image Frank Lesser

Monsters are people too. Blood-sucking, flesh-eating, eccentric, neurotic, troubled people with problems. You're Not a Monster explores the deep psychosis and mental health of these wayward souls through the lens of a short-form animated comedy starring Kelsey Grammer and Eric Stonestreet. You're Not A Monster is the brainchild of Frank Lesser, horror enthusiast and four-time Emmy Award-winning writer. In some ways, You're Not a Monster can be seen as a follow-up to his 2011 book, Sad Monsters, which also offered a comedy-driven deep dive into the various neuroses of iconic monsters.

You're Not a Monster is an IMDb series that will be available on IMDb TV, the Internet Movie Database's new streaming service, which is full of ad-supported movies and television offerings, including such classics as The Rifleman, The Commish, and Quantum Leap, among many more. You're Not a Monster marks the fledgling streaming network's first true original series, with the first four episodes available right now (via the YouTube embed below!), and the remaining six episodes launching on October 17.

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We spoke with Frank Lesser, the creator of You're Not a Monster, and we discussed a variety of topics, from his work on The Colbert Report to using his Comedy Central connections to assemble a stellar cast of comedic talent for this IMDb TV series. He talks about his deep love of movie monsters and shows off some of his encyclopedic knowledge of the genre, which leads to some really subtle Easter Eggs in the series. He also shares his pitch for his version of a Cookie Monster movie, which – naturally – takes the form of a dark psychological thriller about the iconic Muppet giving into his hunger for human flesh after spending years trying to curb his cravings with cookies.

Let me ask the most important question first, since I just watched the first episode: are eels fish?

(Laughs) You know, that's actually a very good question. I would be curious to ask Kelsey Grammer, to find out what he was bringing to it, what sort of research he did into the character, if that was important for that line delivery. I think they would be. By the tenth episode, you find out that Kelsey's character, John Seward, has been engaging with numerous liaisons dangereuses with various creatures of the night. I don't want to give anything away, but he meets the reincarnation of his lost love and has to end a lot of those other things. He probably did get a little lost in all of the opossums, cats, bats, and everything.

The impression that I get regarding this show is that it's your baby. Would that be an accurate assessment?

Yes. I would say that's definitely the case. For whatever reason, I have a deep fascination with monsters and other scary things. It was probably in the midst of discussing this with my own therapist that sort of hit upon this idea, of "Oh, okay, a therapist for monsters!" I had written other things about sad monsters, but this was a version of it that I hadn't told before. And just, ever since I was a little kid, I would go to video stores, Blockbuster, and go to the horror section. I was too scared to actually watch any of the horror movies, but I would look at the front of the VHS cases. I'd look for the scariest front, and then cautiously turn it around; they would usually have two stills from the movie, usually of the most horrifying parts, and then I would have nightmares based just on those still images!

Oh my gosh, that's hilarious and adorable.

I still remember The Serpent and the Rainbow. There's a picture of, like, a dead skeleton zombie bride, and it just terrified me. This was, like, 25 years back, so I might be mis-remembering it, but I think it's, like, a young kid who's not even in the movie, and he's very pale, and... I was too scared to actually see the movie until I was a bit older, so I think that always fascinated me. It made me think, what scares the monsters? What are their fears? What's eating them while they're eating humans?

Kelsey Grammer Vampire in Youre Not a Monster

I'm looking at the poster for The Serpent and the Rainbow right now, and it is a scary one!

And then I watched the movie, years later, and it's not even a scary scene. It's a really bad fake jump scare. I was a little disappointed in that. But getting a little more into it, yeah, I had the idea, and I had sort of written up a script. Kelsey Grammer very graciously agreed to voice the main character and serve as producer on the series itself. Then we came into contact with Lily Streiff, who is an amazing character designer and animation director. She really brought all of the characters to life, or to the undead afterlife. I was really thrilled to get to work with her, and with Kelsey and the other funny actors.

Sounds like the show really hit the ground running.

It's very frustrating, being a writer who's developing a bunch of things, because generally, nobody ever actually gets to see them. With this one, people will actually get to see it, thanks to IMDb, and thanks to everybody who participated. I'm really excited for it to actually find an audience, hopefully.

This is IMDb's first animated show. Did they reach out to you, did you reach out to them, how did they get involved?

We were sending it around to a couple of different places. There was a longer, half-hour version. Hopefully, if people are into this, we'll be able to make it. With IMDb and IMDb TV offering up some longer form content, it was a really lucky chain of events that they were looking for something and were into this idea, were into the script. I think it's also their first narrative series. They've done other original content, but this was their first narrative and animated series. It's great, because they've been very supportive of it. But it's also great because a lot's riding on it. (Laughs) If people don't watch it, it could be their... It could be a real exclusive, their only animated series ever!

That would be a claim to fame!

I'm very happy with how it's all turned out. I think all the actors have done amazing things and will go on to do amazing things. They are all either already huge names like Kelsey Grammer, Eric Stonestreet, and Ellie Kemper, or really funny rising comics like Aparna Nancherla, Langston Kerman, Joel Kim Booster... Just really funny people here!

How involved were you in the casting? Some of my favorite people are in here. I love Amy Sedaris!

I sort of half-jokingly say that I cashed in every show-biz favor I had to try to cast this show. Kelsey ended up happening through some producers and management companies, and he was looking for some animated stuff to get involved in. He's had a great voice over career with Sideshow Bob on The Simpsons, Trollhunters, Storks, a bunch of other things. He has such an amazing voice in any case. And then he asked Eric Stonestreet, and got him interested. And I had worked with Amy on her Tru TV show, At Home with Amy Sedaris, I did some writing on that. She was very kind and happy to help. I worked in late night for eight years, and through various friends of friends or other writers I'd worked with on the shows... There was a different Comedy Central show where they had hired a bunch of stand-ups, so I met with Langston and Joel... Aparna had actually been a fan of a different thing I had written involving monsters, so I was able to ask her. It all just sort of worked out. Part of the fun was figuring out who would be the funniest person in this role or that role. Most of the people that I asked were very open to doing it. It's been a lot of fun and I'm excited. I think it's fun for anybody, why would you not want to have somebody draw a character you get to voice? I think that's everybody's dream. It's gotta be exciting to see this other version of yourself.

Eric Stonestreet and Adam Pally in Youre Not a Monster

Can you tell me about your time on The Colbert Report, and how that writing environment is different from having a script with your name on it?

That's a very good question. Colbert was an amazing experience. When I had started it, a part of me viewed it as "comedy grad school." You're gonna go there, you're gonna really do a lot of hard work, learn how to craft your writing and punchlines. It was great. It was so great, I essentially stuck around for my Master's. I was there eight years. Everything was very collaborative. You would only work on a couple of things by yourself. It was an amazing experience because, not only are all the other writers amazingly talented, funny, quick-witted people, but Colbert himself is probably the funniest, quickest, smartest person I've ever met. It's a double-edged sword, because if you write a joke that he doesn't like, it's like, "Oh no! The funniest person I know did not think this joke was funny!" But at the same time, when he did like something, when you made him laugh, it was like, "Oh, that's a good accomplishment." I could put that in my resume. Put it in my obituary: "Made Stephen Colbert laugh, at least several times."


It was an interesting ship, to then jump to this. It's a shorter-form thing, so there's not always the ability to have a writer's room or a bunch of other writers involved. I would show the script to some friends, to get their thoughts and advice, but I would definitely love to work with some other people, if we're able to more of them. But it's also sort of fun. You're creating the whole thing yourself, you're writing the whole thing. Again, it's a double-edged sword, so if it doesn't do well, you know who to blame! With Colbert, you could always sort of step back, "Oh, the head writer changed that punchline, or another writer re-wrote it." Or even if it was your joke, nobody watching it knows! But here, everyone watching it knows! They know who to blame if they don't laugh.

Since the buck stops with you, you get all the pride, but also all the other stuff.

Yup. The best part of it, the most delightful thing is, you get to do pretty much exactly what you want to do. IMDb was very open to all of my ideas, any of the thoughts we had, or the animators had. They clearly wanted this to be focused on movie monsters, but pretty much every monster you can think of has been in movies. It's the most popular form of media in our current era. I was lucky, in that case. There were occasionally jokes that were a little too risque, or things that just weren't working, but it was a lot of fun, there was a lot of creative freedom.

Were there characters you wanted to use, but maybe licensing issues that got in the way? Did you have to do, like, a "serial numbers filed off" version of a character?

(Laughs) We definitely made sure that the character designs weren't too close to anything with a copyright. Lily would draw these things... She knew that going into it. We even have a reference to this. Universal has a copyright on certain aspects of the traditional Frankenstein Monster, the Boris Karloff 1931 movie. You know, tall, lumbering, flat head, bolts on the neck, all of those sorts of things. You're generally able to get away with doing one or two of them, but if you go too far, Universal doesn't get too happy. Throughout all of this, none of the famous movie monsters are particularly referenced by name. We came up with other sort of names. There's a crazy clown who doesn't live in the sewers, but he lives in the HVAC system in the air conditioning vent. He's Quarterfool instead of Pennywise. My favorite is the monster you might recognize from a popular kids' puppet, let's say "puppet" in quotes, because it's a specific type of puppet. It's a monster who likes a particular round, flat dessert. But we called him Pastry Beast. But the most disappointing thing to me is that I was never able to work the name into the show itself. It was the character's description in the script, but I would have liked to have gone into that.

Hands Feeding Cookie Monster Cookies on Sesame Street

So why does "totally not Cookie Monster" need therapy?

His issue is he had a relapse in his addiction, and he holds up a human hand that's holding a cookie. He yanked somebody's hand off. I always loved the idea that, well, Cookie Monster is a monster! I don't know that there was every any subtext in Sesame Street, but was he eating kids before he switched to cookies? What's going on there? I may be reading too deep into it.

Cookies are like nicotine gum for when you have a child-eating addiction.

Exactly! But that was always the thought, right? Like, kids like these, too, there's something child-like about them, and he was getting off his other addiction. Two other Colbert writers and I had a thing we all wanted to write, where Cookie Monster is on set and a kid trips and cuts his knee, then Cookie Monster is like, "You need kisses to make it better!" But then he gets the taste of blood again, and then starts hunting people. He's conflicted and having a lot of issues, so... Maybe we'll do that as a short film, someday, if we ever got the rights. Also, it's only Pastry Beast, totally unlike Cookie Monster!

I'm suddenly remembering... I can't think of the specifics, but I do remember, in hindsight, now that you mention it, a lot of Cookie Monster jokes on Colbert back in the day...

(Laughs) We had him as a guest!

Yes, right!

I don't exactly remember the context, but he popped up from under Stephen's desk, and after lunch that day, all 70 or so staff members, all the crew, all the researchers, all the writers, went and got a photo with him. That was one of the more popular guests for us.

I think it was during the whole Sarah Palin bringing sugar cookies to school to protest Michelle Obama's endorsement of healthy snacks for kids. Probably something like that.

Yeah, I mean, now you could probably do an entire Muppet-based parody of politics, and it would still not be as crazy as the actual thing.

I just got nostalgic for Sarah Palin. That's an odd feeling.

Yeah. I always viewed her as Donald Trump's John the Baptist. She was the harbinger, the one who came out and everyone was like, "This isn't gonna work!" And then... Donald Trump came. And that's the only time you'll hear me compare him to Jesus! Speaking of politics, though, You're Not a Monster is not, in any way, particularly political. I think there's a bigger, over-arching theme that's important today. You can think of other people as monsters, as not being human, as just complete absolute horrible monsters. Whether that's a political opponent or a refugee fleeing persecution, I think it is important to remember, hey, no matter how much you hate someone or what they're doing, they're still human. They're not monsters. That's my way of looking at it. I think there's an idea in the show, that you're not a monster because you have psychological problems, or because you're seeing a therapist. There's still a stigma over seeking mental health treatment. I think more and more people have accepted that it's actually an important message. There are no real monsters anywhere. Monsters have always just been manifestations of people's fears and neuroses and what they view other people as. That may be implicit in the whole concept of monsters. But that's deconstructing everything a little too much, since it's just a goofy funny show about sad monsters and their various issues!

It all seems to be anchored by the relationship between Max and his great-great-grandfather. Can you talk a bit about the chemistry between Eric and Kelsey and writing those characters?

The chemistry was there right from the start. Even when we put together a little teaser where they recorded the lines on their own before we really had IMDb's backing, once I put the two bits of dialogue side-by-side, they just had such a great chemistry. The way their voices sound together, everything about it seemed to match and go together so great. I think Kelsey played Cam's ex-boyfriend on Modern Family, so they were familiar with each other from that and had worked together already. We actually recorded the two of them together, which was a lot of fun. It's somewhat atypical, and challenging. They just work together so perfectly. They have a very similar understanding of comedic delivery, obviously. They understood all the jokes immediately. As far as the two characters, I did like the idea of this distant Victorian ancestor, but since he's a vampire, he's really only about 10 or 15 years older than Max. There's a whole backstory I have for their relationship and how everything happened. Basically, John got tired of being a therapist for monsters. He was a vampire, got turned into a vampire by Dracula, and then started seeing monster patients for the last 140 years or so. I'd have to do the math. Maybe it's 130. But he got tired and basically forces his great-great-grandson to take over the practice. You'll find out, hopefully, if we get to do more episodes later on, that he actually hypnotized every single one of his descendants into pursuing psychiatry, just in case he ever chose to retire. Max never even wanted to be a therapist, which is why he was a terrible therapist for humans, but it turns out he's actually a really good one for monsters, because he shares too much of his life with them. They all want that human connection.

Eric Stonestreet and Kelsey Grammer in Youre Not a Monster

Kelsey's vampire name, is that a reference to the original Dracula story?

To get really deep into it, and horror fans, I think will hopefully appreciate this, but Kelsey's character is John Seward, and that's a character from Bram Stoker's Dracula. In the novel, Lucy, who is one of Dracula's first victims, she's being courted by three suitors, and one of them is Dr. John Seward, who runs the asylum next to where Dracula moves, in Carfax Abbey... This is getting very deep into the lore of Bram Stoker's Dracula. I go into a tiny bit of this in one of the episodes, but just like you listening to me now, Max is like, "Please shut up." I really enjoyed that aspect of it. Again, there's a whole big backstory. There's a recurring joke where John is constantly referencing one of his more famous patients, but he doesn't want to give away too much. So he says he's a famous Count from Transylvania, but then he just blurts it out. "It's Dracula." There's a whole backstory there. One of the jokes is that Bram Stoker is just a hanger-on who wanted to be with the cool kids, and Dracula turns all the other guys and girls into vampires, so they'll hopefully make some appearances later on. And I'd definitely love to do some stunt casting with other Frasier actors, assuming Kelsey's on board with that.

When you're directing Kelsey, do you measure his performance in terms of Frasier? Do you go, like, "More Frasier. Less Frasier. Too much Frasier?"

No, no! (Laughs) I think, in fact, he wanted to create an entirely new character. I think he succeeded amazingly. I actually was like, this is such a funny character. And then I watched Frasier, and was like, hey, Frasier is also a funny character! It turns out, he's just an amazing actor who can make all his characters feel unique and real, even when they're monsters. And I'm talking, of course, about Frasier. That guy was a complete monster. I'm kidding! I'm kidding! I think Kelsey definitely wanted John to feel different from Frasier, different from Sideshow Bob. So we spent some time on that. He's a producer, so he wanted the appearance to even be a little different from him or how he's appeared in other things. I think, at one point... We were recording some lines with Amy, I was like, "Oh, hey, uh..." And I knew, even before I asked her, you're never really supposed to ask the actor to do it, but I asked her, "Can you do this line like Jerri Blank from Strangers with Candy?" And I think she was even like, "Wait, what?" It ended up working out great, but yeah, you have to be very careful, I think, with making that ask. I think everyone wants the character to be different. They don't want to repeat things or anything.

Did you slip any Frasier jokes in there?

With this, in my own head, I have a joke where... John is a vampire and vampires can hypnotize people, so at a few points in the past, he had tried to just hypnotize everybody around him and pretend to be a normal human. So he did it once in Boston in the 80s, and then in Seattle in the 90s, but it just didn't work out. So the joke is that both Cheers and Frasier are prequels to You're Not A Monster. But that is not canon, that has not been approved! I'm very open to doing those sort of references like that. One thing I did find interesting was that we've got Ellie Kemper, Eric Stonestreet, and Patton Oswalt, and those are also the three main leads in The Secret Life of Pets 2. So we did sort of play around a little with some reference there, but the timing of when this came out wasn't really timed correctly. But I think that's something fun to do, if everybody's okay with it, and if the legal department is okay with it!

They're usually the ones who put a stop to the fun stuff.

Yup. And when you're doing a show that's a parody or a loving send-up of monster movies, there are questions of, okay, well, is this fair use? Is this getting too close to anything? I think we've been very careful to bring something new to it, and I think that's the mark of a successful parody or pastiche or anything like that. If you brought something new to it. Some of the episodes, or at least some of the specific gags, are a little dependent on being somewhat familiar with a particular monster. I am hopeful that, overall, it works whether or not you know the specific of how Gremlins can't eat after midnight. I think everything generally should be clear.

Eric Stonestreet and vampire Kelsey Grammer in Youre Not a Monster

I've gotta ask an extremely personal question because it's one of my all-time favorite movies: Creature from the Black Lagoon?

We have a quick billboard for "The Black Lagoon Water Park," and you see the creature going down a log slide.

I'll take it!

That was Lily's idea, it's a really cute drawing. I do have a The Shape of Water reference in one of the episodes. There's a shape-shifting sex demon, Niya, the receptionist, who's voiced by Aparna Nancherla. She's talking about how, in the past, she got in trouble and ended up on MTV's Catfish for Catfishing a fish-man. And then we have a cutaway where she's at a dinner date and transforms into the cleaning woman from The Shape of Water. And then the Gill-Man sits down. So there are two Creature from the Black Lagoon references, because The Shape of Water, I believe, started out as a remake, but then Universal passed.

The fools!

And then Guillermo Del Toro took it and decided, "I'll make my own movie!" He did his own fish person, copyright free. The design is different.

In my mind, it's still a remake. Love that movie.

Oh, definitely. And it was really good. I think it would not have won an Oscar if it had been called, "Creature from the Black Lagoon: The Remake." I think it was very wise to just do an entirely different twist on it that wasn't too dependent on any of that. And you didn't have Russell Crowe show up as Doctor Jekyll show up in the middle of it!

Oh my God, you went there. (Laughs) Shots fired!

That would have been something they definitely would have tried to shoehorn in there. I don't know that we'll have time for it, but there's a little cutaway establishing shot in a lot of the episodes of the office building, and in the foreground, there's a cemetary. On one or two of them, I wanted to put, "R.I.P. Dark Universe." And it's too bad, since I'm a big fan of all the Universal Monsters. There's a Mummy movie reference in there... It's a difficult thing. If something is scary after 20, 30, 40, or in the case of The Mummy, almost 90 years, it's not quite as scary to people any more. I think there are still interesting and fun ways to approach it, and I think it was a valiant effort... I saw Dracula Untold, I enjoyed that movie. But the funny thing is, it gets to the end and there's a quick scene of them in the modern day, and you see him and the reincarnation of his love, and then Charles Dance shows up again, and I'm like, "Oh my God, this looks amazing!" And then realized, "Oh wait, this is just Dracula." I got so excited. Man, Dracula Untold is pretty good, but I'm super excited for the sequel, but then I realize, oh right, the sequel is Dracula. That sequel is amazing!

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