Sean Astin has searched for buried treasure in the Goon Docks, climbed to the fires of Mount Doom, made the internet explode into #justiceforBob hashtags after that tragic episode of Stranger Things. Now he’s tying on a superhero cape and soaring into The Epic Tales of Captain Underpants.
Astin narrates the DreamWorks series, which was adapted from the Captain Underpants books by Dav Pilkey, guiding readers through a world in which nerdy fourth-graders George Beard and Harold Hutchins write comics that magically start to play out as real-life scenarios. The show drops on Netflix on July 13.
You can’t take these tongue-twisting adventures too seriously, and Astin, who joined forces with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles director Peter Hastings again for this series, admitted to having a blast with titles like The Dreadful Debacle of DJ Drowsy Drawers and The Horrible Hostilities of the Homework Hydra. He speaks in a voice you really wish had been in your head when you were a kid struggling through the doldrums of boring lessons and terrifying P.E. classes. SYFY WIRE caught up with Astin on the eve of the show’s premiere to talk everything about the upcoming series, from ’70s nostalgia to playing underdogs to whether playing the narrator required pants.
How were you approached to do this series, and what did you think of it at first?
Peter Hastings and I worked together on [the Nickelodeon animated series] Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for a couple of years, and when he came on board to do Captain Underpants, he asked me if I could be the narrator. He already knew the quality of my voice and my energy, though I hadn’t worked with DreamWorks in a long time.
Were you previously familiar with Captain Underpants?
When [Hastings] said the show was Captain Underpants, it was like everyone knew Captain Underpants, but I didn’t really know much. The idea is iconic, the name and the look of him are iconic, and I knew a lot of people who had read the books. I’m of an age now and my career is at a place where if people want me to participate in really successful movies or really successful books that are being adapted or whatever, I don’t need to know that much, because I think I can do it. I sense that if people love it, there’s a reason that they love it. My doing then becomes an adventure to see if I can connect with that thing that they love so much—and I’m thinking that’s why I really did.
What ultimately attracted you to the series?
I love that George and Harold are really smart, funny guys with this fantastic imagination. They inhabit a word full of adults who don’t know how to behave properly, so in that vacuum, they’ve just decided to let their imaginations run wild. In the books they’re even bullied a little bit more, and the characters are even more nerdy than the TV series. It made me think of the ’70s cartoons, the Hanna-Barbera cartoons and those early shows where their narrators are like the one in Super Chicken who goes “Awwwwk, Super Chicken!”
So it was nostalgic for you?
There’s just something about the narrator in this book that I see in the cartoons that I watched as a little kid. He’s intentionally funny, he’s winking at the audience, he’s very aware of himself and of the characters. He kind of judges them and interacts with them, so in that way I think he helps to set an unapologetic tone for the show which is kind of like wish fulfillment for these elementary school kids. They don’t take themselves too seriously, and I feel the narrator helps to establish that concept of not taking yourself too seriously and just gives George and Harold permission to enjoy their imaginations with all the craziness that’s going on.
Working with Peter Hastings again must have been great—what was the dynamic there?
I know Peter Hastings’ sensibility. I know his sense of humor. I know what he’s capable of as an artist. We’ve known each other since before we did Turtles. There’s something that happens when you get into a project with a guy like that; you have the freedom to give him what he wants. Sounds weird, but as I’m doing it, as I’m playing the narrator, I’m waiting to see how he’s feeling it and how he’s responding to it.
When he’s got a thought, a feeling, a question or whatever, you just trust that he knows exactly how he’s putting the tone of the show and the pace of the show together. A lot of times, his direction to me will be to just make it a little more natural, a little more you. That’s one side of the equation. The other side is to just let it go and have fun, to do whatever you want to do. To have that the alchemy of that way of approaching it makes it that much more fun.
In what ways did you evolve the character of the narrator?
You just get more comfortable over time; I think there are probably a lot more takes in the first two episodes than in the episodes after that. Once I started to figure out the character and the sense of humor of the show — I keep saying pace because this show is like, shot out of a rocket, you know, shot out of a cannon. It moves quickly, and then there all the puns, like Ms. Anthrope. I mean, I get to indulge in the puns more than anybody else, because they’re in the chapter titles, which are very self-consciously punny. I think if you’re enjoying the show you can’t wait to hear the kooky creepy crusty whatever.
In what ways is the narrator in Captain Underpants different from other series you’ve narrated?
I know the nature of the narrator. I’ve narrated other things, like Meerkat Manor on Animal Planet, and that narrator was very breathy and kind of slow and allowed you to fall in love with the meerkats. This is a higher register of fun. They even let me play the parts; I’d come in and they’d say, “Want to take a whack at this character? How about that character?” so you feel like you’re a part of the show in a way that’s complete. A lot of times when you come in to play a specific character, in terms of voiceover anyway, you’re there to deliver a specific thing. With the narrator it’s almost like you’re in charge. Not really, but there’s this sweeping blanket that overlays the show somehow. At least that’s how I envision the narrator.
How is narrating different from being onscreen?
It’s different from being onscreen because you don’t have to wear pants when you’re recording audio. I could wear sweats. And I didn’t have to get my hair cut, or shave. I think if you could picture this narrator, he would be clean-shaven. Sometimes I go to work and I look at myself and think, “That is not the narrator.”
Do you think there is a common thread that runs through Captain Underpants and the previous projects you’ve done?
Yeah, I think they’re all about underdogs. In The Goonies the kids are going to lose their house. They’re poor, and they can’t afford the lifestyle of the country club people, so they’re underdogs fighting to find treasure. Rudy is a classic underdog story because he’s too small and his ambition to play football is bigger than he is, but he has that dream and goes after it. In Lord of the Rings, little hobbits are going to Mordor, trying to throw the ring into the fires of Mount Doom—they are absolutely literary archetypes for underdogs. Bob from Stranger Things is another underdog. Who was eaten by a dog. By Demodogs.
How do George and Harold fit that?
Captain Underpants is about underdogs too. It might not be obvious, because George and Harold are so mouthy and cocky, but back in the books they started out as geeks and nerds who were bullied. They become very self-empowered and strong and everything else, but to me, the grownups are mistreating them. The principal is mean to them. You know the P.E. coach is totally incompetent, and some of the other teachers are genuinely boring in a way that makes you think wow, these kids are living in a world that’s kind of bland and unfair, so they’re underdogs. They decide to write their comics, and in this show you’re basically living in their comics, but at its core they’re good kids living in a world where they’re not in charge. They’re certainly not the captain of the football team. They’re just normal guys.
Stay in tonight (pants optional) and binge-watch The Epic Tales of Captain Underpants on Netflix.