Tom Winkler was an animator on The Simpsons and now runs his own subversive cartooning empire. He’s best known for the scatalogical anti-hero “doodieman,” but his app, Whack Your Boss, just celebrated a decade of helping people live out their darkest fantasies while staying employed.
Along the way, Winkler appeared as an actor in the TV series Double Rush and Adam Sandler’s Little Nicky, and was John Malkovich’s body double in Con Air. Now he’s about to take his first live one-man show on the road. PCMag talked to him in Los Angeles to find out more.
Tom, what was the inspiration behind your app, Whack Your Boss?
[TW] The last time I worked in cubicle-land was back in the mid-90s on The Simpsons. But Whack Your Boss is really about my sheer frustration with corporate America. It’s not so much about the boss, but the way you have to behave in an office, the way they speak to you. I was in a meeting the other day and, even though I own my own company and was there as a free agent, I wanted to hit something when someone at the meeting said: “Data this granular is not actionable.” My blood just turned to ice.
There’s something about firing up the app, letting rip on an animated cog in the wheel of corporate America, then calmly going about your day that works.
I like to think I’ve created a useful stress-busting tool for people who can’t afford to lose it IRL.
Love the ‘Cleaner’ button. Were you inspired by ‘Victor le nettoyeur’ (Jean Reno) summoned to remove the dead bodies from the bath in Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita?
Exactement! Plus, from a technical standpoint, you’ve got a screen that needs reverting, so I had to have a mechanism to clean it up and start again.
Your concept has expanded into an empire of whack-ness now: like Whack Your Computer
A decade ago I got a call from a company in Zurich, which expressed interest in my work. I threw out a number in an email, went back to drawing murder, mayhem, and poop, and thought nothing of it. The next thing I know, they sent me a plane ticket to London, and I’m drawing storyboards for Whack Your Computer for a corporate campaign. The rights reverted back to me years later and it’s proved popular ever since.
The ‘cartoon land’ version has been cleaned up, literally. There’s no blood. Can you explain?
To put it simply, things changed as the internet moved into its post-net neutrality corporatization phase. The original version, with blood, was available as a paid-for app, at $1, for three years on the Google Play Store. I sold tens of thousands and then, one day, Google updated their terms of service and it became clear I needed to upload a milder edition to their platform. In fact, Apple had refused to run the earlier version, which is why my download numbers are much smaller on the App Store overall.
Can you share download numbers?
Sure, since launch, on Android, I’ve had millions of downloads of Whack Your Boss, Whack Your Computer, and Doodieman. Less on iOS, [as I explained]. All the apps are free and ad-supported today. I’ve partnered with Florian Erlemann from Petesso Media Solutions, in Germany. He handles all the tech side of the apps.
So, backing up, how did you get your start in animation?
Growing up as a kid in Connecticut in the 1970s, I drew all the time. My grandfather gave me his old 8mm camera, and I started to do claymation, what we call stop motion now. I still have hundreds of drawings from grade school onwards.
Did you go to art school?
Eventually, yes. But first I left for the West Coast and worked in a video store in Los Angeles circa 1982, which was a great education, because I got to take the tapes home, freeze frame the VHS, and learn how the animation worked. Then I went back and studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which had a pretty free syllabus where you could walk into another class if you didn’t like the one you were in. I’m a bit of a rule-breaker so that worked for me.
In those days, there were two schools of animators: people who were into superheroes, and Japanese anime, or those guys, like me, who preferred Bugs Bunny and MAD magazine. I have always appreciated that style of satire, and I was also influenced greatly by Ray Harryhausen. My paternal grandparents came from Hungary, and my mother’s family are Italian, so I appreciate the subtlety of European filmmakers; the silent easy jokes, the physical humor of Jacques Tati.
Olive Jar Animation Studios, in Boston. They hired me to work on some of the early claymation on MTV when the channel was still brand new.
You were on The Simpsons. There must be some mad stories to tell.
One night a bunch of us went to Casa Vega in Sherman Oaks, which has to be the darkest Mexican restaurant in North America. It wasn’t far from the studio and, if you ate there at lunchtime, it felt like it was midnight when you came out blinking into the harsh L.A. sunshine. Anyway, that night I woke up with what felt like a knife in my stomach, without going into too many details. At the time, The Simpsons’ 50 or so animators worked in two big chunks of cubicles with a hallway in between and there was a blank wall where we’d obsessively paste up drawings to share with, and outdo, each other. As I came in the next morning, not feeling so hot, I drew what I can only describe as potty humor. Suddenly everyone became obsessive and added to the general theme I’d started in the wall. It got out of hand.
Was that the beginning of Doodieman?
In his earliest incarnation, I guess, but way before I named him or developed the character.
Have you always been drawn to the more scatalogical side of life?
I have to admit I love potty humor. For instance the movie Airplane always makes me roar.
How did you make the transition to computer animation?
I trained as a pencil and paper animator, then a friend introduced me to computers in 1995. I was a purist and mocked the concept at first. But then, once I’d mastered the basic skills of pixel-based animation, my work really took off and I sat back and said: “What do I want to animate now?” That was when I started animating Doodieman. Then the internet came along. I learned Flash and now use Adobe Animate, on my Apple Macbook, using a Wacom tablet and stylus, to draw.
Final question, what’s next for you?
My own live one-man show. When I travel or do live animation sessions, like the one I did at YouTube L.A. last year, I constantly run into people who remember the Doodieman cartoons from the dot-com boom and want to know more. So I’m crafting a story about my work and how it all came about. I’ll be talking in front of a visual projection screen so I can share really early drawings and explain techniques, while telling stories. I have a dark side, and I’ll be going there too.
Will you take the show on the road?
My goal is to premiere it at the Hollywood Fringe Festival in June, then head to Scotland for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. After that, who knows? I was just in Seville, Spain at Animalada, and showed some of my animations on my phone to one of the organizers, who loved them. I told him I was writing a show, and he seemed really keen. I’d love to take my show to Spain.
We’ll catch up with you towards the end of 2018 to get an update then.
Hey, sure thing. I’d like that.