The Illawarra has found an offbeat ambassador in animator and master sillyman, Michael Cusack. For years a self-assured but struggling artist who earned a wage flipping pancakes or hauling garbage for Wollongong council's kerbside cleanup crew, the one-time Unanderra Public School student has landed not one but two major US TV deals. Six and a half years since he birthed 'Ciggie Butt Brain' YouTube royalty Damo and Darren, Cusack's first fully-formed series takes flight this week under the impressive wingspan of the Adult Swim network (Rick and Morty, Family Guy). YOLO: Crystal Fantasy is set to school unsuspecting Americans in the ways of Rachel and Sarah, two booze-chugging party girls fresh out of Wollongong.
The self-taught writer, actor and animator Cusack, who at 29 now regularly travels to the US for pitches and work, got his big break after his online offerings caught the eye of Rick and Morty co-creator Justin Roiland. He was given free reign to take over the hit show for what became Bushland Adventures - a single 2018 April Fool's Day parody episode that transplanted the title characters into an Australian-esque alternate reality. Vanity Fair called it "bizarre" and "confounding" and it upset some of Rick and Morty's famously zealous fans, but the bootleg rated well enough to turn the head of Adult Swim's then-senior VP, Mike Lazzo, and suddenly Cusack had himself a whole series to make.
He decided to revive his "YOLO girls", Rachel and Sarah. They were in-your-face vulgar when he first loosed them on YouTube in 2012, intent on getting "totally wasted" and taking so many selfies it caused a bloody meltdown at "internet headquarters". The early episodes came with some serious gross-out scenes, but they also seemed to have something to say. In one typically irreverent but incisive scene, two p-platers rev their engines and agree to a race where the "first one to crash and die wins". The winner, seconds later seen slumping out of his crumpled car wreck, raises a triumphant fist and gives a croaky "yeah!' before succumbing to his injuries.
Cusack admits those early YOLO animations were his cynical response to the drinking and party culture he saw around him in Wollongong as a younger man.
"I just found the whole concept of it repulsive and just an embarrassing thing we were doing as humans - getting drunk all the time," he said. "I was very critical of people going out clubbing and getting drunk.
"It's a fine line, because sometimes that cynicism can eat away at you, but cynicism breeds creativity for me.
"It's funny because I like going dancing at a club now, in my older age. The girls in the cartoon I did when I was younger, they didn't really have any personality, but now they're developed characters because I'm not so cynical about clubbing and all that sort of stuff."
YOLO: Crystal Fantasy will premiere on Adult Swim in the US on August 9. The first of eight episodes is centred around an exclusive house party in a bonkers version of West Wollongong and is already available on the network's website. Rachael remains so raucous she can only be voiced by a man - Cusack's Wollongong High School of the Performing Arts classmate and friend Tod Manojlovic. Another old school friend, Brendan Caulfield, is the show's composer.
Cusack might have been working in Australian television by now, having had some success with his November 2018 ABC animation, Koala Man. The pilot starred suburban divorcee Kevin - local council pen-pusher by day; koala mask-donning petty crime fighter by night. It was nominated for an online comedy gong at the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts awards, but went no further. For Cusack, that was just fine.
"I'm completely done with networks like the ABC because in my opinion they're not really interested in representing an Australia that is, I think, what Australians want to see," he said.
"I think because we're here, we have to hide certain things. We're a little bit embarrassed to be our true selves. We're kind of stuck in this strange situation where we don't know if we want to be seen as silly or serious. We definitely have an identity issue in Australia, but Americans can see us a little bit differently.
"Americans are very interested in buying Australian shows. They love Australian humour - you'd be surprised.
"That's got it's problems - they also see us as on a very surface-level basis, but the good thing about that is you can actually counteract that and make them learn more about Australia through exposure - get a little bit more in-depth than things like Crocodile Dundee and Steve Irwin. My goal is to make them understand things like Woolies, Telstra and Centrelink as much as we do as Australians."
With this, Cusack has found some of the driving force for his next series, already commissioned by 20th Century Fox. He does not reveal who will star, only that it will "fully encapsulate Australia for an American audience", and will feature characters his fans will be familiar with. Wollongong too, will likely see itself reflected back in whatever Cusack does next. His characters aren't firmly based on anyone, he says, but what he sees in the real world seeps in. Looking back on Damo and Darren, he realise those characters were subconsciously inspired by some of the Wollongong "garbage men" who worked alongside him on council clean-ups at the time. While the Australian industry may grapple for a while yet with its identity issue, Cusack knows that the stuff of good TV is all around him.
"For me, Australian entertainment never really seemed to fully capture what I experienced in life. I always loved film like David Lynch and things like South Park. What I love about those things is they often shine a light on the things that we don't usually look at. And those things can be ugly or beautiful, but usually they're kind of both, in a weird, sweet way."