Utopia executive producer Jon Kroll first met Dan Piraro, creator of the subversive comic strip Bizarro, a few years ago at San Diego's Comic-Con International. The two hit it off, and even developed a TV pilot together for the Travel Channel. That show never made it to air, and Piraro gave up on his TV dreams.
But when Kroll was casting a narrator for Utopia, Fox's social experiment about strangers thrown together to create a new society, he remembered how much he liked Piraro's voice. He asked the cartoonist to throw his hat in the ring, and Piraro eventually beat out hundreds of contenders for the job.
Kroll then put Piraro on camera — and Utopia creator John de Mol fell in love with him, as did Fox's executive vice president of alternative series, Simon Andreae. "He's Teddy Roosevelt meets Sigmund Freud in the 21st century," says Andreae, referencing Piraro's unique look: A handlebar moustache, vest and hat. TV Guide Magazine spoke with Kroll and Piraro to get the backstory on Piraro's big break.
TV Guide Magazine: The original Dutch version of Utopia doesn't have a host. How did you decide to put Dan on camera?
Jon Kroll: We really started to think that this narrator could appear on camera so you have a visual identification. That came from Simon Andreae. And I said, "Do you know what Dan looks like? He doesn't look like a typical TV face." Once he saw what Dan looked like, Simon thought it was even cooler. There were some people on the Internet who said, "Who the hell is this guy and why is the Monopoly man hosting?" In many ways he is the most appropriate guy imaginable.
TV Guide Magazine: Dan, are you surprised at landing the job?
Dan Piraro: I'm totally surprised. I've done some standup comedy and I've done a bit of public speaking, but I never tried in any big way to be on screen in Hollywood. I don't have an agent or a headshot. Jon called me one day and says, "I like your voice, your attitude, do you want to do some voiceover?" I said, "Yeah, I think I can handle it, I can work it into my schedule." I felt like I was discovered at the soda fountain like Lana Turner.
Kroll: What's funny is Dan saying he'd "try to fit this" into his schedule. Dan does a Bizarro cartoon in about an hour. And then he does nothing but smoke cigars and hang out with his hot girlfriend.
Piraro: That sounds like a utopia to me.
Kroll: That's your life!
TV Guide Magazine: In Bizarro, you lampoon American society, religion, politics and other things. Was it out of character for you to join a reality show? Isn't this something you would normally satirize?
Piraro: It was an interesting choice. I did think about it. I'm not known to be a huge reality TV show fan. One thing I like about this project is it becomes more psychological experiment than social experiment. One of the things I'm not crazy about on traditional reality shows is the reality is maybe not as real as it is played on television. Where this one is totally real. I'm always interested in raw human behavior especially under stress, which is what happens here.
TV Guide Magazine: What would your ideal utopia include?
Piraro: I would have a lot of privacy. I would not have to deal with 14 strangers on a daily basis. I would also have ample cable TV, access to the Internet. I'm a vegan so I'm all for having animals around and being nice to them but not eating them. My utopia would be unlimited resources and I would be supreme dictator for life, and no one would expect anything from me. Very low responsibility.
TV Guide Magazine: How are you juggling Utopia and drawing Bizarro?
Piraro: As soon as I found out they wanted to put me on camera, I started working many hours a day to get well ahead. But "well ahead" for me is 10 days. I knew this first week would be chaotic. But next week it starts up again, and I just have to find places to fit it into my schedule.
TV Guide Magazine: Jon, talk about Dan's look, and why you toned it down.
Kroll: When it became an on-camera role, the decision had to go up the ladder at Fox. As it went up the chain, they brought in a stylist to soften his look a little bit. We've got about 90 percent of his look; the main thing is the moustache wax is missing.
Piraro: I've always been a fan of crazy moustaches since I was a kid. So I've got this very long handlebar moustache that I wax in points that go up like Salvador Dali. The only thing we did was take the wax out and softened the moustache, making it less pointy.
TV Guide Magazine: Will Dan ever interact with the Utopia contestants?
Kroll: We're experimenting with him interviewing the incoming people, but we really feel that once people enter the bubble, anything we can do to make them forget they're on a TV show helps them turn inward. I'm sure Dan would love to go in there.
Piraro: I wouldn't be anxious to go in there without a riot helmet and a bulletproof vest. I can't compete with the intensity these guys are generated on a daily basis.
TV Guide Magazine: In Bizarro, you are known for hiding icons like an eyeball and an alien in the strip. Can you introduce those "Easter eggs" to Utopia?
Piraro: I don't think Fox is really anxious to connect itself to my comic strip.
TV Guide Magzine: Where did that idea first come from?
Piraro: Like any job, you do anything for years on end and it becomes a bit mundane. One day I decided to throw something oddball in there, in the background, purely to entertain myself. And lo and behold, my readers noticed it. I started doing it all the time. Now people get angry if I do a cartoon that doesn't have any secret symbols in it.
TV Guide Magazine: Dan, do you have an agent now? Will TV become a new career?
Kroll: I'm introducing Dan to a few agents. I told him it's like a marriage, so be careful to choose the right one.
Piraro: I would like to get an agent. I'd love it to lead to other things because I'm really having a ball. I'm having a great time working with these guys. I'd love to take it further into the future.
Utopia airs Tuesdays and Fridays at 8/7c on Fox.