Inspiration can come from anywhere. Ask any artist, and they'll tell you it's true. For the Legends of Chamberlain Heights creators, inspiration for their animated Comedy Central series about high school basketball team benchwarmers with big dreams, came from their college days. Josiah Johnson and Quinn Hawking, friends since their days playing basketball at UCLA, came up with the voices for their characters Milk (Johnson) and Jamal (Hawking) while drinking and playing video games.
"It really just spawned by us f*cking around with each other. Both voices on the show are literally us in college getting drunk late at night," Johnson tells Bustle and another reporter at Comedy Central's brand new offices in Hollywood. "We both knew we would be doing something in this realm but I don't think either of us imagined it would be an animated show where I'm voicing a white character and he's voicing a black character."
Sitting next to Johnson, Hawking leans back in his chair and adds, "As racist as the world is right now, we're doing our best to bring it together. He's playing Milk, I'm playing Jamal. Who would have ever thought?"
Johnson knows that some people might think it's offensive for him, a black man, to voice the white character, while Hawking, a white man, voices the black character, but he just rolls any judgments right off his back.
"Honestly we just live by the simple principle where we don't really give a f*ck about anything or what people think," he says with a shrug. "We really just try to have fun with it."
It's impossible not to have fun when the inspiration for their characters comes from a time in their life when most of what they did was have fun.
"The Milk voice came from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas," Johnson says with a smile. "There's a character on there called Ryder who is voiced by MC Eiht. Living at our college when that game dropped, we used to play it 24 hours a day. We'd be in shifts. So when we got drunk late at night, that was one of the voices we'd do with each other."
He laughs, saying, "If you could imagine the two of us in a house together shit-faced at three in the morning, talking like a gangster to each other..."
"It was spontaneous but natural," Hawking adds. "It's not like we put a lot of thought into the voices. They were something we had already developed beforehand."
It's fascinating to hear Johnson and Hawking recount the story of how Legends of Chamberlain Heights came into being. Neither thought they'd ever be doing an animated show loosely based off their years as benchwarmers for the UCLA Bruins, and they're just as amazed to find themselves doing press for Season 2 (premiering Sunday, June 18 at 11:30 p.m.).
"We were both working in sports TV as production assistants fresh out of college, so we started to pick up skills from editing to sound mixing and being able to put things together," Hawking says. "One weekend, randomly these Kobe and LeBron Nike commercials came out with these talking puppets and so we just took the video and made our own voices and wrote it the way we wanted to, just to be funny and have fun on a weekend. We put them out on YouTube and they got a bunch of traffic."
According to Hawking, a short while after the videos went viral he and Johnson "linked up with a couple animation producers that were older white dudes that really vibed with our energy."
"They had this show idea that was based around LeBron and his high school team, but we couldn't really do much with that," Hawking remembers. "LeBron has such a protected brand. 'If you want to make this really funny, let's not make it about star players, let's make it about benchwarmers.' There's just something endearing to them anyways. The fans at games cheer for the guys at the end of the bench to get in at the end of the game. They're more relatable to the fans than the star players would be."
As Johnson and Hawking both spent years as benchwarmers themselves, they had plenty of experience to draw upon for that new idea.
"During all the games, we needed a way to entertain ourselves," Johnson says. "We'd have these absurd conversations about life, women, the future, politics, whatever, just as the game was going on, not really paying attention. That was kind of the impetus for this show."
"We were legends in our own mind at that time," Hawking adds. "While the other players on the team were focused on the game, we were more focused on how we weren't able to really shine on the court but you still had eyeballs on you, like 10,00 people in the crowd, so there still was a hunger for us to try and be legends. We would try to do it off the court. During the game we'd be trying to get girls' numbers in the crowd and just really being stupid and childish."
Soon enough, calling themselves "legends" spread like wildfire throughout the whole UCLA campus.
"It became like a term of endearment," Johnson says with a laugh. "We would call people 'legends' for no reason, but it just made them feel great. It became an ongoing, running joke at UCLA. To this day, when we see people from college we go, 'Yo, what up, legend?' That's how we greet each other."
"It is crazy that several years later we have this TV show called Legends," Hawking adds with a smile. "It's very art imitates life, if that's the saying."
If art truly imitates life, then Milk and Jamal might just find themselves off the bench and in the spotlight soon enough... just not in the way they might expect.