The Adult Swim live-action series “Three Busy Debras” shot its six-episode first season entirely on location in Seattle in 2019. But for the 10-episode second season, premiering Sunday — 12 a.m. April 24 on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, same day on HBO Max — the cartoonish quarter-hour comedy moved into the former Fisher Flour Mill on Harbor Island that’s been converted into the 117,000-square-foot Harbor Island Studios.
“What’s cool about shooting on the stage versus on location is we can move walls when needed for gags and we don’t have a ceiling so we can hang lights,” says Sandy Honig, who plays one Debra and co-created the series with the two other Debras, Mitra Jouhari and Alyssa Stonoha. “There’s just so much more room for playing around and making things happen and also having sets built around jokes.”
“Three Busy Debras” is an oftentimes-absurd, dadaist comedy about three women with the same name who usually dress in white and have bizarre experiences. The season premiere finds the Debras facing scarcity for the first time as their town of Lemoncurd encounters a milk shortage, though they’re loathe to wait in a line.
“That doesn’t apply to us,” a Debra says. “We’re not people, we’re Debras!”
“Waiting for something I want?” says another Debra. “Next you’re gonna tell me I have to wait for something I need!”
Cast members say they write the episodes from a grounded place.
“A lot of it is emotional, interpersonal dynamics. What happens when one of the three friends is feeling sad? How do they deal with that?” Jouhari said. “It’s all real things and then they get pushed to a really heightened degree. When we don’t start from a place like that, it gets really unwieldy and ultimately unusable. But we want it to be very silly and that is more important to us than anything.”
The show’s three stars, none of whom had visited Seattle before coming to scout locations for the show’s first season, met in New York in 2015. They performed together at an improv show and it was during their first joint sketch that the Debras were born.
“We spent about a month trying to coordinate schedules, because we all had really bizarre work and school schedules,” Jouhari said. “So when we finally met, the big joke [among] the three of us was how busy we were.”
In their first improv scene, they accidentally named all of their robotic housewife characters Debra.
“And within the scene, we were talking about how busy we were,” Jouhari said. “So that is really the genesis of the idea. And why Debra? I don’t know. From the depths of our subconscious came Debra and she’s here to stay.”
More stage performances for the Three Busy Debras followed at Brooklyn’s Annoyance Theatre, along with a web series. When the trio learned they could rent out New York’s Carnegie Hall, they started a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for a 2016 Debras show there. (“How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Money, money, money,” Stonoha said.)
Even then, the Debras had agents trying to secure the trio a TV deal — and just before showtime at Carnegie Hall, Honig checked her phone and saw an email from Amy Poehler, who was interested in working with the Debras.
After filming a 30-minute “Three Busy Debras” pilot in Los Angeles, produced by Poehler’s Paper Kite Productions for Adult Swim, the decision was made to shorten the series to a quarter-hour.
“It’s so cartoony and silly and moves at such a fast pace,” said Jouhari, who ran the Season 2 writers’ room and previously wrote for HBO’s “High Maintenance,” Netflix’s “Big Mouth” and “The President Show” on Comedy Central.
“Once we realized a quarter-hour was the right fit, the writing became so much easier,” she said. “The pacing of the show is such that there are a million scenes in every episode, and that pace is just hard to sustain for a full half-hour, but for 12 minutes you can really do that.”
For the TV version of their act, the Debras also worked to differentiate the characters, leaning into heightened versions of elements of their own personalities: dummy Debra (Jouhari), stiff, cold, scary Debra (Stonoha) and “boss baby” Debra (Honig). To distinguish among the Debras in the show’s scripts, they just use the actors’ first names (e.g., “Alyssa tries to kill Mitra”).
The plan was to film Season 1 in Atlanta, where Adult Swim is based. But after Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed a controversial, anti-abortion “heartbeat bill” into law in 2019, the production team chose to relocate production.
“There were tax incentives and things that I will never fully understand, and with that, Seattle came on the table,” Honig said. At the time, Washington’s film tax credit program, which reduces production costs through incentives to productions filmed in the state, was capped at $3.5 million annually. Earlier this year, the cap was increased to $15 million annually.
“Everything that we had heard about Seattle is that they had a really big indie film community and that the crews were amazing and used to working with lower budgets,” Honig added.
Stonoha said Adult Swim had previously produced a couple of pilots in Seattle, so the network was familiar with Seattle crews and was game to return.
After hiring some local actors while filming Season 1, the trio aimed to rehire many for roles in the second season.
“We didn’t know that there was this amazing theater scene in Seattle,” Jouhari said. “And especially you can see in that first episode of Season 2 — Ray Tagavilla, Rachel Pate, Kelsi Umeko, Kevin Warren — those are all local Seattle actors who were in the first season who we loved and we’re really consciously trying to give them more to do.”
Seattle locations from the first season included Volunteer Park and private homes near Snoqualmie. For Season 2, the Washington State Convention Center moonlights as a mall, Kirkland stands in for Downtown Lemoncurd, and the Debras filmed an entire episode inside Stimson-Green Mansion on Capitol Hill.
And while the trio of Debras enjoys filming on location, they were also happy to have a home base at Harbor Island Studios.
“When we were on location, it’s like, ‘This is someone’s house and they live here,’ and if you ruin it, it’s a disaster,” Stonoha said. “On the soundstage, it felt very similar to being in a black box theater, which is where we started doing our play, where we were causing mayhem and destruction because it was just three black walls and we would clean it up afterwards.”