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Exclusive: Real-Life Social Worker Inspired “Ugly Americans” Characters

David Stern and "Ugly Americans" characters "Mark Lilly" (top right) and "Leonard Powers" the wizard. Photos courtesy of Comedy Central.

Social workers should pay attention to the characters in Comedy Central’s new animated black comedy “Ugly Americans.”

That is because Leonard Stern, a former National Association of Social Workers associate executive director, is the inspiration for two of the main characters, said his son David Stern. David Stern, 46, is a developer and executive producer of the series, which premieres March 17 at 10:30 p.m. Eastern time.

“It is a bit of homage to my father,” David Stern said in an interview with “He worked hard and I got the essence of what he did. And I was raised to understand the importance of social work.”

“Ugly Americans” centers on “Mark Lilly,” a social worker at the fictional New York “Department of Integration” who has the task of helping vampires, zombies, and assorted other monsters and immigrants adjust to life in the big city.

Mark is a cartoon character but his role, which is voiced by actor and comedian Matt Oberg, rings true. Like some real-life social workers Mark has to deal with government budget cuts, a huge caseload and hostile “demon” bosses. Despite the odds, he remains dedicated to his clients.

On the flip side is Mark’s co-worker, 500-year-old wizard “Leonard Powers.” Leonard is a heavy drinker who does as little work as possible.

Leonard the wizard was named after Stern’s father. However, Stern said Mark represents more of his father’s values and outlook on life.

“Leonard (the wizard) is carrying a ton of information but he has come to a place where he cannot feel he can make a difference,” David Stern said. “I think between (Mark and Leonard) my father is fully represented.”

“Although I never heard my father say he couldn’t make a difference he has his cynical side,” Stern said.

Stern, a former producer and writer for “The Simpsons” on Fox TV, said it took two years to get the green light from Comedy Central executives to make “Ugly Americans.” The series, which mixes horror and comedy, arrives at a time when the popularity of horror is rising. The “Twilight” vampire books and movies are a hit and critics are praising HBO’s “True Blood” vampire series.

“We just happen to be in the right place at the right time,” Stern said.

“Ugly Americans” may have some bizarre, over-the-top story lines but at its core the series celebrates the diversity of America and tries to convey a message of tolerance in a subtle way, Stern said.

“That is absolutely one of the messages, that diversity makes this (nation) interesting,” he said. “Any time the show tries to hit any message about immigration on the head it feels sententious and heavy handed so we try to stay away from that.”

Stern is confident “Ugly Americans” will gain a big following. It is in a choice time slot, airing right after Comedy Central’s long-running, irreverent cartoon “South Park.” And Comedy Central executives are aggressively pushing the program, wallpapering New York City with “Ugly Americans” posters, he said.

“We have as good a shot as you can get,” he said.

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  1. I fear many TV watchers, who are watching for the sole purpose of mindless entertainment, just “won’t get it.”

  2. Southpark is quite funny but some of the scenes maybe a bit too morbid even for adults.~`*

  3. I enjoy the show. It is smart, funny, and I feel it really captures the essence of social work. It’s only similarity to shows like south park, simpsons, or shows of the like is that it is a silly cartoon. The main character embodies the concepts of strength based solutions, being non-judgmental, and working in a system that is under-funded and under-valued. The only way to make him better is to have him enable less, empower more.

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