How 'SpongeBob' and 'The Real Housewives' Inspired 'Three Busy Debras'

The hysterical Adult Swim comedy is about three deranged housewives, who, yes, are all named Debra.

Alyssa Stonoha and Sandy Honig and Mitra Jouhari in three busy debras
Mitra Jouhari, Sandy Honig, and Alyssa Stonoha in 'Three Busy Debras.' | Adult Swim
Mitra Jouhari, Sandy Honig, and Alyssa Stonoha in 'Three Busy Debras.' | Adult Swim

Located somewhere nondescript, smack dab in the middle of WASP, U.S.A., is a suburb called Lemoncurd. There, iguanas deliver your mail, people live off whole milk and brunch, and pool boys go missing every now and then, no questions asked. That's the center of the universe on Adult Swim's Three Busy Debras, a madcap comedy series about three housewives, all named Debra and dressed in perfectly pressed, all-white ensembles, who deem themselves the queens of Lemoncurd.

Created by and starring Sandy Honig, Mitra Jouhari, and Alyssa Stonoha, the hysterical show originated as a stage show and web series before it launched on Adult Swim as a scripted comedy, each episode lasting 10 to 15 minutes, in 2020. The series, which credits Amy Poehler as an executive producer, returned for a second season on April 25, with episodes streaming on HBO Max the following day (where it will hopefully find a larger, well-deserved audience).

If there were such a thing as a live-action cartoon, it would be Three Busy Debras. Each episode features a slapstick adventure that pushes the Debras' buttons, like the neighbors they see as peasants who piss them off. From an ever-irritating milk shortage or a gal pal's depressive episode ruining a shopping spree, the show is a delightful, deranged, and ridiculous satire of privilege, suburbia, and how messy friendship among women can be, which they call "the emotional core of the show."

"We're all super interested in the complicated female relationship of loving and hating each other, because it's funny," Stonoha says with a laugh. "It's funny to watch these horrible women spend time together, despite the fact that they clearly don't respect each other."

To create the Debras, the team brought out heightened, nightmarish, Stepford-like versions of themselves. "When the Debras are bad women, it's really tapping into the worst parts of ourselves and putting them on display in front of God and everyone else," Honig says. In addition to their own exaggerated personalities, the entire world of the supremely bitchy, idiotic Debras is so distinct—like a vision of white-picket-fence suburbia on every upper imaginable. To explore what makes up the series' wacky world, Thrillist spoke to the Debras themselves about everything that inspired them.

the devil and mr. hane
'Looney Tunes' | Warner Bros.

Looney TunesSpongeBob SquarePants, and other cartoons

Episodes of Three Busy Debras follow a non-sequitur format, and everything is nonsensical. Characters can get launched out of the ceiling, random props appear or objects are comically large, and basically everything that could be a gag becomes one. In Season 2, for example, one episode features a Mary Poppins-like character for no reason at all, and the mall food court is literally a court where a hamburger is on trial. So the series could go to these extremes, the creators knew they would have to embrace being as cartoonlike as possible.

Sandy Honig:Betty Boop is one of my big inspirations, comedy-wise—she's hilarious—but I don't know if that was necessarily an inspiration specifically for the show. I would say Looney Tunes—the way that it's the same characters, it always resets, and it's just very silly gags and things that appear as needed. I feel like our show is very inspired by cartoon logic and the way that cartoons function in that they just reset every time and it's the same character who is wearing the same thing and getting into the same kind of mischief.

Alyssa Stonoha: Things have consequences very rarely. People die in Season 1 and then come back in Season 2—spoiler alert!

Mitra Jouhari: Characters disappear, then they don't. Characters are injured, and the next episode they're fine. Characters are bloody, and the next shot, they're not anymore—that kind of stuff where it doesn't really matter. There's a real logic and language that the three of us share, and there are rules of the world that the three of us really understand. After doing it for two seasons, our writers and crew also really understand.

Honig: I've loved hearing our production designer, John Lavin, explain the logic to people coming in, when he's like, "A prop exists just for the gag. It shows up for the gag, and then it disappears in the next shot." And you're like, "Yay!"

Stonoha: It [also has to do with] the other characters in the show. Like, there's a lot of people who return from Season 1, and they just take on new jobs or function in the show as needed, which feels very cartoonish, too, where it's like, today Bugs Bunny is a doctor or whatever.

Honig: We like to think of every cast member as part of the Three Busy Debras players and they can play any part in the show.

Stonoha: [In general], I feel like SpongeBob SquarePants is a big inspiration for me. I feel like the storytelling is very close to what we do on Debras and it has a really good mix of random and also sticking to a singular plot for the quarter-hour episodes. Sometimes older cartoons are just a series of gags, but episodes of SpongeBob—particularly, you know, Seasons 1 to 3, which some people say are the best—have a really good handle on [its characters and storyline].

Honig: I think we all fill a SpongeBob role.

Stonoha: Sandy's SpongeBob, I'm Squidward, Metra's Patrick. We know this!

the real housewives of potomac
'The Real Housewives of Potomac' | Bravo

The Real Housewives

Although we've yet to meet the Debras' husbands and children, they're the ultimate, eccentric versions of a stereotypical housewife. Wine nights are their everything, their homes are the perfect balance of immaculate and gaudy, and they relish in being the talk of the town (even if all of the town despises them). Although their characters are heightened versions of themselves, the Debras themselves obviously looked to iconic housewives in order to craft their personas.

Jouhari: We were influenced by a lot of housewives. I think the visuals of The Stepford Wives were very inspirational to us. Those were on our original mood boards for the show. We watched Desperate Housewives as research for Season 1. Then, I'm obsessed: I watch all the Real Housewives of every city. The one I enjoy the most is Potomac. I think it's the funniest and has really good drama, but Atlanta and Beverly Hills are the blueprint in their own ways. As a result, though, I have gotten Sandy and Alyssa to watch a lot of what I consider the greatest hits.

Honig: She combs through all of the footage that exists and then she presents me and Alyssa with the best sound bites, clips, and moments. It's very selfless, what you do for us.

Jouhari: Their music this season was also very inspiring to us. There are a couple housewives in the Real Housewives universe that were musicians before, and I don't count them in this, but there is a long tradition of the Real Housewives creating original music. So, like now that they have this platform, have some money, they go into the studio, and lay down some of the worst music you'll ever hear in your life.

Stonoha: The Luann de Lesseps song, ["Chic C'est La Vie"], was hugely inspirational for Mitra—mostly in terms of the French element. Mitra wrote an original song called "Je M'appelle the Mall" [which you hear in Episode 2 this season].

clue movie
'Clue' | Paramount Pictures

Standout scenes from different genre movies

As many Looney Tunes-like cartoons do, episodes of Three Busy Debras often venture into genre territory. From teen movie-like makeovers to dinner parties gone wrong with shitty Marlon Brando-inspired husbands, the series often has moments that feature instantly recognizable references to iconic films or feel like familiar clichés that movie fans have seen before. In crafting those moments, the writers/stars both revisited specific titles and pulled from their memory as major pop-culture fans.

Jouhari: For every episode, especially the genre episodes, [we have movie references in mind]. Like for the play in Episode 4, "To Have Debra, To Hold Debra," we watched A Streetcar Named Desire as homework. There's a whodunnit episode later down the line, and that was really fun to do research for.

Honig: We watched Murder on the Orient Express and we're very inspired by Clue, which is an amazing movie. There's definitely specific references for each episode.

Jouhari: [With the shopping and makeover scene in Episode 2, "The Great Debpression,"] Alyssa and I love The Princess Diaries. That is buried deep, deep into our psyches.

Stonoha: That scene where Paolo Puttanesca does her hair and first he does the poodle hair—it's so good. It's interesting, though, because so much of the show—either episode by episode or scene by scene—is a reference to a concept of a genre. Sometimes a specific reference, but usually it's just like, "Oh, we've seen 16 different movies that we love, let's build an original version of this feeling," whether that's Debras in a war room or Debras in a tomb. We try to pull really specific cultural references and then build them out visually by working with our production designer, who our director is, and wardrobe to all play together so it's like an original visual that feels culturally familiar to the audience. It's a lot of Old Hollywood stuff [that we look at].

Honig: We've reached a point of saturation in culture where it's like so many things have been done and done and done. We're trying to flip them on its head. So it's like, "What do we sort of remember of this genre? Let's go off of our memories and then build from there."

Garth Marenghi's Darkplace
'Garth Marenghi's Darkplace' | Channel 4

Their favorite comedic reference points

As Hongid, Jouhari, Stonoha met in the alternative New York City comedy scene before they created Debras together, each of them has an extensive vocabulary of ubiquitous and underrated comedy titles that they're inspired by. Even if they don't inform every bit on their Adult Swim satire, there are certainly a lot of references that have inspired how they write and their senses of humor.

Honig: When we first three started hanging out, we had a night where we got together and were like, "Let's each bring our favorite things and show each other our favorite comedies and inspirations so then we can all see where the other ones are coming from." I remember Mitra brought Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, Alyssa showed a lot of Andy Kaufman clips, and then I brought Stella. For me, [my favorite comedies have been] Strangers with Candy and Stella, the shorts and the show. That blew my mind, when I first saw that show.

Jouhari: My favorite thing in the world is a short lived, six-episode Channel 4 show, Garth Marenghi's Darkplace. I want everyone to know about it. I would also read a lot of plays in high school because there weren't any need to see. Neil Simon, that was really exciting for me, Michael Frayn—like a door opening and then, oh, someone, someone you weren't isn't expecting is behind the door. Ah, shut the door. [laughs]

Honig: Eugène Ionesco plays—I would say The Bald Soprano is the most Debra-esque.

Stonoha:: Sandy mentioned Clue earlier and we drew on that for the whodunnit episode, but overall the comedy style of that movie has a really good balance of gags and line readings—like, a normal line that someone says in the weirdest way and that's considered a joke.

Honig: The line deliveries in that movie should be studied. And, of course, Mel Brooks and Airplane, the funniest movie of all time.

the three busy debras as marie antoinette
The Debras as Marie Antoinette in Season 2 | Adult Swim

The Debras we know and love

Instances on Three Busy Debras often pull from real life or history, or rather, they feel like they do in in the most gonzo way possible. There's a Marie Antoinette reference in the Season 2 premiere (who the creators call a Debra blueprint), but ultimately, it's the women who resemble Debras in each of their lives who they really end up drawing from.

Stonoha:: There have been instances where people will be like, "Oh, my God, I have a Debra in my life and her name's not Debra, but she's such a Debra. I think when people watch the show, they often feel that way. All three of us, we all have a Debra in our lives.

Honig: We're all from the suburbs, and when we started, I think we were all aware that we were pulling from different people. I think we each all had a realization in the process of making Debras where we realized who our Debra was in our lives and each time it was like [gasps] waking up in a cold sweat.

Jouhari: I think mine happened like four years in, and then it was really obvious. [laughs]

Stonoha:: I think it's because we're all so mentally normal! [laughs] But if you don't know who the Debra is, it's you!

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Sadie Bell is the entertainment associate editor at Thrillist. She's on Twitter and Instagram.