Watching a cartoon, it might not occur to you that everything that happens to those characters is written by a writer.
John Derevlany’s credits include a stint as “Crackers, The Corporate Crime Fighting Chicken” on Michael Moore’s series TV Nation. As Derevalny puts it, “I started as a journalist and I eventually ended up working for Michael Moore in a chicken suit. From there, people saw me running around in a chicken costume and thought I’d be great for writing for kid’s TV. Plus, having kids helped.”
Two new animated series Derevlany developed and wrote will begin airing soon, including Wayside (Nickelodeon and Teletoons) and Monster Buster Club (Jetix, YTV, TF1). Gerald McBoing Boing, another show he developed and wrote, will start its second season on Cartoon Network/Teletoons later this year. Meanwhile, a live-action, puppet dance show created by Derevlany, Animal Jam (Discovery Kids, ABC Australia), has been running continually since 2003.
The Mirror’s Steve Stajich, who worked with Derevlany on ABC’s This Just In, interviewed him in his office behind his modest Culver City home. Nearby, his 18-month-old son Ian and 8-year-old daughter Ava were playing with plastic toy foods, improvising what sounded like a Broadway musical about grocery shopping.
What gives you special abilities for child-ren’s content? It seems to me that not everybody could do it.
Well, except for preschool, which has a very specific curriculum, the kid’s shows I do, I don’t really write them as kid’s shows. I write them just as I would write an adult show. You just watch your references and you keep it in a realm that kids would understand. But as far as storytelling or narrative, it’s basically an adult story that just happens to have kids in it.
You don’t consciously notch down in any way?
I actually think kid’s shows are smarter than adult shows. I think the average kid’s show has a lot more thought and a lot more narrative strength than your typical sitcom would have. I actually think the executives and the people that write them and produce them are smarter than – I think it’s prime time TV that’s dumbed-down. I think that a lot of thought is put into kid’s programming.
In doing the actual writing for animation, do you end up creating a lot more action descriptions, such as “raccoon lands on box of dynamite,” rather than dialogue?
I personally try to write scripts that have no dialogue. And I still end up with 60 to 90 lines of dialogue. So I try to make it as completely visual as possible. One of my shows, Gerald McBoing Boing, was based on an old Dr. Seuss film from the 50s about a boy who doesn’t speak, he just makes sounds. And we tried to create those scripts, basically, wordlessly. I was inspired by Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton films, doing sort of silent movies with kids. And if you ever show a kid a silent movie, they instantly get it. So it’s a sort of powerful way of telling a story, I think. But even then, we’d have maybe 50 lines of dialogue. I hate to break scripts up into mathematical formulas, but you do actually watch the dialogue lines in animation. At least, in my scripts.
In live action there’s always an eye towards not writing something they’ll dismiss because it’s too expensive. But in animation you can have a volcano shoot up from under a doghouse. Do you still have to keep an eye on what they’ll have to render?
Well, the theory about animation is that you can make anything happen because you’re just drawing it, and you can expand your visual world in a way you can’t really do in live action. The surprising thing in animation is that you’re actually more limited than I would have thought because yes, you can draw worlds colliding, herds of animals…but the typical production budget prohibits it. So even adding something like a new character or background costs more money. Yes, you can do anything, but you have to be conscious of how that impacts the budget.
In one of your shows, the “Angry Beavers” would talk, but… how do you know when you’re on the money with beaver-like behavior?
All the characters that are animals, we just sort of treat them like kids. They have their own individual habits that are based more on individuals than on animal traits. The fact that they’re animals is almost secondary to how we develop their characters. Usually we’ll have quite an extensive description, a “bible,” of how a character thinks and acts and what kind of voice he has, his likes, dislikes…all the things you would have in a normal character.
Do you create from scratch, or is there some outline?
Gerald McBoing Boing is particularly interesting because it’s based on a classic film of the 50s that everyone who knows about animation loves. It’s a brilliant film and Dr. Seuss wrote the original version, but he only did one. In my situation, we had to do 52 11-minute episodes, and each episode had 10 segments. So we basically had to do 500 little segments with this little boy who didn’t talk. So it was a very difficult process. What we’d do is we’d pitch to the executives, write up little premises that the executives would approve or disapprove, and in most cases they would disapprove a lot of them. So, if I had to do 500 segments I might have to come up with 2000 ideas! [The show] had a preschool curriculum, and so a lot of things got shot down because they wouldn’t have been understood by the audience they were shooting for. Or it wasn’t funny enough or good enough…the usual reasons.
One thing about animation: It’s a volume thing. A typical series is picked up for at least 26 episodes, and many are 52 episodes right off the bat. It’s not like prime time TV, where you get picked up for six shows. In animation a typical order is 26 half-hours. Then there are two 11-minute episodes in each half hour. That’s 52 episodes, and to get to that you need about 200 premises.
So it’s a huge volume that you don’t have in other forms of TV, and you don’t have a staff. Most of these are freelance written.
Do you find that you steal from yourself?
Not so much. I have basic kind of formulas that I apply to it. One of them is that you take a situation, you take your characters, and you figure, “What is the worst possible thing that could happen to these characters? And how will they or their friends help to get out of that situation.” It’s a pretty basic formula, but it seems to work. Especially when you’re doing this kind of volume.
Do you ever have a problem with burnout, and the ideas that are coming are not as fresh as you’d like?
Yeah. I think that’s a problem with any show, but it’s particularly a problem with animation. You’ll do 20 or 30 episodes, and then those last 20 or 30 are just impossible to get an idea that doesn’t somehow overlap with all the ideas that have already been done. It’s a burnout not just on my end, but on the freelance writers who come in and pitch things that they’re not aware are similar to what’s already been done [in the series]. The last 10 or 20 episodes are always hard.
And the way things are done now, it’s on a tight schedule and budget and usually you’ll do 26 episodes in 26 weeks. We don’t always hit that, but they push us to do that.
You’ve sold some show ideas. What constitutes a good kid’s idea?
There’s the things that I think are a good idea, and usually it’s just one or two characters that make me laugh and I can spend a lot of time with. In terms of selling them, you want to have something that, at some point, has some sort of merchandise level, will translate into a bunch of different countries and can be made on a certain kind of budget. It’s two parts: There’s the thing I want to do, then there’s the thing that I might actually sell.
For me [a good kid idea] is wacky and I’ve never seen it, and it makes me laugh and I can sit here typing and cracking myself up. [laughs] Without concern for how it affects the world.
You worked with Henson’s company. Is that intimidating, in that they created the successful realm of such things as Sesame Street?
Well, an odd thing now is that I’m doing a lot of work with sort of the second-generation owners of these properties. Like Henson, or I’m possibly doing some work on Gumby. That’s not certain.
Because Pokey won’t sign the contracts?
You end up doing things with the kids of the creators of these shows. But, it’s a great thing to be able to work on a show that you saw as a kid, to actually be able to write for it and make it your. That’s probably one of the greatest things about doing this sort of work.
Intimidated? No. I’m just going to do what I’m going to do until they fire me or put it on the air. [laughs] That’s kind of a good way to approach any TV or creative project: Just do what you believe in until they fire you.
Is having two kids enough? The writer doesn’t have to be young or childlike…
I wish I had kept a diary from when I was younger so that I could refer to it. Because you want to touch on those topics and that world, and it’s easier when you’re younger. But when you’re older, you know how to tell a story better. At the end of the day, it’s still telling a story.
I’ll take my kids to school and just listen to the kids talking and I get ideas from there because they’re always arguing about something and there’s some conflict, and a conflict is a story and a story is an episode.
What’s a dream show that you’d like to get on? You know I always loved that thing with the pig and the fish…
“Pig and Fish Super Cops.” I would have loved to have gotten that on the air. I really like Wayside…the thing I’m working on now for Nickelodeon. I mean that just has a really good feel and it’s based on great books and I think it’s one of the best things I’ve done. I loved writing it and I see the shows and they make me laugh. I completely forget that I wrote them!
With Wayside there are a lot of characters. Does that help?
No. I personally don’t like a lot of characters. I think if your two or three main characters are strong enough, you can tell hundreds of stories. If it’s The Odd Couple it’s two guys in a room. Abbott and Costello…two guys in a room.
What happens with me often is that people bring me shows that are partly developed. And once I see that there are more than three or four characters, I know that there’s trouble. Because a bad show, they’ll try to pack in as many characters as possible because their core characters aren’t strong enough to carry the show. A strong show won’t have extra characters. On a strong show, you can put two characters in a room and let them go.