This year, at the third annual Brooklyn Book Fair, we had the opportunity to sit down—or, rather, stand up—with two highly regarded representatives on their respective, and sometimes overlapping, fields, for a panel entitled ‘Cartooning Today.’
Kyle Baker is no doubt familiar to most Cross Hatch readers and the multiple Eisner and Harvey Award winning author of Why I Hate Saturn, Plastic Man, Nat Turner, and Special Forces. Mo Willems’s work tends to skew a bit younger, both as the highly lauded author of such children’s books as Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus and as a writer for TV shows like Sesame Street and Codename: Kids Next Door.
In this second part of our conversation, we discuss the state of animation, the role of the Internet, and why Warner Bros. wasn’t so keen on naming a character “Afghanistan Sam.”
Has the animation industry changed in, say, the past 15 years?
Mo Willems: Oh, absolutely. You’ve got to remember that cable was as new as the Internet was, maybe five years ago. No one knew what cable was going to be, so they just went in and found young guys in their 20s, and said, “make something.” I didn’t have focus groups and I didn’t have any of that stuff. My series—the two things that I did—were basically pitched in bars. People were like, “yeah, okay, do it.” And it really didn’t matter. You had a lot more leeway, and now there’s all this blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. It’s a lot more difficult. You’ve got to realize that, if I was in TV for the last 15 years, that was 20-percent of the history of television. So it was a really, really new medium, particularly cable. Now they know what they want to do, but they can’t do it. So, yeah, I think the days of creator-driven shows—it’s a lot harder to do it. And if you’ve got a track record, that’s one of the few ways that you’re going to be able to do something.
Do you think it’s more difficult to establish yourself a creator-driven show on cable television, rather than, say, a firmly-established Disney show?
MW: You know, that’s hard to say. I don’t really know—all I know is that I had more fun, and I certainly got less interference on my failure than I did on my success. The show that I was headwriting, my last show, when we got number one on the network, all hell broke loose. You’d literally have to say “how much more number one than number one do you want to be? You want to be number zero? Because we can figure that out.” But when I was number 18, they’d be like, “oh, did you hand in the script? Oh yeah, approved. Go for it.” I had a lot more fun. I had a lot less people watching, but…
Kyle, can you discuss what you’ve been doing in animation, recently?
KB: Gosh, I’ve work on a lot of shows. Phineas and Ferb was the last one I worked on. Andre 3000’s Class of 3000—I worked on that. Bugs Bunny, the rotten Brendan Fraser movie—Bugs Bunny and Brendan Fraiser go Treasure Hunting, or whatever it was called.
KB: It was awful!
MW: That’s a great title! Bugs Bunny and Brendan Fraser Go Treasure Hunting, or Something: The Movie!
KB: The thing is find about Hollywood is that they change everything. Or, at least in my case, they change everything, so you do your best, and then they go and change everything. And then you complain about how they changed everything, and then the thing’s a hit, so you go, “oh yeah, I wrote Phineas and Ferb,” or whatever. But now I’m actually doing a show for Fox, based on my family, called The Bakers. That’s fun, because if the story is about you and your family, they have no leverage. “We’re not sure about the kid.” “It’s my kid! Sorry.”
Working on the Bugs Bunny/Brendan Fraser movie, is there something that jumps out in your mind as something that you pitched that they absolutely hated?
KB: Well, I had a couple of ideas for shorts, because they wanted to bring back the shorts program. Bugs Bunny began as one of those.
The pre-movie cartoons.
KB: That was the idea, but the exhibitors put up a fight, because Warner Bros. movies tend to be three hours or longer, and they didn’t want to add another ten minutes of free content [laughs]. But the idea that didn’t go anywhere that I really loved, was Wile E. Coyote, Suicide Bomber.
KB: And the joke was that the bomb would never go off, because he’s Wile E. Coyote.
It’s not too far removed from an actual Wile E. Coyote cartoon, it’s just the title that’s particularly iffy.
MW: You put Brendan Fraser in there, and you have a hit. I think that’s what’s missing. The Fraserness of it.
KB: What they used to have in Bugs Bunny was topical issues. Bugs Bunny would fight Hitler or something. So the other idea I had was Bugs Bunny Meets Afghanistan Sam, The Roughest, Toughest Cave-dwelling Millionaire, East of the Pecos. That one didn’t go anywhere, either.
MW: No Brendan Fraser. That’s the loss there.
I once was asked to pitch something to the networks. I had one a series of shorts about these sort of loser kids, and I came in and met the executive, who was just celebrating her Bat Mitzvah—it was a very exciting time for her—and she was also running a network, and she came up to me and said, “oh, I love your show! It’s one of the reasons I got into television. I watched the show when I was a kid. It was so great, what do you got?” I said, “well, I was actually thinking of updating those characters, making them teenagers, and what not.” And she said, “yeah, I don’t think those characters really work.” And that was the end of it. It was pretty much the last thing I ever pitched. I just started doing books.
I want to take it back to something you touched on, Kyle. The name of the panel is “Cartooning Today.” I think if they had done this panel two years ago, it would have been something along the lines of—
KB: “Cartooning Two Years Ago?”
–“Cartooning after 9/11.” Do you feel that the climate has changed, as far as what you can get away with?
KB: Uh, I don’t know. I’ve been doing my own stuff, for the last few years, so I can do whatever the heck I want, and I’ve been really pushing it. For the last few years, I was publishing my own books. I find that you can get away with anything, as long as it’s successful, so I’ve been publishing my own books, proving they work, and then selling them to publishers. Like I did a book called Nat Turner, about the Turner Rebellion, which everyone was saying I could do. Or, even if I did, I was going to have to water it down and make him a little more sympathetic before he chops up a bunch of people with an ax. And I kept saying, “no, I have a concept of how it’s going to work.”
To give an example of what used to happen before I started doing my own books, I pitched a Noah’s Ark movie. It was the easiest pitch I ever did. I said, “Noah’s Ark! And the animals talk and they sing and it’s going to be like a Disney animated thing,” and they said, “terrific!” So I bring in the first draft, and the big note from the studio is, ‘does everyone have to drown?’
KB: And that’s the kind of thing you have to put up with, on a regular basis. So I knew that if I did Nat Turner, there would be this whole thing about how it’s so violent.
MW: And can he be played by Brendan Fraser?
KB: Yeah. And now that it’s done and I show it to people—same thing with The Bakers—once I show them the work, it ended up at Fox. It ended up at Fox because they’re the only network that wasn’t trying to turn it into The Simpsons.
MW: Because they all have that.
KB: Exactly. They’ve already got that, and if they want another one, they’ll call Matt Groening.
In terms of throwing stuff against the wall and seeing what sticks, the Internet has been a great facilitator. Are you guys using it a lot, as a tool? How has the Web changed your work, and/or the industry?
MW: You know, what is great is that it’s allowed me to see a lot of people’s work that I wouldn’t have seen. It also allows me to hand in books from my house. There are some very practical things, but I don’t really quite “get” the Web yet. We’ve done some games, based on my characters that the kids can come and visit and stuff like that, but I don’t quite understand it. The thing that I’m doing that I’m really excited about is cartoons on the radio.
MW: Yeah, and that is very exciting.
KB: You do sound effects?
MW: No, I just write. I really think that cartooning on the radio is a new thing, and I’m pushing for that.
It’s kind of a new/old thing. There’s an interesting story about LaGuardia.
MW: That’s right, LaGuardia during the newspaper strike read all of the comics to the kids on WNYC, and I thought that was a great idea. Now that may come into the Internet in the sense that the radio cartoon is a nice two or three minute podcast. You don’t have to hear it on the radio. You can carry it with you. But audio is more interesting to me than the Internet. I like how tactile books are. I don’t always want to have to interact with my stories. Sometimes I want people to tell me stories. Sometimes I feel like someone’s not doing they’re job if I have to tell them how to do their stories.
KB: The thing I like about the Internet is that you can sample stuff for free. If I’ve heard about a musician, I can check out their stuff. So I put all of my work on there. Also because, we were talking about newspapers before, the old model for popularizing a cartoon was like something like Garfield was available virtually for free. For a penny a day, I could read Garfield. So I’m exposed to it constantly, so when I finally see it in the story, I say, “oh! That’s that thing I know all about. I’m going to buy it, because it’s familiar to me.” So I tend to put my stuff on YouTube and all of that stuff, just so people see my stuff and say, “oh, that’s the guy with the funny cartoons. I’ll buy that.”
MW: But I think you have to be established to a certain degree to do that. If you’re just a kid starting out, and you give all of your stuff away, there’s a question of the value of that stuff. Like I said, the stuff we’ve done on the Web is based specifically on my characters, and it ancillary. I guess it fills that “oh, the pigeon, I can play with the pigeon, and next time I see the pigeon, I’ll be happy about it.” But I don’t quite get it as a medium. I’m old and slow.
In terms of both what [Baker has] been doing on YouTube and [Willems’s] NPR work, what the Internet does seem to afford you is a sense of instant feedback.
MW: Yeah. In that sense, the Internet and the NPR stuff is interesting, because they post the cartoons without captions, first, and then they just get thousands of submissions about what the caption is. So I guess there is that interactivity. What I don’t like about the Internet in that sense is that it’s kind of like living in a fishbowl. I don’t mind that, but I also want kind of a firewall. I don’t want people knowing what I had for breakfast.
[Continued in Part Three]