By David Wood
A range of producers and distributors weigh in on what it takes to make a successful comedy for kids.
Have you hung out with kids lately? Then you know what humiliation is. They are smarter, more agile and more quick-witted than you. They can outperform you on any portable electronic device and they’re world-class multitaskers.
Yes, youngsters are a media-savvy, sophisticated bunch, and although they have countless entertainment options on myriad screens, they also have a lot of stress from schoolwork and from having to grow up so fast nowadays.
The best tonic for them is comedy, to which they gravitate. Comedy shows offer a safe haven, a place where kids can kick back and relax. “I think comedy’s current popularity is a direct response to the pressure on kids growing up in the world today,” says Fernando Szew, the CEO of MarVista Entertainment. “It’s a world in which there is a lot of information flow, plus more and more social change in terms of both parents working or living apart. The household has changed—and TV has become more of an escape than before. Kids need to be entertained and parents want to allow that.”
Vince Commisso, the president and CEO of 9 Story Entertainment, confirms that while the gaming console has taken over as the main lean-forward entertainment experience for kids, TV comedy has become the key way for them to relax.
“In contrast to the market for kids’ action adventure, which has become tougher, comedy is still very relevant to older age groups. They consume media in a much greater variety of ways, but comedy has become an opportunity for them to simply kick back and be entertained,” Commisso says.
In addition to providing entertainment, comedy has virtues that appeal to broadcasters, points out Sander Schwartz, the president of kids’ and family entertainment at FremantleMedia Enterprises (FME).
“Nothing has the potential to repeat better, last longer or travel better than a good comedy show—hence the enduring success of SpongeBob SquarePants,” Schwartz says. “It’s been running for over a decade and it continues to rate very highly, with kids laughing again and again at the same jokes.”
Given that both audiences and commissioning editors are asking for comedy, it’s not surprising that there are plenty of TV producers and executives searching for the next big children’s comedy hit.
“Right now there is strong demand for ideas which are fresh and funny,” says Schwartz.
A good example would be Disney Channel’s surreal animated comedy Fish Hooks, which provides a unique yet familiar take on the U.S. high school comedy, transported to an aquarium. “This is the kind of thing we are always on the lookout for—a show that stands out from the crowd because it’s unlike anything else out there,” Schwartz says.
His strategy for finding this kind of content is to “consciously look for things that are new, fresh and different and avoid proposals which seem derivative.”
At CAKE, which has sold comedies like the Total Drama franchise, Angelo Rules and Oscar’s Oasis around the world, Tom van Waveren, the CEO and creative director at the company, looks for “a clear and recognizable premise that can be the starting point of an unlimited number of stories. The funniest series to watch are the ones that remind us of our own lives and dreams. They show funny observations about human behavior and magnify them in the process.”
Asaph “Ace” Fipke, the CEO and founder at Nerd Corps Entertainment, says that “freshness is the biggest thing I’m always looking for in comedy—a new take on traditional comedic themes.”
The two most important features of a good kids’ comedy series are the idea and its realization in the script, he states. “It’s script first, most definitely, and all the things that make up what that script is. By this I mean the unique and interesting characters and the situations the writers put those characters in.”
For van Waveren, what’s absolutely crucial is comedic timing. “It’s not just coming up with funny ideas but making sure they are delivered in such a way as to maximize their impact. Think about it, a joke is only truly funny if it is well told.
“Don’t forget, the difference between a good pitch and a good show is execution. That means finding the right writing, directing and talent to make that one funny idea into a great show. A well-executed good idea makes a much better show than a moderately executed great idea.”
In particular, making sure that the writing lives up to the promise of the idea is crucial, says FME’s Schwartz. “As the saying goes, ‘If it ain’t on the page it ain’t on the stage.’ If the script isn’t funny, then neither will the end result be in terms of animation or live action.”
POWER OF THE PEN
Make sure you spend time finding the best writing talent that can fulfill the promise of the show, advises Schwartz, who drafted The Simpsons’ former co-showrunner Josh Weinstein to work on Strange Hill High, FME’s co-production with CBBC, created by the London-based outfit Yoshimi & Katoi. The show will pioneer hypervynorama, a technique that combines puppets—styled like Japanese vinyl toys—with animation to produce “real-time animation.”
“Josh has a unique comedic sense of humor and he surrounded himself with writers who he knew would also understand the show,” says Schwartz.
Schwartz stresses that finding the right writing talent can be one of the toughest challenges when trying to make quality children’s comedy, particularly when treaty co-production rules require writers to be drawn from specific territories—ones that otherwise might not have been used.
There were no such problems on FME’s Wizards Vs Aliens, which is a CBBC commission. The sci-fi fantasy live-action series with comedic elements was co-created by Russell T Davies, the writer behind the revival of the BBC mega hit Doctor Who.
According to Nerd Corps’ Fipke, to write successfully for different age groups you have to get down to basics and ask yourself, What is it that kids of different ages find funny?
AGE DOES MATTER
In general, preschool shows are all about breaking the rules—a theme that comes at a time when young children are being taught a lot of rules, Fipke says. “The humor comes from the characters not fully understanding the reasons for rules. Kids enjoy seeing characters doing the wrong thing and experiencing the consequences.”
For older children, from the age of four upward, you can begin to get a little bit more diverse and sophisticated, says Fipke. “Here you can introduce word play, subtlety and nuances of characters in situations where you know how they will react—kids can start to anticipate what will happen.”
Commisso, of 9 Story, adds, “Material for older age groups can involve more conflict that can resolve itself in a comedic way. With younger age groups, the comedy can’t have as much of an edge.”
Before he moved to CAKE, van Waveren was involved in distributing one of the first live-action kids’ comedies to resonate worldwide: Lizzie McGuire, which was targeted at tweens. “We realized that a big part of its success was that the audience was getting the same production values as the prime-time sitcoms they were watching, with themes and characters that resonated with their tween lives. Many shows have followed that model since then.”
According to MarVista’s Szew, writers are only part of the talent base required to produce that vital but sometimes elusive alchemy of comic timing: “The biggest challenge is finding the right mix of talent to make the comedy work. In fact, it’s almost a miracle that it does work. In comedy, there aren’t enough writers, directors and actors who can combine to get that timing right.”
Fipke adds that one good way of working toward the desired end result is by ensuring that each project has a creative champion or champions to drive the work forward. “It’s important that there’s a key passionate person or group of creators involved from the beginning to the end. They ensure that everything is authentic and has a reason.”
The champions of League of Super Evil, one of Nerd Corps’ most successful animated comedies, were its creators, a group of young animators, says Fipke. “It was their passion that made that show what it is. Our job was simply to create the atmosphere in which they were allowed to be funny.”
“I’d love to be able to say there’s an exact process we follow, but it’s more about gut instinct, throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks,” Fipke says. “You go into development with designers, writers, actors and animators and then you have to step away and critique it. Then cut, edit and revise and take it to the next stage. The secret is to create an atmosphere where any idea is good in development, while retaining the ability to be discerning at the right time.”
It’s really important not to be afraid to lose things that don’t work, which means that your creative team needs to be ready to cut and move on, Fipke goes on. “It’s hard to know if you’ve nailed it until it’s on the screen.”
Taking enough time with the development of an idea is crucial, he adds. “Sometimes it takes a lot of time for ideas to gestate. In my view you can always tell when comedy has been pushed through too quickly.”
Nerd Corps’ animated kids’ series Endangered Species certainly benefited from not being hurried, says Fipke. “It started as a Looney Tunes type of ensemble, but we distilled it into the three strongest archetypes—happy and enthusiastic, paranoid and controlling, and dim-witted and socially inept—requiring the writing team to step up and develop the differences in those characters and how they would react in different situations.”
Authenticity of characterization is one of the strengths that has sustained SpongeBob SquarePants for a decade, insists 9 Story’s Commisso. That’s a lesson that any kids’ comedy producer would do well to pay attention to. Commisso has taken characterization very seriously on animated comedies such as Almost Naked Animals, a series about a group of underdressed creatures who run a beach-front hotel.
“With SpongeBob, everything that happened came out of the authentic relationships [between] the characters, rather than being driven by the script. We worked very hard on Almost Naked Animals, as well as the upcoming series Camp Lakebottom, to make sure the comedy stemmed from an authentic place. That’s important because kids can tell if the scripts are contrived.”
Commisso describes Almost Naked Animals as being ahead of its time when 9 Story started working on it, four years ago. “Back then, kids’ TV was more about reality TV and live action, but since then animation has come back and gone wider and wackier.”
Commisso warns that one potential danger of animation is that “practitioners learn their craft in an educational setting. That mindset can be a problem when it comes to creating entertainment-based products, which is why we say, ‘Remember your audience and what they do and don’t like.’ ”
Nevertheless, there are plenty of advantages to using animation for kids’ comedies. “We found that having animated characters in Total Drama Island [meant they could] be chased by bears or fall out of planes,” van Waveren says. “That took the physical threats to our characters to a completely different level than if we had been dealing with actors’ and benefitted from all the comedy we could derive from that. Furthermore, many animated comedies will actually take sponges, animals or other fantastical creatures to become conduits for telling stories about the human condition. Interestingly, live-action comedies have been [borrowing] from cartoons and vice versa, and I would argue that the principal distinction still exists but the boundaries are blurring.”
One of the best ways to gauge what’s hot and what’s not is to pay attention to social networks and blogs where the latest kids’ content is discussed. It’s an informal type of research that can be pretty useful, says Commisso.
BEWARE THE BLOGGERS
But relying solely on the Internet as a focus group is risky, warns Fipke. “Disney, our partner on Slugterra, had done a lot of testing of pilots online to get feedback, which helped in development, and we’d love to do more. But it’s important to realize that you don’t really know who’s on the other side.” Focus groups are a more reliable way of market testing, he insists.
The Australian producer Jigsaw Entertainment found it was able to keep the writing on its ABC3 sketch comedy You’re Skitting Me relevant to its intended audience by getting them onboard to help write the series with professionals.
“Kids’ sketch comedy is a new genre here and it has been really successful,” says Bernadette O’Mahony, the head of development and production at the Australian Children’s Television Foundation, which is distributing the series worldwide. “What we found in writing and workshopping the series was that our writers, who ranged from 14 to 17 years old, had really strong opinions about what they found current and funny, which wasn’t necessarily the way adults saw things.”
One thing that producers have realized is that kids are into fast-paced comedy, comments Commisso, which means that scripts have gotten longer. “It used to be 11 to 12 pages per script. Now the scripts are 20 pages, as the pacing is faster, with way more character integration—you have to keep that pace up.”
In the quest for the next quality comedy series for kids, Commisso ultimately takes inspiration from Apple and the late Steve Jobs. “Apple executives famously ask themselves the same question over and over again: ‘How can we make this simpler?’ Producers of children’s comedy can keep asking themselves, ‘How can we make this funnier or more engaging?’ That’s the challenge.”