Since its premiere in 2015, We Bare Bears has emerged as a pop-culture phenomenon, attracting celebrity guest stars and earning its first-ever Emmy nomination this summer. Created by Daniel Chong for Cartoon Network, the charming animated comedy—which won a BAFTA Children’s Award in 2016—about three misfit bears and their misadventures has become a hit with kids (and their parents) across the globe. Chong tells TV Kids about his inspiration for the series and reaching the 100-episode milestone.
TV KIDS: What was the inspiration for your The Three Bare Bears webcomic, and how did it become a TV show?
CHONG: I was working in feature animation, and I think I needed an outlet. I was in the library with my girlfriend’s niece, and I drew these three bears stacked on top of each other, and it just made her laugh! So I went with it. The webcomic came from that. It was just a goofy thing I put online that almost nobody read! Eventually, I realized I wanted to make it a TV show because I wanted more for my career. So I formed it into what I thought could be a TV show, and then I worked with Cartoon Network to fine-tune it.
TV KIDS: How did you define the characteristics of each of your three main characters?
CHONG: The nice thing was, I had the bears stacked on top of each other from the beginning. As I looked at them as a stack, I thought, well, maybe they are brothers and maybe there’s a reason they stack—there’s a brothers’ hierarchy. So the top bear, Grizzly, is the older brother, he’s the leader, he tells them where to go, he can see more than anyone else. The middle brother is Panda and he’s the middle child—more emotional, more to himself, more of the rebel. And then the bottom bear, Ice Bear, he’s the younger brother, not paid much attention to, more of an oddball. In a way, it naturally all came together once I saw them as siblings.
TV KIDS: What were some of the things you were listening for as you were voice casting the show?
CHONG: For Grizzly, I needed someone who felt like a leader, who felt like somebody who could take charge and people would want to follow him. Eric Edelstein was very welcoming and you could tell he lit up a room. That’s exactly what Grizzly needed to be. For Panda, I was looking for someone who could play the sweet side and be broad. Panda tends to have the worst luck of all three bears. He gets put into bad predicaments. Bobby Moynihan played the comedy so well. And then for Ice Bear, I needed someone who could be quick with his delivery and very succinct, but also very funny and make an impression. Demetri Martin’s comedy is like that. It’s short one-liners; he makes a point and moves on. They all worked out perfectly for what I needed.
TV KIDS: I understand that you created the show in part to reflect what it’s like to be a minority and feel like an outsider. At a time when the immigration debate is front and center, do you think that message has taken on even more resonance?
CHONG: Absolutely. And the nice thing about animation is I can use these three bears to tell these stories about something that hopefully everyone will understand. And I hope that everyone sees that we’re all pretty much the same, and we all have the same struggles and problems and issues. That’s the nice metaphor that we can show the world and hopefully illuminate some of the problems that the world is having right now.
TV KIDS: What kind of creative environment have you found at Cartoon Network Studios?
CHONG: They know when to step in, and they know when to leave you alone. That is probably the most valuable thing you can hope for when you’re being guided by a network. And I think they’ve balanced it very well. There were times when I was a little unsure or something was unclear, and they would step in and start asking the right questions and start poking at the right things, and they’d allow us to problem-solve it ourselves and find our own way to resolve a situation that maybe needed to be cleared up. I’m very appreciative of the freedom they’ve given us.
TV KIDS: You’ve made a lot of episodes! How do you approach keeping it fresh every season?
CHONG: It is hard. As you get further in, it becomes less about me and more about the team. For me as showrunner, it’s about knowing the things I can let go of and the different places I can allow the show to go. I have to be a little more open-minded. The show has benefited from that. Getting to 100 episodes is the culmination of me and my team taking ownership and wanting it to be more than it is.
TV KIDS: I’ve been told by many media execs that writing comedy for children is the hardest thing to get right. How do you know when you have the appropriate tone for your demo? How do you know if you’ve taken the comedy too far in a grown-up direction?
CHONG: The key is, we don’t think of kids right away when we’re writing. If we’re laughing a lot at an episode, we believe that’s going to be a good thing for the audience. The only thing we can do to write comedy for children is to entertain ourselves and make sure we like it. The studio will help if they think something is a little too out of reach. But overall, my taste and the tastes of my team align with what children will like. We follow our own instincts.
TV KIDS: Some of the episodes feature the three bears as toddlers. What storytelling challenges do the baby bears present?
CHONG: The baby bears were there from the webcomic, so they were built into the original pitch, but I didn’t realize how important they were going to be to the show. I thought we’d do one or two [episodes with them every] season, but we’ve done a lot more. That’s not just because they became really popular and fun to do. They provided a different style of storytelling that we could play with. The baby bears can be a little crazier, a little broader. They’re honestly a little smarter than the adult bears! They can go anywhere, which has been very liberating for us. We use them to break up the storytelling, so it’s not always the adult bears in the city dealing with possibly more adult problems. They give us a different sort of mood to go with. It’s honestly been a lifesaver to have them in our arsenal.
TV KIDS: What inspires you creatively?
CHONG: I grew up reading a lot of comic strips, like Garfield and Calvin and Hobbes. I learned how to draw that way. I would copy comic strips. But then I started getting into animation. One of the first things that struck me was Aardman’s Wallace & Gromit. The comedic sensibility, the deadpan dryness, I thought it was so funny and so appealing to adults and to me as a kid. Those are my main inspirations.
TV KIDS: Are you looking to develop other projects, or do the bears take up all of your time?
CHONG: We Bare Bears takes up tons of time! It’s a very time-consuming project. Even though they’re drawn very simply, it’s a super complex show to make. How big can the episodes get? How many backgrounds and characters [can we have]? These things have haunted us since day one. Everyone going into it, even the animation studio, thought it was not going to be a hard show to make, but it turned out to be really, really hard! It’s a lot of work to make the show, but the great thing is I have a team of very talented people who care about the show. That’s what got us to over 100 episodes.