9 Story’s Vince Commisso

Vince Commisso, the president and CEO of 9 Story Media Group, talks to TV Kids about the continued selling power of kids’ comedy and the importance of having character-driven stories like those found in Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum in appealing to children—and parents—of all ages.

Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum, a show for which 9 Story Media Group teamed up with PBS, is based on a book property called Ordinary People Change the World from Brad Meltzer. In the TV series, Xavier Riddle and his pals journey back in time to meet iconic historical figures like Albert Einstein, Rosa Parks and Amelia Earhardt—not as the icons they became, but as kids brimming with the potential that foretold their futures. According to Commisso, Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum works because “Xavier, his sister Yadina and their friend Brad are ambassadors for the audience at home. There’s a funny dynamic between the three of them and it gets funnier when they interact with the other characters.” He adds of the entertaining educational series, “All the comedy is driven by the characters.”

This interview was conducted prior to the COVID-19 global pandemic. Media companies are currently shifting their strategies in the wake of production postponements.

***Image***TV KIDS: What is the overall demand for kids’ comedy? Does comedy sell better than other genres?
COMMISSO: Kids’ content in general is selling really, really well. There’s a great demand for kids’ comedy from the OTT world and the SVOD world. Of course, there are still major kids’ channels around the world that look for content. And the demand has never been greater than it is today. I actually don’t think you can make any kind of kids’ content these days without there being a comedic element to it. Kids always want to be entertained with a smile, with a giggle. You can engage them through some other ethos—creativity, friendship, family, empathy—but if there’s not a comedic element to it, you won’t succeed.

TV KIDS: What role can comedy play in curriculum-driven/educational content?
COMMISSO: If you think about doing educational content today, you have to actually lead with the entertainment and with the comedy and then deliver the education in that construct because that’s what sticks. If you even think about when you were a child and all of the shows that you watched when you were a kid, the things that resonate with you today are the things that you learned from—the things where you learned life lessons from or some hard data. You wouldn’t have learned them or gotten that unless you were entertained or compelled by the content.

TV KIDS: Are you finding slapstick humor or character-driven humor more popular these days?
COMMISSO: I feel like it’s all character-driven. But when you start talking about ages, you have to deliver the comedy a little bit differently. If you’re dealing with 2 to 5, preschoolers, the comedy has to be gentle, deliver a giggle and maybe a little, What do you think that means? And the answer is, I don’t know! And the audience will laugh, right? And that’s kind of soft, gentle comedy and you can deliver that and it makes the kids smile at that age, makes them laugh. We’re doing Blue’s Clues & You! with Nickelodeon for a very young audience, and so much of the comedy comes from when Josh [Dela Cruz] on screen is looking for something, the clue, and it’s right in front of him and he doesn’t know where it is. The kids are watching and going, It’s right there! He picks it up and goes, Oh it’s right here, nobody told me! And the kids laugh really loud because they know they just told him. You engage them through that entertainment element.

When you get a little older, it becomes more character-driven. You start to get a little bit more into what it’s like for the characters, who like each other, but when they interact with each other, they do things that are unexpected or say things that are unexpected. You start to get comedy that’s a little bit bolder. Then, if you get a little bit older still, it gets to be kind of wise-cracky and slap-sticky. You could have slapstick when you’re younger, but that’s got to be more seasoning than the essence of it. When you’re older, it’s always got to be character-driven [and] you can do a little more, be a little more liberated with the visuals and the extremes of the characters.

TV KIDS: What about live-action comedies versus animated?
COMMISSO: Everything has to deliver comedy for kids, and live-action comedy really is about a link to the characters. That absolutely has to be character-driven. The comedies that work, the shows that have worked in live-action for kids usually have a main character that has two layers—one that’s relatable and one that’s aspirational. Their everyday life is relatable and then they have something about them that is superstar-like or unattainable, but it’s fantasy. We’ve seen plenty of examples of that. That relatable piece has to involve humor, has to connect with other characters in a construct that’s very similar to the audience—like a family construct with a wise-cracking brother.

TV KIDS: Are family-viewing shows with jokes for everyone having a moment?
COMMISSO: What you’re seeing now—because things are available on-demand, so you can get them anytime you want—is [demand for shows] for families to sit and watch together. They used to be driven by schedules, like when we were watching linear television. What was on at 8 o’clock or 9 o’clock that the family could watch together? A lot of that was the reality shows and music shows like American Idol and things like that that everybody could watch together. Now it’s broader because you can watch anything. You can put on whatever compels you to watch as a family. Often that’s a family movie, but sometimes there are series that you can watch with your kids and your family that are for everyone that will go on serialized. We’ll watch one tonight, we’ll watch one tomorrow night. And that, depending on the children’s ages, works really well.

TV KIDS: What do shows need in order to appeal to the whole family?
COMMISSO: You have to have entry points for all of them that they can relate to. You assume that there’s a family watching at home. You generally have to deliver them a family construct and then you have to say, This person is relatable in his or her role inside the family to someone in the audience at home. And then you have to create a conceit around that that’s compelling. Even the early Steven Spielberg movies—E.T., and he did one recently called Super 8—it’s always about kids and families that have become empowered. That movie works for all audiences. We’re seeing more and more content created in that mindset rather than a movie or limited series and even high-end limited series because there’s no bigger win for the platform than to have everybody in a home watching this show.

TV KIDS: What kind of comedy travels best? And what are the potential challenges of translating humor?
COMMISSO: Comedy that travels best tends to be character comedy. When there’s a character that compels you because he or she is funny. SpongeBob is a great example. SpongeBob is a hysterical character who has unbridled optimism. That’s something you can appreciate all over the world. His take on things is simplistic and unique. And he’s very transparent as to what he is and that’s appealing. That’s going to work. The challenges sometimes are either in cultural or dialogue nuances. When you make a joke in a certain language that you have to translate into another language, the joke doesn’t land because of the translation. Or, if you make a joke that is about pop culture or any kind of specific cultural reference, it’s only funny in that culture. Laughter is universal but sometimes comedy isn’t and you have to make sure that your comedy is universal.