Dominic Gardiner, CEO of Jetpack Distribution, talks to TV Kids about the company’s stacked kids’ comedy roster and the possibilities for the genre in the years ahead.
Oswaldo, Rainbow Butterfly Unicorn Kitty and The Barefoot Bandits are among the titles that make up the backbone of Jetpack Distribution’s comedy catalog, one that also includes such standouts as Dennis & Gnasher Unleashed and Talking Tom and Friends. “Each one of those series is a slightly different thing, but I could put them all in the comedy bucket,” says Gardiner. “In the comedy bucket, there are all types of nuanced buckets.”
Oswaldo follows the school-time misadventures of the titular penguin who was adopted by human parents. “We think of Oswaldo as kind of like a sitcom,” Gardiner says. “His face makes you laugh.”
Dennis & Gnasher centers on 10-year-old Dennis and his pup in a world full of imagination, comedy and adventure. “That’s a show that’s been developed to really make it more relatable. Even though the storylines are fantastical, the characters are very relatable.”
And then there’s Rainbow Butterfly Unicorn Kitty, a series about a magical and powerful feline named Felicity. “On the surface you can think, That’s kind of a mashup series with everything you can think of. You’re like, Alright, that’s quite a start, you’ve got the kitchen sink in there. But what’s really smart about that series is that they did throw the kitchen sink in, deliberately.”
Older kids’ comedy, aimed at those in the 6-to-11 age set, is what Gardiner sees as Jetpack’s “heartland.” At these ages, he says, kids are drawn to shows that make them laugh. This holds true across genders and across continents. The catch is that comedy is perennially difficult to get right. Not every show can have the reach and the longevity of SpongeBob SquarePants.
“Kids love funny things. Even action-adventure series need comedy in order for it to really transcend. There’s no gender specificness for boys or girls; boys and girls are pretty much equal consumers of comedy,” says Gardiner, who adds, “You can create a funny show, but can you create a laugh-out-loud funny show for everywhere? It’s not easy. And I think that’s why there’s less competition [versus preschool], less at the very top of their game.”
As Gardiner is quick to point out, it’s always a tall order to write a comedy series in one language whose humor will hold up when translated into another. This can be an even bigger challenge when it comes to kids’ titles featuring dialogue that needs to be organic to the children in whatever market they land.
“Particularly around 9 to 10 years old—the way they speak to each other is different and [so are] the words they use and the references they use. So a lot of comedy writing has to be really carefully worded to make it translate,” says Gardiner. “Comedy is like food. It’s different around the world and we’re all brought up on one kind of preference. But as we get older, our tastes change and develop. So it is with comedy.”
When Jetpack is acquiring the Oswaldos and Barefoot Bandits of the kids’ comedy world, it’s not just the script that’s being pored over and carefully considered. Oftentimes an even greater amount of weight is placed on a series’ visual aspect.
“When we’re distributing series, the visual has to have a real impact,” Gardiner says. “And the design of the characters can really say a lot about the type of comedy that one might expect from the series. Very much our first consideration is, Does it pass the tough digital test?” But when it does come down to the script, getting an idea for the voices of the characters is imperative. “Voices are so important in comedy, comedy voice and performance. A gag is only funny if it’s delivered and the timing has got to be perfect,” notes Gardiner, who also indicates that Jetpack has its eye on acquiring some non-dialogue comedy.
As for themes in the kids’ comedy genre, it seems to Gardiner as though everything has already been done before. He believes that now is the era of mashup brands for older children. “It’s like, you can’t just have aliens in space you have to have like a fish in space. Or aliens in the water. Or pigeons in space,” quips Gardiner, who also sees a genre emerging that takes a more serious theme and turns it on its head, like Teen Titans Go!, a follow-up to the less comedic Teen Titans.
“You have a fairly straight setup of superhero characters from which you can create this completely goofy thing from the same characters,” Gardiner says, referencing the Cartoon Network series. “You don’t need to do much but talk to each other in a room. It’s just one of those comedies that really works well because you know the characters so well; you know what they’re all going to do, you can predict what they’re going to do.”
Taking a broader view, Gardiner reflects on what that could mean for series made in a similar vein. “I think we can define or develop character-driven comedies, where the characters are so well-rounded. If you know how a character is going to react in a given situation, that’s the killer. If you can do that in a kids’ show with some quirky characters, you can put them in any location; you can stick them on a farm, on the water, back in time. It’s about those characters and how they hit, how they react.”
No matter how many truly new ideas might be circulating in the kids’ content marketplace, Gardiner believes that nine times out of ten, broadcasters are going to play it safe, perhaps giving one slot in the lineup to a “wildcard.” Traditional broadcasters in particular, with their limited slots, are more likely to be after programming that’s going to guarantee them a win. Despite creativity’s current limited likelihood of reward, though, Gardiner is optimistic that once certain unsettled waters calm, this might change.
“The state of mind of the market is that there are so many players, so many distribution platforms changing that the creative risk is not really that high on anybody’s agenda,” says Gardiner. “They’re also changing their entire business structures. It’s too great to do that and to start doing some risky things at the same time. I think once they’ve gotten settled and they know what’s happening, the SVODs can be like, OK, let’s do some stuff.”
Gardiner recalls a conversation a few years back in which someone theorized that there was a race underway between Netflix and Disney to become the other. With Netflix now owning even more of its own content and Disney building its own SVOD platform, the theory has borne out. And it’s changing the game.
“The Lion King, in a year’s time, can I watch it on iTunes? Can I watch in on Netflix? No, I can only get it on Disney+. That’s the way it’s going to be. It’s just going to change, and I think it’s all good for the consumer because they’re going to have many ways to get all kinds of content.”
In addition to being a possible boon for the consumer, it’s indicative of what could be an outsized role that kids’ content—kids’ comedy content, the kind of content in the heartland of Jetpack Distribution’s catalog—will play in the streaming battles ahead.
“Kids have a great way of demanding things—pocket money, all those kinds of things. Certainly kids will be an important component of SVOD in the future,” says Gardiner. “Kids’ [content] is going to be a big piece of which subscriptions people have.”