Several leading producers and distributors tell Chelsea Regan about the always present demand for kids’ comedies, and why they are more important now than they have ever been.
Laughter is the best medicine—a tonic for the doldrums of being a year and a half into a pandemic that has seen lockdowns and mask mandates and shifts in socialization and schooling. It’s what kids and adults alike need more than ever, resulting in a steady demand for kids’ content injected with a healthy dose of humor.
Indeed, Ed Galton, CEO of CAKE, notes that while comedy has historically sold well, the current climate is likely fostering a boost in demand, driven by a greater need for laughs. Kids “like to come home from school and escape reality—they do that through comedy,” says Galton. “That’s why comedy has always been really strong. There could be an argument that there’s a greater demand for comedy now because of all of the stuff that kids have had to go through with Covid-19—being stuck at home, not seeing their friends, not engaging with other kids for so long. That’s probably true across the board.”
“There’s never been a more important time to make all of our viewers laugh,” says Rachel Marcus, VP of creative development at Guru Studio. “Families are all under an enormous amount of stress, and our younger generations are feeling it, whether they know it or not. The best remedy to counteract this is comedy, laughter and joy. We need more levity in our lives, and we as content creators can play a role in supplying that.”
The Guru Studio property Big Blue, which is slated to premiere later this year on CBC Kids, is a character-based comedy for kids aged 5 to 9. It follows a group of daring underwater explorers and their eccentric submarine crew, as well as the magical ocean fairy stowaway Bacon Berry. “The beauty of animation is that the laws of physics don’t need to apply, allowing our characters to experience even more silly hijinks than would ever be possible in live action,” says Marcus. “In the end, we’ve been able to create a show that balances comedy and adventure in a way that’s unique to the medium.”
This mixing of comedy into other genres within the kids’ space is a development also noted by Pierre Sissmann, Cyber Group Studios’ CEO and president. “There is a trend today to see comedy blending with adventure and action, which when you look back four, five, six years ago, it was all about comedy. Whether it was a sitcom or cartoon, it was pure, 100 percent comedy. That 100 percent comedy genre still exists and prospers, but we’re now able to merge it with different things like action, even historical things or edutainment. There’s an evolution in the writing.”
Cyber Group is currently in production on six series and in development on about 12 programs, including the comedy-adventure show The McFire Family, which is about real-life superheroes, including firefighters, nurses and doctors. “It’s not the ultimate comedy or the ultimate adventure show or the ultimate action show, but I think it is a perfect blend, which is a result of the evolution of the demand of having shows that still have comedy, still are light, where kids can laugh,” says Sissmann. “It’s funny, but at the same time, it’s serious; it has suspense, action and adventure.”
On the Beyond Rights content slate, comedy is finding its way into titles with a factual bent. “What’s been especially nice in this Covid period is that factual has a lot more comedy in it,” notes Sarah McCormack, senior VP of acquisitions and co-productions at Beyond Rights. “There’s more humor in factual kids’ content at the moment than there had been before. That’s been great to see.”
McCormack has also seen the appeal of surreal comedy for kids these days. “When you do a bedtime story, there’s the kind of silliness and surreal bit that they know is silly, but they love it.”
In Beyond Rights’ The World According to Grandpa, the titular elder tells fantastical tales about everyday wonders, like why the sky is blue or why cats go out at night. At the end of each episode, a clever rabbit offers a fact-check. “That’s the wonderful thing I’ve seen in factual—that you can get this more surreal, wonderful comedy,” says McCormack. “It goes into what makes you laugh: why do we laugh, why do we find things funny? For me with humor, it’s when you subvert the normal, when it’s a little bit different from normal, that’s what you can laugh at.”
While the trend of surrealism might be relatively new in kids’ content, a steady standby in international comedy for children has been the slapstick genre, which continues to translate well across borders.
Known for its expertise in slapstick comedy, Xilam Animation has on its slate such non-verbal programs as Oggy and the Cockroaches and Zig & Sharko. “We like this format because it enables universal storytelling, language and humor, and if it’s well done, it has evergreen potential,” says Marc du Pontavice, CEO. “The more visual and physical the comedy is, the more it translates globally. It becomes more challenging when the stories are driven by local customs such as school activities. However, humor is universal, and many common themes are funny for kids all over the world.”
Universal themes for kids include “school life, sibling rivalry, family situations, friend relationships, love of pets and mastering everyday situations,” says Terry Kalagian, executive VP of creative content in the U.S. for Gaumont. “While the market is ever-changing, it seems the best chance for comedies to travel across territories is to reflect at least some of these themes, include physical humor and take great care in the translation of jokes.”
In the younger kids’ space, CAKE distributes Mush-Mush & the Mushables, which is about to go into production on its second season, and has long had in its catalog the Total Drama franchise. Galton points out that the former has “much more physical comedy than you would get from something like a Total Drama, which obviously has an element of physical comedy, too, but is also much more of a social comedy that relies more on the interplay of characters and their relationships.” Both kinds of series can work internationally, but smart comedies like Total Drama strike a balance that’s not always easy to come by.
As Beyond’s McCormack puts it: “If you’re too clever, it gets lost in translation. Keep your humor simple and based on values that we all have. That will keep people smiling. ‘Know thy audience’ is the key.”
It’s also key not to offend viewers from different parts of the world. “Comedy that everyone can understand and that is not hurting the sensibilities of anybody” is the kind that travels best, according to Cyber Group’s Sissmann. “I’ve seen people come to us with things they think are funny. But, when you look at it from a perspective of a given country or a given region, it’s not funny. You’ve got to be very careful because the one thing about animation is that it is a global market.”
Non-dialogue slapstick humor remains the surest and safest bet for internationally resonant kids’ comedy, but character-driven comedy can find homes across the globe with the right themes, too. “This kind of comedy speaks to the universal human experience,” says Guru’s Marcus. “No matter your location, an upbeat character like SpongeBob will always have an external struggle with a Squidward-type. Personality clashes and conflict will always be canon for humor.”
A series like SpongeBob SquarePants has managed to find fans from a variety of different countries and ages. Shows that can capture and engage children, their older siblings and parents are as valuable as they’ve ever been in the current market, which has seen shifts in family viewing habits.
“If your characters seem real and they have heart, that’s how you engage a broader swath of audience, that’s how you get co-viewing in place,” says CAKE’s Galton. “That’s how you’re going to rope in your older audience. I look at shows like Bluey, where you get a lot of co-viewing even though it’s a preschool show. It has so much heart, you’re going to drag in the family audience to sit down with younger kids.”
A priority for Beyond and its catalog is finding programs that have this broad appeal. “We make sure that we’ve got animation and factual and have a light humor all the way through,” says McCormack. “Would your kid laugh at it? Would you laugh at it? Is it multigenerational? When you’ve been a parent, you find yourself watching TV shows and the kids have gone away and you’re still sitting there watching these shows and going, ‘Why am I still watching this? What am I doing this for?’”
Targeted at kids aged 6 to 8, Beyond’s Quimbo’s Quest follows the titular character, who doesn’t look like any other human or animal that’s ever been seen before, as he sets out on a mission to figure out who and what he is. According to McCormack, the show “works on different levels, and you can see that there are jokes for the adults, there are jokes for the teenagers, jokes for the 5-year-olds in there. You can all sit there as a family and watch a show and get something different out of it.”
Ultimately, families most enjoy watching shows that reflect back to them what they see in their own everyday lives. “All the complex and hilarious moments we can relate to as viewers, like past family experiences or sibling and parent dynamics, work extremely well when trying to create multiple entry points for a wider demographic,” says Guru’s Marcus. “Putting a mirror up against all the aspects of family life that are universally relatable becomes important.”
Co-viewing, which had already been on the uptick for several years, has become even more popular, in large part due to the global pandemic. “People enjoy being together and sharing things,” says Cyber Group’s Sissmann. For that viewing experience to be entertaining for everyone, it helps to have traditional absurdist cartoon comedy, unifying themes and “comedy that can be deciphered at two different levels by two different types of people, whether it’s the parents that read one thing or the kids that read the other thing,” Sissmann explains.
Taffy, a traditional cartoon on Cyber Group’s slate, is one that, through the writing, can reach kids and adults alike, according to Sissmann. He notes that several broadcasters have chosen to air the show before prime time in the evening due to its co-viewing credentials.
Giganto Club is a bridge preschool show from Cyber Group that delivers different comedic elements. It features “a whole new set of comedy and the reactions of the dinos on the set, who are being played by real actors, even though in the end, the image that you see is CG,” explains Sissmann. “There’s an evolution in the emotional stakes that you can represent. This is brought by the talent of the animators, but also the technology, which has evolved massively.”
Technology plays an essential role—as does the back-to-basics approach of meeting kids at their level.
“Children are naturally funny,” says Beyond’s McCormack. “Building that natural humor that children have and their view of the world into your show, that’s what I look for. You go, ‘How well do they know children?’ It’s got to be that kids’ voice. You can see that [in The World According to Grandpa] because those are the kinds of questions kids ask. I always judge it with my own children. What do they ask me? If you can see that you can relate it back [to them], you know that you’re going to get a winner somewhere along the line.”
Checking in on the kids of today is important, as they’re very clearly not the kids of yesterday, with different standards for their entertainment. “Over the years, kids have become more sophisticated in their expectations of a good show,” says Gaumont’s Kalagian. “They want multidimensional characters with more complex storylines,” she adds, referencing Gaumont’s own Bionic Max, a slapstick buddy comedy, and the family sitcom The Royal Family. “Kids’ comedy is the ever-elusive butterfly and has been since I’ve been in the business. It’s hard to find comedy that works across multiple territories, and everyone is looking for it. When you find it, it’s like spotting a unicorn.”
For Cyber Group, a proven unicorn is Gigantosaurus, which was awarded the 2021 Export Award for animation by UniFrance. “It does resonate around the world with kids, both in terms of subject—dinos—but also in the way it was written, the comedy and adventure,” Sissmann says.
As for the enduring success of the comedy genre as a whole, it’s a fan and broadcaster favorite for a reason: “It has the advantage of grabbing a child’s attention very quickly,” says Xilam’s du Pontavice. “It’s easier to dip in and out of a comedy show, and broadcasters love that flexibility.”
Covid-19 challenges for producers, distributors, broadcasters and streamers notwithstanding, CAKE’s Galton believes that the market has turned a corner. “We are climbing out of the darkest days when it comes to the impact on business; even though the numbers are still not great, we are starting to see more activity, whether that’s traveling to MIPCOM or Cartoon Forum,” he says. “We’re starting to see movement there, which we haven’t seen in a year and a half. That’s really positive.”