Gary Sperling

What makes for a good animated show? If we make it, will kids watch? These are the questions that hang over my work every day. (“Why don’t cartoon writers get residuals?” is also right up there, but the answer to that is too depressing.)

When I was a kid, squandering my youth watching every cartoon I could, from the sublime (anything by Jay Ward) to the ridiculous (Kimba the White Lion), television had it easy. No cable, no computers, no video, no PlayStations. In short, no competition. I didn’t just watch Gigantor because I thought it was cool (although I certainly did), I watched it because it was the only cartoon on at that time. (By the way, I spent far more time at the library than in front of the television, as do my own kids, for what that’s worth.)

Today, we can’t take our audience for granted. Obviously, we’re out to make the best show we can, but it’s just as obvious that unless somebody watches, we’ve got a problem. I think the key to success with a cartoon can be summarized in two words—Harry Potter. It’s not so much the Harry Potter books specifically, although I’m sure there isn’t an executive in town who wouldn’t give his/her assistant’s right arm for the chance to make a Harry Potter show. It’s what the books represent. They appeal equally to boys and girls and, most importantly, their popularity grew by word of mouth.

The holy grail for exhibitors of children’s programming is the equivalent of the “water cooler” show for adults—a show kids will tell other kids about on the playground. (Judging by the level of discourse on my son’s playground, asking for anything more than name calling and karate grunts might be too much.)

Today I was working through a story with the producers of my New Show when Barry Blumberg, an executive vice president here, stopped by for a Pop-Tart. (Office politics tip—the key to face-time with executives is a ready supply of junk food.) I asked him for his theory of what makes a winning animated show. “Great characters in engaging stories with heart, humor, and theme.” Moment for chewing. “Or clowns. Kids love clowns.”

To someone looking for antic cartoons of the “dog chases cat, cat hits dog with shovel, high jinks ensue” variety, this was clearly the wrong answer. Thinking about it though, it’s not a bad description of Harry Potter. And look what’s happened to him. (Admittedly, I can’t think of any clowns in those books, but there’s still what, three to go?)

So, we’ll keep soldiering on, cramming as much character, humor, and theme as we can into our show and hope that it finds an audience.

As I wind down, a few personal thoughts—a recent study reported that upwards of 70 percentof 8-year-olds have a television in their room. Of those, a sizable percentage reported no restrictions on its use. Without defending any of the dreadful shows on that box, as a parent I have to ask—if you left a full cookie jar in your kids’ room, would you blame Nabisco when they got sick?

Finally, I recently received a mailer about an age-discrimination lawsuit involving writers over 40. Not 60, 40. When I was deciding to quit the law, one of the main reasons was that I looked around at the partners and thought, “Is there anyone here who at 50 is doing the kinds of things I see for myself at that age?” The answer was “no,” and I bailed while I was still young enough. Today I look around for the 50-year-old faces … and I look … and I look …

So, my week ends, as most do, with one eye on the end of my script and the other on the end of my career. And I wonder what’s going to happen between the former and the latter. But enough about me. Send in the clowns.

Click  here for a preview of our paperback collection of “Diary” favorites, including entries by Beck, Karenna Gore Schiff, David Sedaris, and 67 other contributors.