Gary Sperling

For almost a year, the hallway outside my office was filled with pictures of aliens. Hundreds of them. Tough aliens, slacker aliens, some multi-limbed and all brightly colored—they were the denizens of the Galactic Alliance, home to Buzz Lightyear. Every day as I wrote scripts for Buzz Lightyear of Star Command, those aliens stared at me. Then one day production wrapped, and the pictures all came down. Finally, this past week, Buzz premiered on Saturday morning.

Here’s what happened between then and now: Each story progressed through multiple drafts of premise, outline, and, finally, script. The script was recorded by actors you’d probably recognize. It was also given to a production team, which designed every spaceship, robot, fish-faced alien, and many-mooned vista that was referenced. A several-hundred-page storyboard was created. Colors were keyed. Action and dialogue were timed. Then all that material was packaged and sent overseas for the actual animation. Months later, the film (or digital file) was shipped back. Editing, music, sound effects, and lots more technical stuff were necessary before the show was ready to air. Whew!

So, was it worth all that effort and money? Beats me. Long before Buzz was done, I was deep into writing another series. In fact, the hallway outside my office is now lined with jungle images, as The Legend of Tarzan chugs through production. Although not a single frame of film is back, 39 episodes have been written, and today, as Tony Soprano might say, Tarzan is dead to me. I’ve begun working on yet another show.

This New Show is still in development, so I’ve been asked to stay a little vague on the details. Let’s just say that my research materials include American Cheerleader magazine and a history of monkey kung fu. Or is that too obvious?

The show is an original idea from producers Bob Schooley and Mark McCorkle, who brought you Hercules and Buzz Lightyear, among other fine projects. They’re almost a caricature of a writing team—one stout, one tall; one sunny, one dour. The thing we all share is an approach that explores the line between self-deprecation and self-loathing. This will be our fourth series together if it gets made.

Today, we’re trying to put the finishing touches on an outline, so there’s a lot to cover—our kids’ latest exploits; the just-released ratings for last week’s premiere of Buzz Lightyear (not so good, thanks); The Jayhawks’ Smile; the so-called ratings (who cares about numbers anyway? We’re all about the work); Jim Anchower’s new tattoo; the suspect ratings (trounced by Digimon?! But we offer character arcs and laser blasts!). Eventually we get to the outline.

Because this New Show is the producers’ idea, I pepper them with questions, hoping they’ll have it all figured out. Because they brought me onto the show specifically to help figure it out, they parry my questions, hoping that I’ll contribute something. It’s a stalemate. We turn back to the ratings.

Much of what we’re trying to work out involves questions of tone. How will we structure the stories? What about the show’s overall cartooniness? To judge this, I invoke the “Frying Pan Test,” or “If one character whacks another upside the head with a frying pan, what is the result?”

In a classic cartoon, of course, impact would be accompanied by a clanking sound effect. The victim’s head would be flattened, while the assailant’s body would shake with wild reverberations moving from the wrists to the feet, quite possibly levitating the entire body in the process. The “injured” head would then pop back to normal, save for a rapidly growing lump, which would be encircled by tweeting birds. On Tarzan, by contrast, if anyone got hit with a frying pan, it would hurt. A lot. That’s because in Tarzan’s jungle, the physical laws of the real world apply. Within reason, of course. This is a guy who surfs down trees without injuring his feet or falling out of his loin cloth. (Please note—the Frying Pan Test is offered for analytical purposes only. Current Standards and Practices strictly forbid any blow to the head or neck.)

The point is, animation is such a rich medium because it can be used to great effect by everything from a virtually action-free show like Dr. Katz to the gag fests of Tex Avery. As long as strong art mixes with crisp timing to complement good storytelling, the result will be worth watching. Which brings us back to the outline. Should the World’s Biggest Cheese Wheel melt over the Magma Machine, thereby deactivating it, or will even a 5-year-old see that one coming?