From Rugrats to Recess, Paul and Joe Play Grown-Up
By Thom Fowler
Posted 10/03/01 04:19:36
Paul Germain, winner of two Emmys and a Cable Ace and writing partner Joe Ansolabehere, the creative team behind Rugrats, Lloyd in Space and Disney’s Recess, Schools Out, met in film school in UCLA in the early 80’s. They’ve come a long way from schlepping scripts around town but they still feel like they are “trying to make it”. Paul got his start collaborating with Matt Groening on the early Simpsons episodes when they debuted on the Tracy Ullman Show and brought Joe along for the Rugrats gig. Their creative partnership has been going strong since. We talked, or rather, they talked ... and talked ... talked about their writing process, how RECESS, SCHOOL'S OUT came together and trying to make something that is both commercial and satisfies their desire to make something meaningful.
I didn’t need to prod them very much, one question and I just let the tape recorder roll.
Thom Fowler: Recess Schools out is socially conscious while still being entertaining, what was your process to get those two things to work so well together?
Paul Germain: What comes first the theme or the story
Joe Ansolabehere: Its kind of a tricky thing. Ever since the Rugrats days we decided you had to be about something. If you are going to make just a movie its pointless. Even in adult works, there needs to be some point. There may not be any answer to the issue you raise but you have to bring up something.
If its good, it’s always about something, deep down. For example Memento. It brings up the issue, “what is my self without my memory.” I thought that was really cool.
On the other hand, you don’t want to be preachy.
Paul: The first thing we came up with was “what would be a fun story”, what would be interesting and funny. In this case, we didn’t want to make a movie, Disney TOLD us to make a movie.
Joe: Disney didn’t come to us with an idea, they just said they wanted to make a movie out of the show. The only thing they said was that it had to be about Summer. The whole show is about taking small things and blow them out of proportion. The whole show is about life on this one small playground and if its Summer, there is no recess, there’s no school in summer. Finally, we said, “Okay, we have to work on this stupid thing, so what are we going to do?” and we asked ourself, “When you are a kid, what do you think about school in the summer?” And we thought back to when you ride your bike past the school in the summer and its all locked up and there’s nothing going on, its almost like a ghost town with a tumbleweed blowing by and we thought, “every once in a while you’d see something going on, you’d see a truck parked in there, and you’d think, “they’re doing something in there”, “What are they doing in there?” like that Tom Waits song. And also you are making up an adventure, halfway through the summer, you and your friend just start making up stuff. We decided to play with that and make it real. Let’s do an X-Files for kids. There really IS something going on at the school.
We had an educational advisor for the series, a really cool guy a professor from the University of North Carolina, and he sent us an article from the New York Times about this movement to get rid of recess. There is this movement of people who believe that recess is a waste of time and children should be on task and training to be good warriors on the economic world-time, you know, that kind of thing.
There are schools being built in Atlanta without playgrounds, that’s how serious this thing is getting. We said, “okay, lets take this as a starting point but because it’s a movie and it needed to be big and we wanted to this James Bond / X-files thing, so we said, “lets say this guy wants to get rid of the ultimate recess, he wants to get rid of Summer vacation altogether, it’s a pretty silly concept but we thought we’d have fun with it. We decided to base this movie around this renegade teacher and the kids and the other teachers have to unite to stop this guy. Here is where the two themes came together.
When we were doing the television show we got a lot of criticism for being anti-teacher which is kind of stupid because Paul’s dad is a teacher, his mom is a teacher, my dad was a high school teacher, we have teacher stock in us. We aren’t attacking teachings. We are saying that when you are a kid you see teachers in an antagonistic light. So we thought, “okay, lets use the movie to address this”. I asked Paul what image he has about the movie and he said “I have this image where its near the end of the film, this guy is about to destroy summer vacation and all the teachers crash through the skylight and rappel down to save the kids like they are saving James Bond. We hung on to that image and said “okay, how do you get there.” Because of that we were able to see what themes and messages wanted to come out.
Joe (who just kept talking and talking and talking):
When you make television, you send it into this black hole, and the only thing to decide whether or not , there are two things you have to decide whether or not its successful:
People coming up to you and saying “hey, I saw your show”, that means they would have to know who you are, and the other one is numbers, ratings, ratings mean nothing, “oh, I got 1.7”, what does this mean?
Paul: When you make a movie, what’s cool is that you can go to the movie theatre and hear the people laugh. When the movie came out I drove around to the various theatres and sat in the back just to listen to the response.
Joe: We have to have the educational advisor because of the FCC requirement, which we resisted at first but then we met this guy. What’s interesting about John Arnold is that he gets what we’re doing. There is a woman named Geraldine Laybourne, who basically started Nickelodeon, and she was a teacher, and she met this guy John Arnold, when she was young, and he introduced her to children’s television, Because of him inspiring her, she said that’s why she went on and got into children’s television, and created Nickelodeon. She moved over to Disney right when we moved over to Disney and this FCC mandate came it right at that same time. We were saying , “look, we aren’t going to take a consultant, we aren’t going to do it” . She said, “you gotta meet this guy, John Arnold, he’s not going to be a censor” and we went to this big presentation by a bunch of educational consultants, it was people from Harvard and all these different schools. (The creator of Sesame Street is a professor at Harvard, find out who) and they all kept saying to hammer in the ideas, repeat things three times, slow down, take away everything that would make good literature.
Paul: it was like being so obvious about “here’s what we’re learning kids”which is the ultimate way of not only turning off your audience but offending them as well. You are treating them like they are stupid. One thing we learned from rugrats is that Kids are not stupid at all, and they are going to watch these things [Rugrats episodes] five thousand times, they are going to get it. The theme doesn’t have to be that explicit, If you say it once, they are going to hear it. When its all done they will have seen “Chuckie versus the pottie” Five Hundred Thousand times and it will be driven into their minds. We just didn’t agree with [the consultants], we thought it was bad teaching. After about two hours we were like “oh my god, we CAN’T have an educational consultant on the show, he’ll just ruin it.
John started out, “I got nothing against all these people, they are my colleagues, but I want to read you something.” And he read a Supertramp song, and said “that’s what you need, that’s what childhood is all about.” I can’t remember what the song was but we said “we love this guy”. So we showed him our pilot. Ever since that moment he’s been not exactly a partner but he felt like part of the team. He gets involved in the conversation when the FCC gets involved and thinks we are doing something that’s too violent, tries to come up with solutions and he’s always giving us ideas. He functioned as someone to help us always stay consistent with our message, not necessarily always being clear. Or if we are doing something that’s just wrong.
Joe: For example, we wanted to do a bully episode from the beginning. Here’s how a bully episode is always done on television from Andy Griffith up til now. The kid being bullied finally confronts the bully and the bully says, “hey, I don’t want to fight” and the bully backs down. We thought, that’s bullshit. When I stood up to a bully, I got creamed, that is what really happens. This conversation went on for a month. What did we want to say to a kid that is being picked on by a bully? The conclusion we came to was to back down or stand up to him. You have to do it but you might get beat up. So the kid, because he stood up to the bully and got creamed, inspired the other kids to, as a group, to stand up to him, which is a little bit of a fantasy too. The people at ABC, who are good people, looked at the script and said, “you can’t say this, this is violence, we’re not here to put violence on TV.” And John, rather than being part of the problem, said, “look, we aren’t showing violence in order to be entertaining. This isn’t Luke Skywalker or John Wayne pulling out a gun and shooting people. This is the repercussions of what your actions are going to be.” I think its a much more honest answer to give kids. That’s what we are trying to do, we are trying to be as honest as we can and still be entertaining.
Paul: I think good kids literature should help a kid become a better person. I want it to be primarily entertaining, because if you aren’t entertaining, forget it, they aren’t going to be there for you anyway.