Steve Marmel was performing stand-up comedy in a club in Los Angeles when he was approached by an executive from Hanna-Barbera and asked if he wanted to write for a new animated series called Johnny Bravo. Since then, he has been working in animation non-stop, lending his unique brand of humor and storytelling to such series as Cartoon Network’s Cow and Chicken and Nickelodeon’s Chalk Zone, The Fairly OddParents and Danny Phantom. With his latest project, the Disney/Jetix comedy-action series Yin Yang Yo! from creator Bob Boyle, Marmel is more involved then ever, letting the nine-year-old boy in him run rampant through nearly every aspect of production. Yes, there will be underpants.
Animation Magazine Online: How did you get involved with Yin Yang Yo!
Steve Marmel: I’ve known Bob Boyle for years from Fairly OddParents and Danny Phantom. He sold the pilot to Jetix about the same time that I made the move over here [to Disney]. They offered me a long-term deal and said come over here for a while and do anything you want to do. They asked if I wanted to work on Bob’s show because it was their first comedy. It was just a match. I’m working with a friend and I’m working with a genre that I love, anime. I don’t think anybody’s ever done a flat-out tweak on it for comedy purposes. There have been some tongue-in-cheek moments, but nobody’s ever said ‘We’re going to play with this and make it our own,” you know? Do to anime what Seinfeld did to comedy.
AMO: Were there any specific anime shows that you guys looked at and really wanted to riff on?
SM: Oh yeah. I love Teen Titans. Some people probably aren’t fans of it because it took FoolyCooly and westernized it. I know where it comes from, but I like the fact that they took something you knew and tweaked it into something that worked globally. That’s sort of what we wanted to do’take all of the slow pans and action moments and just drive a comedy truck through it. So Titans, FoolyCooly, Samurai Jack‘taking stuff that just looks really cool and using it for comedy.
AMO: Were you involved in developing the characters as well?
SM: Yeah. The pilot existed and it tested through the roof so they just ordered it. They brought me onboard on the ground floor. Because it’s Jetix, you get a little more edge, it has to have action and they really like over-arcing stories, they have to connect. So what we did was we created the 26-episode story arc that loosely threads the series together. It’s still a comedy and every 11-minute episode can stand alone by itself, but if you’re paying attention, you can see characters turning from good to evil, you can see them lose their first big fight and pull their crap together. Before we started writing a single episode, we defined where their powers would go from 1-26, how the villains would evolve and who would go from a threat to being an idiot over the span of the series. We knew exactly where we were going before we wrote a single script.
AMO: Will there be jokes that go over kids’ heads and target adults instead?
SM: Absolutely. It’s coming from the perspective of it’s funny for us, we laugh at it, we hope kids laugh at it too and we think they will, but every now and then there’s a joke that’s so for the parents who are watching it in the room. And we want that because the adult is the one who’s going to turn the TV off. If it’s grating on their nerves, they’re going to flip over to something else. But if they laugh and enjoy it, they’ll go, ‘Hey, that show you like is on.’ It’s got to be for the parents, too.
AMO: How much edgy humor can you get away with in a G-rated show?
SM: We have our own language. When he’s ticked off, Yang screams, ‘Oh pellets!’ We’ve created our own world that, to me, is even funnier. In one scene, Yang gets a wedgie and originally he had him saying, ‘Oww, my boy parts!’ Disney didn’t go for that so we changed it to ‘Oww, my undercarriage!’ It’s just as funny and in some ways it’s funnier. And as far as the rest of the world knows, that’s the first joke we came up with. So I don’t feel restricted. I feel like I can take whatever chances I want to take and when I’m told, ‘No, this doesn’t work in this instance,’ nobody’s mad, nobody’s annoyed, nobody wants you to stop. They want you to keep pushing the envelope as often as you can so the show’s as good as it can be.
AMO: You say you’ve never been this involved with a production before?
SM: I’m learning all this stuff that I get to do. I work with marketing, I work with press, I helped produce a comic book for Comic-Con, which we gave out. All of these little things that launch a show I’ve been tangentially involved with and this is the first time anyone’s said to me, ‘You know what, every dumb idea you have, just let us know what it is. If we like it, we’ll do it and if we don’t, we’ll come up with something else.” That’s from the top on down. It lets us be fearless and it lets me use all these great things I’ve learned from all of these great people I’ve worked with and put it into this one show.
AMO: What other animated shows do you watch?
SM: Family Guy. On [adult swim] I watch Moral Orel and I love The Venture Bros. and Robot Chicken. I’m a nine-year-old boy who gets to be an adult who gets to make cartoons for nine-year-olds. All the stuff I think is funny is either really adult, which is what I do in my stand-up world, or it’s really juvenile, which is what I pour into the cartoons. I get the best of both worlds. I’ve been buying comic books since I was eight and was the guy who liked animation but never knew that you could be in animation without knowing how to draw. It really was this one person who saw me do standup in 1996 and went, ‘I’ll bet he can do it,’ and gave me a chance that changed my life and got me into this thing that I love.
AMO: What advice would you give to somebody who wants to get into the business and do what you do?
SM: You get better by doing. Get a job where you can take the time to learn from people who have been doing it longer than you have. Realize that everybody’s important. Absorb their energy and skills and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. What I’ve learned from people better than me is that your idea is not always the best and the best idea should always win. Try pulling together people who get you. You elevate them and they’ll elevate you.
Yin Yang Yo! is animated at George Elliot Animation in Canada, with a small team of Flash animators also working at Disney’s campus in Burbank, Calif. The series will debut on Jetix outlets in the U.S., Europe, the Middle East and Latin America in Spetember. Full episodes can be downloaded now at Jetix.tv.
See more behind-the-scenes details on Yin Yang Yo! in the October issue of Animation Magazine, available at Barnes & Noble locations and other fine booksellers in September.
Buena Vista International Television will be showcasing Yin Yang Yo! at this year’s MIPCOM in Cannes, starting Oct. 7.