When running a cartoon series writing team, every story editor has his/her own style. Here, three members of the writers’ group Baboon Animation discuss their approaches.
Peter Hirsch story-edits the hit Arthur, and recently received his 12th Emmy nomination for that show.
DreamWorks alum Mike de Seve, Emmy-nominated for his work on Beavis and Butt-Head, helms the preschool series Heroes of the City.
Eric Shaw, former staff writer for Spongebob SquarePants, story-edited the most recent season of WordGirl, also up for another Emmy.
What age range do you like to write for?
Hirsch: The rules I follow are: No cursing. No sex. No hitting. Other than that I feel comfortable writing for any age group because I’m really writing a story that would entertain me.
de Seve: I love 6-11 comedy. But now that I have a two-year-old and I’m writing a lot of preschool, I’m fascinated by what she “gets.” It’s a kick to try to write for her. Plus little kids are trippy. It’s nice to have an editor who has a pet triangle.
Shaw: I like writing the older stuff, shows that can reach kids but also keep Mom and Dad entertained.
What’s your story-editing process?
Hirsch: Story meeting with the writing team and a white board. Goal? Ten fleshed out stories. Then, in-depth conversations with each writer, sometimes with cocktails. Then outline. First draft. Second draft. I do the polish. Basta.
de Seve: I love writers’ rooms. Rocket Monkeys and Viva Pinata rooms were wall-to-wall laughing some days, and I think it showed in the scripts. I believe in more funny people punching up each other’s stuff, live where possible, so I try to rig it. Makes stronger plots too. Then we take the meeting notes and split up and write.
Shaw: It’s all about the right group. I don’t prefer running large rooms, I’d rather break people off, let them do their thing and come back. I always hate to ask freelance writers to work on too many drafts if they’re not getting it. So, I end up usually taking over after a draft or two.
Where do you get new ideas from?
Hirsch: 1) Borrow (steal) from great literature. We did an Arthur, “King Lear” which is my favorite episode. 2) Things that happened to you in your life. 3) What happened today? Example: a snake is trapped in my oven. I want to free it but I hate snakes.
de Seve: One thing I like is to find contrasts, slap together opposites and see what happens. In Heroes of the City, we’re doing episodes like taking the serious desk-clerk and sending her out joyriding for the first time in her life. On Beavis we had The Great Cornholio. Suddenly Beavis thinks he is this psycho lord of everything. It’s always a crackup.
Shaw: Writers start with life experiences. I once woke up, took a shower, while I was washing my hair, I thought, “What if Plankton got his hands on some brainwashing shampoo?” I was on SpongeBob then. I don’t usually think about Plankton when I’m in the shower these days. Maybe a little.
Do you think about how your show will play in other countries?
Hirsch: I try to keep it accessible by not getting specific about measurements (English vs. metric), currency, geographical locations or icons of American History. It can be challenging.
de Seve: I try to tell stories a viewer can invest in because they’re human, no matter what country. Big desires, heartbreak, jealousy. Stakes. And silly jokes. Also I feel the U.S. is already so many nationalities packed in one weird sandwich that we write for lots of countries even when we don’t. So we’re lucky.
How do you explain your job choice to your parents?
Hirsch: My mother thinks I’m an ophthalmologist living in Provo with two sister-wives. She’s fine about the sister-wives, but I’d never tell her I write for kids TV.
de Seve: Don’t have to. Writing cartoons gives you a professional license to be infantile. That’s my favorite perk of this career. You could wet yourself in public and legally claim the laundry bill on your taxes.
Shaw: My father is a retired Federal Agent, so any career path where I wasn’t being shot at…he was pretty happy with.
Mike de Seve is currently creative director of Baboon Animation, a group of multi-Emmy-winning, Oscar-nominated writers and directors based in New York. You can write him at email@example.com.