Thursday, November 24, 2011

Quick Film Thoughts: The Muppets

So, I saw The Muppets. I wasn't planning on doing a review on it, since for the most part everything that's been said has already been said in other reviews. It is everything everyone is saying it is. Go see it. You won't be disappointed.

I still believe that, but after thinking about it for a bit, I figured I might as well give a few non-to-minimal-spoilery thoughts regarding the film.

By now, you've read or seen the basics (including on my failed Muppet Month feature here): why Jason Segel wanted to make it, how Disney's trying to ressurrect the Muppet franchise, what the basic plot of the film is, etc. So we don't need to go into that. Let's just delve right in.

Plot: the plot is incredibly basic and cliche. But it doesn't need to be anything more than that. The plot is in a way allegorical (perhaps a bit too heavy-handedly at times), but it works for what it is. At one point, our stereotypical rich oilman villain threatens to replace the Muppets with a replacement act more fit for our modern "hard and cynical world". The Muppets are the opposite of this: they live in a world all their own, aware of the culture of ours but never using it too much, equal parts self-aware, sarcastic, silly, and sentimental. They can make you laugh and cry and sing. We can see a little bit of ourselves or someone we know in their personalities. This is the message of the Muppets, as well as the message of The Muppets. There are a few misfires here and there, but once the gang gets back together, it's impossible not to end up laughing and leaving the theater with a goofy smile on your face. Basically, the plot of The Muppets is an old "Hey, let's get the gang back together and put on a show" story. It's hokey, but it's the sort of thing the Muppets do best. This is one of those films where stuff like plot and character development take a backseat to the jokes. We know what's going to happen (for the most part- this is the Muppets, after all, so there's bound to be a surprise or two). What's important is how it happens.

Gary and Mary: Our requisite humans, they don't really add much to the story. But then again, they're not supposed to. This is the Muppets's movie, and the humans are pretty much there for moral support (and because they're taller). That's not to dis Jason Segel and Amy Adams. They play their parts well. The story about how their support of the Muppets throws a monkey wrench into their relationship isn't really captivating (the same is true about the story about Kermit and Miss Piggy's relationship, which isn't really explained that much as to why it got that way), but again, it's the Muppets that matter here. For the most part, the humans play their part well and never interfere.

Walter: Walter easily could have been a Gary Stu, but he thankfully doesn't come off as such. He gets his own share of funny moments, and as far as Muppets go is quite talented. I hope he has a long career in show business ahead of him. Walter is somewhat like Kermit, both in construction and personality. He has a flexible face and can make many facial expressions like Kermit (and does it well). But he's also like Kermit in the sense that he's the Everyman. Though whereas Kermit is the glue that holds the insanity that is the Muppets together, Walter is the Everyman in the sense that he represents us, the viewer. He wants to see the Muppets succeed as much as we do. He's not expecting to be rewarded for it...though in the Hollywood version of Hollywood, one never knows what might happen.

Songs: The Muppets have always been musical, and the songs here are no exception to that legacy. Not as many as I expected, but for the most part those that are there are catchy and fun. Besides the classic Muppet numbers and Top 40 hits (including two very "unique" performances), the highlights of the original music are the sentimental "Pictures in My Head" and "Life's A Happy Song", which will most likely get stuck in your head for days and will give you a smile you can't wipe off your face, just as the lyrics state.

Cameos: There are lots of cameos in traditional Muppet style and practically every one of them is fun. Giving them away would ruin the fun. So I won't.

Muppets: As it should be, the Muppets are the true stars of the film. For the most part, all of them are being portrayed by different performers than those who originally brought them to life, but other than one line where Fozzie sounds like he's on helium, it's almost impossible to tell the difference. The Muppeteers do well. As do the Muppets. And if you're a Muppets buff (or just someone who knows a bit more than your casual Muppet fan), you'll have a lot of fun spotting a lot of obscure Muppets who make appearances.

"Small Fry": Opening the proceedings is a fun short from Pixar Canada featuring the Toy Story gang and a case of mistaken identity after a visit to the Poultry Palace. Also a lot of fun, the highlight being the roll call of rejected fast food toys (which includes an '80s Disney shout-out that will most likely go over the heads of a majority of the audience).

Other things to watch out for: It would be impossible to list them all, but among them: hoboes, Punch Teacher, a therapy session gone horribly wrong, fourth wall jokes, '80s Robot, the three greatest things in the world, visual and audio nods to the original Muppeteers, the rather familiar reintroduction of Sweetums, and did I mention those surprise celebrity cameos?

Frankly, I could just write the words "Go see The Muppets" over and over and it would have the same effect as this article did. It definitely lives up to the hype. Do we need the Muppets in today's world? This is the question the movie asks and tries to answer. Only the moviegoing public can answer. Let's hope they answer in the positive.


THE MUPPETS ©Disney. No ownership intended or implied. Photo by Patrick Wymore/Disney

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Muppet Babies are Baby Muppets

Since this is Muppet Month, I am going to talk about Muppets this month. But for some reason, something was on my mind recently that is somewhat related...and is related at the same time. So rather than the regular Muppet Month post I was going to do today, I'm going to do a diversion and talk about Muppet Babies.

Muppet Babies was a cartoon that ran from 1984 to 1991. Inspired by the "I'm Gonna Always Love You" sequence from The Muppets Take Manhattan, the cartoon involved baby versions of the Muppets living together in a nursery and imagining things. It won an Emmy Award and is most likely fondly remembered by a certain generation, and due to its unique and constant use of clips from movies and TV shows to illustrate the characters' fantasies, will most likely never be legally released on DVD. Muppet Babies raises many questions about the Muppet universe. If the Muppets were babies (and Kermit's nephew was a tadpole), were all the Muppets babies as the same time? (Statler and Waldorf occasionally appeared on the show in adult form, but this is not surprising, seeing as Statler and Waldorf are older than dirt.) What happened to Scooter's sister Skeeter that caused her never to be seen again outside the series save for a Happy Meal bag and a four-issue story arc of Roger Langridge's Muppet Show comic book where she could only actually be called "Skeeter" for two pages in the last issue due to some bizarre legal reason? Why was Nanny only seen from the waist down? Did she have no head? Her model sheet actually implies such. But none of these things are what I'm going to talk about today. I'm just going to say random things about the Muppet Babies. Because I feel like it.

-In 1985, Muppet Babies was combined with a new series called Little Muppet Monsters in a one-hour block called "Muppets, Babies, and Monsters." Little Muppet Monsters combined original puppet segments with animated segments featuring the adult Muppets. 13 episodes were produced, but only three aired, apparently due to the fact that Jim Henson himself was disappointed with the quality of the series. Despite this, the "Muppets, Babies, and Monsters" block theme, which combined the themes to both series, continued to be used as the closing theme for Muppet Babies throughout its run.   

-One of the things that has always randomly stuck with me regarding Muppet Babies (besides a passage in a book called Playing with Power referencing the Lone Ranger's crotch) is a scene in one episode where Miss Piggy is playing Little Miss Muffet but has no idea what a tuffet is. I was surprised to discover that Jeffrey Scott, the head writer for the series, is a Scientologist, and stated in an interview that that scene was inspired by L. Ron Hubbard's theory of the Misunderstood Word, which is frankly the only one of Hubbard's teachings that I know of that both actually makes sense and I agree with. As Scott himself explained it in an interview: "I also used one of L. Ron Hubbard's discoveries in the field of study in a Muppet Babies episode I wrote. Hubbard discovered that the number one barrier to study was the MISUNDERSTOOD WORD. He found that the moment a student went past a word he/she didn't understand the rest of the material became more or less "blank". If I told you to attach the creddlefur to the neuron, chances are whatever I said after that wouldn't make much sense. So in a "Muppet Goose" episode I wrote Piggy was reading Little Miss Muffet, and when she read "sat on a tuffet" her imagination went blank until she cleared up her misunderstood word."

-Earlier this year, a bizarre yet amusing series of videos went viral online. Called "Tiny Fuppets", the videos by certified Internet Humor Genius and frequent Funny or Die contributor Scott Gairdner managed to spoof both Muppet Babies and the bizarre direct-to-DVD ripoffs of big-budget CGI movies created by Brazilian company Video Brinquedo such as The Little Cars, The Little Panda Fighter, and Ratatoing. Gairdner created a bizarre yet believable backstory involving a blind Portuguese man named Arturo Lima, who proudly describes in fractured English how the Tiny Fuppets came to be, their use in hundreds of cartoons and commercials, and the rivalry between him and the poorly-made Tiny Fuppets ripoff Juniors Minis. Here's perhaps the funniest of the Tiny Fuppets cartoons, in which our hero Kormit wishes to be taller, then not.

-You know when you see a bizarre video online, then think about it months later only to discover it isn't there anymore, but it's so strange that if you describe it it sounds like you made it up? Well, I was going to end this post with one of those. Not only was it bizarre, it was actually well-made for what it was, in that a lot of time obviously went into it. It would have also proved even more so than usual I can connect everything in the freakin' universe to Phineas and Ferb. It was called "Phineas and Ferb's Conker's Bad Fur Day Adventure" or something like that, and it was clearly made by someone who probably both had a lot of time on their hands and is a mentally disabled teenager. In not-really-that-shoddy-but-still-kind-of MS Paint, it opened with the opening theme from some Clifford the Big Red Dog VHS tapes from the late '80s but with Phineas and Ferb characters doing the actions, creating bizarre visuals like them licking Candace. And having a song about Clifford playing while Phineas and Ferb are doing things. Then it was just the Phineas and Ferb characters acting out the opening to the "It's Only Pretendo" episode of Muppet Babies until they find Conker's Bad Fur Day and play it. Then I think there was some sort of High School Musical parody.

But, like I said, that video (which definitely existed at one point) isn't online anymore. But I have it on good authority (in that I believe he's said it a couple times) that "It's Only Pretendo" happens to be my pal Galileo (he of Beaming for Bunnies and In 10 Words)'s favorite Muppet Babies episode. So let's end with that.


Saturday, November 5, 2011

Muppet Month: The Making of The Muppets, Part 1

We’re here to sing, dance, make people laugh and somehow, just maybe, make the world a little bit better place. That may sound silly, especially coming from a frog. But the Muppets have always tried to inspire the world with silliness and to show folks that no matter who you are or how weird you seem to others, there’s a place for you and people who care about you. And when you find that place and meet those people, wonderful things happen.” —Kermit the Frog 

He’s green. He has crazy friends, flippers, a penchant for pigs…and one of the most recognizable singing voices since the King. And he’s coming to neighborhoods everywhere for the holidays. Kermit the Frog is back on the big screen, and this time, he’s teaming up with Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper and newcomer Walter, plus the whole Muppet gang, for a brand-new, big-screen adventure in Disney’s “The Muppets.”

“It’s funny, upbeat and full of laughs for everyone…frogs, pigs, bears…even people,” says Kermit. “For new fans, it’s a chance to see the Muppets in action on the big screen. And for old fans it’s a chance to get together with old friends…and get a little crazy together.”

Muppet fans span the globe. So it makes sense that Disney’s “The Muppets” was ignited by a Muppet fan. “It started when I was a kid,” says Jason Segel. “The Muppets were my first comic influence and I was in love with puppetry. I just thought it was an amazing art form.” “All comedy writers are Muppet fans,” adds Nicholas Stoller. “It’s the gateway to comedy. It’s like the first thing you try and then you slowly fall down the rabbit hole of comedy.” A film Segel and Stoller previously collaborated on actually set things in motion, says Segel. “We ended ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall’ with a lavish puppet musical, and The Jim Henson Company designed the puppets. Something started growing in my belly, and Nick and I came up with this idea and pitched it to Disney. Disney liked the idea so we wrote the script.” 

Enter producers David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman—each with their own affinity to all things Muppets. “I think there's always been a timeless quality to the Muppets,” says Hoberman, who cites the Muppets’ recent online smash viral video “Bohemian Rhapsody.” “These characters are as contemporary today as they were when Henson first brought them to life. I think people of all ages will respond to them on the big screen.” While president of the motion picture group at The Walt Disney Studios, Hoberman was behind releases like “The Muppet Christmas Carol” and “Muppet Treasure Island.” Meanwhile, Lieberman’s appreciation for the franchise grew from personal experience. “I have always been a big Muppet fan,” says Lieberman. “There’s clearly a nostalgic love. The characters are just inherently lovable and I’m thrilled that we’re bringing them together again in this movie. It’s been beautiful introducing them to my own children.”

And that’s a good thing, says director James Bobin. Disney’s “The Muppets” will welcome a whole new generation into the world of the Muppets, and Bobin can attest to the positive influence these characters can have on young audiences. “I watched the Muppets at a very early age in England, and they have significantly influenced my sense of humor and what I find funny.” Segel says it’s the Muppets’ sense of humor that differentiates them. “Modern comedy makes jokes at other people’s expense,” says the actor, writer and executive producer. “The Muppets never make fun of anybody. They’re all about being good and nice and trying to make the world a better place. It’s easy to get a laugh out of making fun of somebody, but the Muppets never relied on that.”

Influenced by their affinity for Muppet mayhem, filmmakers introduced a central character who’s driven by his lifelong love of the Muppets. According to Jason Segel, Walter’s wildest fantasy is to meet the Muppets. “Walter is naive, sweet, innocent, wide-eyed—he’s very much like Kermit before Kermit became famous,” says Segel. “But he just wants to belong. He’s looking for a family, really. The Muppets are the only people he’s ever seen who were like him, so his quest is to become one of the Muppets.” Adds Walter, who is as big a Muppet fan in real life as his character is, “I start out just wanting to meet the Muppets but then have to help Kermit get the gang back together to save Muppet Studios. It’s the role of my lifetime. In fact, it is my life.” 

The movie opens in Smalltown, USA, home to Walter, brother Gary and his girlfriend, Mary. It’s the kind of town where people smile a lot, give apples to teachers and break into song—just because. But the trio leaves the safety of Smalltown behind for a long-awaited trip to Hollywood—and an opportunity to visit Muppet Studios at last. While there Walter overhears the evil plan of nefarious oil baron Tex Richman and finds himself navigating a long-awaited, never-imagined, can’t-believe-it’s-really-happening-to-me Muppet reunion. It’s not long before the world’s biggest Muppet fan is face to face with the heart of the Muppets—Kermit the Frog. “Kermit is my all-time hero,” says Walter. “I have his poster in my room, I’ve seen everything he has ever done and meeting him was the greatest moment of my life.” Says Kermit, “Walter gets so excited being around the Muppets. I’ve never met anyone like him…except maybe Jason Segel.”

Segel can certainly relate to Walter’s enthusiasm, but his character, Gary, shows a little too much interest in his brother’s Muppet dreams. His girlfriend Mary has her own California dreams, it turns out, and is secretly hoping for a marriage proposal during their vacation. But she is a team player and willingly jumps on board to help reunite the Muppets and save the studio. They track down Kermit and learn that he’s lived a quiet life since the Muppets last performed together. It takes some convincing to get the now low-key frog to agree to the plan, but once Kermit realizes just how much he misses his friends, it’s “go” time. 

“They embark on a huge journey around the world to find the rest of the Muppets who have gone their separate ways,” says Bobin. “The first Muppet they find is Fozzie, who’s performing with a Muppet tribute band called the Moopets. The Moopets are cynical characters who are taking advantage of the Muppets’ legacy. They sing tacky versions of their songs and sadly, Fozzie is the only real Muppet who joined up with them. He’s in a tribute band of his own group. It doesn’t take too much persuading to get Fozzie to come along for the ride.” Next up is Gonzo, who has left show business behind in favor of his first career choice: plumbing. He is to plumbing what Tex Richman is to oil—minus the evil-villain part. But Gonzo’s plumbing empire is no match for the lure of the stage, and he soon agrees to return to Muppet Studios and his daredevil act. 

Perhaps the trickiest piece to the Muppet reunion is Miss Piggy, who’s landed a posh gig in France as plus-size editor of Vogue Paris. She’s enjoying the big life and doesn’t exactly dream of reuniting with the Muppets—unless, of course, it’s Kermie who’s asking. But it’s not all romance between them, says Miss Piggy. “The scene where Kermie begs me to come back to Hollywood with him is the funniest scene in the movie,” she says. “I’m hilarious, and the frog isn’t half bad either.” Back together at last, the Muppets must put together the best show of their lives—no small feat considering their past efforts. And it’s been years since they last performed—rusty doesn’t begin to describe their acts. Can they break through the obstacles and create a show of a lifetime? Can they convince a network to broadcast the show? Will they raise enough money to silence Tex Richman once and for all—or will he foil their efforts and destroy the studio despite everything? “Well, see the movie and find out for yourself!” says Miss Piggy. “Moi can’t do everything.”

This post utilizes promotional material provided by Disney. I am not being compensated in any way for my opinions and/or promotions, and any opinions given in this post are solely mine.

THE MUPPETS ©Disney. No ownership intended or implied. Photo by Andrew MacPherson/Disney

Friday, November 4, 2011

Muppet Month: Henson & Oz: Never Before, Never Again

Jim Henson and friend on the set of The Muppet Movie (1979). Photo: The Jim Henson Company/Disney
To know where you're going, you have to know where you've been. At least, I assume you do. It sounds nice, anyway. Either way, the Muppets's long history of singing, dancing, and being silly has taken them from the Street to the theater to the big screen and everywhere in between. That's why I'm alternating between taking a look at the new Muppet movie and taking a look at where the Muppets came from to get here.

And what better way to do that than to take a look at the two men who were the heart and soul of the Muppets for many years? The Muppet performers- including Steve Whitmire, Eric Jacobson, and Bill Baretta- have done a great job carrying on the legacy that was started by a group of puppeteers led by the man himself, Jim Henson. I have no qualms with the modern-day performers who are keeping the Muppets alive, but Henson deserves his due as the man without whom there would not be a Kermit the Frog, a Rowlf, an Ernie, or a Dr. Teeth. But just as legendary but oftentimes not as celebrated as Henson is his long-time collaborator, Frank Oz. Performing such characters as Animal, Sam the Eagle, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Cookie Monster, Grover, and Bert, Henson and Oz often served as a comic duo when it came to Muppets: Ernie playing off Bert, Miss Piggy playing off Kermit, Grover playing off Kermit. Perhaps one of the best examples of this partnership is the Swedish Chef, performed by both Henson (the voice and face) and Oz (the hands, using his actual hands).

Much like Mel Blanc was the man who brought Bugs Bunny and so many other characters to life, Henson and Oz were the heart and soul of the Muppets for many years until Henson's untimely passing at age 53 in 1990. Oz has unofficially retired from puppeteering and has chosen not to do the new Muppet film because he found it "disrespectful" to the characters (a statement which, along with some other comments made in the press, caused a bit of controversy which I touched on a few weeks ago). Whitmire, Jacobson, and Baretta have done a great job carrying on the legacy of these two men, and I look forward to seeing how they'll bring the Muppets back in the new movie. But Henson and Oz have to be given their due, as their partnership was something irreplaceable and, much like the Muppets themselves, magical.

As part of the Jim Henson exhibit now running at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens (something which I've also covered), the Museum commissioned this short film by Matt Zoller Seitz and Ken Cancelosi showing the Henson/Oz comedy team in action. Perhaps Henson and Oz aren't a well-known comedy duo on the level of Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, or even Bert and Ernie, but looking at this film- and all of their classic Sesame Street and Muppet Show sketches- one could make the argument that they should be.


Thursday, November 3, 2011

Muppet Month: Intro and History of the Muppets

If you haven't figured it out by now, there's a new movie coming out starring the Muppets. This film is getting a lot of publicity- sponsored and otherwise- as Disney is really trying hard to make sure Kermit and company's comeback is a successful one. Seeing as everyone seems to be promoting this film one way or another, I figured I'd join in the fun with something I like to call Muppet Month. Because it's a month of Muppets. And alliterative.

Every day in November (or at least most days, seeing as I've already missed two and, giving my legendary non-existent on-timieness, I'll probably miss more), we'll take a look at both the past and future of the Muppets. Every day, I'll alternate between some of the press material Disney has released for the film and an original look at the past of the Muppets. So, let's play the music and light the lights and do all those other things.

Muppet Show Theme by Jim Henson and Sam Pottle
LP version (1977)

Season Five version (1980)

(provided by Disney)

Since “The Muppet Show” began in 1976, the Muppets have been embraced by audiences worldwide. What began with a single appearance from an unknown frog puppet became a global phenomenon that is still going strong 35 years later. 

Early Muppet appearances date back to the mid-1950s, when a primitive version of Kermit the Frog began the American sensation by appearing on “Afternoon, Footlight Theater” and “Sam and Friends” in 1955. A year later, a revised version of Kermit appeared on national television on “The Steve Allen Show.”

Later, Rowlf the Dog was created for a Purina Dog Chow ad in 1962 and then began making regular appearances on “The Jimmy Dean Show” in 1963. Gonzo was next with his first appearance in “The Great Santa Claus Switch” as the “Cigar Box Frackle” in 1970, later appearing as the Gonzo we know today on “The Muppet Show” in 1976.

Throughout the 1960s, Muppets also made appearances on dozens of nationally broadcast variety shows including “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Their first international exposure came on Canadian television with the airing of the special “Hey Cinderella!” in 1970. By 1971, the Muppets could be seen on U.K. variety shows, such as those hosted by Tom Jones and Julie Andrews, before making their way to Germany for “The Peter Alexander Show” in 1975.

The first pilot of what would become “The Muppet Show” aired on January 30,1974, and was titled “The Muppets Valentine Show.” After that the characters of Fozzie Bear, Statler & Waldorf, Sam Eagle, Swedish Chef and The Electric Mayhem Band (featuring Dr. Teeth, Animal, Janice, Floyd and Zoot) were created for the second original pilot titled “The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence.” The show aired on March 19, 1975, and contrary to the scandalous name, the premise of “The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence” was to parody the rise of sex and violence on television with the Muppets performing a pageant based on the seven deadly sins. “The Muppet Show” as we know it officially began in 1976 and was well-received internationally, going on to broadcast in more than 100 countries. The show was in first-run syndication from 1976-1981 on CBS affiliates domestically as well as numerous outlets globally. At its peak “The Muppet Show” was seen by more than 235 million people.

During its run “The Muppet Show” received countless awards, including three Emmys®, and featured guest appearances from the most prominent actors, musicians and public figures of its time. “To me, ‘The Muppet Show’ in that era was a little bit like ‘American Idol’ of the current era,” says executive producer Martin G. Baker. “The day after a new episode, everyone was talking about ‘The Muppet Show.’ It was front-page news: Who was the guest star this week? Who’s coming up next week? It was one of those things everybody talked about.”

After 1981, “The Muppet Show” was repackaged for syndication, airing on various networks, including TNT from 1988-1992, Nickelodeon from 1994-1999 and Odyssey from 1999-2000. With the success of “The Muppet Show,” the Muppets branched out to the big screen, releasing their first feature film, “The Muppet Movie,” in 1979. The film starred a myriad of actors, including Bob Hope, Cloris Leachman, Steve Martin, Mel Brooks, Richard Pryor and Paul Williams. This impressive list of celebrity cast and cameos became the hallmark of all Muppet films, five of which followed, including “The Great Muppet Caper” (1981), “The Muppets Take Manhattan” (1984), “The Muppet Christmas Carol” (1992), “Muppet Treasure Island” (1996) and “Muppets From Space” (1999). All six films have signature soundtracks that received countless awards, including an Academy Award® nomination for Best Song for “Rainbow Connection” and Best Original Score for “The Muppet Movie.”

In addition to feature films, Muppet mania continued long after “The Muppet Show” went off the air. Many television specials and documentaries featuring the classic Muppet characters have been produced, as well as arena shows of both “The Muppet Show” and “Muppet Babies,” which toured domestically from 1984-1989. Muppet Magazine was published from 1983-1988 and “The Muppets” comic strip was syndicated in U.S. newspapers from the early to mid 1980s. Museum exhibits (“The Art of The Muppets,” “The World of Jim Henson: Muppets, Monsters & Magic,” “The Vision of Jim Henson” and others) featuring Muppet characters toured domestically and internationally from 1980-2001.

Multiple record albums for “The Muppet Show,” “Muppet Babies” and all of the Muppet movies have been released worldwide. Hundreds of Muppet books have also been published around the world since 1976.

Throughout the years the Muppets have also produced numerous public service announcements and have acted as spokespeople for many causes both domestically and internationally, ranging from The National Wildlife Federation, UNICEF and the American Film Institute, to the University of Maryland, the American Library Association and the Better World Society. Kermit regularly appears as a giant balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in New York City.

The Muppets once again reinvented themselves by creating viral videos of the gang performing popular songs. Their first video for “Ode to Joy,” performed by Beaker, appeared on various video-sharing websites in 2008 and received more than 14 million views on YouTube. Their second video, for Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” came out Thanksgiving week in 2009 and received more than 23 million views on YouTube. The video also garnered a People’s Choice Webby Award.

“The Muppets are just your average, everyday dysfunctional family: loud, crazy, odd, silly…total chaos all the time. But that’s okay, because when you get right down to it, we really do care about each other. We believe in each other, and we help make all our dreams come true. And that’s what really matters. Besides, I kinda like weird.” —Kermit the Frog 

This post utilizes promotional material provided by Disney. I am not being compensated in any way for my opinions and/or promotions, and any opinions given in this post are solely mine.

THE MUPPETS ©Disney. No ownership intended or implied. EMMY® is a registered trademark of ATAS/NATAS. Photo by Patrick Wymore/Disney

Friday, October 21, 2011

Video Vault: Phineas and Ferb Edition

I talk about Phineas and Ferb way too much on this blog...and elsewhere, too, to be frank. Here, have a random video of series creators Dan Povenmire and Jeff "Swampy" Marsh rapping about how they make an episode.

Marsh recently told the BBC the following: “If you’re doing something that you love, however much money you are making, it will always be enough. If you’re doing something you don’t love, no matter how much money you’re making, it will never be enough.” This, if anything, proves that the P&F team love what they’re doing. Then again, why wouldn’t they? As a special bonus, I asked our unofficial Phineas and Ferb pal Aliki Grafft to help identify the people at the P&F team that are seen in this video. Here's who she could pick out. (Check out my interview with her if you haven't already.)

The rap is mostly sung by Dan and Swampy.
The first person you see is Mike Singleton, who is a Storyboard Revisionist on the show. (when the guys sing "24/7")
Then you see the back of Melinda Leasure's head who is married to the real Ferb* (no joke). 
On the part, "...and sometimes I even take my sketchbook on vacation" you see Mike Diederich who is a Story Artist/Writer
On "time to get serious and make with the funny" that is Bernie Petterson, another Story Artist/Writer
At 0:38 it's Leo Pinero, Storyboard Revisionist
Then followed by Rob Hughes, one of the show's directors, at 0:39
At 0:44 "we start with a premise" that is the writer's room, and you have Martin Olson, Scott Peterson, and Jim Bernstein
0:52 is Director of Original Series Jill Sanford
1:06 is Dorothea Schoentag, a painter
1:14 is me (Aliki T. Grafft) and Joe Orrantia who is a story artist/writer like me (also my former partner)
1:27 is also me and Joe
1:34 is the back of director Jay Lender's head
1:35 is Story Artist/Writer Kim Roberson throwing the cereal
1:36 is Rob Hughes again
1:41 is Kyle Menke, another Storyboard Artist/Writer
1:42 are the Voiceover Directors
1:54 is Anne Harting who is the animatic editor
1:55 is the Prop Designer, Anthony Vukojevich
1:55 is one of our Character Designers, Celeste Moreno
1:56 is a Background Designer, Plamen Christov
1:59 is Art Director and Emmy winner Jill Daniels**
2:07 are timers Theresa Wiseman, Barbara Dourmashkin and Mitch Rochon
2:09 is checker Wendy Jacobsmeyer
2:14 is Plamen and the other BG designer Brian Woods (who also won an Emmy**)
2:15 is Teresa Ferragamo is the production secretary (Dan and Swampy's amazing assistant)
2:20 is the Legal Department and S & P (Standards and Practices)
2:22 is Herb Moore who is a Timing Supervisor
2:25 is Mark Brammeier a Production Manager and Lance Lecompte who is a Production Supervisor
2:31 is Ted Supa who is an Editor
2:34 is Natasha Kopp who is the Line Producer
2:37 is Sue Perotto who is the Retake Director
2:40 is Composer Danny Jacob all the way to the left with some very talented musicians
2:41 Sound Effects
2:42 Audio Mixing
2:44 is the casting department (Sara Goldberg, Jamie Green, Dave Wright among them)
2:45 is Kenny Kweens, Production Associate
2:49 is Antoine Guilbaud, story artist/writer, and Kaz Prapuolenis with the mirror, also a story artist/writer

*Ferb is the nickname of an actual friend of Dan and Swampy's, who lent his nickname to Phineas's stepbrother.
**Ms. Daniels and Mr. Woods just won an Emmy for their background work on the "Wizard of Odd" episode. Congratulations to them!

Thanks, Aliki!

PHINEAS AND FERB ©Disney. No ownership intended or implied.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Still Not Easy Being Green

The Hollywood Reporter recently published a very interesting article regarding the new Muppets movie and the two risks Disney is taking with it, both of which are interesting to look at.

The first is the Muppets themselves and how Disney has treated them- or rather, until recently mistreated them. Michael Eisner wanted the Muppets badly in 1990, but negotiations were impeded by Jim Henson's untimely death in May of that year. Negotiations went onward, but eventually went nowhere due to a sticking point discussed at length in Michael Davis's book Street Gang: Eisner wanted the Sesame Street characters to be part of the deal. Henson did not want the Sesame Muppets used for commercial purposes and wanted the rights to the characters to revert to the Children's Television Workshop upon his death. However, this was never formally written out. Eisner and Disney eventually got the Muppets, but long after they actually wanted them. CTW (now Sesame Workshop) bought the rights to the Sesame characters in 2000, and Disney bought the rights to Kermit and the Muppet Show cast four years later. Eisner was forced out shortly thereafter, and the Muppets languished at a company that had no idea what to do with them. The characters haven't had a big-screen outing for over a decade, with their last feature, Muppets from Space, produced while still under Henson ownership. Disney's only major projects featuring the characters have been a mediocre made-for-TV movie retelling The Wizard of Oz and a thankfully more Muppety-feeling Christmas special. Thankfully, the Muppets were brought back into the public eye in style a few years ago, reappearing in various realms of entertainment- including the Internet, becoming the talk of the Web with a series of viral videos, including the now-legendary "Bohemian Rhapsody", which almost made the Queen hit the #1 UK Christmas single- a big thing in music over there- for a record third time (the first being its original release, then its resurgence in popularity after appearing in Wayne's World).

Disney seems to be doing a good job reintroducing the Muppets as far as promotion for this film is concerned, both for those who know them and those who have never heard of them. But there's another interesting factor involved and it's the second risk: some of the retired Muppet old guard are concerned with how the characters are being depicted in trailers and teasers for the film, believing that Kermit and company are doing and saying things that they- or the late Henson- would not particularly do. Perhaps the most well-known of these, Frank Oz, the original Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear, recently told the British press that he felt the script didn't "respect the characters."

"What would X do/say", both in the terms of an actual person no longer with us such as Jim Henson or a fictional character, is a question that I would imagine comes up a lot in discussing well-known franchise characters. I agree that Kermit buying a mansion and the Muppets breaking up because of his greed does seem out-of-character, but from what we've seen in the trailers, the basic concept of the film is that the Muppets have languished for years and are staging their comeback, which is what they're trying to do in real life with this movie. It may be a bizarre plot decision, but as a parallel to the Muppets's real-life languishing, I guess it works. As for Fozzie's fart shoes, it's clearly a joke to appeal to the young kids who go for that sort of humor, but I think it's justified "in-universe" in that it's called out for what it is- a cheap joke. And that's sort of Fozzie's thing. He's the type who'll do anything to get a laugh, so why wouldn't he resort to what's basically a wearable whoopie cushion?

The other thing I found interesting in the article is that Disney may put forward the "Muppet Man" biopic if this film does well. A biopic of Jim Henson sounds like a winner, and the script was the darling of Hollywood when it circulated in late 2009, but the script has a number of things against it as well. The first being that the scriptwriter basically admitted he made most of it up and used Wikipedia for a lot of his research. The other being a storytelling device used in the film that the Muppets actually exist in a sort of alternate universe- perhaps in Henson's imagination?- and Kermit's life parallels Henson's. (Kermit and Henson have a long discussion with each other at the hospital before his death.) At one point, Kermit is an alcoholic fed up with how his relationship with Miss Piggy is going. I'm sure Disney would be fine with the former, but not so much with the latter. I'd imagine the script would have to go through a lot of revisions if it went forward.

I can understand the fears of some of the retired Muppet veterans, but looking at the trailers and promotional appearances as a whole, I think the Muppets's heart and offbeat sense of humor are where they always have been. Hopefully, Disney's all-out promotion of the movie pays off in the long run. This may be a risk, but hopefully it's one that turns out well for both Disney and the Muppets- in both their and our universes.

THE MUPPETS ©Disney. No ownership intended or implied. Photo by Patrick Wymore/Disney

Thoughts on Theatre: Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark

Playing at the Foxwoods Theatre, 213 West 42nd Street, New York. For tickets and additional information, visit Reviewed October 19, 2011 (afternoon show).
Directed by Philip Wm. McKinley; Original Direction by Julie Taymor. Book by Julie Taymor, Glen Berger & Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. Music and Lyrics by Bono and The Edge. By arrangement with Marvel Entertainment.

After months of rewrites, accidents, and punchlines, the most expensive musical ever made has made its way to 42nd Street, a locale just as flashy as the show itself. And how does it fare? Surprisingly better than I expected.

As the tale of the Marvel Comics hero is brought to the stage, the first act for the most part faithfully retells the well-known origin story of how Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider which gave him superhuman abilities, as he learns the hard way to use them to help others rather than for personal gain- "with great power comes great responsibility." Norman Osborn, the scientist whose escaped genetically-enhanced spider caused the transformation, becomes obsessed with human-animal hybrids and transforms himself into the sinister-yet-silly madman known as the Green Goblin, who, along with his fellow scientists he has kidnapped and similarly mutated into a team known as the Sinister Six, start terrorizing the city. Peter Parker must now make a delicate balance between his ordinary life and his would-be love Mary Jane and his self-appointed duties as the savior of New York City. Is it possible for him to do both?

There's no doubt what the answer to that question is, but the true test of any musical is not what happens, but how it's told. And Spider-Man does it very well. The visuals are impressive and creative, with a bit of comic-book flair to them and a tiny bit of comic-book campiness- but not too much. Color and minimalist comic-like set design is used to good effect, from the yellows of the bullies and the walls of Peter's high school to the blue and pink houses that match the clothes of Peter and MJ as they walk home from school to the black and white of the city in a fun sequence features Spider-Man fighting crime throughout the city with the bad guys represented by cartoonish costumed actors with oversized heads to the red and blue which matches Spidey's suit that covers the city as he becomes the hero of all...well, mostly all. The show seems to be set in modern times yet has a "timeless" quality- the boisterous J. Jonah Jameson, the newspaper editor who prints negative stories about Spider-Man while at the same time employing Parker to take pictures of the "menace", remarks that print is losing ground to bloggers and Facebook, yet with a cadre of '60s-style secretaries on typewriters in unison behind him. And the show itself seems to have a bit of fun with its stylistic choices- when Parker battles a wrestler before he learns he's going down the wrong path, the ring announcer remarks that Parker is tossing him around like an inflatable doll...which he is, since it is one.

With the exception of the Green Goblin's number that opens the second act and Spider-Man's leitmotif played throughout the musical, none of the songs are really stick-in-your-head, but they do a good job of bringing the story along. Patrick Page in particular is entertaining as the Green Goblin, hamming it up as only he can and being responsible for most of the goofy-yet-enjoyable humor in the musical, be it singing about "a 65-million-dollar trainwreck" (referring, of course, to both himself and the musical) as he comes out into the audience, performing a violent rewrite of "I'll Take Manhattan" on top of the Chrysler Building, or trying to leave a message for Jameson in one of the most prolonged and funniest of the comic sequences.

And then there's the flying. The element that everyone was talking about, both before and after the incidents, it's just, for lack of a better word, really cool to see Spider-Man fly across the stage, no matter what your age. The climax of the musical, in which Spidey and the Green Goblin soar across the city in a final duel, is arguably worth the price of admission alone. My advice is to sit in the center level of the theater, which has been renamed the "Flying Circle" for this production for good reason. It gives you the best view of the aerial action, and the web-slinger himself even flies past and crouches on the outskirts of the area a number of times, much to the delight of the audience.

I didn't see the show in its original form, so I'm not sure what has changed from it. But it's clear that the new team that took Julie Taymor's place was able to work out most of the kinks. There are still a few flaws, however, the biggest of which is a remnant of Taymor's original version- Arachne, a character based on the Greek mythological figure who originally had a much larger role, but in the final version whose legend serves as a prologue and appears a few times throughout the musical as sort of a god-like figure to give Peter the strength he needs to carry on when he's in a deep funk. For the most part she's easily ignorable, but she still seems out of place when compared to the whole package.

Some people may be turned off by the slight comic-book campiness and occasional goofy humor, but let's be honest. This isn't Shakespeare. This is a musical based on a comic book about a man who wears a spider costume and flies around buildings. If you think about it, it's rather silly. But it's also, again for lack of a better term, pretty cool. You pretty much know what you're getting. If you're looking for a musical that's equal parts spectacle and silliness with a flashy visual flair, you can't go wrong with Spider-Man. The flashy, tourist-oriented swarth of 42nd Street and Broadway is perhaps the perfect place for it- if all goes well, it will hopefully become a tourist attraction and a New York City institution. And given what it took for it to get there, that wouldn't particularly be a bad thing.


Thursday, October 6, 2011

The War of the Simpsons

The Simpsons get cancelled? That's unpossible!

In a memorable episode of The Simpsons, Troy McClure (as voiced by the late great Phil Hartman) posed a question regarding the series: "Who knows what adventures they'll have between now and the time the show becomes unprofitable?" Apparently, that time may be coming sooner than expected.

This week, it was reported that 20th Century Fox has demanded the cast of The Simpsons- Dan Castelleneta (Homer/Krusty/Grampa/Barney/Groundskeeper Willie/others), Julie Kavner (Marge/Patty/Selma), Nancy Cartwright (Bart/Nelson/Ralph), Yeardley Smith (Lisa), Harry Shearer (Flanders/Mr. Burns/Principal Skinner/Kent Brockman/others), and Hank Azaria (Chief Wiggum/Apu/Moe/Comic Book Guy/Disco Stu/Supernintendo Chalmers/others)- take a pay cut from their current $9 million per year (or $440,000 per episode) to $5 million per year (or $250,000 per episode) or else the show will end due to the fact that the show has become too expensive to produce under their current demands. The cast has famously renegotiated many times for more money, but this is the first time they've been asked to take less. The cast gave a counter-offer of $300,000 an episode in exchange for a share of the lucrative syndication and merchandising rights for the show, but not surprisingly, TCF refused. The cast has until Friday to decide.

Some interesting things come up here...the most interesting is the fact that the cast does not already get a share of the back-end money. Given how important they are to bringing the characters of the show to life, you'd think they'd already get some of that, but in a way it's not surprising, since voice actors in particular aren't really treated that well. Some famous VAs such as Tom Kenny and Billy West have lamented the fact that major motion pictures turn them down and seek top-named talent for animated movies, and TCF has threatened multiple times to replace the Simpsons voice cast during negotiations (and also threatened to do the same to Futurama).

The other interesting question is- should the show die? If not now, when? And what would the result be? It seems impossible to live in a world without The Simpsons, but all good things must come to an end. As for what would happen afterwards, it's quite possible that the show is worth more alive than dead. Under the current syndication contract, which was signed in the mid-1990s, reruns of The Simpsons can only be sold to local stations. If the show ends, this opens up the possibility of selling reruns of the show to a cable network such as FX, Adult Swim, or Comedy Central (or the all-Simpsons network TCF has thought about) as well as online streaming services such as Hulu or Netflix. Based on one estimate, it's possible that TCF could make upwards of $750 million on such deals (estimating $2 million per episode with 506 episodes at the end of this season).

The cast has commissioned a study stating that the show is not losing money as TCF claims, but even if it were to go on, it probably wouldn't for long. Apparently, TCF is somewhat correct in the matter, according to an anonymous source, and if the show went on, it probably would only go on for one more season and that everyone who works on the show, not just the voice cast, are taking pay cuts because of this.

Is it time for The Simpsons to die? In my opinion: yes, but on its own terms, not because of a money dispute. The Simpsons is definitely one of the most influential- and funniest- television shows in history, but it's not what it used to be. I wouldn't be sad to see it go, but it should be allowed to go on its own terms and given the proper send-off it deserves. Much like I Love Lucy, All in the Family, and Seinfeld, The Simpsons was a revolutionary comedy whose classic episodes still hold up today and will probably live on forever in reruns. Its time has come, but Homer and friends deserve to say goodbye on their own terms, not those of the folks who provide their voices.

THE SIMPSONS ™&©2011 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. No ownership intended or implied.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Queens for a Day

Let me tell you a little bit about the latest chapter of the Travels of Ryan. Yesterday, I went to New York City as I often do, this time to the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens to celebrate Jim Henson's 75th birthday.

I took the subway from Times Square to Queens. When I got to Queens, it was very interesting to see, as I had never been there before. It looks somewhat like New York, but at the same time it doesn't, as there are no big skyscrapers or anything. It looks like a regular town, almost. I made my way to the museum and waited for one of my online friends, Dana from The Dragyn's Lair, to come. This was my first time meeting her in person, and she had brought one of her friends, Alison, along as well. It was very nice to meet them.

The highlight of the day- both for the celebration of Henson's birthday and for me personally- was the screening of a compilation film called "Muppet Music Moments." The screening was introduced by Craig Shemin of the Jim Henson Legacy, who introduced the guest of honor, Larry Grossman (the musical director for the first three seasons of The Muppet Show) by showing an old clip of the first project he did with Henson, a sketch from "The Jimmy Dean Show" with Rowlf acting opposite Dean. It was a very funny sketch as Henson as Rowlf was particularly hammy, and the audience got a real kick out of it. Grossman introduced the film by commenting about what it was like to work with Jim Henson, commenting that Henson himself came up with most of the ideas for the musical numbers himself or at least assisted in them. Then, the compilation film was shown, which featured a collection of musical numbers from The Muppet Show. The audience seemed to enjoy it as well, as there were a lot of great moments chosen. (I certainly did). "Mahna Mahna" and Beaker, Animal, and the Swedish Chef as the Leprechaun Brothers are always favorites and the audience seemed to love them, as well as the bizarre Marvin Suggs and his Muppephone. The audience also seemed to get a big kick out of Miss Piggy being her usual self opposite Paul Simon and Elton John, a vaudeville number starring Statler and Waldorf (with Fozzie taking their place in the balcony heckling them), Animal upstaging Rita Moreno on drums while she sings "Fever", a routine with Kermit hallucinating his doctor turning into a witch doctor while singing "Coconut", and two Village People-themed numbers starring pigs. (The "Macho Man" routine has a gang of biker pigs being fought off by Gonzo and his gang of chickens. At one point, Gonzo throws a chicken from a clothesline and knocks it into a pig- I think Gonzo invented Angry Birds!) I kind of got goosebumps (or some sort of joyful feeling) seeing the Muppet Show opening on the big screen, as well as from some of the more touching numbers, such as Kermit's signature song "Rainbow Connection" (performed here alongside Debby Harry of Blondie), "Just One Person" as sung by Bernadette Peters, and Harry Belafonte's "Turn the World Around", an African-themed number whose theme reminded me of "Circle of Life".

Afterwards, Grossman answered questions from the audience about what it was like to work with Jim Henson on the music for the show. Shemin's wife, Stephanie D'Abruzzo (a puppeteer for Sesame Street and Avenue Q), worked as a "Vanna White" as it were, handing out items that were lying around the Henson archives as gifts for the people who asked questions, including a cast T-shirt for season 32 of Sesame Street. (It's starting its 42nd this week, so you can tell how long they were lying around.) Grossman told some interesting and funny stories, including about how The Muppet Show was produced in the UK after all three networks turned it down. Henson commuted from New York to London via Concorde, and Grossman believes that had the show not been produced abroad, it would not have been as good, as it probably would have cost more to produce it stateside what with union labor and all. He also pointed out that the US and UK had different senses of humor, but tried to make the show appeal to both of them in terms of comedy and music selection. The same 10-piece band was used for all five seasons of the show. Grossman pointed out that one day, Henson was snowed in for a weekend at JFK, and he passed the time by writing the first draft for The Dark Crystal. There were also a few other interesting stories he told, about having to go through all five hours of Tchiakovsky's Swan Lake to find a particular piece from it for Rudolf Nureyev (who was incredibly happy when they found it), and the fact that the staff of the hotel in London where they would rehearse with the guest stars was always giddy with anticipation to discover who the next guest would be and get their autograph. Bonnie Erickson, the designer of Miss Piggy and Statler and Waldorf (as well as the Phillie Phanatic), was also there, and said a few words about how Miss Piggy evolved and became an icon- she joked that Piggy herself was probably the only one who expected her to become one.

Afterwards, I said goodbye to my friends and explored the rest of the museum. I saw a short film by Jim Henson called "Time Piece", which was an interesting experimental film in which Jim Henson himself stars, using some unusual visuals to tell a story of the average life of work, sex, money, and death. It's a really bizarre yet interesting film. The Henson exhibit itself was interesting, as there were various sketches from Henson on display as well as actual Muppets. Many of the things I had seen before in books and such, but there was some stuff I hadn't seen. One of the puppets- a king for an unsold pilot- was incredibly large. I was surprised at how large some of the hand puppets were. I also got a kick out of a reel of some of the early commercials Jim Henson did, and the other guests seemed to as well, especially the La Choy dragon (a big dragon character whose full-body costume was later used as the inspiration for Big Bird) and an ad for Muppet dolls in which a group of Kermits chant the bizarre slogan, "Oh buy us oh buy us oh buy us we beg! If you do not buy us, we will bite you in the leg!" The reel also had a vintage interview where Henson was pointing out the earliest commercials he did were sponsor tags for coffee and such which were only eight seconds long. These tags have gotten a second life on YouTube, so I think it's easy to see that he was able to make them funny even with such a small amount of time granted for them. Photography was not allowed in the Henson exhibit, so I will link this article so you can see a sample of what was on display.

Then, I explored the permanent collection of the museum, which had samples of the various aspects of the visual arts and what goes into making them, including scripts, costumes, makeup, and merchandising. The visual form of video games was also represented with some classic arcade games, an Atari 2600, and a NES, all of which the guests seemed to enjoy. My personal favorite part of the permanent collection was an artwork called "Tut's Fever", an actual working movie theater which is designed in part to look like an old-fashioned "movie palace" such as Grauman's Chinese in Hollywood but also as a tribute/parody to ancient Egyptian stereotypes such as mummies, hieroglyphics, etc. The walls are all made to look like ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, except the figures are old-time movie icons such as the Marx Brothers, Walt Disney, Cecil B. DeMille, and others.

All in all, it was a very fun day.

Here are some photos of Tut's Fever:

Photography ©2011 by Ryan W. Mead. Tut's Fever installation ©1986, 1987, 1988 Red Grooms and Lysiane Luong.

Friday, September 23, 2011

An Interview with...Phineas and Ferb's Aliki T. Grafft

Recently, I was delighted to have my paths cross, as it were, with Aliki Theofilopoulos Grafft. Ms. Grafft works as a writer and storyboard artist on the popular Disney Channel animated series Phineas and Ferb, which has been a topic I've talked about many times on this blog. She also provided the voice of Mandy in the episode "Thaddeus and Thor" and co-wrote a number of songs for the series, including "Come Home Perry", for which she was nominated for an Emmy Award. I was lucky enough to have the pleasure of asking her a few questions about her life, her career, and working with Phineas and Ferb.

Courtesy Kent Osborne
Every story has to start somewhere, so could you tell us a little bit about your life and career and how you made your way to Phineas and Ferb? Where did you grow up? What else have you worked on and in what capacity? What got you interested in writing/animation? Did you go to school to get into animation, or were you self-trained?

Aliki: I grew up in La Jolla, California in an immigrant Greek family. I loved cartoons my whole life, from Popeye to Looney Tunes to all the Disney films- I just knew I had to be a part of this animation thing. Of course, I drew my whole life, and later I studied art at USC where I landed an internship at Hanna-Barbera. I also became an intern at Spumco after meeting John Krisfaluci (my hero at the time) at an animation conference. After college I took various more focused classes at The American Animation Institue [a school in Burbank run by the Animation Guild, the animators' union] (studied life drawing with Glenn Vilppu), as well an after-school class offered at Rowland Heights. A recruiter showed up at the school's portfolio review and I ended up landing a life-changing animation training internship at Walt Disney Feature Animation. I worked in the animation department on such films as Hercules, Tarzan, Fantasia 2000, and Treasure Planet under the amazing mentorship of people like Brian Ferguson, Eric Goldberg, and John Ripa. I was also lucky to be a part of the monthly drawing lessons from the late Walt Stanchfield, who is definitely one of my greatest influences. When it became clear that Disney was going to fold the traditional animation department, we all jumped into computer classes. Maya really did not appeal to me as I loved to draw, so I began to look elsewhere. A friend at Nickelodeon suggested I submit my character designs to the studio as they were looking for new talent. I knew nothing about TV, but thought I would go for it. I was hired by Larry Huber as a Storyboard Revisionist for a show called Chalk Zone. At this time I also met Alison Dexter and Fred Seibert, who were both very encouraging about pitching my own ideas. And so I began the path of creating and pitching. When Chalk Zone ended, I worked on a show called Catscratch as a designer. However, I wanted to move back into story and heard they were hiring at Warner Brothers, so I submitted my work and by the end of the week I was offered a job assisting Chris Savino with storyboard work on Johnny Test. I then sold a short to Frederator/Nickelodeon just as the production was ending, so I hopped on back to Nickelodeon to co-produce, create, write, and storyboard (as well as voice act and voice direct) "Yaki and Yumi". I then sold my second short "Girls on the GO!" and had an incredible time creating a second film. My agent at The Gotham Group submitted my storyboards to a new show from Disney, Phineas and Ferb, in 2006, and I was hired on a sort of "trial basis". I had never worked as a writer/board artist on a production before, aside from doing it for my own films. Luckily, only a quarter of the way through my very first episode ("Mom's Birthday") I was asked to stay on as an official member of the team!

Who are your influences, and how have they influenced the way you write/draw?

Aliki: My Grandfather- If it weren’t for his love for cartoons and drawing and his constant encouragement, I would not be here!

Brian Ferguson- He was my assigned mentor for the Disney training program, and hired me to be his assistant on Hercules. He was the supervising animator on the character “Panic”. He was a gentle guide, a giant support, and an excellent animator. He was very patient and encouraging. I will be forever grateful for his giving me my break!

Walt Stanchfield- It would be difficult for me to talk about Walt without tearing up. It is best for me to use a quote from Don Hahn, producer of The Lion King, to describe him: “Once in a lifetime, a truly special teacher comes along who can change your life forever. To me and to many, many of our colleagues in the industry, Walt Stanchfield was that very special teacher. Part artist, part poet, part musician, part tennis pro, part eccentric savant, part wizened professor, Walt inspired a generation of young artists not only with his vast understanding of the animator's craft, but with his enthusiasm and love of life.” Walt changed my life. His passion for drawing and for life in general was infectious. He had been an animator on films like Winnie the Pooh and The Jungle Book, had since retired and moved away, but he would come to the studio once a month and teach gesture drawing class for three days. He taught me how to see what I was drawing, how to feel it, and how to express feeling and emotions in my drawings completely. The number one thing people always tell me about my drawings, no matter how loose or sketchy they are, are that they are full of life. Walt is the one who taught me this. Sadly we lost him to cancer, and I will forever miss him. Any student of animation or drawing in general should find anything and everything they can about this lesser known “Walt” from Disney.

John Ripa- I saw an animation test that John had done for the movie Tarzan. I knew I needed to find out who he was and work with him. I was lucky to assist him on the movie Tarzan on “Young and Baby Tarzan”, as well as on ''Treasure Planet'' on “Jim Hawkins”. He is one of the greatest artists and animators I will ever know, and certainly one of the greatest people. I owe so much to him, and I am forever grateful that he took me under his wing. He still works for Disney Features as a supervising animator as well as in the story department. Probably my greatest regret about leaving Feature Animation is that I didn’t get to continue mentoring with John.

Eric Goldberg- Between Tarzan and Treasure Planet, I was lucky to mentor with Eric Goldberg. I am grateful that he helped me develop my more cartoony side, as he is not only a great animator, but a true cartoonist. He is very giving with his knowledge and has a true love and passion for animation. He also gave me great advice to pass on working the the Warner Brothers film he was leaving the studio to direct and take the offer I had to get into story on the TV side, as the world of TV has opened up many opportunities for me. 

Dan Povenmire and Jeff "Swampy" Marsh [Phineas and Ferb creators]- Although due to the deadlines that come with television there really is not time for mentoring, they have taught me by example. As we have seen by the success of the show, they know how to tell stories that connect with audiences everywhere. They have great sense of timing and are just plain hilarious to boot. I have grown the most as a storyteller since my journey began on Phineas and Ferb, and I have them to thank.

Photo by Rick Andreoli
It looks like you've been working for Phineas and Ferb for nearly its entire run. About how far into production did you join the crew?

Aliki: Before my actual start date for the show, I cleaned up a board for Sherm Cohen, which was the episode "Flop Starz". I think it was the second board after "Rollercoaster"? After that, I began officially on "Mom's Birthday" and was lucky to be partnered with Kent Osborne, though the show did not air until a little later in the season. But yes, I have been there from just about the start.

Exactly how many jobs do you do on Phineas and Ferb? And what's the difference between them- how does being a writer differ from being a storyboard artist, etc.?

Aliki: The board artists on our show must also be able to write as well.  I also write songs, and am the voice of the character Mandy.

How did you end up doing a voice for an episode of the series, anyway?

Aliki: I kept goofing off in the bullpen during pitches imitating the way some of the girls I grew up with sounded like. Dan thought it was funny, and vowed to put it in the show someday...and he did!
Courtesy Walt Disney Television Animation Studios
Have you done any other voice work in the past?

Aliki: I have. Most notable for animation peeps out there is that I was the voice for the character "Zero" on the series SD Gundam Force (as well as Dr. Bellwood) which used to be on Cartoon Network. I also have done voice work for my own shorts, "Yaki and Yumi" and "Girls on the GO!".

Is Mandy based on you in any way?

Aliki: No. Not me at all. 

An announcement for an episode of Phineas and Ferb which will air later this month makes mention of Candace being taken to a group to help deal with her busting urge by someone named Mandy. Does this mean we'll be hearing you again soon, or is this another Mandy entirely?

Aliki: Yes, it's the same Mandy and it's a great episode!  

Your on-screen credit has evolved from Aliki Theofilopoulos to Aliki Theofilopoulos Grafft. You share a few songwriting credits for Phineas and Ferb with your husband Baron. Does he work on the show as well? If so, is that how you met him?

Aliki: No, my husband does not work on the show, but is a huge fan of hip-Hop. So when we were coming up with rhymes for the "Spa Day" song, he had some great ideas that we used as a starting point for writing the song.

What's your favorite Phineas and Ferb episode or episodes that you've worked on and why, both as a writer and as an animator/storyboard artist?

Aliki: "I, Brobot" was a lot of fun, as it was not only a blast to co-write with the incredibly talented Kent Osborne, but also "Phinedroids and Ferbots" was the first song I ever wrote for the show. Animationwise, I had a lot of fun posing out the robot dance moves. I remember laughing so hard with Kent when he said "I'm making a chimney-vator for Perry to go down to his lair. who should he meet there?" and I said "Well, Santa Claus, of course!" We built the whole episode around Santa being in it. At one point Kent said "What's the explanation for Santa being out that time of year" and I said "He's on a summer run!" To which he replied, "I'm going to actually have him say that!"

Courtesy Walt Disney Television Animation Studios
Can you give us an in-depth breakdown of all the steps it takes to make a Phineas and Ferb episode from start to finish?

Aliki: We have an Animation-inator that has been on loan to us from Dr. Doofenshmirtz for about five years now. Perry the Platypus has been gracious enough to not take it from us. The self-destruct button has been disabled.

Tell us a little bit about the writing/storyboarding process for a Phineas and Ferb episode. I believe rather than having one person write most of the script, the entire team comes up with gags during the storyboard process from a general concept for the episode, a la the classic Looney Tunes. How connected are the writing and storyboarding processes? Given the storyboard-driven nature of the show, are they closely connected or separate pieces of the process? Do writers help come up with gags during the storyboarding process and vice versa? How exactly do the writers work- alone, in teams, or as a group?

Aliki: Our show is extremely collaborative, which is why it works so well. We have a few writers on staff who come up with and write three-page outlines for a show idea. An approved outline is handed to a board team, which consists of two people (I think there are 5 or 6 teams of two). The team will break down the outline and then split up sections to draw. Then we basically write the script as we are drawing. We are constantly building on each other's ideas. But unlike other shows, we do not have a script until AFTER the board is complete.  

How much is a storyboard artist allowed to contribute to the story? Can they suggest changes in the episode?

Aliki: Absolutely. In fact, it is a job requirement! If you can not write and add ideas and gags to the story then you can not be a board artist on Phineas and Ferb. This is why we have writing AND boarding credits on our show.

Is there a sort of hierarchy of writers, or does everyone contribute to the gag-writing process?

Aliki: We do have a story editor who oversees the writers, but basically everyone contributes.

Is there any difference between writing for an 11-minute short as opposed to a half-hour or hour-long production? Does the time limit affect the writing process positively/negatively in different ways?

Aliki: Well, longer episodes are definitely harder to pull off as we usually have to add another team, so now there are eight people trying to nail down a story. However, since there is more drawing to do, this is the only way really to do it- for an hour-long, at least. For a half-hour show, there is the option to take a longer rotation with the team you are on or split it with another team. I have done both.

A recent article pointed out that female writers are a rarity now in television, and those that are there often feel isolated from or inferior to the rest of the staff due to their gender. What is the ratio of male to female writers on the show? Does Phineas and Ferb feel like sort of a place where everyone is "one of the guys", or does being a woman make you feel isolated or seperate from the rest of the crew?

Aliki: We are in the minority in our industry, and that is a frustrating fact. There is one other female board artist/writer besides myself, Kim Roberson. Dan said he would have hired more but he couldn't find any! I am sure I have to prove myself a little harder in this business because I’m a woman. Perhaps some guys don’t expect us to be very good, and especially to be funny. But for every man who may feel that way there are many more wonderful men, like my bosses and the mentors I had at Features who truly made me feel that they loved and appreciated me for the work I did. I hope I can be a role model to other women trying to break in the business as more and more women are filling up animation schools from what I hear. I definitely don't feel separate or isolated from the crew, though, as we have all become friends. I do think it's tougher though for female creators (meaning women who are pitching shows). It is my mission to inspire and encourage other women in animation. In fact, I will be a keynote speaker at a career workshop for the organization Women In Animation. You can find more info here.

Are there any characters that are easier, more fun, harder, etc. to write gags for than others?

Aliki: Well, Candace is the easiest for me to write for, as it's quite natural for me to tap into the neurotic and eccentric part of myself. I remember all too well how it felt to be a teenaged girl with two young brothers! But all in all I enjoy writing for all of the characters on our show. There is something that I love about each of them.

What's the hardest thing about writing for Phineas and Ferb? Is it difficult writing for other people's characters?

Aliki: The characters are so well-developed at this point it is not difficult at all for me. It really is pure joy. Of course, my ultimate dream is to write for my own characters, which I am working on. Until then, I will blissfully enjoy writing for Phineas and Ferb

As a woman, does it seem easier to write for female characters such as Candace, Isabella, etc. than male ones? Harder? Or is there no difference?

Aliki: As I said, I really enjoy writing for Candace, but writing for Phineas or Doof is a blast as well.

As long as we're talking about gender, one of our readers was Isabella's pet chihuahua Pinky a boy or a girl?

Aliki: I actually don't know!

Which is more fun to write for- heroes or villains?

Aliki: Both.

Dr. Doofenshmirtz and Major Monogram, both apart and in the few instances where they've appeared together, are two of the funniest characters on the show. They also happen to be voiced by series creators Dan Povenmire and Swampy Marsh, respectively. Do Dan and Swampy ad-lib and/or come up with most of their dialogue themselves, or is it also a collaborative effort?

Aliki: All of the above!

Do the writers leave some lines open for improv by the voice actors, or is everything pretty tightly scripted?

Aliki: Unless something must be read a certain way for the needs of the story, there is room for an actor to ad-lib if he so chooses.  However, a lot of work has been put into getting the writing to be just right, so usually it is not done.

Phineas and Ferb is known for its distinct formula, as well as for its catchphrases and bizarre running gags such as the talking zebra or the giant floating baby head. Do any of these recurring jokes eventually become a crutch or something that gets hard to slip in? Do new running gags or recurring themes end up replacing them as a result?

Aliki: No, I don't think they are crutches, just another fun part of the show.

How do the writers stay so consistent with the series continuity? Is it a collaborative effort or is there a person/persons in charge of continuity?

Aliki: It's a collaborative effort. And when in doubt, we can check the Phineas and Ferb Wiki, right? ;)

Do the writers have things such as the age or gender of the target audience in mind when they write, or do they just write for a general audience?

Aliki: We write the show so that there are different levels of humor. Kids can watch it with their parents and there is something for everyone. If a small child, like my four year old, doesn't understand a joke about "Existentialist Trading Cards", then there'll be another joke soon that she will get.   

Songwriting is also a collaborative process as well. Do certain members of the writing team come up with more contributions to songs than others, as far as the songs you've been involved with are concerned?

Aliki: Well, Dan, Swampy, Martin [Olson], Jon Barry, and Rob [Hughes] have probably contributed the most with the songs on our show, as well as Danny Jacob, our composer, of course...but I try to write songs when I can. If I don't it is usually because I am just too busy.

What's your favorite song you've helped write for Phineas and Ferb?

Aliki: "Come Home Perry" hands down. It was fun having a song I co-wrote be nominated for an Emmy, and it's even more fun hearing my two-year-old sing it. It's his favorite too (and he has no idea I had anything to do with it). Second place would have to be "Phinedroids and Ferbots."

Courtesy Walt Disney Television Animation Studios
Recently, a "Take Two" segment aired featuring Phineas and Ferb interviewing Miss Piggy, who sang "Spa Day." What does it feel like to have a song you helped write be sung by a character as iconic as Miss Piggy?

Aliki: That was a trip. The funny thing is that I had no idea that was happening. My kids were watching a recorded version of the ABC airing of "Phineas and Ferb Across the Second Dimension", and it came on! My husband and I were dumbstruck. Happily dumbstruck that is!

How did you end up being asked to do the "Phineas and Ferb 60-Second Game Show?" What was that like? Were you asked to act more "animated" for it or is that how you normally act?

Aliki: I was asked by the studio if I'd be up for it. It was a lot of fun, and I had a blast. I definitely don't normally act that animated...I just happen to be very excited about game shows...and pineapples.

It's been reported that Phineas and Ferb has been picked up for a fourth season. Has production on that begun yet, or is the team waiting for the move to the new offices in Glendale?

Aliki: We have not heard official word.  If it does happen, we will begin work on it soon.  

There's also a Phineas and Ferb feature film in development. What- if anything- can you tell us about that?
Aliki: I can tell you that there is a Phineas and Ferb feature film in development. Stay tuned!

Are there any future "special" episodes of Phineas and Ferb in the works along the lines of the Christmas special, "Summer Belongs To You", etc.?'

Aliki: Yes, there will be future "special" episodes for sure. There are a couple in particular that I can't wait for the public to see.  One of them was teased at Comic-Con this year at the Phineas and Ferb panel, and it is one that I co-wrote/boarded. 

Phineas and Ferb decide to make something special for you as their big project one day. Knowing full well that it would probably somehow mysteriously disappear at the end of the day, what would they make for you and why?

Aliki: I'd be very happy with a beach in my backyard!  Minus the gnomes.

Let's step away from Phineas and Ferb for a moment. I see you've created a few cartoons of your own. You did two shorts for Nickelodeon and Frederator's Random! Cartoons- "Yaki and Yumi" and "Girls on the GO!" Can you tell us a little bit more about those? Were they meant as pilots for a potential series?

Aliki: Yes, the hope was that Nickelodeon would pick one up for series, however they chose Fanboy and Chum Chum, created by Eric Robles.  Fred [Seibert, founder of Frederator] also sold another short from this series to Cartoon Network, which was Adventure Time, created by Pen Ward. Creating the two shorts were one of the greatest experiences I've had in my career. I learned all about the process of how to make a film from start to finish, and grew so much as a creator. I feel so fortunate to this day that Eric Homan and Fred Seibert gave me the opportunity to make TWO original shorts. The rights to both properties are back in my hands, and I do hope to do something with these characters some day. (Studios, I've got a bat, a dragon, and a pack of teenagers for sale...anyone wanna make me an offer I won't refuse?) I have learned so much since the creation of these little pilots, though, so now when I watch them I see all the things I would do different now.

The main character in "Girls on the GO!", Kat Metropoulos, likes to draw and has a Greek name (or at least the comic equivalent of one). I'm guessing she's inspired by you?

Aliki: Yes the character is based on a younger version of myself. The actress who plays her is Danica McKellar (Winnie Cooper from ''The Wonder Years''). Danica is absolutely fabulous!

Besides voicing Mandy in "Thaddeus and Thor", you've done a bit of supporting voice work in your own projects as well as serving as the voice director for them. Do you have any training as a voice-over artist, or are you someone along the lines of Seth MacFarlane or Dan and Swampy themselves- a creator who just also happens to be able to do cartoon voices?

Aliki: I have taken some voice-over classes, but basically fell into it...there was an open call to do "scratch" dialogue on the movie Home on the Range when I was working at Disney Feature Animation, and my Jennifer Tilly imitation landed me the spot. It was great practice and fun, and at that time I got into some classes and got an agent.

Any other projects you'd like to discuss/plug?

Aliki: I am constantly thinking about my different projects and ideas and ways to build or improve on them. I absolutely love creating and pitching ideas and I hope to have my own show one day (or two, or three). Let's just say I'm working on it.

What's the weirdest thing that's happened to you as a writer/animator?

Aliki: One late night, working on Phineas and Ferb, the episode "Unfair Science Fair". We had been working on an episode where Doof keeps entering science fairs, and losing to baking soda volcanos. We thought it would be funny if he lost other contests to a baking soda volcano, and came up with the idea of having him enter a poetry contest. Dan said "Okay, so we need a really lame poem". And I said "oh, I have one". So I told the now infamous story of how when I was a kid, my brother had to do poetry homework and my father, a very prominent research doctor, declared that ANYONE could write poetry. He left the room with a pad of paper and a pen, and then returned with his 'incredible' poem, "The movies are grey, the TV is black. The horses are running. Please bring me some food". Sound familiar? So the weirdest thing (aside from Miss Piggy singing a song I co-write) is hearing Dr. Doofenshmirtz recite a poem my dad wrote when we were kids.

Have you ever been asked to write something in your career that you didn't want to?

Aliki: I had to write about chickens.

What do you aspire to? What is your dream job (and don't say "what you're doing right now")?

Aliki: My ultimate dream is to be the creator of a hit cartoon series of my own!

What advice do you have for those who want to get into animation?

Aliki: Study life. Draw constantly. Learn about story. Learn about who the great animators and directors are of our industry, past and present. Be tenacious. Take a LOT of classes. Introduce yourself to the other players. Draw some more, and when you are done, draw some more.

Thanks so much for your time. One last question before we go: aren't you a little old to be talking about a kids show with someone who isn't even a kid?

Aliki: No, no I'm not!

Courtesy Antoine Guilbaud
Thanks so much to everyone who offered their suggestions for questions, especially Michael Wilson of Michael and Chrissy, who gave me both a lot of great questions and a lot of great advice.

And super-ultra-mega thanks to Aliki Theofilopoulos Grafft for agreeing to do this interview and the folks at Disney who were able to make it interview a reality. Check out Aliki's blog and portfolio, and follow her on Twitter.