Half-hour category is all déjà vu

HOLLYWOOD– While the winds of change might not be blowing through the animation categories as much as they are in other races, anyone looking for frosh talent on the ballot should be happy that Steve Hillenburg’s “SpongeBob SquarePants” (Nickelodeon) made a splash in the children’s programming category, and Genndy Tartakovsky’s stylish “Samurai Jack” (Cartoon Network) fought its way into the one-hour-or-longer field.

For the most part, it’s certainly deja vu in the half-hour animated category. All five contenders — “King of the Hill,” “The Simpsons,” “Futurama,” “South Park” and “As Told by Ginger”– have been there, done that.

“People may be getting sick of us,” says Al Jean, exec producer of “The Simpsons.” But, he adds, “all the nominated shows deserve it. The only show that I felt should have got a mention, but didn’t make it was Nickelodeon’s ‘Invader Zim.’ ”

“The Simpsons,” which will begin its 15th season this fall, was nominated for an episode in which Lisa converts to Buddhism.

“There are a variety of theories about why some episodes get nominated and others don’t,” says Jean. “It seems to help when there’s a discussion of religion, or if it’s well animated or if it has a strong emotional content.”

Disturbing content

Former “Simpsons” alum David X. Cohen, who created Fox’s underrated Sunday night series “Futurama” with Matt Groening, believes that at times it pays to disturb the voters.

“This year we entered an episode in which the crew crashes in 1947 Roswell, New Mexico,” he says. “The premise is memorable, because Fry embarks on a disturbing romance with his own grandmother.”

Although “Futurama” is not officially canceled, and will be back on the Fox schedule this fall with 16 unaired episodes, the network has not made any new production commitments. “We’re all taking jobs elsewhere,” says Cohen, “but the good news is that these 16 episodes are really some of the best we’ve ever done.”

Both Cohen and Jean blame the cyclical nature of the business for the current slow primetime animation climate.

“We were just ahead of the big wave of animated shows, and now we might be on the ebbing tide,” says Cohen. “Animation is very expensive to produce, and with the current financial climate, executives prefer shows that are cutting corners here and there. Unless you’re a show like ‘South Park,’ which does it in a brilliant way, with a reasonable budget, it’s hard to survive.”

Matt Stone and Trey Parker of “South Park,” which is in its sixth season on Comedy Central, managed to impress the voters with its wild “Osama Bin Laden Has Farty Pants” episode, with a very topical storyline that involved terrorist attacks, Afghan kids, a goat and singer Stevie Nicks.

Klasky Csupo’s “As Told by Ginger” hit the mark with an episode that found eighth-grader Ginger and her friends on a vacation and dealing with an escapee from an insane asylum. It’s the second nomination for the Nick toon, which is only in its second season.

Nightmare parents

“We wanted to write a show exploring the quandary you have as a kid when you go on vacation with a friend, but you don’t necessarily like their parents,” says Eryk Casemiro, who penned the episode. “It turned out to be an outrageous episode. ‘Ginger’ is written for a 6- to 14-year-old audience. That’s why we are really pleasantly surprised to be on the list.”

Also helping Nick with its nom count is Hillenburg’s “SpongeBob SquarePants.” This is the first time the hugely popular toon, which has been on the air since July 1999, has landed a primetime nom.

“What I hear a lot from the parents is that they enjoy watching a show with their kids that they find amusing on some level, too,” says Hillenburg. “I’m a parent as well and I know what it’s like to have to watch and tolerate things you don’t like.”

Hillenburg, who is working on a “SpongeBob” feature, believes that it’s much more daunting to have a hit series in primetime. “We’re more of a Saturday morning show that eked itself out to primetime, and we’re on cable, which is a different animal. But there are some very well-crafted animated shows out there, such as ‘Samurai Jack,’ and ‘Whatever Happened to Robot Jones?’ and Nick’s “Fairly Odd Parents.’ ”

That Cartoon Network’s freshman skein “Samurai Jack” landed an animation nom indicates the voters are more open to more adventurous fare.

“It’s certainly an unusual show,” says Cartoon Network’s senior VP of original animation, Linda Simensky. “It demands more art direction, it’s more stylized and is not dialogue-heavy. The nomination process is only open to those working in the animation field, so when you get a nod, you know that your peers are appreciating what you do.”

Yet as Casemiro puts it ever so delicately, “You can say it’s a great honor to be nominated, but when my name isn’t called on Emmy night, I’m going to be the sorest loser you’ve ever seen.”

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