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Kids-book scribe swims with Mouse

Unique animated series hits big on the small screen

Who better to create a crazy world of fish in water than a fish who is very much out of water?

Noah Z. Jones was in Camden, Maine, minding his own business — business that consisted of working on children’s books and freelance illustrating — when Disney dropped in some bait.

“It was an out-of-the-blue e-mail,” recalls Jones, who was sitting at home one day when he got an e-mail from an executive at Disney asking him to pitch some shows.

“Your brain doesn’t know what to do with that information,” Jones says.

That e-mail ultimately led to “Fish Hooks,” Disney Channel’s unusual but successful underwater high-school animated series, which Jones created and co-exec produces. “Fish Hooks” is the No. 2 animated series in TV in the 6-11 and 9-14 demos, trailing only channel-mate “Phineas and Ferb.”

It wasn’t as if Jones could never imagine being involved with television some day, but the key word there is “imagine.”

“It was so far from what I considered a possibility,” Jones says. “I always had ideas, but it’s kind of like when you’re a kid pretending to be an astronaut.”

Jones pitched a handful of ideas, with “Fish Hooks” emerging as Disney’s favorite. It has a look that is decidedly not one you would associated with Disney, featuring characters with off-kilter faces — “big googly eyes with the pupils slightly askew,” Jones says — and oft-screechy voices, supplied by a cast including Kyle Massey, Chelsea Kane, Justin Roiland, Jerry Stiller and Atticus Shaffer. But something different was what Disney TV animation development exec Mike Moon was searching for.

“In all honesty, I went in thinking whatever I try to do, they will Disnify, for lack of a better word,” says Jones, whose influences include Maurice Sendak, Richard Scarry and Mercer Mayer. “But from the beginning, the creative team that has been responsible for helping me figure out ‘Fish Hooks’ … (was) completely supportive of things I didn’t think would fly.”

Jones didn’t leave his home aquarium right away. For nearly two years, he worked with Disney’s people via phone and Internet before he met any of them face to face. When the deal was finally done and the series was truly in motion, Jones moved west with a year-old child and a second on the way. The family’s first weekend in California was marked by 100-degree weather and smoke from wildfires.

“Our eyes were bugging out of our heads for the first six months,” Jones says.

Jones credits exec producer Maxwell Atoms, directors Carl Greenblatt and Bill Reiss and storyboard artist/writer Tom Warburton for helping him figure out what TV production is about. “It’s been like going to graduate school,” says Jones, who on July 13 joined members of the “Fish Hooks” cast and crew in Washington D.C., for a panel at the National Press Club.

Jones says has had several favorite moments on the show, but one that stands out was when he did the voice of Bea Goldfishberg’s father Norm, opposite character actress Edie McClurg, who played Bea’s mother.

“That’s when my Maine-ness comes out,” Jones says. “The entire time I’m standing three feet from her (thinking) — ‘Oh my God, that’s Edie McClurg.’?”

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