What makes a good cartoon?
Sure, the animation has to be good. And the premise has to be good, too. But what’s trump at the end of the day are the stories and its characters — in fact, it’s a lot more like live-action than most people think.
That was the mantra repeated by animation kingpins Tom Sito (“Ghostbusters the Animated Series,” “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe”), James L. Brooks (“The Simpsons”), Vicky Jenson (“Shrek,” “Shark Tale”), David Silverman (“The Simpsons Movie,” “Monsters, Inc.”) Matthew O’Callaghan (“The Great Mouse Detective,” “Curious George”) and Richard Appel (“The Cleveland Show,” “American Dad!”), who came together to talk toons at the opening session of USC’s two-day Comedy@SCA confab.
The group discussed the liberating effects of animation, the similarities and differences between cartoons and live-action and the pains of censorship.
At the center of the convo were the renowned “Simpsons,” the family that has persisted on Fox in a subversive, audacious skein touting ruthless satire, multilayered wit and longevity—the show is 25 seasons deep.
“We wanted to make (the show) about character and story,” Brooks, said of “Simpsons’” origin and longevity. “We were religious about that, we were nuts, we were obsessive about that. Anything that was farfetched we wouldn’t do, we didn’t want anybody to know who the actors were, we wanted nothing to break, and I think it’s because we started that way and held to it and then over the years let it go completely. It’s great having rules that you treat like the Bible and then throw away at a certain point.”
Strong script and dialog moved the show along, and Brooks said that at a certain point the show went from something that his team was pulling to something it was chasing.
Silverman, who has directed a slew of “Simpson” episodes and the 2007 “Simpsons Movie,” acknowledged that a lot of the comedy inherent in the show depended — and still does — on deadpan. For it to be successful, it can’t feel overly cartoonish, and he stressed the importance of taking inspiration from live-action comedy legends who capitalized on timing, such as Laurel and Hardy.
“All the acting, I thought, from the characters had to come from a place of honesty and realism — even when they’re being crazy,” he said. “As long as the performance is informed by the humor in the reading, then we’re great.”
Other panelists elaborated on similar live-action, animation overlap.
“A little more patience is involved in doing animation,” Jenson said. “But oddly, it doesn’t feel like it’s going any slower. The impression is it’s like watching paint dry, but for me, I really don’t approach it that differently.”
Voices drive everything, Jenson said. You shouldn’t think about it as voice over, you should think about it more as pure acting.
Matt O’Callaghan, who has a range of film and TV credits, echoed Jenson’s sentiments and added that the fun about working in TV was the speed and spontaneity of it. He called it exciting because, it forced him to trust his instincts.
“It’s the great exercise of working very fast and working with great people,” he said. “You get to a point in features, sometimes, where you just overdevelop things.”
On the development front, Sito and others recalled some of their favorite run-ins with censors. Jenson remembered the absurdity of having to illustrate cartoon robot ghosts (instead of “real-live ghosts”) at the behest of “He-Man’s” net, while Appel praised Brooks and Co. for their relationship with Fox.
“Family Guy” and “Simpsons” are shows where it seems like anything goes, but they have a lot of rules, Appel said.
Brooks said that early on in the life of Fox, then-topper Barry Diller promised little to no censorship, which “was true for a minute and a half,” Brooks noted — but that minute and a half was crucial, as it allowed his team to establish its voice. He cited “South Park” as a commendable show for pushing the boundaries of satire.
Appel observed that the fights over content are often tougher today than they were when he began his career.
“What’s worse than standards and censorship, is the sales department: If you’re making a pejorative statement about an advertiser, it’s a bigger fight now than it is with censors,” he said.
So how do you keep a show like “Simpsons” or “Family Guy” successful for so long?
Silverman said that every time he gets a show to direct, it’s like he’s directing for the first time.
“Nothing feels standard,” he said. “It’s always fresh.”
Nonetheless, the panelists agreed that the present day is an exciting time to pitch skein ideas and spec scripts, with many more venues available to forthcoming scribes and creators.
“Two years ago you didn’t have Netflix as a buyer, who doesn’t believe in just doing a pilot that they’ll then test to death — they’ll invest in 13 episodes.” Appel said.
This weekend’s fest is presented by USC’s Arts and Humanities Initiative, Visions & Voices, and falls under the umbrella of USC’s Comedy@SCA initiative, an interdisciplinary pathway through the school’s cinematic arts curriculum.
Established in 2012 by Barnet Kellman, Jack Epps, Jr. and David Isaacs in concert with School of Cinematic Arts Dean Elizabeth M. Daley, program offers 20 courses allowing students to focus their film studies toward the comedy genre, lending a close eye to the roots of classic funny men, including Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Gleason and Larry Gelbart, among others.
(Pictured above from left: Tom Sito, Vicky Jenson, Matthew O’Callaghan, James L. Brooks, David Silverman, Richard Appel.)