"Sanjay and Craig," which premieres Saturday (tonight) on Nickelodeon, follows the adventures of a boy named Sanjay, voiced by Maulik Pancholy of "30 Rock," and his best friend, a talking snake named Craig, voiced by Chris Hardwick, the Nerdist. Linda Cardellini and Tony Hale are also voices on the show.
Among other things, the goofy and delightful series represents the joining of two great names from the golden age of Nick with three as-yet obscure names from its possible future. And in this joining, it also represents a positive step back for the network to where it once belonged.
It has been 14 years, after all, since the birth of "SpongeBob SquarePants." The network's more recent animated series have been wrought from DreamWorks film franchises (Madagascar penguins, incorporated monsters, kung-fu-fighting panda), while its live-action shows have taken many cues from the aspirational sitcoms of the Disney Channel.
"They're getting back to more creator-driven things," Chris Viscardi said over a Burbank breakfast the day before the series premiere and the morning after the party anticipating it. Viscardi and partner Will McRobb, who created "The Adventures of Pete & Pete," a pillar of the Nickelodeon golden age and a show I would happily defend as the greatest television series ever, are executive producers of "Sanjay and Craig," which they regard as being very much in the spirit of "Pete & "Pete" and true to their aesthetic philosophy of making things "funny, sad, strange and beautiful." ("I think we were helpful in the 'sadder,'" McRobb said.)
The series was created by Jay Howell, Jim Dirschberger and Andreas Trolf, who met in the borderless swirl of the San Francisco art/music/writing/skating scene. Howell and Dirschberger were recruited by Nickelodeon from a Web series they'd made, a cartoon called "The Forest City Rockers," about a motorcycle gang with only one motorcycle. In rough terms, Howell is the artist (he did the character design for "Bob's Burgers"), Dirschberger the filmmaker and Trolf the writer. The younger team grew up on the works of the older one, and inside the cartoon renaissance of the 1990s.
All but Howell were present for this interview; he was at a recording session with guest voice Mark Summers, the host of the classic-era Nickelodeon game show "Double Dare," which will figure into an upcoming episode.
How did it begin?
Will McRobb: It was basically [Nickelodeon development executive] Audrey Diehl surfing the Internet and finding this hilarious inspired mess that is "Forest City Rockers" and for some reason thinking to herself, "I should contact these guys to make a kids' show." It's so outside of the normal development way, but it was perfect.
Jim Dirschberger: Audrey Diehl was, like, "Yeah, if you could maybe tone down some of the ... everything, and just keep some of the fun." And we're just, like, "OK, but we're not writers." The people we were working with on "Rockers" were just as scatterbrained as we were. And Andreas was a guy around town who we were friends with; I knew his writing before I knew him. Jay and I were in a bar and were going to sit down and write, and Andreas was there, and we just mentioned, "Yeah, we're working on this show," and he sat down for five minutes and just started riffing.
Andreas Trolf: It was just a casual relationship before then, a drinking relationship between me and Jay; Jay and Jim had been working together. And once we started jamming on "Sanjay and Craig," all this other stuff worked out -- Jim and I made a bunch of music videos together, and we all continue to work together in various capacities. It's a pretty rad partnership.
Did you already have the characters?
JD: Jay had created it as a zine in I think 2004, and it was very rough. Sanjay was older, like a 40-year-old dude who was a snake charmer, with a dynamic of a straight-laced dude combined with a really crude roommate buddy who's a talking snake. I remember sitting down with Jay and he's just like, "Kids' show -- what?" And I remembered having read the zine -- "Yeah, Sanjay and Craig, that's what we got."
Interestingly enough, we had actually pitched "Sanjay and Craig" to them, and they had turned it down. We gave them an outline that was like the phone book.
AT: Episode synopses, two pages each.
JD: We're all talking over each other -- it's like the worst pitch ever. And they're like, "Get your stuff together and come back at us. But we want something edgier." So we wrote this other show that was really just disgusting.
AT: It was about four kids who lived in a garbage dump.
JD: And they're like, "Actually, this is kind of messed up, you've gone too far. That first idea suddenly seems really good, and everybody keeps talking about it." Jay, the other creator, did character design on "Bob's Burgers," and he's good friends with [creator] Loren Bouchard. We sat down with Loren for three or four hours over coffee, and he gave us a crash course in how to pitch a show: "What are you doing? You're bringing this up? That doesn't even matter! Streamline it!" He showed us the "Bob's Burgers" pitch packet, which was, like, four pages of beautifully executed writing and art, and that was it. So we combined what we had learned from the first two pitches, put it in this really simple presentation.
AT: If they liked it, that was awesome, but we were going to make it one way or another, because we were so involved and invested in the characters. Just to make it ourselves in Flash and put it on YouTube would have been fine.
Were there other cartoons that influenced you?
AT: I think we're all hugely influenced by "Ren & Stimpy." Besides the amazing absurdity is the fact that it's two friends and their adventures, and it means the world to them.
Chris Viscardi: Will also worked on "Ren & Stimpy," so he was well familiar with that. I think collectively we're all drawn to that really tight bond you have with your best friend, be it a brother or a pet snake -- there's so much there to mine. So many kids have those best friends.
WM: They not only have best friends, but now they have Best Friends Forever. We didn't have that. We didn't have acronyms to describe our friendships.
One of the generational things I've noticed working with these guys who are younger than us -- who are basically us when we started and didn't know what we were doing and made some of our best work because of it -- is that they grew up watching every of episode of "The Simpsons." It's a good thing; your Simpsons knowledge permeates your comic sensibility.
AT: I can talk about "The Simpsons" ad nauseam, as these guys know. That's the best show that's ever existed for me. I was 12 when it started, and I was primed for it, but there's a generation of -- not kids, adults now, 23 years old -- who've never lived without "The Simpsons."
What's it like being back at Nickelodeon?
CV: We hadn't done too much for Nickelodeon in about eight or nine years; they often invited us to develop stuff for them and would send us projects every once in a while to get involved in. And most of the things we passed just because it didn't feel like something that we were all that into; it was a sensibility that we weren't all that thrilled with. And then Audrey Diehl asked us to executive produce a pilot they had in development with Ryan Quincy, who's now doing "Out There" [on IFC]. So Will and I helped executive produce and co-write that pilot. I think "Sanjay and Craig" was actually one of the projects it was competing with, and they went with that. And then Audrey asked us if we would take a look at it, and as soon as we saw it, I think we both had the same reaction. It was, "This feels like it could have been made at Nickelodeon 15 years prior." It had a kind of "Ren & Stimpy"/"Pete & Pete" old-school Nick quality to it, so it totally drew us in and we've been on board ever since. The long and the short of is we had the chance to come back many times in the past, but were just not interested, based on what they were doing. And this one really tickled our fancy.
WM: The timing's been great for something different to get through the pipeline, because Nickelodeon's beginning to think, "Maybe we should revisit what we used to be, when we were more kid-oriented and less caught up in coming up with TV shows based on movies." It kind of reminds me of back in the day -- but it's even better now. It was mostly hands-off when we did "Pete & Pete," but now not only are the execs giving us permission to do all kind of things you wouldn't think they would, they really are pushing us to go further.
CV: Also with "Sanjay and Craig," it's not like you hear the idea -- "It's about a boy and a talking snake" -- and it makes you think, "Whoa! I can't wait to see that!" It's "Oh, that sounds kind of cool." But it's the interpretation of the idea that really makes it special. It's not something that's so far out of the box, but it has a familiarity to it that just locks you in and takes you to a pretty strange and wonderful place.
WM: I's been a long time since I've been in a writer's room, where you sit down you'd be like, "So, what was your favorite thing to do when you were 11?" A lot of the stories come out of real stories, and that's part of this show's genius.
CV: And just a lot of things that make you laugh. [To Dirschberger:] I remember you and Jay and I were walking and one of you started laughing and the other one mocked the laugh and you started doing this mock laugh back and forth. And then you talked about how all the way from San Francisco to L.A. you drove one time making each other laugh with moronic laughs -- and I thought, "That's an episode." It came from such a kid place. Jim had a number of experiences growing up we used as episodes. One was, he was walking to school with his sister and saw a $100 bill frozen in ice.
JD: All I could think about all day is, "I've got to get that money out of there."
CV: We turned that into an episode.
JD: I got out of school and it had snowed and we couldn't find it, but we were digging around out there. We broke it open and got the hundred bucks.
AT: Sweetest hundred bucks ever.
WM: I would say there's a lot of stuff here that's reminiscent of "Pete & Pete," but because it's a cartoon you don't have to worry so much about having it all feel like it's in some way grounded. In "Pete & Pete," we tried to throw everything at our stories, and I think it ended up kind of hurting its popularity -- just too many moods and extras thrown together. With a cartoon you can take it as far as you want to go, and it's unquestioned -- wouldn't you say, Chris? This, this goes way further -- it has just as much heart, with coming-of-age stories and stories of things you obsess about -- but then it goes to places where characters for no reason just teleport and the show ends.
CV: Because it's animation, you can go to places where you could never normally go. And also it's very liberating to tell stories in the 11-minute form, because you can just focus on the one thing that really cracks you up. I guess where it's like "Pete & Pete" -- and very different from Nickelodeon over the last few years, oddly enough -- is that it comes from a very strong kid point of view, and it's really about the backyard and the neighborhood and the wonders you can find on your street: You don't have to necessarily go to some mystical, magical place or another world, although we do at times go to that place. It's more rooted in a heightened version of everyday reality. So in that way it's very familiar territory; it's a sandbox we love to play in.
AT: Part of what I like so much about what we're doing and what Will and Chris have been immensely supportive of has been -- although funny is at the heart of the show -- we're not tied to that formula of having to end on a hilarious joke. Sometimes you let a beautiful visual, something really from the heart, carry the show or the ending at least. Sometimes there's sadness. Neat storytelling isn't always the most important thing. Sometimes just getting the most real emotion is at the heart of it.
WM: I think it also comes from a lifetime of watching "Peanuts" cartoons.
CV: Obviously we want to make it funny, but we also want it to be meaningful, and sometimes we do sacrifice the laughs for emotion, but I think ultimately you care about it more. And I think for Nickelodeon, it was a little bit of a learning curve, like, it's OK that we just get a little more thoughtful or sentimental here, and we don't necessarily have to undercut it with some big gag.
It ultimately comes down to you have to care about these kids and what they're doing. I think it was really being mindful of that, even if it is story about one of their friends who's never thrown up before in his entire life and trying to get him to throw up, you want to care about that kid.
WR: It reminds me a little bit of how with "Pete & Pete" we did 60-second shows at first, and we used to say, "Let's pack a whole half-hour into a minute." Here we have a couple of coming-of-age epics -- there's a great one where they're finally old enough to go on the big-kid rides and halfway through the experience they're, like, "Maybe I want to be a little kid a little longer." It captures that ambivalence you have about wanting to grow up but also wanting to be safe. And 11 minutes and it's over -- it's like, "I can't believe we did that in 11 minutes." It feels daring and exciting.
CV: I think we do collectively desire and strive to do something that's unexpected and surprising. Even though you're going down a familiar path other shows and stories have been down in the kid world, you do really look for ways to make it original and funny -- just enough of a left turn that you can still relate to it but go, "Whoa, I didn't see that coming."