Joe Strike goes behind the scenes of the new PBS series based on the much-loved NPR radio show.
It's perhaps appropriate that Howard K. Grossman first got the idea to turn National Public Radio's popular Car Talk show into an animated series while he was on the road. The longtime PBS producer (and longtime fan of the show) was in Europe working on a project, with a set of Car Talk CDs to keep him company when...
"A light bulb went off in my head: people love their laugh, their voices," he explained, referring to Tom and Ray Magliozzi, the show's stars. "These guys should be animated characters. It's a real odd duck in the NPR world, their number-one entertainment show -- a show about cars and car repair which really isn't about cars and car repair. I decided to approach them when I got home about doing an animated series."
"I contacted them via the general email address on their website in February 2001. A few weeks later I got an email back from Doug Berman, their radio show producer: 'They always pictured themselves as cartoon characters,' he said. 'When you flesh your idea out a little bit more, come on up, we'd love to talk to you about it.' I saved the email. I may frame it."
"Up" is Cambridge, Massachusetts, or "our fair city," as the Magliozzis refer to the metropolis on their radio series. The siblings, who call themselves "Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers" on air, have been doing Car Talk for over 30 years, first as a local show and then nationally since 1987. Their goofball repartee attracts thousands of non-car owners who tune in for their off-the-wall silliness, along with genuine motorheads intrigued by the unusual vehicular problems listeners ask them to solve.
"Our first idea was a direct adaptation of the radio show," Grossman recalls, using the existing soundtracks as the basis for the show's animation. "I had the rights to their entire archives. I spent a lot of time in the Car Talk Plaza offices above JFK Street in Cambridge going through their shows.
"We did a few demos to see if that approach would work -- animatics with a bit of animation. The guys liked them, so I did some more development, PowerPoint presentations, and started pitching to the networks beginning with ABC/Disney in Burbank. They absolutely loved it. They said 'this is a no-brainer' and we thought we had a slam dunk there. It turned out the creative people wanted to proceed, but the marketers didn't like the show."
Grossman's next stop was Cartoon Network, where he hoped the project would fit into the relatively new late-night Adult Swim block, although, he says, "wherever they put it, I would've been happy." He pitched the show to then-SVP of Original Animation Linda Simensky, who loved it and was "definitely disappointed" when Cartoon Network chose not to pick it up.
Time went by and Grossman continued to develop his Car Talk project, which would ultimately be titled As the Wrench Turns. This time around, he brought it to PBS. "We pitched it to them four years before we finally got the green light. They were excited about it, but we could never get them over the finish line -- until Paula [Kerger] came in [as PBS's new president and CEO]. Then it happened."
John Wilson, PBS senior vice president for programming, gave the project the go-ahead. The show began evolving towards its ultimate form. "PBS did focus groups," says Grossman," while I did my own privately. What we learned was that people liked it, but we consistently got feedback from the fans that they might quickly tire of the show 'because we've heard all this stuff before.' They wanted to know what the guys were like outside of the show. That's when we got the idea of doing an animated sitcom, using the radio show as a jumping-off point."
A creative team was assembled, headed by animation veterans Bill Kroyer as executive producer and Tom Sito as the series' director. "Howard's been putting this together for years," reflects Sito. "He and I sat down seven years ago. He told me 'I've got the nonfiction rights to this radio show and I thought it would make a good animated series.' He kept calling me, phoning me in Taipei, 'the deal's gonna happen, you're part of the team.'"
The show's writing is overseen by Doug Berman, Tom and Ray's writer/producer since their pre-NPR days. "We tried a number of different writers, but nobody captured the essence of Car Talk's humor, nobody can write Tom and Ray better than Doug," says Grossman. "Doug came in as the head writer and I gave him Tom Minton [a story editor and scripter on Tiny Toons and many other shows] as a safety net, to analyze things that work and things that don't in animation.
"Our creative rule was that Doug was responsible for Tom and Ray's dialogue and our other writers [including Minton, Sito and Kroyer] for additional dialogue. We didn't want to infringe on a brand that worked already."
Sito describes the show's production as a "pan-global" effort. "Normally you have 60 people in a warehouse in an awful part of town. On this show, the writing is done in Boston, the voice sessions in New York [with the exception of Tom and Ray who are recorded in Boston], the preproduction, direction, model design, art direction and the lead animation is done in Hollywood by my crew. The episodes are Flash-animated in Vancouver [by Atomic Cartoons], the music is composed in Dallas, postproduction is in New York too, our producer's in Connecticut and PBS is in Washington." The final show packaging is done in Toronto.
"The whole production is put together via an FTP site and email," Sito continues. "Everything is transmitted electronically or via a hard drive. It's that kind of business now. I can sit in my kitchen with my laptop, download footage and write notes. If I have to correct anything, I can scan it and send it out, coach the musicians -- they send me files, I listen and give them notes -- that's how it works nowadays."
Character designer Stephen Silver (Kim Possible, Danny Phantom) came aboard and turned Tom and Ray into a tall-and-skinny/short-and-round duo à la Abbott and Costello. "We went through five or six versions of them," says Grossman, "but the last one we did was the first we showed them. They liked it immediately."
Sito goes into more detail regarding the character designs and the show's look. "Steve said they look like Cheech and Chong. I said 'that's great, Cheech and Chong were a very successful team.' In person, Ray's lost 50 pounds and shaved off his moustache. I said 'stop losing weight. If the Pillsbury Doughboy lost weight, nobody would buy him.'
"Stylistically a lot of Flash animation has that 1960s, UPA, It's Tough to be a Bird style. We looked at Tom and Ray's website and their books, where we noticed an affinity for 1960s underground comics -- all their related artwork looks like the Freak Brothers and Robert Crumb. We decided that instead of the same 1960s flat style, let's go a little retro, make it look like an underground comic book -- just get rid of all the Rapidograph crosshatching.
"We also wanted the backgrounds to reflect a cluttered, urbanesque -- an almost Fleischer -- quality. Brad Bird's from a little town in Oregon, a lot of directors come from suburban areas. I'm a New York City kid. I used to hang out between subway cars, prowl the city all night. When you see their real garage, it looks like the one in the show -- a working garage."
The sitcom version of Tom and Ray features them as goldbricking brothers, forever looking for ways to goof off and avoid work. Their schemes involve everything from outsourcing their show to India, to declaring themselves Native Americans or running for President in order to finance their show via federal matching funds. While Wrench doesn't answer specific car problems like the radio show, it does address automotive and social issues.
"We did shows touching on synthetic fuels [via a car that runs on pasta, leading the U.S. to declare war on Italy] and regenerative braking," says Sito. "We did one where the guys get an SUV so big it creates its own ozone layer."
If anything, though, As the Wrench Turns takes delight in poking fun at PBS. "We're definitely edgy for PBS," says Grossman. "We're smart and funny in a different way. There are some topics we touched that they weren't crazy about, but they let us do it. We make fun of almost every PBS show."
"We had an episode where Big Bird and Cookie Monster literally throw the guys out the window of PBS headquarters," Sito relates with a grin. "When PBS told us we could make fun of their shows, I put that in to see what would happen; they said 'we like it.' The tough thing with this project was that we didn't have enough room to fit in all the celebrities who wanted to participate -- there are a lot of Car Talk fans out there."
NPR and PBS personalities who have already contributed cameos include newscaster Carl Kasell, A Prairie Home Companion's Garrison Keillor and urbane anchorman Jim Lehrer. "He was really funny," Sito remembers. "Very dry, doing his newscaster voice. It was great because Tom and Ray are next to him yukking it up: 'Jim, where'd you get that tie? The NPR Lost and Found?' Jim goes [Sito's voice turns completely deadpan], 'Ha ha, you guys are funny.' I think he enjoyed goofing around about himself."
All involved agree that As the Wrench Turns is a major change of pace for PBS, whose last effort in prime-time humor may have been the original runs of Monty Python's Flying Circus. Tongue in cheek, PBS's Wilson says he gave the show a go-ahead "mostly because I felt I'd get some free auto work, but so far that hasn't come to pass." Turning serious, he adds, "I like the idea of doing something unexpected and surprising that may cause viewers to stop the remote in its tracks."
For his part, Grossman has a different perspective on the decision: "What is PBS doing? Being very bold. It's no secret in the business that they've lost a lot [of viewers] to the History Channel, A&E, Discovery and other cable networks with programming that used to be PBS kind of stuff."
"If there's a conscious attempt to do anything," offers Linda Simensky, now head of PBS Kids, "it's an attempt to capture part of the NPR audience that might not watch PBS. There's a pretty big segment of the population that's a little younger than the typical PBS viewer and watches some PBS, but [listens to] a lot of NPR. This is a way to get a little more of a crossover and find out if prime-time animation will work on PBS. It's easy to do it with characters that a lot of PBS viewers already know."
As the PBS exec most familiar with animation, Simensky is overseeing the series from more of a technical perspective. "I'm the one who looks at a storyboard and gives technical comments, what's going slowly [in terms of story pacing] and things like that. Other people here could do it, but they like the fact that, for me, it's less a learning experience and something I do on everything."
Is the show an attempt on PBS's part to be more mainstream, more accessible to a general audience? "I'd put it in the category that PBS has a certain amount of space to experiment," says Simensky, "Even at the station there were a lot of different expectations of what the show would be about. In the end, as long as people are watching, they'll be fine with whatever it's about."
Grossman says he's "very happy being on PBS. We'll be more noticed, because we stand out and are unique there. If we were on Fox, we'd just be another animated TV series and we could disappear very quickly. I don't think anyone else would give us a shot at opening with ten original episodes -- usually they'd try three or four and see how it works out. PBS let us jump right into it with ten episodes and I really appreciate them for it."
Even so, the network may be hedging its bets, running two episodes back to back over five Wednesday evenings, rather than airing one a week. According to SVP Wilson, it was a decision based on a lack of compatible programming. "We looked and looked for something to pair it with; I didn't think it would work very well with the Nightly Business Report. Its best companion is another episode. And because of the political conventions and the Olympics, we have a compressed summer schedule; it just made sense for the show to have a shorter footprint.
"We shot some live action with the brothers we'll be running between the episodes. They'll tee up the serious issues the show touches on, send viewers to the show's website, and invite them to stay tuned for the next half hour."
However, Grossman is less than overjoyed with PBS's scheduling idiosyncrasies. "PBS is an odd duck. We're scheduled on their national feed at 8 p.m. Wednesdays, but half of their stations run us at a different time -- in New York City we're on at 10 p.m. instead. We told them they have to put a link on the show's home page to tell people when and where our show is playing. I'm a little upset about that, to tell you the truth. L.A., Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Atlanta -- we're right on the dime at 8 p.m. in those places. Maybe it's good, maybe it's bad, I don't know, but I think kids would like the show."
If As the Wrench Turns proves to be a success for PBS, will there be more lighthearted programming along the lines of Car Talk and its companion show Wait Wait Don't Tell Me (also produced by Doug Berman), perhaps even another animated series? "Once word got out we were doing this, I've since had a couple pitched to me," Wilson says. "Typically, it's 'how can we take New Yorker cartoons and animate them?' People think that's the right fit for public broadcasting."
Grossman says those kinds of programming decisions are out of his hands. "It's not my department. I only know what I'm developing, what I would pitch them next. Bill Kroyer and I have another show we're working on right now that whole team is part of -- a children's show."
Joe Strike is a regular contributor to AWN. His animation articles also appear in the NY Daily News and the New York Press.