Joe Strike talks to executive producer Eryk Casemiro about the latest incarnation of the much-loved British franchise.
They say nostalgia runs in 20-year cycles: about as long as it takes for kids to grow up and begin fondly looking back at their childhoods. That may or may not be the case with The Mr. Men Show, the preschool series now airing weekday mornings on Cartoon Network; the ultra-iconic characters have been around in one form or another since 1971, when Roger Hargreaves' son Adam asked his father what a tickle looked like. The obliging dad drew a smiley-faced orange circle with long wiggly arms -- and an entertainment franchise was born.
Mr. Tickle, the first Mr. Men book, was followed by more than 50 additional books starring other "Mr. Men" and "Little Miss" characters -- all thick-outlined, brightly-colored shapes, each one representing a single emotion or attitude in its silliest form. TV series starring the characters were produced in the 1970s, '80s and '90s -- and now they're back again.
These 21st-century Men and Misses come from Chorion Ltd. and executive producers Eryk Casemiro and Kate Boutilier. Casemiro's relationship with the property goes back to the early 1990s, when he attempted to option it from the Hargreaves family (creator Roger had passed away in 1988) while working for Lorne Michaels' Broadway Video. "Lorne was looking for kids' stuff," Casemiro recalls. "He was amassing a library and I was looking for properties that sort of fit the Broadway Video style; I watched the show and thought, 'this is a great sketch comedy show for kids.'"
The two parties weren't able to agree. They went their separate ways and a different studio produced a Mr. Men series in the mid-1990s. Meanwhile, Broadway Video sold off its kids' programming library (sending it through a variety of ownership hands) while Casemiro moved on to Klasky Csupo as its senior VP of creative affairs. After several years of overseeing various iterations of Rugrats and The Wild Thornberrys, he left the company and partnered with Kate Boutilier, another K-C alum, whose scripting efforts there included several Rugrats movies, The Wild Thornberrys and the Rugrats spinoff series All Growed Up.
In 2004, Hargreaves' widow Christine sold the rights to the characters to Chorion; the forces that would reunite Casemiro with Mr. Men were set into motion. He and Boutilier were in Paris with Diana Manson, Chorion's executive producer, developing a project that eventually became an all-European production, when Manson asked him if he'd be interested in taking another shot at Mr. Men.
"'Yeah, sure,' I said," recalls Casemiro. "She didn't believe me though, she thought I was being polite. After all, she was buying dinner."
Back in the U.S., Mr. Men quickly became a number-one priority for the pair. They introduced the project at MIP Jr. in October 2006 and started writing episodes the next month. Their next stop was a pitch to Cartoon Network at Kidscreen 2007; the network was intrigued but not ready to bite.
Then someone from Mr. Men's homeland stepped into the breach. "Nick Wilson wanted the show for 'Milkshake!'," Casemiro explains, referring to England's "five" channel and the head of its highly successful morning preschool block.
With a British outlet on board, production continued on the series. There was still no word from Cartoon Network; the network was still somewhat preoccupied with the aftermath of Adult Swim's Boston "bomb scare" debacle. Once things settled down, however, CN picked up the show in March 2007.
Producing a show for audiences on both sides of the Atlantic often proved a balancing act. The U.K. audience for the show was slightly younger than Cartoon Network's, leading to some of the show's verbal wit being reined in to a slight degree. "The show still had to be silly and funny for the older end of the audience," says Casemiro. "We made sure to include plenty of physical humor for the younger viewers because the verbal humor was a little over their heads.
"Britain was our tricky audience. Mr. Men is so beloved over there; the only thing to compare it to in the U.S. is [Peanuts]. Ninety percent of British people between 18 and 35 know and love the characters, versus 18 percent in the U.S. The production blog on our website was getting hits early on: 'Why did you change their design,' 'Why did you have to… ' Even some feminists were saying, '"Little Miss" is troubling, why do you have to call them that?' Well, it's the heritage of the show! But once it started airing, the fuss died down and we were well received."
Cartoon Network asked for -- and got -- a slight trim in the number of female characters and a more "boy-centric" attitude in the show's humor. "The network was afraid it would turn off boy audiences," says Casemiro, "so we dropped Little Miss Fickle, Miss Fabulous and the Little Miss Twins. They weren't from the books, we invented them for the show.
"There were a lot of negative female characters in the original books: Little Miss Scatterbrain, Little Miss Stubborn… we had to realign them, make the Little Misses a little more positive. We created Miss Calamity because we wanted a female character who suffered perils from the others. You expect Mr. Bump [to get bumped around], but Miss Calamity's misfortunes are always outrageous."
Casemiro outlined a variety of revisions, both small and large, made to the Mr. Men and Misses, from making Little Miss Scary look less like a spiky-topped Simpsons character, to changing Mr. Fussy's name to Mr. Persnickety ("it sounded more alliterative"), to giving Little Miss Whoops ("She's like a bull in a china shop") a hair bow to differentiate her from the similarly colored and shaped Mr. Bump.
"We wanted the characters to serve the production design, which was to harken back to a UPA look. Some changes were microscopic and some were more egregious. Mr. Lazy was our biggest digression from the original. He was pink and looked like a body organ." Peter Michael, the show's art director, took the roly-poly character, turned him teal green, slenderized and slouched him over, then topped him off with a "who cares" expression and oversized cap.
In a world of 11- and 22-minute narrative-driven episodes, The Mr. Men Show takes a decidedly different approach, one that recalls the 1960s Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In. Each 11-minute segment features a variety of vignettes, blackout gags and mini-stories built around a specific theme -- books, jobs, inventions and the like.
Casemiro says the goal wasn't to be different for the sake of difference. "We set out to do that," he explains. "The format is really to serve the characters. Mr. Men isn't like most shows, where there's a narrative and the character goes through some kind of transformative experience. If Mr. Stubborn learns not to be stubborn, he no longer serves his purpose in the book.
"The biggest risk was to make a show for preschoolers where nobody ever learns anything. We use the sketch comedy model to sell the characters' benevolence towards each other. Even though they know Mr. Persnickety will be a pill, or Little Miss Daredevil will be the most frightening bus driver alive, they still care for one another and accept each other for who they are in every sketch. There's this sort of underlying brother- and sisterhood. The early notes we got from the network asked, why would Mr. Grumpy take a car ride with Miss Sunshine? He would because he's Mr. Grumpy, but it would never stop him from being grumpy the entire ride.
"The rub of the sketch is that that character never wins in the end -- whoever is bristling everyone, it always rolls back down on them. Without them 'learning a lesson,' we show that their behavior is not really acceptable."
The show's look is also a throwback to another decade, the post-psychedelic, polyester 1970s. "We wanted a nod to the '70s," Casemiro recalls, "when the books were originated. A lot of the songs in the show have a funkdelic/disco/Bootsy Collins quality to them. A lot of props look like they're out of The Mike Douglas Show, like the microphones and chairs on set for the talk show segments."
With characterizations, character and production design in place, production hit the fast track: VO recording sessions (supervised by series director Mark Risley) started in April and the last show was completed eight months later at the end of 2007. "It was a stupidly fast schedule... a head-spinning schedule," Casemiro recalls. "But it was a labor of love -- we had a great time."
The yeoman job of handling The Mr. Men Show's accelerated production schedule was tackled by Renegade Animation. The Glendale, California-based studio was founded in 1992 by Warner Bros. veterans Darrell Van Citters and Ashley Postlewaite, and had previously produced Hi Hi Puffy Ami Yumi for Cartoon Network. "We were introduced to them back when we worked at Klasky-Csupo," Casemiro explains. "They were a great team to work with. Peter Michael [Renegade's art director] was a stupendous art director and character designer. He found a way to make Flash super-effective as a production model and a creative tool."
The Mr. Men Show premiered in February on Cartoon Network (where it has been garnering strong ratings) and Britain's five channel; on April 12 it started airing on France 5. Meanwhile, Chorion has been signing deals with broadcasters in Australia, Israel and elsewhere. Since wrapping the show's first season, Casemiro and Boutilier have produced another series for Chorion, Olivia, based on Ian Falconer's children's books. Now, however, it's time to pick up where they left off with the Mens and Misses. "We're now writing second-season scripts to have a head start if and when they give us a green light. It's like revisiting an old friend."
Joe Strike is a regular contributor to AWN. His animation articles also appear in the NY Daily News and the New York Press.
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