Disneys Teachers Pet is all the rage, and Joan Kim finds it easy to understand why. The combination of unique style and great writing bring this crazy cast to life.
Arriving on Disneys One Saturday Morning lineup this past fall, Teachers Pet delivers the rich and playful animation of Gary Baseman and the experienced storytelling of Bill & Cheri Steinkellner. The series introduces viewers to its endearing cast with the flare of a Broadway musical. Central to the story are the desires of a boy, Leonard, and his best friend, his dog Spot, but Spot isnt an ordinary dog. Spot, in fact, doesnt even want to be a dog. He wants to be a boy. Leonard is trying to be just a regular fourth grader -- normal in the blandest way possible -- but between the antics of Spot and the fact that his mother teaches his class and periodically humiliates him by calling him "doodlebug," hes having a tough time. His difficulties multiply when, much to his horror, he realizes that the new boy in school, Scott Leadready II, is Spot! His goal of being "normal" is further confounded when he becomes the sole human emissary to the world of fuzzy (and feathery) critters. Yes, he can talk to the animals. His attempts to avoid being the teachers pet are abruptly, and ironically, alleviated by the exemplary academic performance of the new kid -- his dog -- who ends up becoming the teachers pet. While of course comedic situations arise, the stories always end in lessons being learned and intelligent realizations made to mediate all the canine madness.
If the Dog Could Only Talk
Co-creator and co-executive producer Gary Baseman is known for his creative genius. One can see his works in esteemed periodicals like Time, Rolling Stone and The New York Times, and he has done commercial artwork for clients such as Nike and Microsoft. Hes an accomplished and talented artist but stroking aside, heres the really amazing part -- there was a particular moment when he looked down at his cocker spaniel, Hubcaps, and the seed of a simple story was planted. Baseman has maintained that the tag line for his work is, "Where the line between genius and stupidity has been smudged beyond recognition." He also offers that, "Ive always strove for a balance between a very adult, sophisticated sense of esthetic mixed with images that are stupid and absurd." In the April 2000 issue of Communication Arts he goes on to assert that, "The most important thing Ive learned in communication, in making messages, is to be able to push buttons. Understand who your audience is, whether its you who Im talking to right now, or to a million people or even a TV show -- whats going to make them happy, whats going to make them miserable, where their touchy subjects are and not to do it maliciously, not to hurt somebody. I love getting a rise out of people. I love making them think. And hopefully maybe they learn from it."
His unique visual style and attitude is not lost in the cartoon. Timothy Bjorklund who directs the series vividly translates Basemans artistic vision. "Tim has really sought to ensure every frame of the show -- and thats 12 drawings per second -- looks like a Baseman painting," says Baseman.
In addition to shows unique visual style, the Steinkellners writing expertise marries together a particular blend of craziness and credibility. In the first episode, "Muttamorphosis,"as the title suggests, we encounter Spot deliberating over whether to continue eating doggy treats or to grab a backpack and go to school. Decidedly, Spot undergoes an inspiring transformation when he jumps into Leonards trousers, dons a cap and in Clark Kent fashion puts on a pair of glasses. The pearls to his outfit? The bunny backpack selected by Mrs. Helperman, predictably rejected by Leonard, of course. As writers, the Steinkellners find a perfect vehicle for exciting learning in the natural characteristics associated with the lovable canine. Cheri Steinkellner states, "We love a character wholl drive a story and really push it forward with energy and enthusiasm. These are very dog-like qualities. All the tail-wagging and jumping up and down and slobbering. What fun to take all that puppy hyper-joy and make it about something not traditionally viewed as a joyful experience -- like the fourth grade."
Truth is Stranger Than Fiction
In their role as co-creators and co-executive producers, the Emmy Award-winning writing team, Bill and Cheri Steinkellner (Cheers) revel in the ability to place into the mouths of the characters words that are derived directly from their own experience as parents. Cheri comments, "Things will come out of their mouth and go right into our scripts. We get story ideas just from hearing about their day. Something dumb happens at school, we talk it through, try to work it out, then say, Hey, what if that happened to Leonard or Scott? It helps put the dumb stuff in perspective, and dumb stuff usually makes for great stories."
Working together with Baseman, their combined skills produce a show that avoids being flat or heavy educational fare with burdensome lessons presented in textbook manner. Rather, the Steinkellners produce characters that build stories which are engaging for adults and children alike. In the episode "Being Mrs. Leadready," Spot finds himself playing the role of dog, mother and son. The over-achieving dog isnt able to keep up the farce, but from the beginning we get a clear sense that his time is not wasted. Its a pleasure to see Spots attempts to pull off his deception and the simple lessons that come forth when he realizes and considers the impact of his actions. Spots determination and intensity is always counterbalanced and tempered by a genuine caring for his master, Leonard, and his ability to recognize his own dynamics within a group. Spots horrible tummy ache resulting from eating too many liver wraps and the sincere regret he exhibits for overextending his ruse is sufficient enough to teach us all a good lesson.
If the Cat Could Only Talk...Uh, and the Canary Too
So, what else can you add to an already exceptional educational and informational program created and produced by the likes of Baseman and the Steinkellners? How about the voice talents of Tony Award-winner Nathane Lane as the rambunctious four-legged scholar; Shaun Fleming (Once Upon A Christmas) as Leonard; Debra Jo Rupp (That 70s Show) as Leonards mother and fourth grade teacher Mrs. Helperman; Jerry Stiller (Seinfeld) as the voice of the napoleonic family bird, Pretty Boy; David Ogden Stiers (M.A.S.H) as the Helpermans plump, neurotic cat, Mr. Jolly; Rob Paulsen (Pinky and the Brain) who supplies the voice of know-it-all classmate Ian Wazselewski; and Wallace Shawn (Toy Story and Toy Story 2) portraying the cat-loving, overlord Principal Strickler? Together, the characters that populate the show create a diverse group of dynamic personalities. Mr. Jolly, the cat, and Pretty Boy, the canary, along with the rest of the pack, make a spirited addition to the central story line. Often cranky and overly opinionated, Pretty Boys call-it-like-I-see-it mentality consistently clashes with Mr. Jollys far more gentle and careful sensibilities.
"Pet Project," yet another clever installment of the Teachers Pet series, has Leonard and Spot vying to win a writing competition. Each needs to decide which pet will serve as their muse in forming pages of flowing prose. The competition is brought to an unexpected turn when the pets are invited to the classroom to serve as visual accompaniment to the written works. The press will be there, prizes are to be awarded and the pressure is on. Pretty Boy and Mr. Jolly after all their squawking back and forth prove that they are equally good at being friends as they are at being rivals. Pretty Boy steps up to protect Mr. Jolly when Ian Wazselewskis snake tries to intimidate him. The snakes simple rebuttle is to chomp Pretty Boy up in one gulp. Mr. Jolly is quick to recover and rises faithfully to the occasion, jumping onto the surly serpent causing him to belch up Pretty Boy. In the end, the two friends decide that they belong at home, and not at school. Unlike their friend Spot, the two find their hoots and hollers in the safety of the Helperman home. In addition to the trials of Spot and Leonard, the other members of the household learn equally valuable lessons about themselves along the way.
One More Thing
As difficult as it is for me to admit -- I catch myself singing the theme song for this show a lot -- borderline annoying, but catchy nonetheless. Teachers Pet airs on ABC Saturday mornings. Times are available at www.disney.com/teacherspet.
Joan Kim received her B.A. in English Literature from UCLA and currently is the editorial administrator for Animation World Network. Previously as a graphics consultant she produced several company reports and manuals and continues to pursue an education in computer graphics.