Janet Hetherington digs up some secrets from creator Jay Stephens about The Secret Saturdays, the new comedy-action animated series airing on Cartoon Network.
There's something nostalgic about Saturday morning cartoons and those days when kids woke up early to watch their favorite animated adventures. And while Cartoon Network's new original offering The Secret Saturdays airs on Friday nights in the 8:00 p.m. slot, there's something about it that evokes that Saturday morning sensibility -- and it's not just the name.
In the show, Doc, Drew and Zak Saturday are a family of world-saving adventure scientists called The Secret Saturdays. They live in a hidden base and are part of a network of scientists who protect against all the underlying evil in the world. To the Saturdays, ordinary folk-tales are not just legends, but real-life mysteries and adventures. Traveling from the Gobi Desert to the Marianas Trench, the Saturdays explore ancient temples and bottomless caves, tangle with twisted villains and scour the globe in search of cryptids: mysterious creatures that live undercover all over the world.
"I think of the Saturdays as pulp-style adventure heroes, in the same mold as The Phantom, Indiana Jones, Challengers of the Unknown, The Rocketeer, Doc Savage and the Shadow," says creator Jay Stephens. "But I can't help it if my love of vintage Marvel Comics leaks into the mix."
Stephens began his career creating independent comic books such as Atomic City Tales, The Land of Nod and Jetcat Clubhouse, which he later made into an animated short. The short was featured in the Nickelodeon animated series KaBlam that helped propel a transition into animation and earned Stephens an Annie Award nomination. Stephens has also won two Daytime Emmy Awards for his international animated series Tutenstein on NBC and Discovery Kids.
Trawling for Cryptids
Twenty-six episodes of The Secret Saturdays are currently in production at PorchLight Ent. in Los Angeles, with Fred Schaefer as series producer. However, Stephens first conceived of the show some five years ago, and it was originally called Cryptids.
"I think my first sketches of what would become the Saturdays date back to 2003, when it was tentatively titled Cryptids, and was a funny (mysterious) animal show," Stephens recalls. "It's been a long and winding road to television! Once I had a cohesive pitch for the show ready, I took it around to the studios, trawling for interest. Cartoon Network eventually took the bait."
Stephens found working with Cartoon Network to be a positive experience. "I never felt that Cartoon Network wanted anything other than a cool, successful show out of The Secret Saturdays, and the bulk of their input was not only easy to accommodate, but, more often than not, improved the series," he says. "After having gone through the more difficult process of having my comic book characters adapted to animation (Jetcat for Nickelodeon and Tutenstein for Discovery Kids), I found developing something specifically for TV much easier. The concept was more naturally fluid and malleable."
"I did freak out over a couple of points like a possible name change to the series and the color of the Saturdays' suits, for example," Stephens notes. "I had to live up to the 'difficult creator' expectations at least a little."
Stephens drew upon his comic-book background and skills when developing the concept. "I wish I'd had a background in animation, to tell you the truth," Stephens confesses. "Would've come in handy. I turned my meager skills into an advantage by deciding that the series should have a 'comic book' look. I did have a very solid concept of how the show should look right from the start and kept my hands dirty throughout production on character designs, color schemes, background notes and the like."
Stephens was also involved with the writing during the early stages. "I did a lot of writing during development, but was eager and willing to pass that chore onto someone else if we could find someone who 'got' the show and was super-talented," he says. "Fortunately, story editor Brandon Sawyer fit the bill and was available. We hit it off right from the start."
With regard to episode plotting, Stephens says, "Brandon and I, together with producer Fred Schaefer, brainstorm plots and story arcs at the outset, and then assign particular episodes to the freelance writers best suited to them. Brandon takes on the key episodes himself."
Those episodes may feature the elusive cryptids. "A cryptid is a mysterious creature, currently unknown to science," explains Stephens. "It refers to the myriad of beasts that fall under the area of study known as cryptozoology, such as Bigfoot, Nessie, Yeti or Chupacabras. Doc and Drew Saturday are cryptozoologists."
The Secret Saturdays must also match wits with such villains as madman V.V. Argost, who hides his evil plans under the ruse of his popular television show Weird World. Still, aside from their adventures, the Saturdays -- along with their hyper exotic pets Fiskerton, Komodo and Zon -- are a loving family, trying to work through everyday family matters and squabbles.
Fridays and Saturdays
Stephens says that the animation for the show was provided by two Korean studios. "It was split up the first season, but in the future, we will only use one of them," he advises.
As for the voice actors on The Secret Saturdays, Stephens could not be more delighted. "I really feel like we got lucky with our cast, a talented gang who genuinely got along together and seemed honestly excited about the scripts," Stephens says. "In every case, the actors brought the characters to life better than I could've hoped for."
The voice cast includes Phil Morris as dad Doc Saturday, Nicole Sullivan as mom Drew Saturday, Sam Lerner as son Zak Saturday, Diedrich Bader as Fiskerton, Fred Tatasciore as Zon and Komodo and Corey Burton as V.V. Argost.
The Secret Saturdays is part of Cartoon Networks' Friday night fantasy-action-adventure line-up, which also includes Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Following The Secret Saturdays premiere on October 3, 2008, Cartoon Network reported that the show earned 35% more kids 6-11 and 86% more boys 6-11 than programming that appeared in the same time period in 2007. Similarly, The Secret Saturdays also increased kids 2-11 delivery by 47%, boys 2-11 delivery by 67%, tweens 9-14 delivery by 23% and boys 9-14 delivery by 60%.
"It obviously leans towards a boy audience," Stephens admits. "Having said that, I live with a couple of strong women, and I've been told that Drew is a very cool, well-realized female lead. And Zon has very brushable My Little Pony hair."
Right now, Stephens makes his home with those strong women in Canada, and the creator found that the traveling he did was possibly more taxing and less enjoyable than the exotic traveling done by Saturdays. "The commute to work was no fun," he says. "I was traveling to L.A. on average a week out of every month for 18 months. I love where I live, close to all my family, but I never rule out the possibility of relocating. I'm already about as 'Hollywood' as it gets, mentally!"
Still, Stephens has high hopes for the show, and is already conceiving more adventures for The Secret Saturdays. "We're currently writing new scripts in advance in hopes of another order soon," he says.
And with regard to the ongoing theme of ancient temples and history found in his animated shows Tutenstein and The Secret Saturdays, Stephens quips, "I'm a nerd. I like reading about history and mythology. And the past is full of surprises."
Janet Hetherington is a freelance writer and cartoonist who shares a studio in Ottawa, Canada, with artist Ronn Sutton and a ginger cat, Heidi.