Sharon Schatz goes behind the scenes at Tom Snyder Productions and learns how this surprising little company has been hitting winners ever since its inception.
"By the end of this scene you guys need to be kissing in an elevator," Tom Snyder instructs his voice-over actors, "but thats all you need to do." How theyll wind up smooching to Muzak is anyones guess. Snyder, founder and creative director of Tom Snyder Productions (TSP), uses this improvisational "writing" method to create witty, offbeat and downright hilarious animated comedies. It was during the production of his quirky hit series Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist that Snyder discovered that by "retroscripting," creating an outline and relying on the casts ad-libbing abilities, hed hit upon something incredible.
In 1980, Snyder, a former science and social studies teacher, founded TSP, which began as an educational software firm. Most of Snyders products targeted the kids market and involved the use of animation. As the Boston-based company flourished, Snyder wanted to expand his work outside the education arena.
In 1992, on a whim, Snyder asked one of his artists, Annette LeBlanc Cate, to help him create a five-minute animated short. Little did he know, this rough demo called Shrink Rap would evolve into the highly acclaimed Dr. Katz series. "I said, Hey Annette, you want to come in this weekend? I want to record a crazy scenario and have you animate it," Snyder recalls, "So, we did a show about a shrink and a kid. I changed my voice digitally so I could sound like a couple of different people. I sent it off to my friend in L.A. He sent it off to another guy and then to a production company who sent it to Comedy Central. I think six months from then we had an Emmy!"
Dr. Katz in Session
The road to Dr. Katz was a learning experience for Snyder. When Comedy Central first responded after viewing Snyders demo, their industry lingo threw him for a loop. "They said, What you really need is talent. I was so hurt!" Snyder laughs. When he learned that the network meant that he needed professional actors, Snyder recruited veteran comic Jonathan Katz, and comedians Jon Benjamin and Laura Silverman. Some of the shows famous guest stars include Whoopi Goldberg, Steven Wright and Janeane Garofalo, among others. Dr. Katz soon had a cult following and won several prestigious awards.
A Different Kind of Writing
While making Dr. Katz, Snyder developed his trademark "retroscripting" technique, which entails writing a story outline for each episode, but relying on improv to fill in the gaps. Snyder quickly realized the value of going scriptless: "With that freedom we could achieve a really live and natural conversational comedy that you dont get when youve got a script pumping in the background." Melissa Galsky, an associate producer for Dr. Katz remembers, "We were using standup comics and people who improvised a lot. There was just so much funny stuff, we figured, Why write a script?" Improv is used to some degree in just about all of Snyders properties. For a single episode, actors might spend up to four hours in the studio improvising scenes.
Sometimes a script is necessary, depending on the networks requirements and the nature of the show. Dr. Katz, which ran for six seasons ('95-'99), was created almost entirely from outlines and actor improv, as was The Dick & Paula Celebrity Special which ran on F/X in 1999. Dick & Paula was an animated series about a husband and wife talk show team who interview deceased and fictionalized celebrities. TSP produced a children's series about science called Squigglevision (formerly Science Court) for ABC which just completed its three-year run in September. Galsky, who was the shows associate producer, compares it to the other TSP properties: "Squigglevision stuck to the script the most because we had the educational aspect. When you're talking about science, there isn't much improv you can do without confusing children!"
TSP currently has two TV series in production. The first is Home Movies, which appeared briefly on UPN in 1999. The series has since been picked up by Cartoon Network and is slated to air in April. Home Movies features an awkward third-grader named Brendon Small (played by actor/comedian Brendon Small) who deals with his problems through the lens of his video camera. Paula Poundstone plays Brendon's single mother. UPN canceled the show because it wasn't bringing in enough male viewers. Snyder claims that when the network initially picked up the show, they were trying to attract female viewers. He comments, "UPN was changing before our very eyes into a pro wrestling, young male audience."
Cartoon Network bought the original five episodes and ordered eight more to complete the season. Recently, the network ordered an additional season of 13 episodes. According to Linda Simensky, Cartoon Networks VP of Original Animation, "We had a bunch of episodes to screen for Mike [Lazzo, Senior VP of Cartoon Networks Programming] and by only the second episode, he yelled, Buy it!"
The biggest change in the new episodes is that they are going to be scripted. However, the improvisational element will still be preserved. Galsky, one of the show's producers explains the new regimen, "What we do now is we go in and we [record] the script. Once we have that take, we'll go in and improvise a little bit. Then, the audio editors paste together the best of both worlds."
Also in production is Hey Monie, the first network animated series about an African-American woman, which will air on the Oxygen network. This retroscripted show was originally a five-minute short on Oxygen's X-Chromosome series. Hey Monie was picked up to become part of a new Oxygen show. The new episodes will be 11 minutes in length. So far, the network has ordered ten 11-minute episodes.
The Story of Squigglevision
TSP is also known for Squigglevision animation. Snyder created the process himself. "I'm not an artist," he says, "but I used to be a programmer. I'd stay up late at night drawing little stick figures and seeing what I could have a computer do to speed up the insanely long production time in animation. One night, I just drew this little figure...I kept on drawing the same figure on top of itself and then had the computer memorize each of these [drawings] and then flip through them. What it created was a very human-like energy that made the character pop out because it was continually covering and uncovering bits of the background."
In addition to creating a unique look, Squigglevision saves time and money. Snyder explains, "[Its] a nice cheat because it implies a lot of motion thats actually not there. Therefore, there are fewer redraws and fewer pixel changes than you have in a lot of conventional animation." Snyders company has perfected the style over the years. He comments, "The newer looks that we have that still use a squiggling theme are a lot easier to watch. Its become a lot more painterly and more interesting." The company has also created several non-Squigglevision TV pilots and Web toons.
Snyder is thrilled to have expanded his work into the online arena. He recently won an award at the First World Internet Animation Competition, for World Internet News, a two-minute parody of the BBC News. The company has already created several shorts and series for Shockwave.com and CartoonNetwork.com. Snyder plans to retain the companys television focus, but will continue to dabble in the Web world. With a unique approach, a flair for quirkiness, and a knack for finding actors who can wing it, TSP is sure to ad-lib their way into continued success.
Sharon Schatz is a writer/editor at a major kids television network Web site. She is also a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.