The Music, The Pageantry, The Fourth Grade…

by Joan Kim

Spot in his school guise, sports a sassy pair of red trousers and comfortable shoes. © Disney. All rights reserved.

Arriving on Disney’s One Saturday Morning lineup this past fall, Teacher’s 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 isn’t an ordinary dog. Spot, in fact, doesn’t 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," he’s 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 teacher’s pet are abruptly, and ironically, alleviated by the exemplary academic performance of the new kid -- his dog -- who ends up becoming the teacher’s 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.

Bunkmates in the Helperman household, Leonard and Spot share more than a room ever since Spot started to talk. © Disney. All rights reserved.

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. He’s an accomplished and talented artist but stroking aside, here’s 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, "I’ve 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 I’ve learned in communication, in making messages, is to be able to push buttons. Understand who your audience is, whether it’s you who I’m talking to right now, or to a million people or even a TV show -- what’s going to make them happy, what’s 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 Baseman’s artistic vision. "Tim has really sought to ensure every frame of the show -- and that’s 12 drawings per second -- looks like a Baseman painting," says Baseman.

Gripping a bowl of grub and watching some television Leonard, Spot, Mr. Jolly and Pretty Boy actually have a lot in common. © Disney. All rights reserved.

In addition to show’s 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 Leonard’s 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 who’ll 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."


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