Tom Snyder Productions Goes Scriptless

by Sharon Schatz

Jonathan Katz with Laura, the intimidating secretary, and slacker son Ben. Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist. © Tom Snyder Productions.

"By the end of this scene you guys need to be kissing in an elevator," Tom Snyder instructs his voice-over actors, "but that’s all you need to do." How they’ll wind up smooching to Muzak is anyone’s 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 cast’s ad-libbing abilities, he’d hit upon something incredible.

Getting Started
In 1980, Snyder, a former science and social studies teacher, founded TSP, which began as an educational software firm. Most of Snyder’s 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 Snyder’s 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 show’s 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.

At the heart of Squigglevision is Science Court, a courtroom drama illustrating scientific principles. © Tom Snyder Productions.

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 don’t get when you’ve 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 Snyder’s properties. For a single episode, actors might spend up to four hours in the studio improvising scenes.

Brendon Small, the third grader with an obsession for movie making. © Tom Snyder Productions.

Sometimes a script is necessary, depending on the network’s 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 show’s 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!"

Current Projects
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."

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