The New York Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art’s Education program rolls on, ably overseen by the museum’s Senior VP of Education, Danny Fingeroth. Fingeroth’s impressive credits include a lengthy stint as group editor of Marvel’s Spider-Man books, college-level comics instructor and author, co-author and editor of various books and magazines on the subject of writing for comics. As part of his job Fingeroth rounds up pros at the level of Peter Kuper, Larry Hama, Paul Levitz and J.M. DeMatteis to share their knowledge and experience with aspiring comics creators. In fact, over four May Mondays Fingeroth himself conducted a MoCCA class on the subject; if you think you’ve got the next “Watchmen” rattling around your brain, you may want to check out his course:
As befitting the second ‘C' in MoCCA, cartoon courses are part of the curriculum too, like last year’s storyboarding class taught by Stephen DeStefano, or this past March’s “Animation Writing: How to Write Scripts that will Make You a Key Member of the Creative Team,” led by David Steven Cohen.
Cohen’s walloping credits include head writer of Courage the Cowardly Dog and executive producer of Nickelodeon’s Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss, not to mention producer and co-creator of the animated Alf spin-off, ALF Tales, writer for Arthur, Strangers with Candy and Pee-wee’s Playhouse, and as they used to say, ‘a host of others.’ (Although Cohen confesses tongue-in-cheek that “I fictionalized one-third of them last night.”)
It’s a one-shot, two hour session, more of a big picture than nuts-and-bolts extended course. Even so Cohen manages to pack a lot of information and anecdotia into the evening, beginning with his first big break: “It was truly when my friend from college [Roger S.H. Schulman, now a fellow live action and animation scripter] and I started working together. When Roger met Steve Martin [who was then producing a George Burns-hosted comedy anthology for CBS] we had an opportunity to pitch to the big leagues. If we weren’t ready, we’d have been screwed. But we had been working, developing projects together, batting around ideas and studying TV and we were ready to rock. Opportunity only helps if you’re prepared.”
Their idea revolved around a would-be serious playwright who achieves fame and fortune for his juvenile ‘Honeybunnies’ cartoon series while his more ambitious efforts are ignored. In their original script the playwright finally puts the bunnies behind him and achieves his dreams, but Martin’s notes advised the opposite: “you can never escape your honneybunnies.” In the final version the playwright’s pitch for a serious drama is ignored until he resignedly adds bunnies to the story. (It was an uncanny prediction of Cohen’s own career, one peppered with live-action TV and film, comedy-variety and even opera, but always returns to animation.)
“It was a good note from a very smart man,” Cohen says of the experience. The moral (not of the episode but of his experience with Martin) is to at least consider creative input from others: “Accept it. If you love (writing) animation, be open to all possibilities.” It’s real-world advice that might rankle a would-be animation writer in love with his first draft, and where every ‘creative’ in the production food chain bombards the writer with often contradictory notes.
The evening was filled with similar nuggets of advice mined from Cohen’s career (which he described as “connecting dots that have no numbers”): “Character is plot, the plot naturally emerges from who the characters are; it’s character comedy, not situation comedy…Don’t over-direct your script with too many parentheticals [action or scene descriptions]; learn to use punctuation and white space on the page to imply action…animation is so much about rhythm; if you learn how to write visually and rhythmically you’re better off down the road…off-camera action is always better than on-camera – it’s funnier…the DNA of a story should be in every moment of its script…the crazier your story is, the more you need your character to be grounded, to provide gravity to the narrative.”
The evening included a screening of one of Cohen’s Courage episodes, accompanied by handouts of its original pitch, outline and final script to demonstrate its permutations in its journey to the screen. By evening’s end the attendees might not have been ready to start selling scripts, but they left MoCCA knowing a lot more about the process than they did at its beginning.
As for Cohen himself, what about his career? “It’s constant. You have to keep on reinventing your career as technology changes, as you get older – it’s a very youthful market, You need to prove yourself over and over and over again as a vital source.”