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Talking in His Sheep: A Conversation with Mo Willems

Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman interviews Mo Willems, creator/director of Sheep In The Big City, about his career, his inspirations and a small sheep in a big city.

In Sheep In The Big City, poor Sheep is always on the lam. All images courtesy of and © Cartoon Network.

For those of you not familiar with Cartoon Network's hit series Sheep In The Big City, some advice: Don't try to figure it out -- just enjoy the ride. This hilarious, unpredictable show stars a sheep that doesn't speak and may disappear from sight for most of an episode. "Sheep" is trying to avoid capture by an incompetent top-secret military organization, but incidental characters may commandeer the action in order to parody Russian playwrights, pitch ludicrous products, or simply demand attention. When the story resumes, the intrusive narrator or the main cast may turn it upside-down for the sake of a wild pun. Now...picture all this as interpreted through John Hubley by way of Picasso. Who's responsible for this stylish mayhem? It's Curious Pictures' director Mo Willems. In March of 2001, Mo talked with me about his career, his inspirations and a small sheep in a big city.

Dr. Toon: There have been many interests in your life that could have led to different careers; cartooning, screenwriting, performance art, sculpture -- even toymaking. What led you to decide on a career in animation, especially during the lean decade of the 1980s?

Mo Willems.

Mo Willems: Itwas a selfish decision, and what it came down to is, in animation you can do everything yourself; you don't have to depend on other people. When I was doing stage comedy I couldn't afford sets, props, things like that. So it was the ability to create your own world -- by yourself -- in motion that made animation appealing. Things evolve also. You end up animating because people ask you to animate, and that builds to a certain degree. My desire as a kid was to find a way to be funny and draw. Animation turned out to be the best way for me to do that.

Dr. T: Well, it certainly seems to be working. You were schooled at the Tisch NYU School of Arts -- that had to be a very exciting place with instructors like John Canemaker andRichard Protovin on hand.

MW: It was a very exciting time -- even though back then it made about as much sense to study animation as to take a couple hundred thousand dollars and burn it! We were a scraggly little group of guys and gals making our own films, and it was very fun. I was fortunate in that the other students were really good and very dedicated; one of my directors on Sheep is somebody I graduated with. And there was hope -- this was in the late Eighties, so MTV was getting big and we said to ourselves, "Hey, look at all these different styles folks are animating in, and somebody's making a living at it." We weren't overly pessimistic.

Dr. T: How did your training at NYU influence your later work?

MW: The best thing that NYU did for me was to give me a sense of animation history. They exposed me to all sorts of stuff. Zagreb films, Ubu Roi. I first saw Gerald McBoing Boing there. The Hubleys' films, Oskar Fischinger, etc. I discovered animation as an art form where abstract artists influenced people who were making cartoons at UPA. And then John Canemaker encouraged me to make my own films in my own voice, which I did.

Dr. T: Talk about your first work following animation school.

MW: Probably my first watchable film is the last film I made at school, The Man Who Yelled. That was my calling card for many years. It got into a couple of festivals, got shown around and that's how I found other work. The first film that I did on my own after that was Iddy Biddy Beat Boy -- and that came about because Spike and Mike had seen The Man Who Yelled and wanted the rights to it. I told them that somebody else had the rights. So they said, "Okay, we'll give you some money -- make your own film!" After that I was lucky enough to find work with Sesame Street, which was a great fit because the kind of films I wanted to make were very close to the kind of films they wanted to air. I really felt that I was making personal work, even though I was teaching "the letter of the day" or something like that.

Dr. T: How did you end up on Sesame Street?

MW: Luck and hard work. I had been working at CTW drawing "smiley faces" for the research department; they would ask kids: "How did you feel about this show you just saw?" and the kids could point to different characters with different emotions. So I was doing this for a couple of bucks an hour down in some hallway and hawking my flyers for a comedy show I did. Of course, nobody ever came to the shows, but they knew I was doing comedy, and somebody invited me to audition as a writer for Sesame Street. I handed in some sketches I'd written and about eight months later they said, "Okay, we're gonna let you become a Sesame Street auditioner," a process that took another half year or so. At the same time, Arlene Sherman saw my films; I had given them to CTW some two years before and they had finally reached her desk. She said, "Oh, you're auditioning and you're the guy who made Iddy Biddy Beat Boy --let's talk." Within the year I was making films for them and writing for The Muppets. It was a very good year.

Dr. T: One of the challenges you really enjoyed while working on Sesame Street was having to work within limitations.

MW: Absolutely. I think that limitations are essential to the creative process. They can be any kind of limitations: budgetary, time limitations or conceptual. On Sesame Street you have to teach a particular concept in a particular way, yet make it entertaining and original. And they've got a library of -- I don't how many films they've commissioned over the last thirty-three years -- coming up with an idea that hasn't been done before can be a challenge.

Dr. T: The UPA studio was obviously a major artistic influence on your work; it's uncanny how you captured the feel of Bobe Cannon's work in The Off-Beats -- the series you did for Nickelodeon. Are you generally attracted to a minimalist style of animation?

MW: I find the fact that I can't draw very well attracts me to a minimalist style. While I enjoy all forms of drawing, a single line, simply done, is more beautiful than a hundred little lines sort of approximating the right thing. I like my characters to be two-dimensional. Just because you can do something in 3-D doesn't make it better. I want my line to be focused, so the emotions of a character are clear.

Dr. T: You seem to admire other cartoonists who use an economy of line as well. You've mentioned that you enjoy the work of the famous New Yorker cartoonists such as Ronald Searle and Saul Steinberg.

MW: Steinberg in particular -- absolutely. Another great artist who has an economy of line is, of course, Charles Schulz. His drawings, especially in the Fifties and the Sixties are very spare, but filled with emotion. Ronald Searle, Schulz and Steinberg, those guys, more than any animator, have influenced me deeply. Not only in their stylistic decisions, but in their content. With all of those artists there's humor, but also a pervasive melancholy that I find very attractive...and universal.

Dr. T: I wondered if you were also a great fan of Jules Feiffer.

MW: I am a fan of Jules Feiffer. I have a lot of his work. I think the vibrancy of his line is amazing. I loved Munro... but he's not in my triumvirate.

Dr. T: Are you a fan of Peter Arno as well?

MW: I would never pretend to have that sort of breezy sophistication. I'm a fan, but he's not a major influence. He travels in a better-dressed world than I do.

Dr. T: Well, I was thinking of your characters Lady Richington and Swanky and they reminded me of Arno.

MW: Well, I'm quite happy to steal from anyone, and yes, you could say that Lady Richington and Swanky have that sort of Thirties-Forties Arno feel to them.

Dr. T: You have also mentioned some modernist artistic influences such as Picasso and Paul Klee. Their styles seem to show up in Sheep in the Big City quite often.

MW: For sure. Actually, one of the most fun films I did on Sesame Street is of two sort of Picasso abstraction cartoon characters going through a museum of photorealistic drawings and not being able to figure out what they are! I think of fine art simply as cartoons with really nice frames.

Dr. T: I've noticed that, in the background changes and designs in the opening credits of Sheep in the Big City one can pick up a lot of the Paul Klee influence.

MW: Yes, and also Oskar Fischinger in its abstraction and jazz. The reason that UPA is so key to me is that they were the first studio to come around and synthesize all of these different things that I admire - to take the humor of James Thurber, the music of Dizzy Gillespie, the palette and the textures of Paul Klee -- and to spin those around and spit out a cartoon. And it's still a cartoon! It's accessible without being simple.

Dr. T: I've seen some homage in your cartoons to such films as The Tell-Tale Heart and The Rise of Duton Lang. It's very entertaining picking out some of these great UPA influences

MW: What I'm doing is contemporary but the themes in my films, hopefully, are as universal as UPA's were. A great cartoon is timeless. Chuck Jones for example, his cartoons are as fresh today as they were when they were made. And that's what you're striving for.

Dr. T: You stated on the Cartoon Network Website that one of your major comedy influences was Monty Python's Flying Circus. That's pretty evident to anyone who's seen Sheep in the Big City!

MW: Absolutely. I think of the Angry Scientist as sort of a Basil Fawlty! Monty Python and particularly John Cleese broke almost all of the rules, did all sorts of wild things without becoming malicious. There was great, goofy fun to it all. I think popular entertainment should have some depth to it, but at the end of the day, the point is to have fun. How often do you get to have fun in a day?

Dr. T: That self-reflexive humor really works great in Sheep; having a character refer to the plot device and then having a mechanical plot device show up, or the Narrator who is greatly embroiled in the script --

MW: Yeah, the Narrator is one of my favorite characters because frankly, hes an asshole! Who hired him? How did this guy get this job? One of the things I wanted to do with Sheep was to create an improvisational feel: I hope that the Narrator, from time to time, gives the sense that hes just speaking off the cuff. Of course, its animation and it cant be "spontaneous" because there are tens of thousands of drawings involved in it, but it should feel like its happening "live." Its a fun challenge.

Dr. T: Even though it's improvisational, I think that people who have a familiarity with the show keep getting more and more of the in-jokes, such as when General Specific exclaims, "Great Scot!" and the Great Scot (who tends to pop up instantly in his kilts) doesn't show up, the General asks, "Ah, where's the Great Scot?" That might throw a first-time viewer, but for those who keep watching the show there's this great continuity of incidental characters and in-jokes to enjoy.

MW: Hopefully our world is fully formed, and the crew keeps me honest about that. We call our "B" characters "Dick and Janes." If we reuse a stock character you've got to remember what he did in a previous show, and that should affect what he's doing now. Everyone at the studio looks at The Big City as an alternate, living world.

Dr. T: Were you also a fan of the Zucker brothers films?

MW: Yeah...but not really. Not to be too critical, but those films didn't have character; it was joke after joke, and the jokes are funny, but hopefully at the end of Sheep, you're laughing more at the fact that General Specific is a crazy, spoiled brat, not just a joke we made along the way.

Dr. T: That's for sure! Hasn't he caught Sheep about four times, trying to stick him in that sheep-powered ray gun?

MW: Yeah, but then he starts talking to himself or something, and Sheep just walks away! As the shows are now progressing, he's also becoming more petulant; he gets pouty because the other soldiers forget his birthday!

Dr. T: Those UPA cartoons you admired were very notable for their stunning graphic design and novel uses of color and texture, but sometimes this came at the price of character development and humor. How do you avoid those pitfalls yourself and come up with a funny cartoon filled with memorable characters?

MW: Well, another large influence on me is the storytelling of Bill Cosby. Essentially, what I'm trying to do is tell stories and I want to take my characters seriously. They're ridiculous...but they don't know that they're ridiculous. If General Specific is upset, let him really be upset; if Lady Richington is outraged, really have her be outraged. I think that's how you weld a story. And you try and find a theme for each story -- friendship, the cost of fame, or family relationships...

Dr. T: I've been reading a few reviews of your show and most of the reviewers seem to draw a comparison to the Rocky and Bullwinkle series. Coincidentally, that's a show that had a lot of old UPA veterans on hand. Do you see many similarities between your show and that one?

MW: You know, I've got to be honest -- I'm asked this quite a bit -- and it wasn't really an influence for me. We're definitely coming from the same source and Bullwinkle was a great show, but I never watched it as a kid. I never saw the connection until people started saying, "Oh yeah, Sheep's like Rocky and Bullwinkle, only updated!" I first thought, "What?" So, I went back and watched a few episodes. Similarities are there -- the adult sensibility, the UPA connection, its graphic qualities, being primarily a human world inhabited by a few animals -- but the connections are more coincidental than you might think.

Dr. T: Actually, I had some problems with the comparison myself, but in a way I think it's sort of a tribute in the sense that, your show is so novel it doesn't beg an easy comparison to any animated precedent.

MW: Well, that's very nice to hear. Makes me feel warm all over.

Dr. T: Oh, do go on! Mo, much of your work - Iddy Biddy Beat Boy, The Off-Beats and now Sheep in the Big City - seem to deal with alienation and the pain of being an outsider who has a hard time finding acceptance. Is that a theme that has particular resonance for you?

MW: Yes, absolutely. I have always felt alienated: my folks are immigrants; I grew up in a very closed society in the South; my father stayed home and threw pottery; my mother had a career, which was very unusual in New Orleans; I decided to become an animator as opposed to a banker. There's a lot of ways in which I was an outsider. But this theme keeps coming back, not because of me, but because I think we are all alienated. It's universal. It's part of the culture that we live in, where religion has less of a hold on us and science too has been discredited as the road to a glorious future. Politically, this world seems to be in shambles because you don't have the ironically stabilizing forces of the Cold War. Now each sub-group can manifest their pettiness with mini-wars. So I really think that people are alienated.

Dr. T: You hope that your films have the same sort of resonance for everybody?

MW: At least everybody who has cable.

Dr. T:

While we're on the subject, I'm just curious: did you direct the Cartoon Network bumper featuring Sheep in the CN commissary? The one where the other toons tell him that they don't want "his kind" here?

MW: No I didn't, but I thought it was a great piece. Cartoon Network has a good handle on what this show is about, and kudos to them because it's a hard sell. It's adult and kid, there's a huge cast, there are sketches in between -- it breaks all kinds of formats -- and the lead character doesn't speak. Since Harpo Marx, when have you got a lead character that doesn't speak? Sheep has all those odd things and the Network still "gets" it. Yes, I did like the spot.

Dr. T: Who did it, Michael Ouweleen?

MW: I think he did that one, yeah.

Dr. T: He does some really funny stuff. You worked with him on the Shorties program, isn't that right?

MW: Yes, briefly, on the Quick Draw McGraw.

Dr. T: You've had a very successful and prolific run as an independent animator and director. What led you to pitch ideas to the more mainstream cable networks like Nick and Cartoon Network?

MW: I may be a heretic for saying this, but I really don't see a difference between my independent work and my commercial work. I am making the sort of films that I want to make, and if other people will pay me to make them, then I'm very happy to take their money. With the exception of a few scattered commercial projects I've done, there is very little that I would have done much differently. Sometimes that's led to discussions with the networks, but as a general rule I've been very lucky enough to prevail. Take The Off-Beats -- I don't think I'd do it any differently if the cash came out of my own pocket. I also fundamentally want -- and this has always been my frustration with my independent films -- my animation to be seen by as many people as possible. I made a film a couple of years ago called Life. I like it; it's a nice project but it's frustrating when I think of the amount of time, effort and money that I put into that piece and it's not really being seen.

Dr. T: That would be a frustration to anyone who creatively gives his heart to a project. It's got to be tough knowing that there's an audience out there, but it's just not reaching them.

MW: When I was doing downtown performance, I always felt it was pointless if you were in some small room on the lower East Side with a few people and you're doing jokes saying, "George Bush is a bad President" -- so what? If you don't like Bush go to Staten Island or the suburbs and do your bit there! A large part of being an artist, or whatever we want to call ourselves, is communication. And the way to communicate is to have people hear you.

Dr. T: A few words about how Sheep in the Big City came to Cartoon Network.

MW: It was serendipitous. Right around the time it seemed obvious that The Off-Beats wasn't going any further, I got a call from the Network and they said, "If you have anything, we'd like to see it." They came to New York, and I had two ideas: one was a "superhero" idea, and the other was a "space" idea. They said, "We can't wait to hear what you have to say, but we have two rules: no superheroes, no space." I was sure that it was going to be the worst pitch of my career! So, instead of talking about the specifics, I talked about the type of show that I wanted to do. We went out to dinner and talked about what we liked and what kind of cartoons were fun to make. I enjoyed The Off-Beats but I wanted to go back to something more like The Man Who Yelled, like the performance art and sketch I did when I was younger. Fortunately, Linda Simensky had seen many of those performances, so she knew what I was talking about. From there, the idea of a sheep being in a show somehow came out. I went away for a month with my wife to Amsterdam, where I worked on ideas.

Dr. T: Why a sheep?

MW: Because they're funny! Because they're stupid! And "sheep" is easier to pun than "hippopotamus." I like the idea of a pack animal, that always needs to be in a group, having to be alone -- it's so much more painful for a sheep to be alone in a big city than an eagle or a solitary animal.

Dr. T: Yeah, well if I had that therapy group refugee of a farmer as my owner, I would have left, too! Some of your creative ensemble on Sheep -- Joey Mazzarino for example -- have worked with you for nearly a decade.

MW: Joey? Yes, Joey is a writer on Sesame Street and a puppeteer. I've known and worked with him for about eight years. Kevin Seal and Ken Schatz are the guys with whom I've worked for about a decade. I did a live show called "The Monotony Variety Show." At this stage of my career, more people have read about the show than ever actually saw a performance -- it was a very small thing. We did sketches and all kinds of quirky bits. Did you see "The Cherry Orchard" sketch in Sheep? That was one of the sketches we did there. I've been working with these guys a long time -- I like to keep it in the family.

Dr. T: You trust your cast and crew to come up with a lot of good improvisation and solid contributions to the show.

MW: One of the keys, I find, to recording any animation is to have fun and to be loose because if we're having fun you can hear it. That "fun" somehow gets stuck to the tapes somewhere. I felt strongly about that in The Off-Beats; we wore party hats, played games, did stupid stuff... And the Sheep actors are all very, very funny people. The Ranting Swede, I would say, is 50-60 percent improvisational. I just give Kevin a premise, talk a couple of bullet points, he does it two or three times, and then we cut it together. Kevin Seal is incredibly funny - he used to be a VJ, so he's used to thinking on his feet. Ken Schatz sometimes does upwards of ten voices a show in one take. He and I do the Sombrero Brothers together, which also has that improvisational feel. The vocal performances are frustrating on one level because it takes up to eight months and all these drawings to do the animation, and the actors can come in for half an hour and make or break it. But you can't make decent animation without good acting.

Dr. T: I think that's true. I also differ with what John Kricfalusi has said; I do think you need good, solid writing in order for animation to work.

MW: I'm directly in the middle of the "John K. -- Simpsons" argument. While animation is moving drawings, funny drawings aren't enough. I think it's naive to ignore story, writing and language.

Dr. T: What's in the future for the series?

MW: I have no idea what's in the future. We're working on the second season now and I think we have some fun shows. The characters are definitely growing. I'm just waiting for the live-action feature to come out!

Dr. T: Oh no! You don't want to see that!

MW: With a real sheep! Any-hoo: I believe the future is tomorrow, so I'm concentrating on the show and making it as funny as possible in the here and now. If people watch it and want me to make more -- I'll be happy to do it.

Dr. T: And I'll be happy to watch them. You're involved in a number of projects: producing animation jams such as Life; attending festivals; contributing to the annual Monkeysuit comic book; you're even doing cartoons for the Waterfront Week. Do the demands of producing a regular TV series still allow you to make the creative rounds as much as you'd like?

MW: No. Having a show can be a sacrifice -- one that I'm very happy to make -- but a sacrifice. The last couple months or so I have been diligent about carving out some time for me. I'm working on some comics and some other personal works, sculpture, and things like that. I hadn't been doing that for a while and I was really starting to miss it. I haven't been down to New Orleans to do ceramics with my father in over a year. That's the trade off. You know, it's very weird; I got into animation so I could be by myself, and now I'm in an office with fifty people. But I'm still doing Sesame Street, which at least makes me feel like I'm doing at least some good at the end of the day.

Mo Willems has made more than 70 short films and has won four Emmy awards as a writer for Sesame Street. He is the creator and director of Sheep In The Big City, The Off-Beats and Suzie Kablooie. The winner of several ASIFA East awards for his animation, Mo is not quite sure what one could actually do with a sheep-powered ray gun. Hes also the proud new papa of Trixie Willems, "the most beautiful girl in the history of humanity."

Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.