After stumbling upon the series on Amazon Prime, AWN’s Miscweant talks to the showrunner of Sega’s 2014 pop culture parody gem.
Did you hear the one about the updated animated version of a classic kids’ franchise that surprised everyone with its comedy, pop culture parodies and winks to a knowing audience?
No, I’m not talking about the beloved, recently wrapped-up My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic TV series. I mean Sonic Boom, the fifth animated iteration of the “gotta go fast” video game star. If you haven’t heard about it, it’s probably because Boom never received the kind of high-profile publicity The Hub accorded Pony (a produced in-house flagship series of the then-new network) a decade ago.
Sonic Boom was an independent production, acquired and aired (almost stealthily) by Cartoon Network beginning in 2014, with a later run on their Boomerang channel. Not being a gamer, I had no idea the series existed until I stumbled across it on Amazon Prime video earlier this year. A kids’ cartoon referencing everything from Stephen King’s Misery, The Paper Chase, Bye Bye Birdie and even The Shawshank Redemption? With the characters quite aware they’re in a TV show? (Sonic: “Wow, the writers are really phoning it in.”) How did this one ever get by me? And how did it ever come into existence?
In search of answers I tracked down and pummeled its executive producer Bill Freiberger with questions via Email, who was kind enough to put up with my queries…
Can you tell me a bit about your background?
I studied Film and Television at New York University. While I was there, I performed stand-up comedy in New York and on Long Island. My plan was to use stand-up as a steppingstone into television. However, I wasn’t a great comedian and decided that I should lead with my strength, so I decided to try and work my way up behind the scenes. I got a job as a production assistant and was promoted to writer’s assistant the following year. I landed my first creative job as an animation director on Pee-wee’s Playhouse from a producer who had been a writer’s assistant with me. During this time, I was also writing spec TV and movie scripts. Eventually, someone liked a spec Simpsons I had written and hired me as a writer. I’ve been writing, producing, and performing ever since.
Are you any relation to Star Trek/Space 1999 producer Fred Freiberger?
I get asked that a lot, but the answer is no, I’m not related to him. I had no connections when I got into the business.
How did you become involved with Sonic Boom?
My agent submitted me for the job when the show was picked up and ordered into production.
Whose idea was it to take the franchise towards the show’s satire and trope busting? Was there any resistance or reluctance from Sega to take this direction?
The show was developed and sold as a comedy before I was brought on board. Sega knew it was going to be a comedy when they pitched it, so if there was any reluctance to doing it that way it was settled before I joined the show. I was hired because of my experience in comedy and animation. I probably added much of the satire and trope busting because that’s where my sensibility takes me.
Were fans upset at the character changes? My partner (who is familiar with the previous animated versions) was at first upset that Knuckles had been reconceived as a dope—until he saw how well it worked in the show’s context.
I’m sure some fans were unhappy. Some people don’t like change. But from its conception, Sonic Boom was meant to be a comedy and therefore needed characterizations that leaned more toward the comedic.
As for Knuckles specifically, my years of experience writing comedy for television taught me the valuable lesson that the dumb guy is your best friend during a late-night rewrite.
Sonic Boom was a Cartoon Network acquisition (and later ran on Boomerang); what time slot did it air in? Did CN promote it to any degree?
Sonic Boom aired on Saturday mornings at 7am on Cartoon Network and Boomerang.
We didn’t get as much promotion as I would’ve liked, but that’s always the case. As a showrunner, you want your show out there, front and center, and seen by the maximum number of viewers possible.
In a beautiful “WTF?” moment Sonic mentally retreats to his imaginary “happy place” via a camera cut to escape a pestering fan. When the fan somehow follows him there, the camera cuts to Sonic, now in his “happier place,” only to have the fan show up again. Unable to escape the guy, the camera cuts back to Sonic in his happy place, then back to where he started…and then another cut…to a live-action shot of a human being in a home-made Sonic costume taking out the trash! The fellow looks at the camera, says “oops, one too many!” before a cut back to the cartoon’s actual story. Who’s the person in the live-action shot—is it you or Sonic’s voice actor Roger Craig Smith?
The actor was a Sonic fan and cosplayer that Sega found. He also made the costume. We dubbed Roger Craig Smith’s voice in for consistency.
In spite of the show’s humor, most episodes still feature very dynamic well-directed fight scenes; do they relate to game play? Speaking of which, my partner really enjoys the tongue-in-cheek references to game play in the show’s dialog. (i.e., Sonic’s “catching rings is boring,” or Orbot quoting 1980s Konami code). He pointed out “In the Midnight Hour’s” villain is Dreamcaster, which he said was a reference to the Dreamcast game console, with the villain’s swirling red eyes even resembling the console’s logo. Am I correct in assuming these were deliberate references, Easter eggs for game fans?
Our goal was always to have action as well as comedy. The fight scene choreography was provided by our talented team of storyboard artists and our director, Natalys Raut Sieuzac.
All of the references that you mentioned were deliberate. I enjoy self-referential humor and it was a lot of fun planting Easter eggs for the fans.
I noticed Sonic has a “normal,” everyday person voice, while the rest of the gang all have “character” voices; was this a deliberate choice to make him more “the leader” of the gang?
Quite frankly, I never thought of it that way. To me they all had character voices.
* * *
Sonic Boom delights in trope-busting…
Knuckles: “Nothing could possibly go wrong,” followed by a stretch of silence instead of the usual “Gilligan cut” to a disastrous scene. After a few seconds Knuckles adds “see?”)
Breaking the fourth wall…
The paranoid, conspiracy-obsessed Sticks vents about TV controlling peoples’ minds then tells viewers “not you people, you can keep watching” or Sonic complaining “the writers are really phoning it in”)
And pop-culture parodies:
One episode spoofs Misery, with Sonic and friends at the mercy of an obsessed fan; another recreates, almost shot-for-shot, Bye Bye Birdie’s “Telephone Hour” song (https://tinyurl.com/yjppy2ev), a reference no one under the age of 50 is likely to get (“why do you all look like you just finished a musical number?” asks the late-arriving Dr. Eggman)—and throws in a Paper Chase parody for good measure, with a John Houseman-sounding bulldog professor. In another episode, Eggman reveals his lifelong evil dream: replacing the village with a theme park, complete with his own version of Disneyland’s Walt and Mickey statue (https://tinyurl.com/yfnhsg3f) depicting himself next to his park’s mascot. (“It all started with a shrew,” he rhapsodizes.)
* * *
The episodes were obviously written with an eye towards an older audience.
We wrote whatever made us laugh. There are plenty of things for people of all ages to enjoy in the episodes. We were happy to have complex ideas and multi-syllabic words in Sonic Boom. I don’t like to “write down” to kids. They’re smarter than most shows give them credit for. And the upside of treating kids with respect is that when they come back to the show years later, it still holds up. There were shows I liked as a kid that are unwatchable today because they were dumb. I hope in ten or twenty years when our fans find the show again, they love it just as much as they did when they first watched it.
One of the most surprising things about the series is the occasional acknowledgment that some fans enjoy the characters on shall we say, a less than “wholesome” level, with Sonic referring to “spicy” Sonic/Amy fanfics, or a character who’s written a few saying “I’ll pick something family-friendly…no no, not that one,” or Eggman taking a damaged Sonic dummy home for “totally non-creepy reasons.” I’m sure those fans were delighted; were you surprised you were able to get away with those jokes?
Those jokes seem pretty tame to me, but then again, I spent four years on Drawn Together.
This is more of an observation on my part: Dr. Eggman’s actually more a grumpy neighbor than an actual threat to anyone, to the point he can stroll into town for a Meh Burger when he’s not trying to destroy them all. It’s a charming characterization; did it take a little work to come up with that take on him?
That characterization evolved over time. I always felt that Eggman did what he did because he was insecure. He wanted to be liked but didn’t know how to go about it. As a result, he was jealous of the fact that everyone admired Sonic. He felt he was more worthy of that admiration.
In addition, despite all of his robots and weapons he constantly found himself at the mercy of bureaucracy – he couldn’t get his trash collected and his Homeowner’s Association wouldn’t let him have robots in his lair. Although he was a villain, he still had to play by an arbitrary set of rules that he didn’t fully understand. I think that’s what makes the Sonic Boom version of Eggman relatable.
Even though it’s a French production, am I correct it assuming it was scripted and performed in English (then dubbed into French and other languages) because the U.S./English-speaking market is the largest and/or most profitable?
Yes, the scripts were written by both American and French writers in English. Then we recorded them here in Los Angeles with American actors. After the shows were completely finished, they were dubbed into many different languages for distribution.
I don’t think the reason was because of the number of English-speaking markets. It’s more likely because American content sells best around the world. The distributors wanted the show to have an American feel to entice international buyers.
Extremely trivial question: why are the episode’s title cards just chyron over a freeze frame?
Honestly, I have no idea. That was a production choice. I assume it was a cheap way to do it and money was better spent in other areas.
Several episodes end on an ominous note. If the show had been renewed for a third series would it have turned more serious (as Reboot did in its final series)?
We weren’t intentionally moving in that direction and I never thought the episodes were particularly ominous. We always tried to go out on a joke.
Your voice for Comedy Chimp (and his design) reminds me of John Candy; is that just me or were you going for that?
The voice of Comedy Chimp is based on a nightclub owner that I used to work for when I was a comedian.
What are you up to currently?
I sold an adult animated pilot earlier this year and now I’m writing it.
And finally, any opinion of the upcoming live-action Sonic movie and its teaser trailer debacle?
The answer to this question is the same as my answer to one of the previous ones; some people just don’t like change. I hope people enjoy the movie and that it does well for Sega, but there are always going to be some people who can’t be pleased.