Splitsider

Monday, March 12th, 2012

Graduating from Welcome Freshmen and the Business of Making TV for Kids

“The business of America is business.” – Calvin Coolidge (misquoted)

People who espouse the cloying concept of l’art pour l’art tend to royally piss me off. Anyone who alleges that he produces art without consciousness of or care for commercial viability does so for one of three reasons: 1) He’s totally full of shit (audiences do love a good myth), 2) He’s secretly plutocratic; one doesn’t care about money if one doesn’t need to make any, 3) He has a last name that you would recognize (“2” and “3” often go hand-in-hand, especially in the culture industry).

I don’t know ‘bout ch’all, but I have rent to pay. And food ain’t free yet, either. Typically, when I invest time, energy, and occasionally my own start-up funds into a project, the finished product better damn well pay off what our old Joy of Painting friend Bob Ross referred to as “great dividends.” (Coincidentally, I just this moment turned down some voice-over writing work to finish this freebie article, so who’s the hypocrite now?).

Sure, after making enough here or there on whatever paid projects I can scrounge up during this inclement economic season of ours, I knock off for a bit and indulge in quixotic endeavors such as this series. I’m not merely a professional writer. I’m also a hopelessly compulsive graphomaniac.

But even at my most “artistically indulgent” (read: onanistic), I’m usually pretty good at keeping in mind some modicum of potential saleability. (After having lived over half my life ruthlessly engaged in creative pursuits, it’s kind of how my mind works these days. Especially now that my male biological clock has grown resoundingly loud.)

Heck, even though this weekly Nick of Time series has been an absolute blast, it does take a fuckload of time and energy, especially when I’m going at it totally alone for the time being. It’s part for fun and edification… but there’s no question it’s also a fantastic way to promote what I’m doing with my Nickelodeon book thingy.

If you want to mess around with avant-garde, nonlinear art films or atonal music whose intention is to make the audience throw up, go for it. But unless you’ve got a coupla day jobs or a patron-relative in your pocket, don’t pretend that money’s not on your mind along with a romanticized vision of Vincent van Gogh (who would have gone nowhere had it not been for his younger brother who fully financed his needlessly decadent lifestyle until he finally killed himself for being such an asshole at the ripe age of 37; poor bastard couldn’t even do that alone, taking his brother with him a year later).

The trouble being, of course, those apocryphal myths (hint: it costs a lot more than $10,000 to make a movie, especially when you take into account living expenses and travel costs for festivals etc.) and specious principles of lofty artistes don’t pay the bills. As an art dealer friend of mine once said, “Even Karl Marx had to pay for his beer.”

Besides, don’t you want to get your art out to the people? HL Mencken may or may not have been right when he said, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public,” but there’s no denying that the same public definitely wants what it wants. So why not give it to them? Mix in a little of your quirky nonsense along the way and you’ve got something that is both your own and accessible/marketable. You’ve won. They’ve won. Everyone wins. America! (And, hey, then you can keep working, too.)

It’s this realized notion of fusing the quirky with the saleable that has made my ongoing Nickelodeon adventure ever the more delightful. I’m learning this ideal of doing what you gotta do to get the job done while also mixing in something unique and special is something all the Nick folks believed in (for the most part; more on this viz. my Ren & Stimpy article next week).

The majority of Nick folks all diligently worked their way up from humble beginnings at a young age when they were involved in everything from promotions/advertising to entertainment journalism (ah-hum). Meanwhile, they kept their weirdness mostly to themselves, slipping it in when they could, and watched as the work they did collectively made the fledgling channel the media behemoth it is today.

This is also why the enduring legacy of these shows still has such potent resonance today. They were weird enough to be memorable (and, at times, prescient)… and were at the same time conventional enough to have been produced and broadcast in the first place (something that would never have happened if, as cool as it might have been, the shows were all edited to run in reverse-motion).

When I last week talked with kids’ TV maven Adam Weissman, I came to find that thanks to an impressive run in the biz that continues to this day — his first job being a director on Welcome Freshmen, these days working on such massive hits as Hannah Montana and iCarly — Weissman is a living testament to the notion that one can express himself… while still making sure to keep his kids fed and mortgage paid.

After getting out of college in the early eighties, Weissman began working as a production assistant in commercials for about three years. Because this was a time before youth-oriented networks like MTV (and its sister station Nickelodeon) had risen to power, as Weissman put it, “cable was just getting started, so to be able to cross into different genres was a little more difficult.”

What to do as a young filmmaker with nowhere to go? Weissman took to creating his own company that specialized in non-broadcast industrial/corporate videos (a starting place for many of today’s greatest film folkles). Weissman then moved to Boston to work for a larger company, using new technology (LaserDiscs) to do “a lot of training involving these role-play scenarios, these little vignettes — five, seven, or nine minutes — relating to training or marketing for a particular company.”

These were scripted segments with actors (oftentimes comedic, according to Weissman), that not only allowed the budding director to keep afloat financially, but also taught him “how to tell stories, how to direct actors, how to edit; it was basically film school in a practical sense.”

Another perquisite of starting off in the realm of corporate/industrial training videos was Weissman’s ability to make mistakes. “It was a much safer environment to learn in,” Weissman said. “This gave me a chance to figure out how to do my job without the consequence of maybe never getting asked to do it again.”

By this point — 1989/90 — Weissman decided it was time to try his hand at directing television. “I thought that was the next logical step for me to do,” he said. “I really didn’t see myself as a corporate animal, spending all my time in a cubicle.”

When I asked Weissman why TV and not film, he gave me the stock answer first: “The experiences I had had sort of suited me to television,” following up immediately with, “On a different level, several people told me it’s a bit more stable of a source of income if you can make it. As opposed to spending a couple years of your life on a film and maybe never getting anywhere with it. I still wanted to eat.”

Although there was certainly a vast world of options for a young man in his thirties to go out and make something of himself, Weissman remained passionately pragmatic about wanting to forge ahead in the realm of visual artistry. He therefore financed and produced a 30-minute short film in which he worked with all the people he’d hooked up with in Boston. “I called in all my favors,” he told me.

His 1990 comedic film, entitled “The Norton Project,” was “really about the relationship of a father and son.” It was, to Weissman, an extremely personal story that “happened to resonate greatly” with him.

Prophetically enough, the father was a “sixty-something curmudgeon raping and pillaging in the corporate world” and the son was a thirty-something fifth-grade science teacher who thought Dad a bastard for being monomaniacally devoted to the almighty dollar (with Dad meanwhile believing his son to be a nut for eliding money in order to “babysit kids all day”).

Ain’t that the flushed-out dichotomy I’ve been talking about right there?

“It had a lot of kids in it, it was colorful, it was 30 minutes long, there was no sex in it, there was no violence in it,” Weissman said. “In my own head, I was making this film about a father-and-son story. But in the background context, it contained all the elements of a family show.”

Weissman decided to take the film to LA where he planned to use it as a “calling card.” Unfortunately, Disney Channel was just getting off the ground, and Nickelodeon was “barely on the map at the time, doing mostly game shows and animation out of Orlando.” He told me that, essentially, everyone (read: agents, et al) “looked at me cross-eyed” when he tried to get more work.

“I was really despondent, because I had made the film and it had won some awards — people had responded to the story and the characters – but because I had no track record and because I was in a genre that wasn’t going to make anybody money, it was a problem.”

“I suspect that, at the time, license fees and profit margins for these shows weren’t great, so people weren’t looking at these as a great source of income. So, I was going, ‘Shit, how am I going to get a job now?’ I made something apparently everybody liked but that nobody thought they could sell for me.”

Thus, almost as an arbitrary afterthought, Weissman found himself being pushed toward kids’ television (which at the time was mostly ABC after-school specials, etc.). “Had I researched the way that the mechanics work, I might have said, ‘OK, I’m going to make a slasher film and go see Roger Corman, and he’ll get me started.’”

“I never had any great design to get into children’s television,” Weissman said. “I never even thought that’s what I was doing.”

Saying that he “needed to work,” Weissman got back into industrial/corporate videos again, finding an agent who had a colleague who worked with Nickelodeon. Nick was at this time starting to delve into the world of scripted television.

“I was in New York on a job, and a writer-producer named Bob Mittenthal saw my short film and we went out and had dinner. He was talking about how they were starting to do scripted programming down in Orlando. And they were looking for directors. We had a nice, long conversation and Bob gave me my break. He said he had a really good feeling about me, and that was all he went on. Bob created Welcome Freshmen.”

This was 1992; Welcome Freshmen was about to get going on its second season, and Weissman had just turned 34.

“We started doing the show. It was a three-camera sitcom, and I learned how to do it. It was a nice environment because the corporate parent was up in New York; there wasn’t a lot of network presence, so it gave us a chance to grow and stretch and try things out and learn how to do it.” (How many times have I heard that before?)

By the time Weissman had had his life-changing dinner with Mittenthal, “they were already shooting the show, but they were using an assortment of people that Bob thought could be improved a bit.”

“My film resonated with him because it was full of kids.”

“Working with kids is a skill set that not everybody has. Imagine you’re a substitute teacher in seventh/eighth/ninth grade. You’ve got a classroom full of kids, and you’ve gotta instantly become the leader of the group in a way that makes them engaged and engaging. But, you’ve also gotta get them to do their job. And you’ve got technical considerations and you’ve got limited time with them because they’re minors; they have to go to school and they’re only allowed to work a certain amount of hours a day.”

“It’s a very underappreciated genre for people that don’t understand it. There are a lot of people that do it. Not a lot of people do it really well. Some people just don’t want to do it at all. Because it’s tough. Bob thought I could do it.”

Okay, so that’s the business end of the thing. Weissman was brought onto Welcome Freshmen because he had proven to the show’s creator that he could work with kids better than most. But, what of any personal expression in committing to such a project?

“I guess the thing I draw upon — and I still do with every show that I work on — is I need to find a way to relate to these kids,” Weissman said. “The older I get, the younger they get. I always try to find something to relate to with them. Whether it be music or clothes or TV or movies or sports or games, whatever it is that they’re into, I need to get into it in order for us to relate. Otherwise, I’m just like their dad.”

There was nevertheless some special serendipity for Weissman that at around the same time he started on Welcome Freshmen, he also began having kids. “Being a dad helps,” he said. “Having kids helps because it’s easier to relate to kids.”

In turning the conversation over to the content of Welcome Freshmen, I asked Weissman how he reconciled the combination of farce with the reality of the show in its inclusion of both sketch-like elements (eg, Vice Principal Lippman’s fantasy sequences about how he’d really like to do the morning announcements) along with the slightly more “realistic” elements of narratives involving everything from first dates to saving the environment.

“That is all in the script,” Weissman revealed. “It’s really a question of the tone of how you want to present the jokes. If the ceiling caves in and somebody falls into the shot, then that’s a pretty broad gag. But if you’ve got moments where two characters are breaking up or somebody’s caught lying to somebody, it’s nice to ground that in reality.”

“I think that’s what Bob and the writers were trying to balance: the viewers want something that they can laugh at and be entertained by, but if it can resonate on another level where they can actually relate to it — they had a break-up, or they were lied to or deceived, or they won the big contest — then you ground it in a reality. Otherwise it’s just a cartoon.”

Though, now twenty years and more than 40 series later, Weissman remembers no examples of his specific creative contributions to the scripts of Freshmen, he does feel that part of the job of any TV director is to collaborate with the writers.

“In a perfect world, directors should elevate the material so that the writers get more out of it than they expected and then I get more out of it than just shooting the script. That’s really what a collaborative environment is.”

Weissman illuminated for me the fact that he knew then (and knows today) very few writer-directors in kids’ TV, simply because it’s nearly physically impossible to do both. While you’re directing one episode, the next one is being written. It has to go that fast, and because it’s not possible to be in two places — on set and in the writers’ room — at once, you end up with something more akin to a kind of creative factory line.

“And that works best for everybody: the writers are trying to make the best script, I’m trying to make the best show. And at every step of the way, you hope that the next tier of people that work on it are going to continue to polish it.”

“The directors come in to direct the script, and they put in their input — oftentimes that input is on-the-spot — and they’ll realize ‘Maybe this could be improved’ or ‘Here’s an idea for a funny joke’ or ‘Have you thought of doing X?’ And the writers mull that over before maybe making changes; but those are more organic contributions than any kind of real responsibility on a piece of paper saying, ‘This is your job.’”

When I asked whether or not Nick was happy with what Weissman and the rest of the Welcome Freshmen folks were doing, he responded, “I gotta believe they were happy with it because they kept renewing it. And that’s usually the answer.”

Seems logical enough.

In the pre-Twitter/Facebook days in which Welcome Freshmen originally aired, Weissman never saw any real fan response (referring to that kind of thing in those days as “more of a back-office type of thing”).

He nevertheless explained to me that when he would go back home to LA (from where he would make the difficult commute to Orlando to shoot Freshmen), “People would say, ‘Oh yeah, I saw that show.’ Nickelodeon was really making its mark. They were starting to become a presence on TV, an alternative to animation and an alternative to some of the Disney programming. People were watching those shows.”

(With something of a snicker, he added that this was the time Saban — responsible for such “classic” kids fare as Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers — came into the picture as a “big force that made the business side realize, ‘Wow, we can make a shitload of money doing this, as long as we can tell towels and lunchboxes.’”)

And this realization of potential pecuniary power even began driving Weissman’s career a bit more, he confessed unashamedly. “To be perfectly blunt, for me it was about supporting my family. I had two little kids. The more work that came in, the more opportunity for me to work.”

“I didn’t feel that my creativity was being threatened or hampered in any way. All the shows were what they were, but it was like, ‘Oh, great! This show’s got a lot of action in it; I haven’t done action yet.’ Or, ‘This show’s got special effects in it; I haven’t done special effects yet.’ Or, ‘This show is straight-ahead verbal comedy; I like doing that.’”

“If anything, I saw these as opportunities to grow as a director because there was more available to me now, and it sort of fed on itself. I didn’t see what I was doing being compromised in any way.”

Quickly shifting gears a bit, Weissman continued this thought by lamenting, “I did realize that you become very specialized or pigeonholed. I was interested in doing other types of shows, but because I had this body of work that I was developing in kids’ television, that was really where I was staying.”

“And that was okay, because I was a working director,” he said. “I wasn’t waiting tables.”

Aside from the ever-growing financial and artistic opportunities Weissman was enjoying being part of Nick in those growing years, there was certainly an awesomeness factor that didn’t escape him either. “I thought it was definitely cool to be working for Nick, because they were the start-up at the time. And they definitely were considered edgier. You got mouse ears… and then you have an orange blimp.”

“There’s a handful of people now that I’m working with, and they’re executives at Nick, and I’ve known them for a long time, since their days in Orlando. They come on the set, and it’s fun to see them twenty-some-odd years later. It was a really nice time to be where we were down in Florida and to be doing the kind of stuff we were doing, going, ‘Hey, this is really cool, it’s getting a lot of response, and I’m making it.’”

Welcome Freshmen changed drastically during its third season. Along with losing a few characters and gaining a few others (all but one of our freshmen friends were now sophomores, to boot), the program went from more of a “variety show” to purely situational. Weissman says that he imagines part of this change happened due to the growing popularity of other situational kids’ shows that became popular like Saved by the Bell.

“It opened up a lot of ideas and stories, going in that direction,” Weissman said. “Maybe it was also the influence of All That coming in, which was basically Saturday Night Live for kids. And it was, ‘Okay, do we need two shows that are doing all these sketchy things?’”

“For me, I enjoyed it. Again, it was another opportunity to try something I hadn’t really done much of before. ‘Oh, okay, so now we’re getting into situational comedy and fewer sight gags.’ I didn’t see it as this enormous shift. It just seemed like a logical progression.”

“Especially when shows have been around for a while, they’ll introduce new characters because the audience wants to see some fresh faces. The writers sometimes feel, ‘Okay, maybe this is as far as we can go with this character. Let’s just send him off to graduate’ or ‘He’s literally too old-looking to be in this school. Let’s send him off.’ To me, it was just, ‘Okay, here’s what Season Three’s gonna look like. And let’s just go with it.’”

Weissman told me he was in the meantime “studying” those other youth-themed high school shows like Saved by the Bell and even Beverly Hills 90210, particularly as he thought they might make for more opportunities for him to direct.

“I didn’t see an enormous difference in those shows and what I was already doing; perhaps in production value, but that’s really a function of money. Those shows might have looked a little glossier because they were done out here [LA], but as far as the content, funny’s funny. If it’s funny, it’s great. If it’s not funny, it’s not, no matter how slick it might look.”

“I saw similarities: there’s the class clown, there’s the hunky guy, there’s the cute girl. They’re your archetypal characters that you would write your shows around. The situations were similar because the experience that kids have are similar. Your high school experiences are what they are, especially back then when those shows really did take place in schools almost exclusively.”

“A lot of those shows were school-based. Now we try to do shows where there’s less of it. Yeah, they have a school and they go to school because that’s what kids do, but their stories and their experiences go outside of that world. I think that’s because audiences are continually bored, and writers have to come up with new ways to keep them interested.”

“I think also because kids’ lives — especially now — are much more expanded outside of school. I think primarily every writer struggles with some new, fresh ways to tell these stories that also reflect back on what society is. What distracted kids and what got them into trouble and what kept them entertained was different in 1993 than today. Now you got iCarly, and she’s got a web show… because that’s what they do.”

In light of what some of the other Nick show creators and stars have told me about their “fierce pride” anent the way things were “back then” versus the way things are now at Nick, what other changes has Weissman observed over the years from Freshmen then to working with Miley Cyrus today?

“From my perspective, it’s been nothing but really, really great. At the level I’m at, [the executives] are nothing but supportive. The difference I feel is in the success of the shows. And the fact that I’ve been lucky to work on some really successful shows, and worked with some really talented and smart people. And their presence speaks for itself. The shows are big, and I’m attached to the shows, so I feel, ‘Okay, I’m working at a successful place.’”

In fact, in Weissman’s long-spanning view of Nick through its changes from the Little Network That Could to a bona fide gold standard in its marketplace, the camaraderie and loyalty — that “fierce pride,” again — hasn’t gone anywhere. If anything, it’s grown and has helped to keep the network going as strong as it goes.

“I work on shows now where I’m with the same crew people I’ve been with for seven or eight years. The same ones. And that kind of loyalty is not necessarily common within a network. If you work on one specific show, yes; but there’s a nice family feel to that, which to me is terrific. You got people who are terrific to work with and they work their butts off. And at the end of the day, we all make a living and are proud of the shows we work on.”

“Most of them have kids, and that’s nice because you’re doing programming that your children can watch, and your kids have some bragging rights because their mom or their dad works on these really cool shows. There’s really been no downside for me.”

Makes sense, but there’s gotta be more differences between working on a small, mostly obscure “start-up” show like Welcome Freshmen and then years later spending your time on set with a pint-sized version of what Rodney Bingenheimer would call a “godhead” in reference to star power.

“There’s more responsibility on a show like Hannah,” Weissman said. “Hannah Montana was a brand; it was much more than a show. It had a very lucrative concert component to it. Miley represented a lot of things to a lot of girls. There’s a responsibility to maintain the brand, which is something that you wouldn’t necessarily feel on a show like Welcome Freshmen, which wasn’t as much in the public eye as compared to Hannah. Freshmen had less at stake to lose.”

And in this, Weissman might be custom-made to continue his relating to the child actors with whom he works. He’s grown with the shows and has the experience level to work on such blockbusting hits as Hannah. He can understand what it is for a girl like Cyrus — “with a huge franchise on her shoulders while she’s still going to concerts, and into the studio to record music, and going to school, and trying to spend time with her friends; it’s hard!” — to do what she does.

Whereas on his first gig with Freshmen, he could relate to kids who were maybe working for their first time and also hadn’t had much if any experience on TV, Weissman can — twenty years of working in the biz later — relate similarly to a gal who’s been famous since the day she was born.

Although Weissman says that, admittedly, at the time he “didn’t know what the protocol was” when it came to directing a kids’ show, he does feel now looking back that there was a bit more liberty and creative freedom in working on a more modest production like Freshmen as compared to a friggin’ master-signifier like Hannah.

“Usually, when you do these shows, there’s a network presence in the room, behind you, that’s evaluating the quality of your work all day long as opposed to looking at the finished product. At the time, I thought it was normal to be just me and the writers, and we made the show.”

“I now know, that’s generally not the case. Although, Nickelodeon is a little more hands-off than Disney even today. They both have a very successful brand that they need to nurture and protect and monitor, and they just do it in different ways. Even with the presence now, it’s not invasive to me, though. I have enough confidence in my ability now that it doesn’t make me nervous.”

“It’s just part of the job.”

Mathew Klickstein is the author of SLIMED! An Oral History of Nickelodeon's Golden Age, which is in stores everywhere and will tell you more about Nickelodeon than you probably should know.