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The art of writing smart and funny TV for kids that won’t drive parents bonkers

Some of the best animated series are written by comedians who also work on late night and do stand-up. Here’s how they create sophisticated humor that works for all ages.

The art of writing smart and funny TV for kids that won’t drive parents bonkers
[Photo: courtesy of Disney Channel; courtesy of Nickelodeon; Joao Cruz/Unsplash]

A few years ago, Jenny Jaffe needed to carve out some time from her job writing for the Disney series Big Hero 6 so she could finish creating an IFC show in which she starred as a dominatrix with OCD.

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It seems like the kind of paradoxical position a comedian might find herself in when she starts writing for an animated children’s program. But as Jaffe soon discovered, the process of working on both shows felt mostly the same.

“Well-written TV is well-written TV,” she says. “It’s all just putting together a compelling story and interesting characters and trying to be funny.”

Jaffe is one of several comedians with dual citizenship in the worlds of adult comedy and animated kids’ shows. For anyone who hasn’t tuned in to the latter since they were young enough to be the target audience, things have changed. The original 1990’s Nicktoons heyday of Doug, Rugrats, and Ren & Stimpy spiked the bloodstream of a generation who grew up to make their own shows—on their own terms—and push the medium forward.

Animated kids’ TV today is still as accessible, fast-paced, and casually absurdist as ’90s shows like Animaniacs, but it’s also progressive and witty in bold new ways. Steven Universe, for instance, takes place in a world full of female superwarriors and nonbinary fashion, where LGBTQ relationships are par for the course. Teen Titans Go recently hit its young viewers with a very meta “Self-Indulgent 200th Episode Spectacular!”, in which the cast confronts the show’s actual creators, Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic, who are done with making the episode and would prefer to hang out and carbo-load instead. (The Titans finish making it on their own.)

It’s not that these shows are objectively funnier than their forebears, they’ve just evolved with the times. Their humor is sophisticated and works on multiple levels: innocent enough not to make parents plug their kids’ ears, smart enough for them not to plug their own, and weird enough for stoned college students and childless grownups. If you’re not watching these shows, some of your friends and coworkers most assuredly are.

So are comedians.

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Getting the gig

Jaffe was working for her nonprofit Project UROK and recapping episodes of ABC’s short-lived 2015 revival of The Muppets for Vulture, when she found her path into kids’ TV. Her sharp, funny recaps caught the eye of Muppets producer and comedy vet Nell Scovell, who put Jaffe in touch with the team adapting the big-screen hit Big Hero 6 for Disney TV. Although Jaffe had only written for shows like MTV’s Nikki and Sara Live, she’d grown up on Kim Possible and other Disney fare. She knew this world and she loved it, so she wrote a script.

It got her the job.

Such friend-of-a-friend stories are typical for how comedians tend to cross over into kids’ TV. Solomon Georgio, a stand-up who wrote for HBO’s Crashing, happened to be neighbors with the showrunner of SpongeBob SquarePants in 2015, when the series revamped its writers’ room. The showrunner knew Georgio, both as a performer and personally, and invited him to submit a script. Jordan Morris, cohost of the long-running comedy podcast Jordan, Jesse Go!, and a former writer for @midnight, got a similar invite to try out for the Cartoon Network’s Unikitty, a spin-off based on The Lego Movie character.

“Writing in late night, you kind of learn to make a joke-a-second and do a lot of pitches and have a lot of alts (alternative lines) for things,” Morris says. “I think they were kind of looking for someone with that skill set.”

Occasionally, the producers on kids’ shows actively seek to pepper in people from the broader comedy world along with the animation lifers. It’s a way to keep things spicy and add a diverse range of life experience to a program’s staff. Once the new writer in question turns in a worthy sample script, they are brought into the fold.

That’s when the true test begins.

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[Big Hero 6 Image: courtesy of Disney Channel]

The learning curve

“It was 100% doubt at first,” Georgio says of his time at SpongeBob. “You think there’s a lot of limitations because it’s kids’ TV. You can only assume, ‘Oh, I can’t tell these certain kinds of stories.’ But of the stories within that world that you can have, there’s still a bunch of options. It’s a whole giant world of possibilities. And it’s fun to pitch and hang out with the writers and get the feel of how they see the characters, and then understand the worlds you can play in.”

Obviously, there are some limitations to what a comic can actually slip into a kids’ show. Sexual situations and even most innuendos are verboten. All the characters’ blood must stay inside their bodies at all times. Also, the kind of language a comic might use onstage, unlike Unikitty herself, will not fly on Unikitty.

“I love a dick joke,” Morris say. “So that maybe was the biggest thing I had to train out of my brain. Maybe they can fart, but that’s kind of about it.”

Writers for kids’ shows sometimes use foul language to sail jokes across the plate in the room with their fellow writers, before laundering the joke in the script. It’s a rare moment in the process where comedians have a pass to work blue. Coloring inside the lines, though, can actually produce more vivid shades than the artist might otherwise come up with.

“In some ways, the limitations are really freeing,” Jaffe says. “You have to be a little more creative, especially on a show like Big Hero 6, where you’re trying to write villains and you’re trying to write battles that feel like they have high stakes, but you can’t really have the threat of death. So the question is, what are the other things that are personal to the character?”

Once these comedians got their bearings, they found ways in which their particular skills give them a leg up. Part of joke writing, especially for stand-up, is finding tags—little aftershocks beyond the punchline—that, when executed well, might go over bigger than the punchline itself. Comedians can apply this kind of lateral thinking to the cartoon logic of whichever kids’ show they’re writing for, and punch up visual jokes in inventive ways. There’s always an extra detail to add to a scene that makes it that much funnier—SpongeBob can always dig impossibly deep in his pockets to look for loose change, or start dancing with a mop that should not physically be there. The drive for maximum efficiency, to always find that little extra laugh, serves the medium well.

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Also, the ridiculous premises that drive plots in animated kids shows often have the chaotic feel of a loose improv game or a late-in-the-episode SNL sketch. A bad boy gang of sharks is looking to start some trouble. Great, what’s next? This video-game controller actually controls other people. Yes, and? The anything-goes ethos comedians apply to their trade is an essential ingredient in animated shows ostensibly aimed at kids.

But even in an anything-goes world, not everything goes.

[SpongeBob SquarePants Image: courtesy of Nickelodeon]

Some restrictions may apply

One big misconception about working in kids’ TV is that the shows can bring to life anything the writer imagines.

In truth, animated shows are still subject to the demands of reality—namely, budget limitations.

“There are things in animation that are expensive and annoying to animators, and the two big ones are new backgrounds and new characters,” says Morris. “I wrote an episode of Unikitty about a public pool, and I had a part where a dolphin popped up and someone gave me a note that was like, ‘Somebody’s gonna have to design that dolphin.’ So you make things a lot easier on them if that dolphin can be a preexisting character or someone we’ve seen before in a dolphin costume.”

Writers are free to chase their muses to the ends of the galaxy, but if they can figure out how to keep the animators happy, the ship runs that much smoother.

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Another potential hurdle in getting a comedian’s vision onscreen is the dreaded Standards and Practices department. While these writers already know to leave four-letter words and non-cartoonish violence by the wayside, it takes a lot of back-and-forth with script drafts to understand the full extent of what S&P considers appropriate and what it does not.

“Sometimes it feels arbitrary and sometimes it’s just little specific details,” Jaffe says. “Like, if we’re going to do a car chase, then we want to make sure everybody’s wearing their seatbelt in the car. But I’ve actually probably had more ‘battles’ about what can and can’t be said in adult comedy.”

Kid-friendly adult comedy

The photo negative of animated shows like Unikitty is Bob’s Burgers. One is a show made for kids that adults also enjoy, while the other is a show made for adults that kids also enjoy.

Bob’s Burgers is a hilarious and almost aggressively comfortable show about a family that runs and lives above a burger shop. No matter which character any given episode focuses on, the show always splits its airtime between the adult Belchers and their three kids, who exist eternally between the ages of 9  and 13. While plenty of adult-oriented cartoons like South Park and Family Guy made names for themselves by pushing the limits of bad taste, the writers of Bob’s Burgers seem more on a quest to see how riotously funny such a cartoon can get while working within the parameters of basic wholesomeness.

Bob’s Burgers started its life on TV the same way that most comedians start out writing kids shows: by going too far and being reined back in. Creator Loren Bouchard’s previous output includes the Adult Swim cartoon Lucy, Daughter of the Devil, which is exactly what it sounds like. In the original pilot, Bob’s Burgers channeled its predecessor’s darker tone in one specific way: the Belcher family were a clan of cannibals. (Imagine the Burger of the Day puns in that show.) The network loved the central characters and the superb voice acting from such comedians as H. Jon Benjamin and Kristen Schaal, but they thought the show worked well enough without the whole humans-eating-humans thing.

“That note kind of set the tone for how the show went,” says Kelvin Yu, who has written for Bob’s Burgers since it began in 2011, and who also acts in projects like Master of None.

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Bob’s Burgers is a kid-friendly hit in part because its writers recognize how much mileage they can get out of being weird without being edgy. The show can get a little racy—eldest daughter Tina is pathologically boy-crazy, for instance, and there are frequent nods to movies like Silence of the Lambs—but it’s also packed with silly, catchy songs, and random acts of kindness.

According to Yu, the only episode that was ever made and then shelved by the network was an early one about a colonoscopy that was essentially a journey through Bob’s butthole. (“Maybe season one is a little ambitious to go for something like that,” he says.)

Overall, though, the writers tend to rely on the same self-policing as kids’ show writers do to maintain the balance between its dual audiences.

“It’s all about thinking, how do we get it to a Bobsian level?” Yu says. “We want to invent scenarios where the family is trying their best and just barely succeeding or very barely failing, and everyone can relate to that.”

[Image: courtesy of Cartoon Network]

Life after writing for kids’ shows

Some people who write for animated shows aimed at kids find their lane and stay in it forever. Others decide it’s more just the right vehicle for the right time. Solomon Georgio only stayed at SpongeBob Squarepants for one season before moving on to do more stand-up and write for shows like Shrill on Hulu.

“If the option came up, I might do it, but I’m definitely on a different trajectory now as a writer, so it would be weird to be, like, ‘Now I’ll do SpongeBob again,'” Georgio says. “It’s not an option I’m going to set aside, but it’s not the direction I’m going in.”

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Jordan Morris is still a writer for Unikitty, and while he plugs away at other projects on the side, in between creating podcasts, he is happy writing for a wonderfully unhinged cartoon.

Jenny Jaffe stayed at Big Hero 6 for two seasons, moved on to other kids’ shows including Teen Titans Go, and recently sold a series of her own to Fox called Saloon, with former Daily Show head writer Elliott Kalan. It’s an animated show for adults, with the potential to be the next Bob’s Burgers.

“It’s very freeing after you’ve been doing kids’ TV for a while to be like, ‘I don’t have to think in these terms,'” Jaffe says. “But every show you work on, you’re just working within the boundaries of that show, whether it’s kids or adults. That’s part of the fun of it. Everything is a specific puzzle with its own specific voice and things that do and don’t work for that world and that tone.”

Working on children’s entertainment has taught Morris a lot about what works and what doesn’t, not just in animation but in comedy altogether. Forced to ditch his beloved dick jokes on Unikitty, he realized he’d been using them as a crutch. He now has to go a bit deeper for each punchline, a challenge he enjoys.

His current job has also taught him something else: the power of thinking in terms of visual humor. Coming from the world of late night, he’d been prone to writing narratives in which characters say funny things to each other in a void. It turns out those voids are black holes sucking in a lot of potential for comedy—and not just in kids’ shows.

“I had to learn how to say something in fewer words and how to make it funny to see, not just to listen to, and that’s something I think a lot more about now,” he says. “There are definitely a couple projects where that’s been really helpful. Even if you’re writing something live-action, and the characters’ eyes can’t bug out of their heads: What can you make them do? Where can you put them that’s a little more interesting than a blank room? The humor doesn’t have to just come from the characters being witty at each other, but from them being somewhere funny and doing something funny while they’re there.”

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While the comics writing for animated kids’ shows all seem to take something away from it that they can use elsewhere in their comedy, one thing they’re unlikely to get is any recognition from their core demo. Young children have very little awareness that anyone is writing the show they’re watching. Unikitty just says the things Unikitty feels like saying—and that’s that.

But for someone like Jaffe, who still remembers every episode of Rugrats she watched as a kid, there’s a greater reward down the line, even if she never finds out about it.

“My biggest hope,” she says, “is that something I’ve written for kids’ TV, college students will bond over in their dorm rooms, like, 10 years from now.”

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