Fun fact: with its 17th season premiering next month (and seasons 18 and 19 in production), PBS’s Arthur is the second longest-running animated series in TV history, right after The Simpsons. On Sunday at New York Comic Con 2013, Arthur writer David Steven Cohen moderated a panel about the show consisting of panelists Peter Hirsch (current head writer), Ken Scarborough (former head writer), Carol Greenwald (producer and head of children’s TV at WGBH), Arthur creator Marc Brown, Greg Bailey (producer/director), and Linda Simensky (VP of Children’s Programming at PBS).
The panel began with Marc Brown detailing the origins of Arthur in 1976, which he described as “the worst year of his life” as he lost his teaching job when the college he worked at closed. Telling his son a bedtime story about an aardvark who was unhappy with his nose eventually led to a decision to write books (and several years with little income and no health insurance). However, Arthur didn’t really take off until a teacher told him that if he wanted to sell books, he had to turn it into a series. He said Arthur was rooted in his experiences in third grade (a state he said he could recall easily) and many characters were based on people he knew (which, he joked, has caused “only one legal entanglement”).
Brown turned down several offers to put Arthur on television, worried at what would be done to his character, until PBS (in the form of Carol Greenwald of WGBH Boston) came to him with the idea of using Arthur to encourage kids to read. Brown said that the next hardest obstacle was in sharing his characters, especially in letting others design and render the characters for animation. He did have high praise for the crew on the Arthur TV show, especially for Greg Bailey (who had previously adapted Richard Scarry books for Cookie Jar Entertainment). Like several of the panelists (and attendees), Brown said that numerous adults tell him they still watch the show even though their kids are grown up and gone from the house.
Cohen asked Ken Scarborough, Carol Greenwald, and Greg Bailey what their experiences were like in adapting Arthur in its earliest days. Ken Scarborough credited Joe Fallon with much of what people remember and love from the early part of the series, who wrote 31 of the first 60 episodes. He also recalled that the public TV budget and tech at the time meant that getting scripts via e-mail meant they had to clear the phone line to connect to the AOL account shared by the staff. For the visual style, Bailey said that they had a lot of material to work with from the books, though they did standardize the the animation models in comparison to the book art. Brown credited the animation crew for spurring the creation of a lot of back-matter like the map of Elwood City and the floorplan of Arthur’s house.
Carol Greenwald said that the decision to use kids’ voices was made early on, with the full knowledge that it would cause recasting if the show lasted for a long time. Some actors were teenagers or adults when they started, but major characters like Arthur, Buster, and D.W. were all kids. D.W. has always been a boy doing a girl’s voice, in keeping with the original casting of the character and to retain the specific resonance that has become associated with her.
Peter Hirsch told the panel that George was his favorite character to write because “he has all the problems…dyslexia and nosebleeds,” but he liked that he was “a quiet kid who was secretly a weird genius.” On the flip side, he felt the most difficult character to write was Muffy, with the challenge of making her slightly clueless without being unlikeable and balancing out her upper-crust blinders with a basic inner kindness. Greenwald expanded on that point by saying that the crew always wanted to make sure the kids stayed believable, even if it meant that Arthur sometimes acted badly or Muffy acted more sympathetically.
A question submitted by a Facebook fan asked whether why we’d ever hear from two characters in Mr. Ratburn’s class (“a female rabbit with shoulder-length brown hair and a gray male rabbit with a colored sweater”), and if not, “then what are they hiding?” Hirsch revealed their names as Maria and Alex and that they were created to keep the classroom from looking too empty, though Bailey suggested they might be in the Witness Protection Program from Dexter’s Laboratory.
The music has always been something that fans have loved, and Carol Greenwald was credited with pushing for the theme song (with panelists joking that her intention was to “beat Barney”). Greenwald said she always wanted to expose kids to different kinds of music on the show, and that they were drawn to Ziggy Marley from a song on a pediatric AIDS benefit album. She told the panel the story of her trip to Jamaica for the recording session, where Ziggy was “about 3 hours late” and that a big brown bag played a prominent role with the musicians, but she didn’t know what it was until she walked into the recording booth and caught a whiff of the secondhand smoke. However, she did add that the exuberance of the theme was definitely a product of the recording session, which involved the entire extended Marley family.
After a video featuring some of the show’s prominent musical guests, Linda Simensky discussed her transition from Cartoon Network to PBS, saying that Arthur gave her the confidence that she smoothed things over for her (joking, “it’s funnier than anything I made”). While Simensky thinks that the tone of PBS shows has shifted over the years, Arthur has been the cornerstone, especially as it fits her sense of what a kids’ show should be and that it’s one of three shows where she doesn’t think she needs to read the scripts ahead of time.
Cohen turned to the more serious episodes of Arthur next, asking the panelists which were the hardest episodes to write (and focusing on “The Great MacGrady,” where the school cafeteria lady is diagnosed with cancer). Peter Hirsch noted that the episode originated from a writer (Leah Ryan) who had cancer and died before it was finished, and that despite the challenges, it was “nice to be able to tell kids not to be afraid” of cancer. Cohen related a treasured memory of watching the episode with his mother (now passed) during one of her chemotherapy sessions at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. After a clip, Hirsch relayed something Ryan told him before they started writing the episode: “If there’s one thing I can teach, just wash your hands.”
Cohen asked the panel how they’d explain the longevity of the show, and how the writers keep the show contemporary and relevant. Ken Scarborough said that he felt that it wasn’t contemporary and relevant because it avoids topical references and the year-long turnaround per episode means they can’t really be topical even if they wanted to. He did note how Arthur can grow with its audience, appealing to different things from the pre-potty-trained ages to the kids entering kindergarten to kids the same age as Arthur and his friends. He did also describe the universal issues in socialization that every group of kids goes through as they grow up. Simensky added that she felt a lot of the show’s longevity was because of the world that had been built up over time, and “the reason people watch it is because they want to be in that world.”
In discussing the genre and literary parodies that appear on Arthur, Greg Bailey (who was singled out by Carol Greenwald for making them work) said that they were fun because they were opportunities to design new things, as opposed to the pre-existing designs for the show. He also went into the making of the show’s South Park parody, saying it was shot on an Oxberry animation stand that hadn’t been used in years (and added that the work was incredibly painstaking). He added that one of his animators was cutting out little felt dolls for the animation on his own time (and, since they hadn’t told anybody what was happening, everyone though he had picked up a peculiar new hobby).
In response to a question from an audience member, Carol Greenwald said that making Arthur taught her the importance of collaboration, because everyone on the panel and on the crew owns a piece of the show’s success. Greg Bailey added that he also learned not to talk down to the kids, and the right way add things that the kids may not understand just yet.
The panel ended with a clip from the next season (featuring guest star Alan Cumming) followed by a visit from Arthur and Buster: