The idea for Super Cooper came to a friend of ours, Steve Billnitzer: how about if a middle-school girl has super powers, but she gets a different one each day and she never knows what it’ll be? And what if some of them are completely insane?
The Disney Channel liked it and asked if we could work with Steve. Since they had just passed on Rocketship Bedroom (q.v.) and the notes from four countries on W.I.T.C.H.
were becoming a Vietnam-style quagmire, we had the time. There followed the usual six months of contractual haggling, after which we got precisely the same terms we get on every show that C.A.A. spends six months negotiating. We then, with Steve, wrote ten drafts of a series bible and seven drafts of the pilot.
Steve, Darrell and I have the same attitude towards humor: (to hell with them) if they can’t recognize a joke. We put in silly stupid gags and a lot of random stuff that just flat-out amused us. You know, like the jokes in Spongebob Squarepants
, on that other network where they actually try to entertain kids instead of preaching to them. After the first draft was turned in, the bombs began to fall. In the very first phone call: “This is a good start... I think one of the first things we need to talk about is where we’re going to put the message.”
The Message. Why does a children’s show have to have a message? They don’t work. If they worked, every kid who watches television would be respectful, honest, considerate and sharing. I’ve met them; they’re not. Nobody in the history of television viewing has ever modified their behavior or personality because of a lesson learned by a character in a sitcom or animated program. So why, when original stories are hard enough to write to begin with, must we continue to make them harder by having these poor fictional drawings, in their brief flicker of life, suffer through crises that test and anguish them? Why can’t they just have funny experiences?
So we put a message in. It was about sharing.
We looked at literally thousands of artists’ samples before TVA head Barry Blumberg walked in one day and said, “That one.” And we proposed several ways of writing the story before Barry said at a conference table one day, “Here’s your story. In Act One...”
We hired singer-songwriter Amy Correia to write and sing the theme song. Pete Michels directed the witty animation
, based on Keith Knight’s lovely and goofy character designs.
Late in the testing at Burbank’s ASI, as I wandered from the boys’ testing room to the girls’ room, I heard the interlocutor ask the boys, “What could we do to improve this series?” One of the ten-year-old boys spoke up: “Have her fight bad guys and kill ‘em!” The other young Byrons loudly agreed. Of course, this was the superhero convention that our concept was supposedly turning on its head. But when I got the thanks-but-no-thanks call, this turned out to have been the major quibble during the testing with ten-to-twelve-year-olds in Berlin, Munich and London. I don’t know if it arose spontaneously like radon or if, cued by Burbank Billy, the execs were nudged in that direction and followed it up with leading questions, but they wanted Cooper to fight evildoers. This thought had never arisen at the network or studio: every note was aimed at making Cooper’s family life richer, her friendships more rewarding, her morals firmer, her actions more believable. At least a month was spent by director Pete Michels trying to make her nose cuter. There were hour-long meetings about her hair.
Could we have changed Super Cooper to a show in which a twelve year- old girl fights evildoers using different super powers every day? Yes Ma’am. Is that the way children’s television works? No it isn’t. They buy it, they “fix” it, you make it, and then the testing needle writes and, having writ, moves on. Fifty adults birth a show then toss it to young Billy Mumy and cringe while they wait to see who’s going to be sent to the cornfield. A lot of money could be saved if some children were brought into the meetings when the story was being written. “Hey kids, do you want a Message here, or something funny?” Will they ever do it that way? No they will not. Because that would bypass all the crap, and that’s all that some people have to sell.