Michigan native Butch Hartman has been with Nickelodeon for 18 years, spearheading four successful series including: The Fairly OddParents, Danny Phantom, T.U.F.F. Puppy, and the new series Bunsen is a Beast. Hartman began his animation career as an assistant animator on An American Tail. He created his own shorts for What a Cartoon!, and also wrote and directed episodes of Dexter’s Laboratory, Cow & Chicken, and Johnny Bravo.
Mr. Hartman took the time to sit and talk to Toonzone News in person about his career and new series.
TOONZONE NEWS: How are you enjoying the new Nickelodeon Studio?
BUTCH HARTMAN: It’s really awesome, man. I’ve been in the other studio for a great many number of years and that was great, but this one is just so much nicer. Number one, it’s brand spanking new. It wasn’t an older building that was renovated, it’s brand new. And they got to build it with every specification that we asked for and it’s just very fun. It’s exciting to come to work every day. Also, there’s a cafeteria. We can eat here too. I don’t have to leave the building.
TZN: Have you been drawing on the white boards and chalk boards?
BUTCH HARTMAN: It’s funny, when you work at a place like this and they have those things available to you, you don’t really draw on them as much because you’re always drawing in your office. But yes, I have drawn several times on the chalkboard just to say I did. So they’re still up there.
TZN: You’ve been with Nickelodeon for quite some time. What was the atmosphere like when you created Fairly OddParents?
BUTCH HARTMAN: Back then, for lack of a better word, it was a lot more of an unsure time. Like a Wild West sort of thing because Nickelodeon was still figuring out who they were and they were pretty much trying everything. I’ve got to say, it was a very exciting time. I’m not saying these times aren’t exciting, but back then, I was new to the place, and they would pretty much just try anything. Okay, there’s a show about a sponge, and there’s a show about fairly oddparents, and about this and that, and they would put new stuff on all the time. They were really taking a lot of chances back then.
TZN: Nicktoons had been around for a few years before that, right?
BUTCH HARTMAN: Nicktoons, yeah. Ren & Stimpy came out in ’91, I think, so they didn’t make them at the same studio, they made them all over town. Ren & Stimpy was made in one place and Klasky Csupo made their Rugrats stuff in another place, and then Doug, I think, was made in New York. They weren’t making them all in one place like they are now. There are still a few things made out of house, but Nicktoons had been around since ’91 and the original building opened in ’98. I was there, I got there right when it opened.
BUTCH HARTMAN: It was interesting, because I was at Hanna-Barbera at the time, and I was working on a show called Johnny Bravo for Cartoon Network. Fred Seibert had asked me to pitch a show to him. He had been doing a show called the Oh Yeah! Cartoons show. He came to me and said “Hey, do you want to pitch a show to me?” I said, “I’m kind of loyal to Johnny Bravo, I don’t want to leave.” Then Johnny Bravo ended…the season we were on was going to end, and there were no plans to pick it up, so I was going to be out of a job, and I needed something. So I called Fred and asked, “Fred, do you have any slots left?” and he had one slot left out of 40. So I hung up the phone and I was like, “All right, I’m going to come up with a show right now.” I had a couple other shows that I had thought of and I sort of pitched a little bit, but nothing major.
So I drew a little boy. I drew Timmy Turner for the very first time, colored his hat blue — I colored with markers back then, there were no tablets — and I made Timmy Turner. I said, “It’d be kind of fun if I gave him a power.” I couldn’t do science because Dexter’s Lab was already on, very popular at the time, so I gave him some magic powers. And instead of making him have the magic powers, I gave him a magic friend, so I drew Wanda. And then I thought, “OK, fairy godmother. It’d be kind of cool to see a fairy godfather, we have never seen a fairy godfather before,” so I drew Cosmo. I thought, “Kids love to have secrets,” so I drew them as fish in his room. And then I gave him a villain, Vicky. That whole process took about 20 minutes.
TZN: Wow, really?
BUTCH HARTMAN: People don’t believe me when I say that. I did this, and this, and this, and then I ran it by Fred and he loved it, and then he bought it, and that’s how I got into Nickelodeon.
BUTCH HARTMAN: Very crazy, man.
TZN: Did you ever imagine Fairly OddParents would be so huge?
BUTCH HARTMAN: Yes I did, as a matter of fact. That sounds arrogant to say, but I loved it. I said, “If they give it the proper treatment, this show will do really really well,” and thankfully, it has. But I knew that it would be all in the writing, it would be up to me to make it funny, and I just wanted to make it as funny as possible. That’s kind of where we started with and that’s kind of where we went from there.
TZN: That’s incredible because back then, cartoons weren’t expected to run as long.
BUTCH HARTMAN: I know, and listen, we have been working our butts off for many, many years trying to make the show as funny and clever as possible, and again, it’s all in the writing. It’s keeping the show fresh, but making sure those ratings are up there. I know people love it, but it all just comes down to ratings. The show always did well, and we would always do specials and we would introduce new characters I know a lot of our fans out there keep asking me, “Why are you introducing new characters?” It’s to keep the show fresh. Some of them like the new characters, some don’t, but we just do what we can to make the show stay alive and to keep it fun for people.
TZN: It seems like this show would take up so much of your time and yet you keep creating other shows for Nickelodeon.
BUTCH HARTMAN: It did take up a lot of my time. It took up a ton of my time, but I’m kind of a workaholic, and I don’t like to ever stop, so even though I have one show and I’d be done, I’d want to move on to something else. All the shows take just as much pressure and time and effort, but I really wouldn’t have it any other way. I really just love doing them. And fortunately, I’ve got a great team behind me. It’s not just me that does this.
BUTCH HARTMAN: There were some issues, but I proved that I could do it because I really wanted to do both. I actually interviewed a couple other show runners to do Danny Phantom, and none of them said the right things, so I was like no, I’ll do this. I’ll handle this. Because no one is going to care about it as much as you.
TZN: Did you feel that, as a show, Danny Phantom was a departure from Fairly OddParents?
BUTCH HARTMAN: I did. I thought Fairly OddParents was two eleven-minute episodes per half hour, Danny Phantom was one half-hour story. There was the five-fingered world of Danny Phantom as opposed to the four-fingered world of Fairly OddParents. We would write pretty dramatic stories for Danny Phantom, too. Timmy Turner is 10 years old and Danny Phantom is 14, and it’s a whole giant mega-chasm in the time of a kid. Four years is completely different growth. Timmy worries about lunch, Danny worries about girls, that kind of thing.
TZN: Was the show geared towards the same demographic?
BUTCH HARTMAN: I think so. Nickelodeon put it on with the same intent that it would be for kids six to eleven. This was in the days before Avatar, so there really wasn’t another action show on Nickelodeon at the time. To be honest with you, I think that they liked me and they liked what I could do and they trusted me with a new show, and they just put it on to see what happened with it.
BUTCH HARTMAN: Well that is an interesting story. That was a show that we sort of skirted around the development process with that one. We sort of developed the whole thing on our own, and then when it came time, I pitched them an entire show and they really liked it. I had four other shows I was pitching, plus T.U.F.F. Puppy, which at the time was called S.T.U.D. Puppy, and I had to change the name because if you Google the word “Stud Puppy,” you’re going to get a whole different bunch of pictures you don’t want kids to get. So we changed it to T.U.F.F. Puppy. So I walked in with these five different shows and I said there’s this show and this show, and I sorted of pointed to the S.T.U.D. Puppy poster and I said, “And then there’s that show over there but anyway…” and I kept going. They said, “What’s that show over there?” and I said, “That is Get Smart with a dog right there.” They were like, “That’s great, we love that, let’s make that show” and so I had to run off and make the show. About six months later, I came with a whole, big presentation and they really loved it.
TZN: Funny how things work out, huh?
BUTCH HARTMAN: Very funny, but it shows you just don’t ever stop. This is some advice there for anybody who wants to sell a show. Everything will be pitched a different way, and there’s always different opportunities. Just because one show didn’t get made the same way the first one did doesn’t mean that it won’t get made.
TZN: How long have you had Bunsen is a Beast inside of you?
BUTCH HARTMAN: Well here’s the thing: it’s 2017, and I thought of Bunsen, I think, in 2009. I drew this kid, like a side profile view of a little boy looking at a little monster. Both character designs look way different than they are now, but I just thought, “This is pretty cool” and I did some kind of lettering, I put the words “Bunsen is a Beast”, it just came right out. “Bunsen is a Beast.” I didn’t even think about it. “Okay, I’ll make a poster out of this,” and I put it up in my room at Nick. It sat there for three or four years and then finally an exec came in and said, “Hey what’s that?” and I said that’s a show called Bunsen is a Beast and he goes, “Maybe we should think about doing that one.” So I literally — this was like in 2012 — then I started really actively developing it, and about two years later, I was given the green light to do a storyboard and then slowly but surely did it. They tested it, they liked it, I kept working on the character designs, and now here we are in 2017 it’s going to premiere, and it’s kind of exciting.
TZN: That is pretty exciting.
BUTCH HARTMAN: Very weird, though, that was a whole different process than the T.U.F.F. Puppy or the Danny Phantom or the Fairly OddParents.
BUTCH HARTMAN: I’ve got to say the original concept wasn’t really a concept. It was just a drawing of the two characters standing there and so the concept came about as I was developing the show. I was given a green light to write a pilot, and I thought, “What would happen if a Beast came to a kid’s school, what would his first day be like?” So I just started going from that point. I knew there would be news cameras there, there would be someone there who wouldn’t like him very much, which is where the evil villain Amanda came from, and just kind of went from there. The Beast had to be nice at first, in the pilot, and then something had to happen to actually turn him into a scary beast, and then of course they resolve the problem and everything is fine.
TZN: I love that Bunsen has such alien anatomy.
BUTCH HARTMAN: Yeah, exactly, and the thing was, I had this whole different design for him. He was very reptilian, at first. He was very lizard-like. I did the whole storyboard, and then Russell Hicks, who at the time was leading Nickelodeon, said, “I think you could do better on the character design.” I said, “No I can’t, this is the design.” I wasn’t fighting with him, but I said, “All right, let me give it a try.” So I went home one night and got rid of reptilian, and I went for fuzzy, and the fuzzy one was what sold.
TZN: Is this the kind of character you like because he can have extra arms growing out of him, he can blast confetti, etc?
BUTCH HARTMAN: Yeah, he’s absolutely one of my favorite characters I’ve ever done because I think my philosophy with cartoons is, “If there’s no reason to animate it, it shouldn’t be animated.” This kind of a character completely lends himself to animation. You can do anything with him. It’s almost like Fairly OddParents where this kid has a special magic friend with him, and the friend can do anything the kid can’t do. That’s what I think kids really aspire to. They want to see shows like that where anything can happen. I don’t want to do a show about people going to work in an office, I don’t want to do a show about people sitting at a counter eating hamburgers. I want to do a show about crazy characters that can’t exist in the real world. I can name some of those other shows if you’d like me to.
BUTCH HARTMAN: Guy is great. You know how Tim Burton works with Johnny Depp all the time? Guy Moon is my Johnny Depp. And he’s twice as good looking. More like three times as good looking. When you meet somebody that just does a great job, you just want to keep working with him. I’m not one of those people who’s going to make a change just to make a change. I need to get this stuff done quick and great and I need people to help me do it that way. And if Guy can do it, he never lets me down. He is able to do anything I ask of him. Whether it’s an opera or a crazy three-chord song from the 1960’s, he can go back and forth in the blink of an eye. It’s great.
TZN: What about any animators you continue to work with?
BUTCH HARTMAN: Well, I’ve got my art director George Goodchild who is on my show right now. And I’ve got my story editor, Ray De Laurentis, who has worked with me on T.U.F.F. Puppy and Fairly OddParents. George has worked on everything I’ve ever done with me, and you really find those key people you want to keep in key places. They’re great. We don’t work with a lot of animators here because all of our animation is done out of house. We do all the pre-production and the writing here, but all of the actual animation for Bunsen is done in Canada.
TZN: What was the casting process like?
BUTCH HARTMAN: That was very hard. Very tricky. The easiest one to cast was the villain, Amanda. We cast Kari Wahlgren, who I had just hired to be Chloe on the Fairly OddParents. The new character of Chloe, she was just great, and I said, “I’m doing this new show Bunsen, would do you just do me a favor and read this part real quick?” She just did it and was hilarious and the character drawing had braces so she kind of did a ::talks through teeth: braces like she was spitting a lot and it was very funny, and so we just kept that. Then finding Mikey and Bunsen was a challenge, especially Bunsen. We could not find a Bunsen. We were looking everywhere, and everybody was coming in doing very cute little voices they were small and tiny and they were oh, I’m Bunsen. And they were doing these little sort of elf voices, and it’s like yeah, all right. Honestly, I didn’t know what to do, and this guy walked in named Jeremy Rowley, who he just sort of started talking like a little tiny Jar Jar Binks and he was very funny. And so, I will redeem Jar Jar Binks through this cartoon. The thing about Jeremy, he did a great voice and also he’s a super funny guy. He was at the Groundlings for 15 years, and just very funny. Finding Mikey was tricky because, again, I couldn’t find a good Mikey. Then Ben Giroux had done another pilot for me and I remembered his name. “Who was that other guy? Ben?” He came in and just nailed it. It’s where we found the cast.
BUTCH HARTMAN: Well, you can expect comedy, number one. And we work very very hard on the writing. We don’t just toss them out there and hope people go, “Oh it’s a cartoon, it’s only for kids.” We never look down on our audience. We really really put a ton of effort into the writing. So number one, comedy. Number two, the characters are just great. They are characters that grow on you, they’re going to be characters kids want to follow around no matter where they go. Kids are going to want to have a friend like Bunsen and hopefully maybe even a stuffed Bunsen toy in their house, you never know. Just great characters, great writing, and the show looks fantastic too.
TZN: I like that there are quick, rapid fire jokes and they’re all really funny.
BUTCH HARTMAN: Very cool. Again, it’s that Fairly OddParents style of writing, but this is even more pushed, I think, because…it’s funny, I say it’s pushed, but it’s pushed in a different way. Fairly OddParents was like a joke a second. This is probably a joke every second-and-a-half, but we slowed it down just a little bit because it’s a different show. This is a sweeter show than Fairly OddParents or any of my other shows. There is a lot more sweetness to this show.
TZN: What do you want your audience to take away from this show? What do you want them to say when they say “I like Bunsen is a Beast because…”?
BUTCH HARTMAN: I would say I want them to take away that they love Bunsen is a Beast because they love Bunsen and they love the fact that Mikey and Bunsen have an awesome friendship. The heart of this show is about friendship, and that’s what I want them to take away. Seriously, I was saying to someone earlier, “Out of all the cartoon pairings in the universe, this is going to be one of the strongest ones.” Bunsen and Mikey will be one of the most remembered cartoon duos of all time. Yes, I’m predicting that.
Toonzone News would like to thank Butch Hartman for taking the time to talk with us as well as Sydney Robertson at Nickelodeon for arranging the interview. Bunsen is a Beast is airing now on Nickelodeon, as well as via Nick.com, Nick On Demand, and the Nick App, available for download on iOS, Apple TV, Roku, Android, and Android TV.