Two-time Emmy winner Mark Zaslove has spent nearly 30 years creating stories for children. Among his many projects: The New Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh, Happy Tree Friends, and he co-developed the first new series for Disney Afternoon, TaleSpin.
What made you interested in writing cartoons?
“My Dad was an animator/director/producer of cartoons, all the way back to when he was 15 at Warner Brothers, then to UPA, etc. Growing up, animators, to me, were drunk guys falling down and sleeping on the living room carpet. So when I was doing novels and live-action and needed some bucks, I thought: “Animation? Hey, I can do that!” And so I went to HB and got started.”
What was your favorite cartoon as a kid?
“Johnny Quest! I even ended up with my best bud in junior high and onward being East Indian.”
How do you feel about today’s cartoons vs. cartoons of your youth?
“Depends on if one’s talking about TV versus TV, or theatricals. TV animation has gotten more sophisticated, technically, than the ol’ HB stuff, but when you look at the writing on Top Cat or the Flintstones, they had some major stuff going on. And Jay Ward?!? No one’s that funny these days. Of course, there’s Cowboy Bebop, which is plenty great, but most American TV isn’t very daring or very sophisticated, though they think they are. Theatricals were more artistic and more influenced by classical art and music back then, now, less so. Also, they were trying for more of an adult component. You have to go to Japan and Miyazaki (and his ilk, though he’s the best), to get real theatrical stuff that’s making a creative statement. It still comes down to someone’s vision, and if someone will let them do it. Not so much anymore.”
What’s the worst cartoon ever made?
“Sorry, there are too many for words, and they defy categorization and time period. Maybe Cars, because they should have known better. Or maybe the Punky Brewster cartoon. Hard to say.”
What kinds of notes have you received from networks?
“Everything from the dumb to the stupid to the curious to the ridiculous to the bizarre. Even the helpful (quite often). I once got into a battle on whether I could have a giant cask of gunpowder in Winnie The Pooh (Gopher is a miner and needed to carve out the side of a hill). Nope: imitatable behavior. I guess kids can easily get their hands on casks of gunpowder. So, jokingly, I asked if I could have the character use a thermonuclear device. The answer: yes. Yes I could. Yes, I could have a character on Winnie the Pooh use a thermonuclear device. We never did it, as it clashed with the art style, but I COULD have given Pooh the Bomb, if I so wished.”
How do you keep stories fresh?
“As in all writing: truth. Characters must be true within the context of their own world-rules. I see so much hypocrisy in writing. Writers MAKE their characters do things that are contrary to what a “real” character in those “real”circumstances would do because the writer WANTS something done and doesn’t have a good idea, so he forces the character to do something against their nature. The more “true” the writing in, the fresher it will be.”
Shows you’ve created – are you happy with how they were developed?
“I have no problem developing…but I’ve NEVER seen a show executed half as well as it was developed. Hence, I almost NEVER watch a show once it leaves the studio. Can’t stand it. Makes me hurt to watch something lovely turn to dross. Or worse. I’ve seen a few good episodes here and there, but usually…nada.”
Do you write for the audience or yourself?
“A little of both. You have to entertain both. It’s not about writing “down” or “up,” it’s just knowing the parameters. One simply doesn’t pick the topic of “sexual deviance and role-playing” for 5-year-olds. You’re NOT being smart or trendy, or…God forbid…edgy, by doing a topic that’s not right for your audience. All these writers think if they put adult subjects into a pre-school show, that they’re being great writers. Nope. They’re just not serving the best interests of their audience and being rather narcissistic about it. But one can pick “big” topics: I was once able to get the topic of child suicide into a show, but the metaphor was a wind-up toy allowing its key to run down and not rewinding. It was an important topic, and so many young kids, more than I realized until looking into it, are committing suicide. But it had to be “right” for the audience to pull it off. So: please both.”
Which classic cartoon from the past do you wish you could’ve written?
If I were good enough to write Rocky & Bullwinkle, I’d be mighty proud.
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