Tag Archive: LazyTown


Saying goodbye to Sportacus

To match feature FINANCIAL/LAZYTOWN

It’s the end of an era. Magnus Scheving has announced he will no longer portray Sportacus, the heroic character he created many years ago. LazyTown will continue, and another actor will step into the role. But for multitudes of fans, Magnus will always remain the definitive realization of the blue-suited hero.

As Head Writer for LazyTown, I’ve spent hundreds of hours with Magnus, brainstorming, revising, tweaking – endlessly manipulating story and dialogue in order to create a blueprint for our technically complex production. We have worked around the clock – in offices, at his home, in cars, on planes, and in many countries.

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Magnus insisted on change after change, never settling for what he felt was only good – he wanted great. That didn’t mean we agreed on everything. But at the end of the day, he was the man who had to carry the larger burden of transforming the script into a television show. There were so many moving parts involved, and his responsibilities didn’t end on the last page of the scripts, as mine did.

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One of the more impressive things I witnessed was in watching Magnus give epic recaps of our long story sessions. We would work on script beats for three, four, even five hours. Mind numb, brain exhausted, all I wanted to do was go listen to music or otherwise clear my head.

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But Magnus would say, “Okay, let’s go through it again.” And he would launch into a microscopic breakdown of every single detail – even elements that were only mentioned casually or tossed around as asides. What I wrote down to remember, he kept in his head. And he did this for dozens of scripts simultaneously. It wasn’t unusual for him to bring up an element of a script six months later, that had been considered but rejected at the time. He was able to keep that detail in his data base for future reference – after I had long since deleted it from mine.

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Another important skill he possesses is an ability to maintain a constant connection to the big picture. By that, I mean as the creator of LazyTown, Magnus had plans in mind for live shows, movies, props – even theme parks – that our script writing needed to support. If we threw around an idea about a new gadget, he considered its use in the context of what our needs might be, brand-wise, three years down the road.

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Sportacus is a superhero and thus, a man of action and not necessarily words. The last thing a superhero needs to do is talk endlessly about what he’s going to do. He simply needs to do it. So his character wasn’t always given the most interesting lines of dialogue. Still, a quick review of past episodes will demonstrate that Magnus always instilled his on-camera time with energy, superhero savvy, and kid-relatable wisdom.

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The most challenging aspect of writing for Sportacus was in coming up with the opening sequence of the show – Sportacus alone in his airship. There, he would go about his home life, preparing food, cleaning out his sports closet, etc. But our mandate was to create mini-stories that would show how inventive and sports-related his actions were. So we would turn a Christmas tree decoration into a manic gymnastic display. Making fruit salad became a master class in juggling and vaulting.

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For every story idea that eventually became an episode, we pitched dozens that were rejected. Some of them even made their way to script stage but for one reason or another, they were deemed unworkable. And some scripts needed dozens of rewrites – the most being 47 drafts (I won’t mention which show required that many revisions). We created tales of dragons, moon landings, snow monsters and birthday parties. Sportacus has been made invisible, sent into sugar meltdowns, trapped in a trash compactor, and he has come face to face with a menacing robot. In bringing these stories to life, Magnus has done thousands upon thousands of jumps, spins, kicks, flips – and he has done his “signature” Sportacus move uncountable times.

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So while he will no longer wear the costume of Sportacus, Magnus’ time as the blue elf will endure. The other Sportacii that will take on the role will be amazing and entertaining, no doubt. They will each bring something unique to the character, and will find a way to make it theirs. LazyTown will continue, in one form or another, for a long time.

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But there’s only one first of anything. In creating and defining the role of Sportacus, Magnus Scheving has given kids around the world a role model for good health and fair play. His efforts will resonate for years to come – wherever there are kids who love to laugh and play, along with a slightly above-average superhero.

 

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Bússi Sigurðsson is at the producing helm of one of TV’s premiere brands – LazyTown. He oversees several hundred dedicated production staff members, ensuring that thousands of moving parts somehow come together to create the hyper-kinetic series.

Where does your core responsibility lie in producing a show for kids?  

 “Making sure that we remain true to the core concept of bettering the lives of children. A show like LazyTown has a special responsibility. We’re an entertainment property for sure, but we’re more than that. We’ve asked parents to believe in us as a safe, responsible partner in helping to educate their kids about healthy choices. That’s something that every one of us feels, from the show’s creator to the newest employees who join us. It’s a personal mission for all of us.”

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How do you balance the needs of budget and schedule with the creative content of the show? 

 “It’s not easy. If we had our preference, we’d probably like to take a few weeks to create every episode. They’re simply that complicated, on a production level. We have established a certain look and feel that audiences have come to expect, and we don’t want to lower our standards, regardless of budgetary and schedule restraints. We have a first-rate team who can come up with a solution to any problem that arises, and often the most creative answers come when we’re in a pinch and we need a way to reach the goal line. We love big ideas, we love telling larger-than-life stories – but we also want to be good partners with Turner, bearing in mind that this is, after all, a business.”

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What is your proudest achievement in the entertainment industry?

 “Lazytown is the top – it is hands-down the premiere project of my professional life. I´m really proud of being a part of this fantastic show with such a great message. And the team is the best I’ve worked with.”

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There are so many platforms that present kids’ TV shows – laptops, Ipads, etc. Do you take these things into consideration when producing a show?

 “Yes we do – especially here in Iceland, where we’re all pretty mad for new technology. But a good story is still the key. The show has elements that can be tailored to different platform needs. but it’s not our main concern. That said, we are always trying to think ahead, to anticipate where the entertainment industry is headed. We produce live theater shows, apps, music CDs, talking books, and many others. LazyTown is a brand that really lends itself to multiple platforms. But again, without a good story, well told, we’d be lost. We place enormous emphasis on our story development – and we have gone nearly fifty drafts of some scripts, in an effort to make sure they are just right.”

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You work on shows that are seen all around the world. Does that ever seem incredible to you, or is it all just part of the industry now?

 “It’s something that a kid growing up in Iceland would never really imagine. This is a small market, and despite the fact that there are world-class production facilities and exceptionally-trained professionals, LazyTown’s penetration into the global market has exceeded anything I could have imagined.”

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What are your biggest surprises about producing a globally-viewed show?

 “Having such an active fan base in all age groups. Our fans are incredibly loyal, they start online forums about the show, they are in contact with us here, they incorporate our healthy message into their own lives. It’s hard to imagine another show that both kids and parents willingly accept into their homes on this level.”

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Do you get many chances to exhale and say, “That’s a perfect show,” or do you always feel that there’s something else that needs to be done?

 “We haven’t done the perfect show yet and not sure we ever will. You can always do better, there’s almost always another detail, another edit, another special effect you wish you could have time for. Part of being a producer of a show like this is learning that, at some point, I have to make the call to send the product out the door. We have partners and obligations, and in order to continue to keep making these shows, we will always honor our commitments.”

 A favorite kids’ show from your childhood?

 “Felix the Cat” really early on but then “Tom & Jerry.” I still love them!”

 

 

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Emmy award winning director Steve Feldman has worked with talent as varied as Bill Nye, Linda Ellerbee, Bill Maher and Elmo for PBS, CBS, Disney, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, Comedy Central, MSNBC and Discovery. On the music side, he has worked with REM, Diana Krall, KT Tunstall, Garth Brooks, Los Lonely Boys, Sir James Galway and many others.  His directorial work on “Sesame Street” earned him an Emmy Award and contributed to nine other Emmy nominations. His other credits include the ‘Nick News, Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, The Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss, Lazy Town, and the debut musical theatre production for Walden Media, Rock Odyssey.

Recently, Mr. Feldman completed a series of seven programs for School Zone Publishing titled Charlie and Company, scheduled for release Fall, 2013. In addition he has produced and directed documentaries on prison life for MSNBC and is currently developing a documentary feature about the life of David Berkowitz, the “Son of Sam”.  He is also developing a children’s music program and a series of “Shakespeare Musicals” for Nashville Public Television.  Recently, he produced all video content and provided design supervision for two web-based projects: Now Debate This, funded by the Templeton Foundation, was a teenage debate website that wrangled with the question. “Who was the better President, Washington or Lincoln?” and Biblemesh.com, a video based learning website covering the biblical story. He also created video content for the web with acclaimed flautist, Sir James Galway.

Based in Nashville, The Sam Hill Group develops and produces media content for a variety of audiences and platforms. Each project we undertake must resonate with truth, and benefit audiences with a deeper understanding of our relationship and responsibility to each other.

Feldman lives in Nashville with his wife Leah, daughters Mary and Sarah, Daisy the cat, Poteet the cockatiel, Sally the cocker spaniel and Sam Hill, a perpetually smiling, standard poodle.

Do you approach directing differently when you are working on a children’s show?  

“Not really. Directing children’s material has dominated my career. As a result I’ve found an approach that works well no matter who the material targets.”

 

Does education play a role in how you approach a show? Is it anything like being a teacher?

“The underlying principal for me, is communication, not education. I want to realize the script to inform and illuminate an idea for the viewer, to leave them with an idea to think about and hopefully apply. A teacher tries to accomplish the same goal, but has the benefit of a consistent, face-to-face interaction with their student. The interaction with a screen is obviously different.”

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There are so many competing shows for the eyes of children – have you found what you consider to be a universal appeal for the audience?

“Humor, color, movement, music and well defined characters.” 

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Are there any properties from your childhood that you wish you had a chance to work on?

“Captain Kangaroo, Kukla, Fran and Ollie and Laurel and Hardy, to name a few.”

 

What is your definition of “family entertainment?”  Does it have to include positive messages?

“Children’s programming, by my definition, is not really family entertainment. I wish we could really create programs that a family might watch as a unit, but the networks cater to smaller niche markets, preschool, tweens, etc. In some sense, the musical competition programs, like American Idol, appeal to a larger audience, and are more easily viewed by a family. Why? Because they entertain, inspire and tell a story. I would also add to that definition, any program that can stimulate a family to think and discuss.” 

 

Given your extensive experience in the business, do you have a feel for where the industry is headed?

“I think it will continue to program towards smaller niche markets, but as expected, only if it’s highly profitable. Oddly, when “cable programming” started as a response to the networks, we heard the term “narrowcasting” enter our lexicon. Well, the first cable stations were all network clones.  Now the plethora of cable channels really do narrowcast, and many of the critical and financial results are positive. I suppose that will continue.

Clearly, what we do will no longer be restricted to a TV. Legitimate programming, in all formats, will continue to show up on the web, tablet and mobile devices. That’s an exciting development that will democratize the industry, like it has music and publishing. We’re also becoming an “on demand” culture in our viewing habits. Specially scheduled programs don’t resonate as much. I suppose the next form that could be explored might be in the realm of surprise programs. A program that airs after only a 24 hour web/media blast that catches the world by storm. Could we keep it secret?”

 

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From guiding pop culture icons through complex dance and music productions, to helming beloved TV series, Director Jonathan Judge has been the driving force behind an amazing number of groundbreaking projects. Having risen through the ranks by taking on nearly every production job possible, he is at the top of the Rolodex when the time comes to hire a director, especially when a new series pilot needs a steady hand. His credits include Blues Clues, The Let’s Go Show, LazyTown, Johnny and the Sprites, Imagination Movers, The Naked Brothers Band, Tosh.0, Bar Karma, Zeke and Luther, The Fresh Beat Band, Supah Ninjas, Fred: The Show, Camp Fred, Big Time Rush, See Dad Run, Swindle and The Thundermans. Somewhere along the way he has found time to become a husband (to Costume Designer Chris Field) and father to energetic twin sons. He has been nominated for four Emmys and has won a BAFTA for Best Direction.

 

You have directed all kinds of projects, including movies and music videos. Obviously the energy level required changes a lot depending on the scene – how do you maintain control over the pace and emotional content? 

Each project has its own tone, its own overall pace.  Its very important to establish that, be very conscious of it before you begin.  Using music, other movies, even photographs to find that energy level you want for the project is a thing I like to do in preproduction.  If it’s a project for hire then I have to communicate that level to the EP’s or the client or the band.  Then you have to get that across to the DP, the production designer and the actors and finally the editor.  I worked with someone a few years back who would always say “hear the music of the scene.”  And I often use that especially with young actors on set – I’ll sing out the score as we rehearse so they know how I am planning on cutting this together.  It helps a lot with action and comedy.  The rhythm, the beat, the silences and the crescendos.  Now within a scene or a commercial, that is easier to maintain – we are talking 30 seconds to 4 minutes.  Over the course of a movie there will be a bunch of scenes, all with their unique energy and rhythm – some slow, some fast some incredibly dynamic.  But the challenge is to keep in mind the overall picture.  And often in editing you find you missed that but luckily, if you shoot smart, and get choices from your actors, you can manufacture that in the edit. And there is a built-in filter, a muscle that gets stronger the more you shoot and edit where something just doesn’t ring true on set.  It’s off,  and often I cant verbalize it but I’ll go over it with the actor, DP, etc. and we’ll find what it ringing false (not just in terms of emotion but in rhythm, in comedy and fix it).”

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You’ve been very successful in bringing new shows to the public. What are some of the key elements you aim for when you give life to a new project?

“It’s so energizing to bring a new project to life.  I love working off of a vision from the writer and creator.  The early process is sitting down and hearing their inspirations and then giving them my thoughts.  And then it’s a calvacade of references and inspirations – I’ll bring up clips of old sitcoms, movies, commercials, music videos, paintings photographs.  The key elements to any project are – #1 the story and characters, then the look, the pace and the tone. The style of shooting, Most shows or movies have been written but no one has really laid out the overall vision of the final project.  A house has been sold, but it’s only the blueprint on paper, an intangible idea of the house.  And my job with the other keys is to build that house and get it to look as much like, or hopefully better than the buyer/writer/EP imagined.  Many people can’t visualize –  or even after you discuss what you want to do they are not on the same page.  Preproduction – discussing, walking through sets, talking about looks, and as much as possible having visual references are essential.  And then something magical usually happens on the set when you have a group of dedicated and incredibly talented people all working towards a common goal.  Things you never even planned but because you put the key elements together and had a vision – they creatively erupt.”

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 Is there anything you learned in school or in your earliest efforts that you keep in the back of your mind as you work now?

“There are some key things I learned in school that I relearn all the time.  Start your story 5 pages later, get CU’s of your actors no matter what.  Small but technical things.  But I learned, and continue to learn the most from editing.  In editing you see everything you did well and everything you did not, or you failed to do while directing.  You keep making mental notes: hold shots longer, start shots overlapping, get various reactions or line readings.  You also start to learn what coverage you don’t need and can economize your shooting approach.  I like to shoot a lot of coverage.  But i also use most of that coverage.”

“Big thing to learn – if you communicate well and have the right people they will make you look way better than you could yourself.  Listen to others but have a clear idea of what you want, because many people have their own ideas.  Many people on set may question what you are doing, but if you know and can communicate clearly, they can help bring your vision to life.”

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 What do you expect from actors? Do you prefer that they come with a full game plan in mind? Or do you like to experiment on the set?

“I like actors who have thought about the material, and are trying things.  A full game plan is fine – preparation is key.  But flexibility is even more important.  They may have an idea in mind when they arrive on set and it might not be in my, or the EP’s or the clients vision.  Then I need to be able to work with them so we can both capture that vision.  I like to rehearse a little before shooting because I am rarely given the luxury of schedules which allow a lot of time to experiment on set.  In rehearsal we can try everything  and often I do, even if we think it’s wrong so that we can settle on what we like and what we want to do in front of the cameras.  And then of course I like to play on set, to shake them up, have them try new things. I just want to make sure we got what we intended and then try something different.”  What are some of the daily challenges a director faces? Besides budget and scheduling realities, are there things that might surprise someone looking to become a director?

“One cannot underplay the realities of time and scheduling on a director.  If you do not get the restrictions, if you do not plan for contingencies you will not get what you want.  Working inside those boxes AND being creative and true to your vision is the challenge.

I’ve been surprised at how many people who hire you do not really know what it is a director does.  I think Cocteau called making a film a sinking ship and it’s a little true.  You start out with an idea and a plan and you take on water very quickly.  I have my best case scenario (which does happen) and then the good plan and then the worst case scenario plan – we dig in and we need to get this to tell the story.  You never know what little thing will suck up your time.  A prop, a late actor, rain, anything can affect your day and thus your episode or movie or video.  You have to try and make yourself bulletproof with your plan but also be able to change the tires on a movie vehicle.”  Wow, I mixed a lot of metaphors there.

What was your favorite TV show when you were a kid?

“I loved 3,2,1 Contact, The A-team.  I loved Dukes of Hazzard and in high school I loved Moonlighting.”

 

 

 

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Inspired by the legendary Jim Henson as a child, David Matthew Feldman has devoted his entire career to the art of puppetry. From his formative years at The Puppet Company in New York, to his earliest television work on PBS’s Between the Lions, David has given life to dozens of characters to the delight of audiences both young and old. His stint as the excitable Mayor Milford Meanswell in the hit series LazyTown has propelled him to international stardom. And most recently, David has co-created a new PBS series, Oh Noah!

 

 What drew you into a career in puppetry?  Were you a fan of puppet shows as a kid?

“I was a kid in the 70s, early 80s, which was the perfect time to be a Muppet fan.  But I don’t like to use the word “fan” there, because I think it cheapens it.  It was a very personal thing for me.  Still is.  You know when people ask you who influenced your life the most?  For me it’s always been an easy answer.  Without Jim Henson, I would not have become puppeteer.   I just finished that biography by Brian Jay Jones, and he spends a couple of pages talking about Jim’s ancestors, and I’m thinking, wow, if that great-great-grandfather didn’t marry that great-great-grandmother, I wouldn’t be sitting here in Iceland doing puppets for a TV show.”

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“But as Muppet-centric as my life was, I didn’t really think I would grow up to become a puppeteer.  I enjoyed making and performing puppets at home, for my little sister, but I wasn’t one of those “performer” kids, doing school plays and joining the chorus and stuff like that.  I was more comfortable at a desk, or just in my room, and I wanted to be a writer.  It wasn’t until a course in college—where we had to do a puppet performance as part of a Shakespeare class—that I realized I had something to offer—that this thing that I did had value beyond just entertaining myself and my little sister.  I really got a kick out of the class’s reaction, and I decided from then on that I would become a writer and a puppeteer.”

 

People often lose themselves in their imaginations when watching a puppeteer perform his or her art.  Would that be the best compliment you could receive?

“It’s pretty good.  What else ya got?”

“What you might be getting at—and what would be the best compliment—is if you forget it’s a puppet altogether.  That’s our job.  The Mayor of LazyTown, for example, is this big, cumbersome thing with so many challenges and limitations that it’ll make your head spin, but I don’t want you to be aware of any of that.  All I want you to see is a guy, with two legs and two feet (even though they’re not usually there), who lives in this place called LazyTown.”

 

Do you consider what you do a theatrical skill, or a mechanical skill with an artistic element?

“Anything mechanical (like pulling a lever) is in service of the art.  So, no, I don’t think of it as mechanical.  It’s as mechanical as writing is, because you have to use a keyboard.”

 

You’ve recently had great success with your own show on PBS, “Oh Noah!”  How does writing differ from your stage work?

“Basically, writing and puppeteering are very similar.  They flex the same muscles (except, of course, for the physical muscles involved in performing).  In both, you’re trying to gracefully communicate ideas—it all comes from the same part of the brain, I think—that part of your brain that’s still in the bedroom you grew up in, playing with puppets and Star Wars figures and coming up with stories.”

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“There are differences, of course.  A big one for me is that performance is done in real time.  While writing one minute of screen time can take who-knows-how-long, performing one minute of screen time takes…one minute (minus, of course, any rehearsal or preparation).   This is good and bad.  The do-it-now nature of performance is good as an exercise in letting go of the cerebral and trusting your instincts (a lesson for writing, too)—and especially good when you’re happy with the results.  But puppeteering is about more than just “being”; it’s a craft (it’s about controlling the puppet the same way writing is about controlling words and ideas), and the writer in me often wants just one more take to go back and edit and fine-tune the performance the way I’d like.  Fortunately, at LazyTown, they usually give it to me.”

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“Another big difference is the kind of collaboration—the back-and-forth of it all, which is the joy of it for me.  For the past several years, I’ve been lucky enough to write with Louise Gikow.  Writing with Louise (just the two of us, shaping ideas, hammering them out onto a computer screen) is a singular experience.  That kind of back-and-forth is very different from the experience of collaborating with a set full of puppeteers and crew people, each pulling you in a different direction.  I love doing both.”

 

There are considerable requirements to begin and sustain a career in the arts.  What was the most daunting when you first started out, and what do you find are the key challenges now that you have found success?

“The hardest part was the how.  How do you become a puppeteer on a television show?  How do you write and sell your own scripts?  How do you get there?  Everybody has their own advice—their own anecdotes—but everybody’s stories are different because everybody does it differently.  That’s the beauty of it, and the challenge of it, too.  There’s no path; nobody left a trail of breadcrumbs for you.”

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“Nobody ever asked a doctor, “So, how did you get to be a doctor?”  Yes, it’s a tremendously difficult thing—you have to climb one hell of a staircase—but the stairs are there to climb.  When you’re in the arts, you have to build your own staircase.

And that never ends.  Unless you have enough power to greenlight things, you’re always trying to figure out new paths—new ways to get there.  I’m sure that the path that brings me to my next project (whatever that will be) will look very different from the ones that brought me to LazyTown or Noah.  In the end, it will give me new anecdotes to tell.”

 

As someone who has found a creative outlet, do you find that being inventive for a living makes you less likely to create on your “off” hours, or is that muscle always working?

“Writing is about ideas, so I don’t think there ever are any “off” hours.  (Isn’t this true for anyone who is really passionate about what they do?)  New ideas come up unexpectedly, and old ideas have a way of just being there—like a ball of clay you keep rolling around until you get something you like.  Often, I’ll think of something, quickly type it out, and send it off to Louise, as if to say, “Here, it’s your problem now.”  (Then she finds a way to make it better.)

But generally, when I’m not working, my creativity is directed at (and inspired by) my kids.  Playing with them, making things with them, even just talking to them—these are the best ways to be creative.”

 

   

 

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2005: Iceland – It was another long day of production on the LazyTown sound stage. In fact, it was the start of the next day, as we continued our creative brainstorming session past midnight. Everyone was packing up their belongings and heading home for a few hours’ sleep. There would be yet another early call for the crew and cast to assemble for that days’ shoot.

The phone rang. Usually, the answering machine would pick up the call, but for some reason, this time it didn’t. A colleague, Dean Koocher, picked up the phone.

On the other line was a gentleman named Rob Stock, calling from Belleville, Illinois. Rob didn’t know it was the middle of the night in Iceland. He had tracked down the office number and simply called, hoping to connect with someone. He said that his young daughter, Jenny, was a big fan of LazyTown. He had scoured the local stores, and had checked online, but was having a hard time finding any merchandise for sale. In particular, he was trying to find a “Stephanie” costume for Jenny to wear.

Dean knew that my home in the US wasn’t far from Belleville, and he put me on the phone with Rob, thinking I might be able to help.

But LazyTown had only debuted on Nickelodeon a few months earlier, and there was simply no merchandise available at the retail level just yet. Rob asked if there was anything else we might have – photos, or possibly even autographs.

Rob explained that Jenny had been diagnosed with leukemia. She was in the middle of long months of chemotherapy sessions. They were prolonged and brutal, and young Jenny’s energetic, normally upbeat personality was being drained.

One of the few things that made her smile – a bright spot on chemo days – was watching episodes of LazyTown. She was charmed by the stories, the silly humor, its can-do spirit. Most importantly, it gave her something to look forward to. Instead of dreading the hours spent having toxic medicines course through her body, she could find some relief by focusing her attention on the antics of Sportacus, Stephanie and the LazyTown gang.

As it happened, I was due to make a trip home, which was fairly close to where Rob and his wife Greta took Jenny for chemo treatment. I gathered autographs from the cast members, took tons of photos, and found some props that the production graciously allowed me to have. And I took the whole package to Jenny.

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She greeted me with a tremendous hug that belied her fragile physical state. The smile on her face lit up the room as her parents and nurses watched her unwrap one-of-a-kind mementos from her favorite show. She thrilled at the personal notes from the cast, and she seemed to gain energy not from the gifts themselves, but from the kindness of those who had given them.

Rob and Greta beamed, filled with joy at seeing their daughter so happy. They had been through grueling months, and there would be many more to come. But in that moment, their weight seemed lifted.

Eventually, Jenny’s strong will and her unbreakable spirit – along with top-notch medical care and the loving support of her family – beat back the leukemia. Jenny grew healthy and was even able to travel to Iceland where she met her heroes on the very sound stage where the episodes were produced. Jenny returned to school and, last year, she graduated from high school with top honors, well on her way to what will surely be an amazing life.

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Because of the persistence and dedication of Rob Stock and her whole family, Jenny found the strength to survive her illness. And LazyTown played a small part in her recovery, thanks to a Dad who wouldn’t give up until he found a way to make his daughter smile.

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No doubt there are many stories of children connecting to their favorite shows during times of crisis. But this one feels special; it’s almost unbelievable the good that came from what might otherwise be considered a run-of-the-mill kids’ TV show. A production shot in the middle of a lava field somewhere in Iceland went halfway around the world, into the heart of a little girl with a desperate illness. That, combined with a very determined and loving father, produced something that feels an awful lot like a miracle.

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Hidden lessons in LazyTown

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By now, most viewers know LazyTown for its messages of healthy living, balanced meals and positive attitude. Kids around the world have responded to these messages and have incorporated new behaviors into their daily routines. There are measurable increases in the amount of water that kids drink every day, motivated by the show’s hero, Sportacus.

But we also strive to include helpful messages to kids within the context of story lines having nothing to do with being healthy. We scatter those messages in a way that is hopefully seamless; kids can spot preaching a mile away, and we can’t afford to be heavy-handed with those ideas.

I chose a random LazyTown episode – “Scavenger Hunt” – and pulled out several key lessons that kids can learn simply by watching. They’re simple and not terribly deep – but because they’re delivered with basic honesty by trusted characters, they have a chance to be incorporated into the everyday lives of young viewers.

1. Turning an activity into a challenge can make it more fun

By example, Sportacus shows kids that any kind of household chore can be transformed into a game. His attitude is positive, he has a smile on his face, and he throws himself into his activities with enthusiasm. Parents can entice kids into brushing their teeth by inviting them to do it while standing on one leg, or while humming a tune. Suddenly, a boring chore brings a smile.

2. Recycling saves energy and helps keep your home clean

The Mayor of LazyTown and Stephanie explain – in a non-preaching manner – what recycling is and why it’s good for our environment. It’s a brief moment in a very busy, active show, but it presents recycling as a routine behavior that we should all adopt.

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3. Develop strategies toward an objective

The show demonstrates that, just because something is hard, or even seemingly impossible, kids can find a way to achieve when they think things through and adapt to new challenges.

4. Toys should go back where they belong when playtime is over

Parents can relate!

5. Garbage goes into the bin, not on the floor

Again, this idea isn’t presented in a preaching manner, it’s something that simply makes sense. No one wants to live in a messy environment, and the show demonstrates that taking an extra moment to clean up is well worth it.

6. You’re never too old to play

Spoken by our resident hero, Sportacus – the idea gives kids an important foundation they can carry with them their whole lives.

7. Balance your sweets with healthy food

Of course, this is a standard LazyTown message, but it’s important to restate it often. We are not attempting to demonize any particular behavior, especially for kids who have a hard time controlling themselves at younger ages. We want them to keep in mind that sweets are fine – in moderation and when balanced with healthy, energizing foods. Kids really can learn to find as much joy in healthy foods as they do in candy.

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8. Fruits and vegetables give us energy

Every episode delivers the unmistakable message that Sportacus gains his powers from eating “sports candy.” Our version of Popeye eating spinach, Sportacus tells the kids at home, again and again, he increases his strength from healthy foods. This gives parents a perfect opportunity to bring that message into the home’s daily routine.

9. Teamwork makes every task easier and more enjoyable

The kids in LazyTown show this simple message in nearly every episode. Teamwork is a concept that must be developed – working with others who may see the world differently, combining conflicting agendas, finding a way to agree on a goal. We hide the messages within the story but we always make sure to complete the circle by explicitly stating: difficult things can be achieved when everyone works together.

10. Go outside!

It may seem counterproductive for a TV show to encourage kids to leave their televisions to go outside, but that’s what LazyTown does. A typical episode of LazyTown takes place in exterior locations for least 90 percent of the time. Being locked up in a room, playing video games, on a beautiful sunny day is discouraged. We try to show that there’s a lot to do and see outside, things that no TV show or video game could match for variety and beauty.

Take a seat and watch a random episode of a kids’ TV show with your child – see if you can find some of the positive, hidden messages, and then talk them over. Your child may have spotted some that you missed!

Writing for Robbie Rotten

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A rubbery face. Physical grace. Comedy gold all over the place.

That’s Stefan Karl, the gifted actor who plays Robbie Rotten in the global hit series LazyTown. Stefan is a classically trained actor who has appeared on stage in dozens of serious roles, as well as performing the Grinch in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, in sold-out theatres all over the United States.

But he’s best known for his antics as the lovable villain, Robbie Rotten, whose only goal is to return LazyTown back to its formerly lazy ways. To accomplish this, Robbie employs a menu of outrageous, Snidely Whiplash, bad guy behavior – from sending his nemesis, Sportacus, into outer space in a rocket, to hauling the town’s apple supply away in the belly of a flying dragon.

But Robbie must never be seen as evil. Toddlers watch the show, and so whatever trouble he causes, it must be comedic, first and foremost. In lesser acting hands, that could easily produce cliched mugging to the camera and repetitive (and boring) faux-menace. But Stefan possesses an extraordinary capacity to find those details that transform a silly monologue into a thing of beauty.

As head writer for LazyTown, I’ve been lucky to create many fun disguises for Robbie. And the real satisfaction comes from knowing that, whatever I come up with, Stefan will bring it to life with panache.

One role in particular is a good illustration of his talent: in 2004, we produced over 30 episodes of LazyTown. Each show contained choreographed action sequences, a music video, dance numbers, special effects and puppets mingling with live actors. There was barely time to breathe or think straight. Our schedule was brutal, and the actors were asked to learn scripts that were constantly being revised – often at the last minute.

We found ourselves in the uncomfortable position of having to cancel a planned shoot for the following week. After spending the entire weekend attempting to solve our problem, we realized that we had no material to shoot on Monday morning. An entire crew, assembled and waiting, would have nothing to do. That’s an expensive dilemma.

I came up with a quick solution – one that could only be realized with Stefan Karl on the team. I stayed up all Sunday night writing a new script called Miss Roberta. By 7 a.m. on Monday, the script was copied and distributed. The costume department designed a fast – and brilliant – disguise, transforming Robbie into the very proper and very funny Miss Roberta.

Stefan quickly digested the script, found its core, and proceed to play the hell out of that part. If you ever get a chance to watch the show, you may have a greater appreciation for his skills, knowing how little time he had to prepare. It’s a delightful, hilarious turn, and it’s a role I hope we can one day revisit.

Here are some classic images of Robbie Rotten in his various disguises, as portrayed by Stefan Karl:

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