In a children’s TV landscape once ruled by Barney and the Teletubbies, an 8-year-old aardvark has quietly and gently risen to the top spot. “Arthur,” television’s longest-running animated children’s series, is preparing for its 17th Season on PBS.
Before their panel at the 2013 New York Comic Con, Marc Brown, creator of “Arthur,” and WGBH Executive Producer Carol Greenwald talked about the character that tackles both head lice and cancer. WGBH-TV in Boston produces content that’s shown nationwide on PBS.
What was the inspiration for the “Arthur” book series?
Marc Brown: It started in 3rd grade. I didn’t realize that all of my friends, my teachers, my family, would become my work. Some of them know about it, some don’t. There’s only been one legal entanglement.
It started that way. Then as more families got to know Arthur, they shared their own experiences with us, which became television shows and books. It’s a show that families easily relate to. I was speaking to a mother at a book-signing recently and she said “You know, my kids watched ‘Arthur’ and now they are off to college. And I still find myself watching ‘Arthur.’ Is there something wrong with me?'”
I would say there’s nothing wrong with her. I still like to watch reruns of “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood” when I have a chance.
Carol Greenwald: Mr. Rogers was our first guest star. We animated him; we decided we wanted to do guest stars. Marc and I and the writer, Ken Scarborough, all decided that Mr. Rogers was the guest star we wanted to go after first. I think it was Season 2.
Marc Brown: In fact, [Fred Rogers] had sent me an idea for a TV project right before his death that he wanted to collaborate on. I’m really sorry that we didn’t get to do that.
It was such a shock when Fred Rogers passed away.
Marc Brown: He was way too young. He was the same weight he was in high school, and every day he had an apple for lunch. He went swimming with his friends. The day we met him, I got there late and the woman at reception said “Just go down to the end of the hall and wait in that room behind the door.”
I opened the door and there was Fred on his sofa. He said “Oh, Marc, I’ve been waiting for you.” Our first conversation was about death. He always called it “Going to Heaven.” He certainly earned his place up there.
He’s part of the reason I trusted PBS and WGBH with “Arthur” because I used to use PBS to help me as a parent when I needed time to do my work and have my kids in the room. I knew that I could trust what they were watching.
So “Arthur” continues to roll merrily along on PBS?
Carol Greenwald: The new season starts in November. That’s Season 17, and we started work on Season 18 already. We figure we can at least get to 20-maybe beyond!
When you come up with an idea for “Arthur,” from idea to story to animation, how long does it take to put an episode together?
Carol Greenwald: It takes about 6 to 8 months. We do a whole big brainstorm with the writers at the beginning of the season, and then we start writing. Then, once we have a bunch of episodes written, we work with the animators. That process is about 6 months; the writing takes about two months. It’s almost a full year, but it’s a cycle. We give it to PBS and they roll it out when they are ready.
Marc Brown: I think “Arthur” is one of the most highly-scrutinized television programs that reaches a family and children. We are so lucky to work with the writers that we work with and the people who check everything. They want to make sure that everything we give children is correct and helpful to them.
It seems that kids really identify with Arthur and his friends.
Marc Brown: “Arthur” has never been all about Arthur; it’s a real ensemble cast. It gives children more opportunities to identify with different characters, and they are just as important as Arthur is in the show.
Carol Greenwald: One of the things we’ve done, for example, is have a character that’s autistic. [We’re] actually writing a new show about him this year. The letters we get from families of kids with autism are just so moving because they don’t see themselves on television. We try to normalize what it’s like, both for the kid and the other people around them so they understand what’s going on.
Especially for a big brother or sister who doesn’t understand why their sibling gets all the attention?
Carol Greenwald: Exactly. And it also gives that kid the chance to say to his friends: “Here, watch this show. This is what my brother is going through.”