Guest contributor alert! Chris co-created the animated show Dan vs., which ran on The Hub Network from 2011-2013 and graciously agreed to tell us (and you) the tale of how it all began.
Part 1: Better Lucky Than Good
About ten years ago I took a poll of every working screenwriter I knew. I asked how they got their first writing job. Almost every one told me some version of “Someone I know is friends with the showrunner and got my script to him.” (And yeah, always “him.” That’ll be a different blog post, written by somebody else.)
Anyway, short version: If you don’t already know how you’re breaking into writing (college roommate is a network executive, family friend is a showrunner, drove out from Harvard with a writers’ assistant gig already lined up) you probably won’t get very far. But everybody likes to pretend it’s a meritocracy, because that lets the people on the inside feel like they deserve to be there and the people on the outside feel like they have a shot at getting in. Which they don’t. Unless lightning strikes.
And for me, lightning struck.
Dan Mandel (a talented actor and friend from high school) had an idea for a live-action, hard-R rated sitcom about a misanthrope who was constantly warring with everybody around him. Dan vs. the Mailman. Dan vs. the Neighbor. Low budget. Lots of F-bombs. Then my agent said Adult Swim was listening to pitches. I asked Dan if he thought Dan vs. could be a cartoon show, and he said “If you can sell it, you can make it a puppet show for all I care.”
So after writing a couple of episodes, my agent got the scripts to the one exec he knew in animation. Sean Gorman worked at a production company called The Hatchery, and he liked our script enough to option it. His boss, Margaret Loesch (you will see this name again) set up a bunch of pitches. Fox, Cartoon Network, MTV, Disney XD, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, FX… Everybody said no. So that was that.
Then a year or two later, everybody in the cartoon business got fired or quit at the same time. (It happens.) And we went around and pitched all the new people. And Cartoon Network said yes! So naturally we thought our show would be on Cartoon Network.
Instead, we spent a year in what’s known as “development hell.”
Terrible notes, stupid power plays. Meeting with our executive was like meeting with a Ben Stiller sketch. And apparently the legal team over there was just as dysfunctional as their creative team, because Margaret Loesch mentioned several times that she had settled terms with CN, only to have the contracts show up with different terms than what had been negotiated.
So that was a year. Imagine getting a call every three or four weeks and being asked “Why don’t you guys come into the office next week so we can spit on you?” Of course, we said “Happy to!”
The lightning struck after this year of development hell. Margaret Loesch called us and said “They’re starting a new network, and they’ve asked me to be President and CEO. I’m going to take you guys with me.” They later named the network The Hub Network, a joint venture between Discovery Kids and Hasbro Toys. We would be one of the very few shows on the network that didn’t have a Hasbro toy line behind it.
Part 2: What Went Right
Margaret Loesch’s partner at The Hatchery, Dan Angel, became the Executive Producer of our show. At one of our first production meetings he turned to us and said, “You know, whatever kind of experience this turns out to be for you, when it’s done you can’t wait to dive back in.”
He’s one of the great people we were lucky enough to work with. He and Margaret managed to get Jay Fukuto (then head of Film Roman) on board with the project, and before too long we were heading to our offices in the Film Roman building in Burbank, CA. Like Dan Angel, Jay is smart, patient, highly competent, and above all kind.
Producer Lizbeth Velasco and Supervising Director Brian Sheesley were amazing. They kept the train moving while putting out fires, herding cats, juggling chainsaws on a tightrope, insert whatever metaphor you can think of for doing a tough job. I’m sure having to listen to a couple of guys who never worked in animation wasn’t easy, but I never saw either of them lose their cool. It’s a lot better than I would have done.
In fact, I liked nearly everybody we worked with. Sure, we had a couple of jerks who made life hell, but luckily we managed to get rid of them after the first season. (I’m not childish enough to name names here, but Bill and Tom* know who they are.)
(*not their real names)
Our cast was fantastic. Dave Foley is a comedy hero of mine since forever. Paget Brewster is amazingly quick-witted and had great timing and a perfect deadpan. And Curtis Armstrong… I wish I was as good at anything as Curtis is at acting. Our supporting cast was made up of the 12 or so people who do 80% of voice acting in cartoons. When a show first goes into production you have time to cast, do auditions, callbacks… We listened to over 200 audio submissions for our main cast.
Once you’re in production, it’s more like “Okay, we need a deep-voiced actor who can do multiple voices, and they need to be here tomorrow.” So you don’t do a casting call or run auditions. You call Fred Tatasciore, or John Dimaggio, or Kevin Michael Richardson. Which is what we did. We also got to work regularly with Tom Kenny, Eric Bauza, and Grey Delisle. There’s a reason they work all the time. They’re great at what they do and they’re fun to be around.
Our show was so low-budget that we could only afford to pay six actors per episode. That’s including our three leads. So we hired actors who could do multiple distinct voices.
The budget constraints also meant we could only do one or two new locations per episode. Before we started I said something like “It’s animation. We can have an episode on the moon if we want to.” Which was true, but it would need to take place in one single moon crater, and if we were lucky maybe a rocket ship interior. But that was it. Needless to say, we re-used a lot of sets.
Part 3: Crunch Time
For me the work was writing. We needed a new script every week, and in Season 1 I wrote or co-wrote 18 out of the 22 episodes. A lot of the scripts were approved on Friday and had to be written over the weekend for Monday’s table read. Sometimes I’m proud that we were able to do it. Other times I wonder how much better they would have been if we’d had more time. (I’ve decided probably not much, since my inherent laziness means that more time wouldn’t have necessarily meant more work.)
The show’s schedule wasn’t the only challenge. My daughter Hazel was born eight months before we went into production. And she didn’t sleep through the night for the first three years of her life. Multiple wake-ups, every night. I was a zombie. I got winded walking up a flight of stairs. I was so tired I was thirsty all the time. So a lot of my work was done in a fog of sleep deprivation and coffee jitters. I’ve probably forgotten a bunch of stuff that happened around then due to mental fatigue.
There was one point in Season 2 where my daughter had to go to the emergency room and ended up in the Pediatric ICU for three days. (She’s fine now.) I spent days with her, then went home to write while she slept.
That was the high water mark of stress and tiredness. Oddly, that episode, written in two days and under a lot of pressure, remains one of my favorites. (It was “Dan vs. the Telemarketer” with the show’s recurring villain voiced by John C. McGinley.)
Oh, and also I was going blind. I have something wrong with my retinas, and in the time between Margaret’s initial call and the end of the show, I went from “able to drive a car” to “legally blind.” The Dan vs. crew were always understanding, and the editors were kind enough to send me animatics with the colors inverted so I could make out what was going on. Even so, losing my vision added stress to the situation. (And my scripts had more typos in them. I hate typos.)
One painful lesson from early on: Halfway through Season 1, the finished episodes started coming back from Korea, where they were animated. At that point, the show was pretty much locked. We could do some editing, but unlike a primetime show, there was no rewriting after the fact. There were no dialogue tweaks or reshoots. What was there was there, whether it worked or not. Which means that every error in judgment on my part, every corner that I cut, every lazy writer thing I did thinking “How much does that matter, really?” was glaring me in the face. And I found out that it mattered a lot. I think the idea that the stuff I was writing was actually going to be on TV didn’t really sink in until that heart-dropping, panic-inducing moment where I thought “Crap, should have put more work in on that scene.”
Thankfully I wasn’t alone in the writers’ room (at least, not at first.) My co-creator Dan Mandel was always ready with a funny line. Also, Rob Long was brought on to be the Creative Consultant. He’s a longtime comedy veteran from shows like Cheers. Rob didn’t write scripts for us himself, but often the funniest line in a given show came from him during the rewrite.
Finally, a talented young writing team, Eric Zimmerman and Kirill Baru, were initially hired as something between writers’ assistants and staff writers. They’d go on to write nearly half of Season 2 before getting better (or at least better-paying) jobs elsewhere. I forget what their official titles were (Script Consultants?) But it was basically a workaround so the production didn’t have to pay them writers’ salaries.
Part 4: What Went Wrong
Which is another thing. When it came to money, there were a lot of top-level decisions I didn’t understand. For example, all told our show cost millions of dollars to produce.
Other then promos that ran on The Hub Network (which were basically free) the total advertising and marketing budget over three years of the show was something I could comfortably put on a credit card. Seriously. Single-digit thousands. And not high single-digit thousands, either.
As the show progressed, the writers’ room got smaller. Rob Long had a new show start before Season 2, so he couldn’t come back. He was replaced by another comedy veteran, Bruce Ferber. Bruce was great. But they cut Eric and Kirill back to part-time, so we only had them three days a week. By Season 3 I was the only full-time writer on the show, farming out episodes to freelancers.
The show “never found its audience.” Which is a nice euphemism. However you phrase it, Dan vs. never really took off. We were one of the highest-rated shows on a network nobody’s heard of. (Unless they’re My Little Pony fans, of course.) I’d love to blame the lack of marketing and advertising. But I’m not sure if we would have “found our audience” if the show aired on Fox right after The Simpsons.
I wasn’t able to rewatch the show for a few years after it aired. Every time I tried, I couldn’t get past the mistakes I had made in the writers’ room. Jokes that didn’t land, bits that didn’t work, flat scenes or sloppy dialogue. It seemed pretty clear to me that if the acting, direction, art, music, and editing were all top-notch, that left my writing (and supervision of others’ writing) as the reason the show didn’t succeed. I felt like I had let the cast and crew down.
Part 5: Back to Lucky
I watched a couple of episodes with my kids last night, “Dan vs. Dancing” (one of my favorites, written by Dan Mandel) and “Dan vs. the Bank.” They’re a lot of fun. It may be that while shooting for “brilliant and screamingly hilarious” we landed on “pretty good.” I can be okay with that. I may not be Dan Harmon or Bill Lawrence, but I wrote some funny stuff under some pretty hectic deadlines. Even if I took my shot and missed as Head Writer, it’s still a good quality to have in a writers’ room.
Mostly when I look back on the show, what I feel is intense gratitude. I got to do the thing I set out to do when I threw all my stuff into my car and drove to L.A., knowing almost nobody there and less than nothing about the entertainment industry. A lot of people don’t get to do that. I worked with people I admire. I met Luke Skywalker, the Kurgan/Rawhide, and the Fonz. I wrote over thirty produced episodes of television. I got nominated for a couple of Daytime Emmys.
More importantly, I’m still friends with a lot of the people I worked with. They’re a bunch of smart, funny, creative people and I’m lucky to have them in my life.
All in all it was an intense, fun, hectic, frustrating, exhausting, wonderful time. I don’t know if I’ll ever get the chance to do it again. Either way, I’m thrilled to have had the experience. Ultimately, though, Dan Angel was right: if I got the chance, I’d dive right back in.