Friday, September 12, 2008

An interview with Carl Greenblatt, creator of Chowder

Ladies and gentlemen, today's post is an interview with Carl Greenblatt, the creator of Chowder, a show on Cartoon Network about a chef's assistant named *gasp* Chowder who encounters all kinds of quirky encounters.

In past episodes Chowder has pitifully raised a baby banana on order from the girl who's madly in love with him, saved his boss' restaurant from an infestation of con artist rats and their pig leader, and gone into his own mouth to conquer the evil "Souron" taste bud that insists all flavors be sour flavors. It's quirky but grounded in a well-established world and it's definitely a kids' show, but with a few inside jokes adults can appreciate.

I don't watch a lot of kids' cartoons beyond
Spongebob (for which Greenblatt has worked), but I do like Chowder. It's entertaining on all levels, I think. I especially enjoyed the episode that intentionally broke through the fourth wall, where Greenblatt appeared in puppet form on a cloud to tell a character named Shnitzel he needed to go back home and reestablish the show's traditional dynamic.

And this year, thanks to all his efforts, Greenblatt has been nominated for an Emmy.

I had the opportunity to ask Greenblatt some questions about his journey with
Chowder, so here you go:

How did you break into animation writing?

It was a bit of lucky timing. I was working in New York as an advertising art director but felt that it was time for a change. I happened across an ad in Animation Magazine for Nickelodeon saying they were looking for creative people. I loved animation but didn't really have any experience in it. Most of my drawing training was from doing years and years of my own cartoon strips. Not really knowing what they were looking for, I put together a portfolio of character drawings, cartoon strips, and storyboards I had done in advertising. A few months later, I received a call about doing some freelance character designs. That didn't really lead to anything, but I stayed in touch with the development people. The next trip I took out to Los Angeles, I met with them. They really liked my cartoon strips and wanted to forward them along to Steve Hillenburg, the creator of
Spongebob Squarepants. He liked them as well and hired me on the show.

Have you written for live action at all? Or film?

Nothing that's been produced. Just some scripts for fun.

How did you come up with the idea for Chowder?

It was important to me that I really use the medium of animation to do things that you could never do in live action. That fantasy element led me to thinking up the idea of chefs who create made-up food. I was also drawn to the dynamic of the Sorcerer's Apprentice. I wanted a young kid who was learning from a kooky old master. The kid had to be kind of shy and weird and chubby. I wanted him to feel different from kids we've seen in other cartoon shows - he had to sound like a real, like the kids in
Peanuts. Once I had that dynamic, the rest of the show started to come together. The people at the catering company are essentially Chowder's family, so I had to create characters that would fill out familiar family roles.

What's the general structure of your writer's room?

It's very loose. Usually just three of us (me, the creative director, and the writer) throw around ideas until we get a story into some gelatinous form. Then the writer goes off and bangs out a first draft outline, usually about 2 pages long. After a few revisions, the outline is handed off to a storyboard artist. It's a pretty solitary process - the artist gets about 3 weeks to thumbnail/write out the episode. The artist then pitches it to us, we make revisions, then they take a few more weeks to draw it all up.

You write for a kids show. How do you make sure your jokes are funny to children, and not just you guys?

It has to be relatable emotionally. As long as the story is based on universal truths and relationships, it works. And the jokes can't be based off things in our world; I like to keep the pop culture jokes to a minimum. The comedy should come from the characters' decisions, actions, and behavior, not relying on the audience's knowledge of certain movies or tv shows. Funny behavior always seems to connect well with people of all ages.

How often do you make jokes you know kids are NOT going to get?

I don't mind putting in jokes for the adults. As long as it's a quickie and doesn't affect the plot or the scene. But I prefer it if the jokes work for both kids and adults. When you watch Bugs Bunny, there's stuff you didn't catch as a kid, but you totally can see now. It's not dirty stuff, just a little more sophisticated. I always try to write to that level - to what makes me laugh. Luckily I have the brain of a 13 year old.

How often do you try to make social statements in the show?

We make social statements all the time, but not in a didactic way. We're not here to teach a lesson. We're here to entertain. However, I think the best writing comes from a point of view, and it's hard not to expose your point of view when you're writing these episodes. You have to tap into a social truth to make a character really feel like he's part of a living world. I don't think a writer approaches a story with making a social statement as goal, but once you're done, it's easy to look back and see your views reflected in it.

How did the whole bit about making you into a puppet and putting you on a cloud come about?

We thought it would fun to have a "Wonderful Life" moment for Shnitzel. Peter Borwngardt, the board artist for that half of the episode, took it a step further and had Shntizel meet his creator (me). He drew a really funny caricature of me, and I thought it would be great to do it as puppet.

This year you were nominated for an Emmy. How does that make you feel?


If you win the Emmy, will you go to Disneyland?

No, I'll go home and sleep. The ceremony is over 4 hours long!!

Why is a helicopter hovering over my apartment right now? Am I going to be attacked by a SWAT team?

Well that's what you get. You shouldn't have mailed all that anthrax.

If I don't get attacked by a SWAT team, how would a person like me go about getting a job on a show like Chowder?

Kill someone on the crew to make a position open up. Seriously, it's hard for someone to come in cold.The reality of the industry is most jobs are usually filled by people the creator knows or has worked with. In my case that's because I respect their talent or know that I have a good working dynamic with them. It's such a stressful, hectic job that I need people I trust around me to get everything done. And I dislike drama at work.

Do you have any long term goals for the show?

My goal from the start was to make a show that gives kids out there the same happiness I felt when I watched cartoons as a kid. But on top of that, I want parents to say that they enjoy it just as much as their kids do.

Thanks ever so for taking the time to answer these questions. Do you have any extra advice for aspiring writers?

The same advice I give to artists - do it every day. You can always get better, no matter what level you're at.


  1. Great interview. I really like what he said about not using pop culture references -- that's something I try to do to (avoid using them).


  2. Hi Emily,
    This is a great interview. Would it be okay if I posted a link on my blog (about writing TV animation) redirecting people here?


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