Since this one involves some horn-tooting for an Evanier enterprise, I think I should point out that the editors here asked me to write
about this, to tie-in with the theme of this issue. Also, remember that I've written almost 200 of these columns, and this is the first time
I've spent more than a stray sentence on my favorite of all the TV shows on which I've worked.
I've had loads of disasters — some of which I've recounted here, some of which I'll get to — but every so often, if only
through dumb luck, you don't crash and burn. Actually though, this one started with a fair-sized fiasco...
In 1987, I was hired by CBS to help develop a Saturday morning cartoon series featuring Michael Jackson — and, hey, wouldn't he
be the perfect person to star in a kids' show these days? This was, after all, the same network that had the Pee-Wee Herman Show. Who
said our young ones have no role models anymore?
Michael was very nice to me but thoroughly disinterested in seeing the show happen. Though he had at some point okayed the
project, he'd since had second thoughts. Our meetings consisted largely of him explaining that he was a rock star and that it would be
detrimental to his rep to be on a children's show. And, yes, I reminded him there had once been a Jackson Five animated series but that was
long ago and far away.
He didn't dislike cartoons, please understand. In fact, as he led me on a brief tour of his estate, past llamas and chimps, he
told me how much he'd enjoyed watching the Richie Rich cartoon show I'd once written. I resisted the temptation to say, "Watched
Richie Rich? Michael, you are Richie Rich!"
But he didn't want to be an animated character (make up your own joke) and he kept asking if I could write a Michael Jackson cartoon
show in which Michael Jackson did not appear. If there was a way to pull that one off, I sure couldn't think of it. I finally decided to
moonwalk off the pilot but, before I could, CBS opted to chuck the whole thing. Smart move by CBS.
I figured at the time I was out of the animation business and that was jes' fine with me. I forget how many studios there were
then producing cartoons for TV but they all fell into at least one of two categories: Those that I wouldn't work for, and those that wouldn't hire
There were at least four in the first classification. I didn't like the way they did business and/or I didn't like the way they
did cartoons. Usually, the two came together as a dogged determination to spend as little as possible on everything — writers,
especially. One studio in particular seemed obsessed with saving every nickel, regardless of how it hurt the show or inconvenienced the
The result was a series of bad shows, most of which failed miserably. The studio was like an aerospace company that kept building
cut-rate rockets that exploded on take-off. Rather than invest a few more bucks, they continued building them A.C.A.P. — as cheap as
possible — hoping to get lucky. The head honchos didn't want to believe that it sometimes takes money to make money. (General rule
of thumb: Never work for a cartoon studio that has its animation done at the 99-Cent-Only Store.)
So I wouldn't work for them...and this was no great principled stand on my part — just simple self-preservation. Working
for people you don't trust, on shows that will probably stink, doesn't do much for anyone's career or digestive system. I wouldn't work for a
few other houses for like reason, and there were some that wanted no part of me. I was out of the animation biz...I thought.
Then a nice lady at CBS named Judy Price called me in. She was the Vice-President in Charge of...I forget. Children's
Programming, I guess. Anyway, she was the one who shepherded the CBS Saturday A.M. line-up and she asked me that day, "What do you think about
What did I think about Garfield? I thought Garfield was a terrific, funny character. He was the star of a syndicated
newspaper strip by Jim Davis which had popped up in paperback collections before I'd ever seen it in any L.A. paper. When the books hit the
best seller indices, I'd picked up a few and found the title feline funny and his hapless "owner" funnier. By the time the Los Angeles
Times finally published the cat, Garfield was already appearing all over the city — on t-shirts, on notebooks, in toy stores,
everywhere. There had already been a half-dozen prime-time animated specials, several of which had snagged Emmys.
I liked the shows and I liked the strip...and I was even impressed by all the Garfield Stuff one could purchase. Merchandising is
anathema to many comic strip/cartoon buffs but, when I was a tot, I remember loving my Bugs Bunny lunch box and my Charlie Brown sweatshirt and I'm
glad they made them. Furthermore, I remember how disappointed and cheated I felt when my love for Yogi Bear would prompt me to buy some Yogi
toy, and I'd wind up with a badly-designed product that would fall apart if the wind shifted.
In the seventies, when I went to work for Hanna-Barbera, I found myself arguing for quality merchandise with various execs (not Bill or
Joe) who said things like, "The kids don't know the difference."
One in particular seemed to think the keystone to a successful toy/merchandising campaign was to put out the cheapest products possible
and to spend as little as possible on artwork. He was eventually fired but, while he was there, the H-B toys were shoddy junk and —
surprise, surprise — nobody bought them. Guess the kids did know the difference.
When Garfield toys came along, they struck me as being of a notably high caliber. They were well-made, cleverly-conceived and
well-drawn. I sensed that someone, presumably Jim Davis, believed in doing things right or not at all. If a cartoon show was going to be
made with the same high standards of the Garfield dolls, I wanted in.
Judy explained that, more than anything else on God's Green Earth, she wanted to see a Garfield show on her schedule. Mr.
Davis, however, had been balking for several years. He had written the prime-time specials, didn't have time to write a weekly series, and was
reticent about letting anyone else write his cat. As long as I'd been in animation, I'd never heard of anyone turning down an offer for any
reason other than that they were holding out for larger sums of currency.
"But he's become willing to at least consider it," Judy told me. "If I can find a writer he trusts, I may be able to put it
together." A few days later, she had me meeting with a gent named Lee Mendelson. Lee produced the Garfield and Peanuts
specials and had an office that housed more Emmys than employees. The first animated show he ever produced — A Charlie Brown
Christmas — is still, I think, the best cartoon ever made for teevee.
"Jim is fiercely protective of Garfield," Lee explained. He told me a few anecdotes, all conveying the moral that if J.D. wasn't
happy with what I did, I'd be gone faster than the cat could down a microwave lasagna.
I think he wanted to see if I'd be scared off. Au contraire, I was weary of folks who'd do it wrong rather than blow a
deal. "The show must go on" is a maxim coined by theater owners who didn't want to have to give refunds to the audience if a performer couldn't
perform. In truth, the show does not have to go on. If the show's not going to be any good, it's better that it not go
on. That seemed to be Lee's attitude, as well.
Negotiations began but I was so enthused that I didn't wait for their conclusion. I started writing. (And it was a good
thing I didn't wait. The show was literally on the air for four years before my contract was finalized.)
Over the next few months, things began to fall into place. Jim came to town and was happy enough with what I'd put on paper that
the deal was closed with CBS. It called for more lead time and a more lucrative budget than I'd ever seen on any cartoon series I'd worked on
before. A fine animation studio named Film Roman, run by veteran producer-director Phil Roman, began assembling a crew to produce the
Before long, I found myself flying to Muncie, Indiana. That may seem like a strange destination unless you know that Jim Davis's
studio is in a little town just outside of Muncie. He thought I should see the operation, meet everyone and spend a few days brainstorming with
him. Unfortunately, he did not send his private jet for me. Instead, I flew to Chicago and then shuttled to Muncie on a DC-None.
You want to know how small the plane was? We had to detour en route so the pilot could chase Cary Grant through a wheat field.
I have lived my entire life in a big city and taken all my trips to other big cities. I was therefore amazingly unprepared for
Muncie — population, 77,216. In L.A., there are Rolodexes with more people in them.
We landed at an airport that, I swear to God, was run by one person. The only worker was a guy who sold the tickets, inspected
luggage by hand (no metal detector) and ran the Budget Rent-a-Car booth, if and when the one car was available. This part is not a joke.
He would also go out onto the airstrip with red flashlights and signal arriving planes how far to pull up.
I was supposed to be met by Thom Huge, who was then Jim's associate, and who also performed the voice of Jon in the cartoons.
Thom wasn't there yet so I sat down in one of the four chairs in the airport's waiting room. The one employee came over and said, "I'm afraid
you'll have to wait outside, sir. The airport is closing."
It was 6:00 in the evening. I asked, "The airport closes at 6:00?"
He said, "Yes. Right after the last plane of the day arrives."
So I carried my suitcase outside. The man locked up the airport, got into his car and went home for dinner.
I went to a pay phone and called my answering machine back in Los Angeles. There was a message from someone who said, "Well,
guess you're not in, Evanier. You're probably out doing something glamorous like you TV writers always do."
I thought, Yes, I'm doing something glamorous. I'm standing with my luggage outside a closed, one-room airport in Muncie,
Indiana. How much more exciting can life be? A minute or so later, Thom showed up.
On the way to the hotel, I got to see a little of Muncie. There is only a little of Muncie, so it was a fairly exhaustive
tour. I never saw so much farmland before...and such flat terrain. No mountains as far as the eye could see. You'd think, with
Jim's money, he could spring for a few bucks and buy the town a hill or something.
But it was a fascinating experience. At one point, a town resident asked me if I was Jewish. I told him I was, and he asked
if he could take a picture with me.
The next morn, Thom picked me up at the hotel and drove me past cow pastures and rows of crops, all the way to the surprisingly-modern
building complex that is Paws, Incorporated — Jim Davis's company. I met a big staff of happy, talented people. I watched Jim work
on the strip. We talked about jokes and characters and plots and, basically, I went to Garfield College. By the time I left, I was
starting to grow orange stripes.
I'm telling you all about this junket for two reasons. One is so that I can use some of my Muncie jokes. The other is so I
can recount the following moment...
Jim and I were working in the big conference room and one of his associates came in with the prototype for a new Garfield toy. It
was a sculptured plastic thingie and the model had to be okayed before the manufacturer could commence full production. It looked fine to
But Jim looked at it, winced and said, "That's wrong. I told them to move the eyes like this — " And he picked up a
marker and indicated how the eyes should be moved a fraction of an inch apart.
The associate said, "It'll cost them $20,000 if they have to break the molds and redo it again."
Jim said, "So —?"
That was it. The okay was withheld, the molds were broken and remade, the toy came out. I made a point of inquiring later
how it had done and was told it had been a huge success. What can we learn from this?
Jim still doesn't know how close he came, that day in Muncie, to getting a big wet one right on the lips. On the flight home, as
the tiny plane swooped low to dust crops, I decided that I'd been given a rare opportunity. After years of working on cartoon shows produced on
Pic-and-Save budgets, I was going to get to do a show without seeing every possible corner cut. A little voice that sounded amazingly like Judy
Price's said to me, "Don't blow it, you jerk."
Did the jerk blow it? That's not for the jerk to say, but he will point out that it was one of the highest-rated Saturday morn
shows for seven years. It would have stayed on longer but CBS asked Lee, Jim and Phil to do the show for less and they declined. I agreed
with the decision.
Whether the show was any good, you can judge for yourself. The first 73 half-hours (of 121 produced) are on Nickelodeon twice a
day, and on many local channels, as well. If you tune in, I hope you don't get one of the ones that I didn't like...but I was proud of the
over-all batting average. And after I finish this, I'm working on the script for a new Garfield cartoon project we have coming up.
In upcoming weeks, I'll write a few columns about the production of the show — the voice actors, the artists, the producers, etc.
— and try to give them their due. We had a wonderful team and they deserve more accolades than I have room for here. I'm glad we
all had the chance to work together on this and not on something like a Michael Jackson cartoon series.
For one thing, Garfield is more realistic.