Anyone who’s produced a kids cartoon knows that nailing the jokes is hard, and scripts often go back to the drawing board repeatedly if the funny is even a little off. But armed with the lessons he learned as a stand-up comedian and Second City actor in the ’80s, Scholastic’s senior VP of TV programming Ken Olshansky finds the comic equation a little less mystifying than most.
‘Because I’ve been on-stage doing comedy, I know how people laugh, I know when they laugh, and I know how to land a joke to make them laugh,’ he says. ‘When we’re writing or doing voice-recording, I still have this audience reaction playing in my ear.’
Olshansky first took to the stage in college, when he joined an all-male comedy troupe that acted, danced and sang, as well as wrote and staged all its own material. ‘It was really soup-to-nuts, top-to-bottom theatrical training, and because there were no women in the company, we got to wear wigs and fake breasts,’ he says, laughing.
After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a public policy degree in 1981, Olshansky took a desk job managing subsidized housing for the elderly, but he also started doing some stand-up comedy in New England on the side because he missed being on stage. ‘It was just as the big comedy wave was starting to gather steam, and at that time, stand-up was very counter-culture,’ he recalls. As the phenomenon started to heat up, every hotel lounge and bar with a back room turned into a comedy club, and Olshansky soon got very busy with gigs.
After about a year, he decided to move into comedy full-time, quitting his day job and relocating to Chicago to join Second City. Almost immediately, he packed up to go on tour for 14 months with the likes of Saturday Night Live actor Tim Meadows and Jane Lynch (who played the lesbian dog trainer in Best in Show), picking up tricks of the trade and fine-tuning his ability to read an audience and respond to their energy. One of his favorite skits from the Second City days was a parody of The Cure. It was during the heyday of the brooding British rock star movement, and the troupe took the clinical definition of depression and performed it to music.
Olshansky got out of the comedy theater biz a couple years later to start writing for Nickelodeon shows such as Don’t Just Sit There (a Letterman for kids featuring celebrity interviews and comedy segments) and game show Think Fast, where he came up with the famous ‘Burping Uncle’ sketch. After a stint as director of development at Comedy Central, he landed at Sunbow Entertainment as senior VP of creative affairs, and it was there that he started adapting the lessons he’d learned at Second City to animation development.
We’ve heard the refrain before, but Olshansky says the most important lesson he learned at Second City is to never condescend to one’s audience. ‘Second City had tremendous respect for the characters it created because that’s where the comedy came from. You had to know everything from how your character walked, talked, stood and sounded, to what their philosophy of life was. You had to use your intelligence, but process it differently. It’s so easy to be stupid in animation, but the really good shows aren’t. No matter how enthusiastic SpongeBob gets about Krabby Patties, there’s not a stupid second in that show. Nick doesn’t dumb it down for kids, and that’s why kids love it.’