I turned 46 last week and I think it’s telling that I spent my birthday in Toronto at a bar with a small group of friends, all of whom I first met through work, including my best friend and former boss, Cathy Chilco. My life and my work are one. I could no more separate them then I could extract the salt from my soup or remove the gray hairs from my head. For better or worse, I am Oobi, Ming-Ming, Muffin Lovebird and the Small Potatoes. Please have pity on me.
I started this strange preschool adventure over twenty years ago with a writing audition at “Sesame Street.” I won’t bore you with all that has happened since then but suffice it to say that I have been very focused in my pursuit of all things preschool television, from the creative to the schmooze to the art of the deal. I know that I’m not the most talented guy around, I was certainly not even the best writer at “Sesame Street” but I have been the most tenacious, stubborn and linear guy I know.
Why have I specialized? I guess there are a few reasons. The first one is that my mind, to put it nicely, was not built for speed. I am a very slow human. I cannot multitask. I can barely even task. My staff makes an itinerary for me every time I leave the office so that I don’t get lost and end up wandering around Coney Island. So one of the reasons I chose preschool TV is that it seemed manageable to me: No big words, no subplots and the characters have cute names like “Grampu.” Of all the areas of the entertainment industry, preschool TV seemed like the one where a guy like me could possibly find success.
The second reason is that preschoolers are extraordinary. I have said in the past that I think human beings peak at age four and I wasn’t joking. At four we have our priorities straight: family, friends, food and making artwork. I know it’s a cliché but I’m constantly amazed by the creativity and the simple, undeniable goodness of preschoolers. So when people ask me why I make work for such a young audience my answer remains: It’s not that I make work for them, I simply make work that does not exclude them. They are, for me, the preferred audience.
Now, for those of you who are reading this with your Nielsen ratings in one hand and your toy sales in the other, I suspect this all sounds quite naïve and Pollyanna. Perhaps it is. But Little Airplane is not a naïve company. We’ve learned, perhaps the hard way, when to show our soft side, our creativity and our generosity and when to be tough and command respect in this business. In short, we’ve learned to make shows like an indie and then negotiate like a Disney.
Tennessee Williams said, “There are two kinds of people, the weak and the strong.” Sadly in our industry, the most talented people tend to be the weaker ones. They are often plagued by self-doubt and are intimidated by the business side of things. They will happily sign away their rights in return for a desk, an Aeron chair and a good internet connection. (I was certainly one of these types for years.) And, conversely, those who are strong, either by background or genetics, are usually creatively uninspired. They build good business models but very bad preschool shows. (And if the show sucks, even the best business model will fail.)
If I am proud of anything at 46, it’s that I have learned how to straddle these two worlds. I’ve learned to develop my own and my team’s creative potential and I’ve learned how to button up our business so that we don’t get taken advantage of. This hasn’t been easy for me and I’ve certainly stumbled a few times along the way. I have signed a few bad deals and trusted a few untrustworthy people. But I’ve learned. I’ve learned to find a balance between the creative and the commercial. And this balance is, I believe, the key to any success in the kids’ TV business. It took me exactly 46 years to understand this.
As I look out at Lake Ontario on this sunny and chilly afternoon, I feel happy. I had a wonderful birthday in Toronto. I ran by the water and I saw friends and I ate dumplings with Cathy Chilco. I was given a book on stress management, which I will no doubt stress out about until I finally read it. Yes, for better or worse, my life and my work are one. Little Airplane may not be a perfect company but we have tried hard every day to make something honest for the kids. Something enduring. Something beautiful.
So happy birthday to me.