Planet Preschool

The Fried Dumplings

One of the questions I get asked a lot is:  “Where do you get your ideas?”  It’s one of the hardest questions for me to answer because I really have ...
September 21, 2010

One of the questions I get asked a lot is:  “Where do you get your ideas?”  It’s one of the hardest questions for me to answer because I really have no clue where my ideas come from.  I don’t exactly create my characters either, they just sort of come at me, fully formed, like cute little hoodlums and demand that I make them their own TV shows.

Sometimes they arrive alone and other times en masse.  I usually try to ignore them by watching “Jersey Shore” or “Animal Hoarders” but some are quite persistent and they move into my apartment like unwanted houseguests and eat my food and tease my puppy.  They couldn’t care less what I’m currently working on or whether or not it involves them.  The more aggressive ones will even poke me in the night and say, “Wake up, loser, it’s time to write a show about me.”

Once I was jogging along the ocean in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, and I swear this big plastic dumpster on the street started talking to me.  The lid was flapping up and down and it had a voice like a female Mike Tyson and it said, “Josh, do you think that green makes me look fat?”

She was so sweet but I couldn’t figure out how to make her into a show, so I just took her picture and said goodbye.

Or once I was eating fried dumplings and the dumplings began speaking to me but they were all fried, meaning they had all been smoking marijuana.  They all had these little stoned dumpling voices and were saying they wanted their own show on Adult Swim.  I explained to them that I only made preschool shows and that their behavior was not age-appropriate and would never make it past Standards and Practices.  They laughed and called me a “Momma’s Boy.”

Sometimes I think that my Little Airplane shows are a kind of distillation of all the things that I have ever seen or thought about in my life.  But the distillation is wholly unconscious and runs day and night like a little moonshine still in the woods, producing odd little bottles of potion that are sometimes quite pleasant and unique and other times taste like the inside of an old wooden barrel.

Anybody who tells you they know where their ideas come from is just speculating.  Creation is, at best, a mystery.  The DNA of a preschool show resides deep in the substrata of a creator’s mind like hot rolling lava.  It flows along rivers of memories and feelings until one day the pressure builds up and the whole thing explodes like Mt. Vesuvius, covering the creator (and anyone who is unfortunate enough to be around him or her) in a very messy spray of images, songs, dialogue, jokes and weird little characters.

Then the hard work of crafting this mess into something that looks presentable begins.  This is where you need a good writer, a good designer and a good curriculum person to help articulate the “idea” that has been birthed, all slimy and gross, from the creator’s psyche.  If all goes well, the result is what’s called a “Preschool Show Bible.”

Now, we’ve all seen shows that were not conceived this way.  In fact, most preschool shows these days are what I would call CRCs or “Conference Room Creations.”  I’m sure many of you have attended these sad, uninspired meetings in which two or more VPs sit around and pontificate to the creative underlings about why certain play patterns are the special sauce for creating a preschool merchandising hit.

Because we all work in an industry that’s governed by the whims of one-to-five-year old children (and is therefore virtually immune to logic) it should come as no surprise that these genetically engineered shows crash and burn by the dozens every year.  (And, just as everyone takes credit for the hits, no one ever takes responsibility for the failures.)

Sadly, we’ve entered an era in which it’s considered acceptable to present young children with commercials dressed up as children’s shows.  What upsets me most about these faux shows is that they’re often targeted at the very youngest viewers.  How can we expect a child who still believes in the Easter Bunny to tell the difference between a television show and an 11:00 infomercial for a product?

Does this confusion matter?  I believe it does.  The goal of an educational preschool show is to delight and educate a child.  The goal of a commercial is to sell them stuff.  Fortunately, the FCC does distinguish between the two.

For me, making a preschool show is first and foremost a creative act.  There’s an unspoken agreement between me and my young audience that I am making something that is entertaining, wholesome and good for them.  It comes from a deep and honest place within me and my hope is always that it will reside in a deep and honest place within them.

But, just for the record, I am not wholly innocent in these matters.  I confess that I’ve made many concessions to the gods of licensing.  I have given in to pressure to add vehicles when my characters could just as easily have walked.  I have agreed to alter many prop designs to make them more “toyetic.”  And I’ve even changed the gender of a character so that it might sit better in the “girl aisle.”

So, I’m as guilty as the rest.  And I do feel badly about it.  But, moving forward, I am going to try to do better.  I’m going to try to protect my creations from the unbridled commercialism that has invaded the lives of preschoolers.  And if this means a few less shekels for me, so be it.

This doesn’t mean no products, it just means a more holistic perspective on the products.  I used to think I had no options in this area and that all toys had to be cheap plastic junk.  But then I met Cate McQuillan and Hewey Eustace who created “dirtgirlworld.”  Below are some excerpts from their “eco-policy” which outlines an entirely new and enlightened approach to children’s brands.

“The dirtgirlworld team is committed to pursuing the best possible environmental business practices to reduce dirtgirlworld‘s eco-footprint.  From producing the TV series to the manufacture and sale of consumer products, all partners are asked to assess and acknowledge their environmental impact, and encouraged to set aside funds to support local projects that enable children to live more environmentally sustainable lives.

Encouraging consumption might seem at odds with the very heart of dirtgirlworld’s mission to protect the planet.  But we believe that a controlled and balanced merchandise program will support the sustainability of the project and of the planet, while teaching our young audience and the adults who care for them how to make choices to minimize their impact on    the environment.

All dirtgirlworld products must be relevant and appropriate to the needs of our audience, have a genuine and meaningful purpose in today’s world and be produced and packaged with the good of the planet in mind.”

Now, I know this probably sounds like hippy talk to those of you in the toy and licensing businesses.  But take heed.  A few years ago, “Whole Foods Market” created a revolution in how we perceive the foods we eat and showed us that a chemical-free, socially responsible supermarket could also be very good business.  I believe that Cate and Hewey are at the forefront of a very similar revolution that is heading our way in the children’s toy and media industries.

So, brace yourselves, for the times they are a-changin’.

The complete text of the “dirtgirlworld” eco policy can be found at:

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