Last week a friend said to me, “Josh, you’re a plow.” And she didn’t mean it in a good way. She wasn’t saying, “Josh, I admire how gracefully you plough the fields from whence flowers will grow.” She was saying it more like, “Josh, you’re a plow. You’re loud, forceful and you rumble unapologetically through the streets of lower Manhattan.”
I’ve been living with myself for far too long to even attempt to deny this charge. I remember when I was in my twenties I wanted very badly to be represented by the William Morris Agency. Whereas other writer friends of mine were politely sending agents little quippy notes with invitations to their readings in basements on Theatre Row, I simply called my agent of choice at William Morris every day for a month until he finally called me back and said, “I admire your persistence and I’d like to represent you.”
I am, in my own opinion, a bull in the china shop of children’s television. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’ve never liked china shops to begin with and I must say that I find our own china shop to be riddled with hypocrisy, particularly when it comes to using educational preschool shows as Trojan horses for selling plastic toys to very young viewers. I think it’s fairly safe to say that there are only a small handful of companies and broadcasters left on the planet who genuinely care about something more than just selling crap to our kids.
In many ways, I’ve come to believe that bluntness is a virtue, be it my own bluntness or someone else’s. Just yesterday I received a nice, blunt e-mail from a young European development executive regarding one of our shows. She wrote, “We reviewed the materials you sent over and at this point it will be a pass from us. We would not like to move forward with this project. We found the characters and design to be very flat in appearance and the storytelling was too slow paced and simple.” Well, I thought, now there’s a refreshingly blunt rejection!
And, speaking of bluntness, fifteen years ago I was living in Jerusalem working on the Israeli-Palestinian version of “Sesame Street.” My title was “Resident Producer” and my job was to make sure that both sides played nicely enough that the show actually got made and delivered. As you can imagine, there was an endless amount of arguing during the production, often about events that had happened 3,000 to 6,000 years ago. I was mostly just bored and annoyed by these debates but, when they began to affect my production schedule, I would put my foot down and remind them all that we were there to make a TV show, and that I (and the world) had long since grown tired of their tedious family quarrel.
I think it was a real sign of my lack of diplomatic skills that the Executive Producer for the Palestinians took me aside after one particularly bad meeting in Tel Aviv and said, “Josh, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.”
But I plowed ahead with the show, pissing off Israelis and Palestinians alike. (I think there was even a Jordanian, a few Lebanese and a Czech animator I pissed off as well). And the bottom line is that despite bombings, border closings, and puppeteers without travel permits, “Rechov Sumsum/Shara’ Simsim” delivered on budget and on schedule, and won Sesame Workshop a well-deserved Japan Prize. To this day I believe that my being something of a plow was at least partially responsible for this show’s great success.
I have always cared first and foremost about the work and making it as well as I possibly could. I’ve never had much patience for either office or industry politics. I don’t consider other companies to be my competitors and, if they make great shows, I do whatever I can to support them. After all, we’re all a part of the same big production community and we’ll all need one another sooner or later.
As anyone who has ever loved any craft knows, to do something really well, you have to be a bit of a plow. This is true for making artwork, being a journalist, playing tennis, or teaching children. Our culture tends to like the safety of groups, consensus builders, and unions, regardless of the quality of the work that they produce. It also tends to ignore or, when necessary, crush creative individuals who dare to have an independent voice. So it shouldn’t be surprising that to make preschool shows that are truly original one needs to be a plow, a plow to push the bullshit (and all the bullshitters) out of the way.
And that’s what I do. I am a plough.