On Sunday, I was bitching to my therapist about all the stress, angst and industry mishigas that come with running a small indie (low budgets, high overhead, fickle broadcasters, a vindictive FTP site, and script notes that range from the mildly inane to the downright cruel. RESEARCHER: Please repeat every key concept three times in the dialogue to ensure comprehension. JOSH: No problem. No problem. No problem.) My shrink listened calmly and patiently to me in her Anne Taylor outfit just as she has for the past 28 years, and then she asked me a simple but rather halting question: “Do you still enjoy this work?”
“Oh, you’re so good,” I thought, but just as I began my private TED Talk on the many things I like, dislike and unlike about the work I do, my 50 minutes on the couch were up. (And, for the record, I do not lay on the couch like those poor souls you see in the New Yorker cartoons, rather, I sit upright like a basically sane person, or at least I do for now.) And so, I shuffled out onto the hot July streets of the Upper East Side, dragging my shrink’s loaded question behind me like a suitcase with wheels.
Since I am once again on a long flight to China and I have, by now, watched every movie in the United Airlines arsenal–which ranges from Citizen Kane with Chinese subtitles to The Smurfs “edited for objectionable content,” (I found it all objectionable)–I figured this would be as good a time as any to unpack this particular question and answer it.
The fact is, I’ve been so busy making kids shows for the past three decades that I don’t even know if I still enjoy doing it. Since you are reading Kidscreen, I can only assume that you are engaged in work that is not dissimilar to my own so, hopefully, you will find this exercise at least a little relevant. Let’s begin today with the things that I don’t enjoy about kids TV. (Or at least the top three, since life is short even if my flights are not.)
1) Numbers. This business is teeming with documents filled with numbers: Budgets, schedules and contracts, just to name a few. I, for one, am a word person. I like almost everything about words. I even like words that are in languages that I don’t speak. For example, in Mandarin, the word for “so-so” is “mama-huhu,” which sounds not unlike a Dr. Seuss character. And the word for “hamburger” is “han-bao-bao” which is very fun to say (go ahead, try it.) I don’t mean to sound patronizing, but I find both of these words totally adorable and I love them as if they were puppies. I don’t, however, find any numbers adorable, nor do I love any numbers. Often, at production meetings, someone will say something like, “Let’s talk about episode 106.” Everyone else at the meeting will nod knowingly whilst I (and only I) will sit there looking bewildered. Eventually, our sympathetic Associate Producer will lean over to me and say something like, “Josh, that’s the one with the fun birthday party!” And then I’ll perk up and be, like, “Oh, the Birthday show! That’s going great!”
2) Waiting. I pitched something to a biggish book publisher in 2008 and I’m still waiting for their response. The meeting was so long ago that the editor I pitched it to has had three jobs and four kids since then. We remain friends on Facebook where I sometimes ask her, jokingly, “Any word on my pitch?” To which she responds, jokingly, “We’re looking at it this week.” The fact is, waiting is as much a part of our industry as listening to bad music on a conference line or avoiding eye contact with a puppet.
3) Rejection. Whether you’re a small indie or a large network, you face some form of rejection on an almost daily basis. Perhaps the broadcaster didn’t buy your show. Or the kids didn’t buy your toys. Or the Nielsen company has misrepresented your ratings causing your stock to plunge. Rejection is the first cousin of kids TV, and no matter how long you’ve been in the game, rejection still hurts. Learning to tolerate rejection and soldiering on is as essential to survival in our industry as a business card. I have one colleague who says, “I’ve been getting back on this same horse for so long I have callouses on my ass.”
And now, here are the top three things that I do enjoy about this work I do, in order of my own preference.
1) Making Things. Let’s face it, what could be better than spending all of one’s waking hours creating shows about singing potatoes, dancing ducklings and talking wombats? Hello? Nothing. Regardless of what I’m making, the process of doing so releases highly pleasing chemicals into my upper (or is it lower?) cortex, which causes a gentle, sustained opiate-like euphoria. (Which, btw, is heightened when combined with any form of coffee-based product.) This feeling can be experienced while working with actors, cutting a radio play, composing a song, or writing a blog on the way to Shanghai, as I am doing now.
2) Sharing Things. Although I try my best to hide it, I am a very shy person by nature. I far prefer silence to almost any form of noise, and I am most at peace when I am either alone, with one person or with my mini-Aussie, Buffy. In general, I find humans over-stimulating and so I often need a moment to recover after spending any time with groups of them. However, I do enjoy sharing things with people, either directly or indirectly, and so I derive tremendous joy from knowing that there are families who have watched and enjoyed the shows that I’ve worked on.
3) Traveling. I’m a creature of habit in New York, but I like nothing more than leaving all my habits behind and getting on an airplane. Making international kids shows has given me the perfect excuse to travel and, as a result, my passport, which has had extra pages surgically added by the US government, now looks like a calzone. Although I miss my dog Buffy when I am away, her awesome dog sitter, Erin, does send me cute dog pictures daily like the one below. (Buffy’s in the middle, the one with the ball.)
So, to summarize, the answer is yes. An unequivocal yes. Despite the unnerving ebbs and flows that come with running a small indie, and despite the terrible heartache when a beloved series comes to an end (or, worse, doesn’t get made at all) I do still love this work. I love the tightrope of creativity and commerce that we all must walk across with just a parasol in order to make and sell our newest shows. I love seeing what everyone else is working on. I love delivering episodes. Some folks were born to make soup, some were born to make investments. I was born to make children’s television, and I feel oh so lucky every single day that I get to do so. And I hope you do, too.