Interview by Steven Heller published in Print Magazine
As president of Frederator Incorporated, an independent production company in Los Angeles, Fred Seibert created and produced popular cartoons for Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network. His involvement in the cartoon industry began in 1992 when he became the president of Hanna-Barbera. Prior to that, beginning in 1981, he was promotion director of The Movie Channel and later moved over to MTV, where he was responsible for commissioning the design of the ever-permutating MTV logo and supervising MTV's on-air promotions, advertising, and premiums. In 1983 he formed a partnership with Alan Goodman called Fred/Alan, a thinktank for a wide range of new and established networks, including CBS, HBO/Cinemax, and others. In 1985, Fred/Alan oversaw the relaunch of Nickelodeon and came up with the idea for Nick at Nite, the first television oldies network. As we went to press, Seibert left Frederator to become president of MTV Networks Online, where he will head operations of all MTV Web sites. In this interview, Seibert talks about the state of the contemporary animated cartoon and his future on the Net.
Heller: When you took the helm of Hanna-Barbera, did you have a background in animated cartoons?
Seibert: The only background I had was the 700 animated IDs my partner Alan Goodman and I had originally been responsible for on MTV, Nickelodeon, and other networks.
Heller: Hanna-Barbera is a cartoon factory with a long history of creating some major characters: Flintstones, Jetsons, Yogi Bear. Yet in animation circles, H-B's simplistic animation is not revered.
Seibert: In fact, it is reviled. And when I got there, they had a hit in 15 years, [not since] "The Smurfs." My mandate was, "This is a business; let's make the business work." It was as simple as that. H-B made its money by creating high-quality half hours of television. Eventually, the studio started to do junk, and that was a shame. But, I knew that the heritage of the studio was founded in some wonderful principles.
Heller: So what did you do?
Seibert: I had to reduce what was a very high overhead and restructure the basic form of the studio into a more freelance economy - which is basically what Hollywood has become.
Heller: Did you change the way that cartoons were conceived?
Seibert: Yes. I met with all of the creative people and tried to figure out what they did - and I couldn't figure it out. It came down to, "We'll do whatever the networks will buy."
Heller: How did you stem the tide of mediocrity?
Seibert: I relied on new talent. I hired a young producer named Donovan Cook, who had an idea called "2 Stupid Dogs," and used him as a lever to change systems in the studio. I went to the key production people and said, "I'm going to take a veteran from our production staff, I'm going to put him with this 23-year-old kid, and you guys are going to do what the kid thinks needs to be done to make this series." He went through like a bull in a china shop, and started the revolution. He also brought in a whole series of talented young kids from Cal-Arts to be his crew, in a studio that, in general dismissed and disrespected anyone under 40.
Heller: What was it about "2 Stupid Dogs" that was at odds with the Hanna-Barbera history?
Seibert: It was at odds with the current conventional wisdom, which was that you had to take a famous movie or TV show and make a cartoon version of it.
Heller: How did "2 Stupid Dogs" fare in the marketplace?
Seibert: We made a series of 20 episodes. We put it into syndication. And, it failed for two reasons: The marketplace for original material in syndication was even worse than it was in network; and the show, which I expected to be uproariously funny, became sort of an ironic, humorous show that was not too appealing to a lot of people... but in fact, the show is still running on Cartoon Network, and does a very good rating. We didn't hit it out of the park, but it did enable us to recapture some of the excitement that working with a vision always does.
Heller: What did you do in the aftermath of the show?
Seibert: I wanted to inject as many new creative original thoughts into the studio that I could. So we interviewed [cartoon-makers] Joe Barbera, Bill Hanna, Friz Freleng, and John Kricfalsu, and asked them what made a great producer and a classic cartoon. They said the best producers were those who stayed out of the way, and that they were artists and filmmakers conceiving films rather than executives and writers conceiving films. There is a different approach when a writer writes.
Heller: For example?
Seibert: As John once pointed out, a writer will write "a bomb blows up in the character's face" as a gag. But in and of itself, a bomb going off is not funny. What might be funny is the way someone draws the face before the explosion, what the character looks like after the bomb has gone off, what he says, and the music and sound effects. And besides, artists conceived most of the great film cartoons that we've seen. When restructuring, I said the artist -filmmaker has to be in charge of the creative, not the writer. I had no objection to writers, but they had to be working for filmmakers rather than filmmakers working for writers.
Heller: What was the result of this new pairing of filmmaker/writer, this new hierarchy?
Seibert: I launched a series called "What A Cartoon!" and took the $10 million with which we launched "2 Stupid Dogs" and another failed series and found out that we could make 48 cartoons. I figured we had 48 shots at success rather than two, for the same amount of money. This had never been done in television cartoons. With our partners at Cartoon Network we [decided to] launch one short film every two weeks, before a Sunday night animated movie, so it was like a movie experience. And we would give creative people their heads to do these projects and see what happened.
Heller: How did you proceed?
Seibert: We looked at those films as they came out, and talked with kids about the various films they liked and thought were good, and out of the best ones we started doing more. Some titles went on to series. One we did with John Dilworth called "The Chicken from Outer Space" got an Academy Award nomination.
Heller: So, "Dexter's Laboratory," Cow and Chicken," "Johnny Bravo," and "The Powerpuff Girls" are from your studio. Are there others?
Seibert: A fifth one is being spun off from "Cow and Chicken" called "I Am Weasel." And a sixth one is in production.
Heller: What is the model that cartoons are based on today?
Seibert: Contemporary America.
Heller: How so?
Seibert: We live in a different world, and the people who conceive those films live in a different world. Interestingly, cartoons often have not caught up with the modern world except in rare instances like "South Park," "The Simpsons," and "Beavis and Butthead." But classic cartooning went into suspended animation in the mid-'50s and wasn't revived until "Ren & Stimpy" and "What a Cartoon!"
Heller: A lot of cartoons deal with subject matter that was once taboo. Now we deal a lot with bathroom humor. Why?
Seibert: Like everything else, when you keep the top on a pressure cooker and you keep turning up the heat, things are going to explode. For at least most of our late childhood and early adulthood, our generation was desperately trying to take the top off. We are just coming down to equilibrium pressure. Five years ago there was a larger percentage of fart jokes in kids' stuff than there is today.
Heller: What do you consider the most influential cartoon show of the past five years?
Seibert: "Ren & Stimpy," because the creator, John Kricfalusi, was out of the factories of traditional Hollywood commercial animation, and he made it. And John seemed to make it on his own terms. Remember that "Ren & Stimpy," "Rugrats," and "Doug," the three Nicktoons that launched the Nickelodeon animation thing, were virtually the first creator-conceived cartoons to be launched in years. In an industry that had essentially been plagued by management and homogenization, the idea that a cartoon series could make it to air the way the creator conceived it was revolutionary.
Heller: What Frederator projects are you proudest of?
Seibert: Over the last five or six years, two different programs of back-to-the-future cartooning where I used the approach they used in the theatrical days, which is: Make a film with a creator, see if it's any good -- if it is, make another one, rather than go right to 13 half-hours and spend $10 million. The results for me have been four hits from "What a Cartoon!" over at Cartoon Network. I'm taking it to a new level at Nickelodeon with "Oh Yeah! Cartoons!," which is just getting its first series pickup, called "Chalkzone." In the series, all of the drawings that have ever been erased from chalkboards exist in another dimension, and a young boy has found the magic piece of chalk that allows him to open the portal into the "Chalkzone," where adventures, mayhem, and hijinks ensue.
Heller: What do you ask for from an artist who comes to you with a cartoon property?
Seibert: What I'm really looking for is a great creator and a great film. If somebody can make a great six-minute film with a wonderful character and good storytelling and filmmaking, we'll figure out a series from there. So I don't look for the standard things that people look for in pilots. I just say, "Do you have a great film where I can fall in love with the character?"
Heller: Are there any taboos that you won't fool with?
Seibert: I'm making films primarily for kids. So I'm avoiding smoking and guns.
Heller: And physical violence?
Seibert: Violence has come to mean anything that is slightly aggressive in behavior, any kind of comedy that is physical. And I reject that. Physical comedy is not violent. I have had conversations with some of the experts in the world, who say that slapstick is just another word for happy violence. I reject that as a notion!
Heller: Are you interested in zeitgeist?
Seibert: Oh, I am not looking in terms of zeitgeist or fashion. Here is what I am looking for: great characters and great stories. It's as old as the hills. It's no different from the days of Chaplin. And there is no way to define what makes a great character and a great story in any simple formulaic kind of way. In fact, that's what makes entertainment so amazing.
Heller: Why, after establishing a successful cartoon business, are you returning to MTV as president of its online division?
Seibert: The online business offers me the same inspirations that have always fueled my work choices. First, the best creative people I know started working on the Web years ago. Second, the overwhelming numbers of young people working on the Web mirrors the places I've always been drawn to, like rock n' roll and television.
Heller: Will cartoons play a role in this new venture?
Seibert: Of course. I never abandon those that brought me.
Yes, I highlighted the "another failed series" line deliberately. To my knowledge, "SWAT Kats" was the only other series in production at the same as "2 Stupid Dogs," so I imagine the "failed series" comment refers to "SWAT Kats." So, for the moment, this is the explanation I accept as what happened to my beloved favorite show. I don't think Ted Turner, for all his infamous evil reputation, had anything to do with it (I would wonder that he could even keep track of what networks he owned at the time, let alone series). However, if anyone knows of another series this reference might mean, please contact me.
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