TELEVISION SPOTLIGHT
THE MAN BEHIND THE SQUIGGLE  -  TOM SNYDER
On TUrning Down STEVEN Spielberg, ONE-UPPING JIM HENSON and  STAYING IN MASSACHUSETTS—NO MATTER WHAT.
Interview By Robert Deutsch

On the day I interviewed TomSnyder (who called himself "the man who has no interest in TV"), he was about to fly to Los Angeles to pitch his third TV show to "everyone in the world." If he succeeds, he’ll be three for three. His second show, "Science Court" (renamed "Squigglevision") is slated to begin its second season this fall on ABC. A creative and energetic teacher, Tom Snyder began using a computer in his classroom 20 years ago to help him do what he loved to do: teach. From these beginnings, Tom Snyder Productions has grown into a company committed to providing teachers with the best software to support and inspire great teaching and learning, winning six Codie awards (the educational equivalent of anOscar) along the way.

When I arrived at the studio, the cast of "Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist" was getting ready to record the last two episodes of their fifth season. The show, which airs on ComedyCentral, is produced entirely at Tom Snyder Productions in Watertown, MA.

The atmosphere in the studio is filled with frolic. The brilliantly funny cast is eating bread from a local bakery and laughing about a recent write-up in The BostonGlobe that focused on the color of the scripts. "We’ve started a trend!" cries Tom."We’re about fifteen years behind Hollywood, where they already color-code," answers Jonathan Katz, the Cambridge actor and comedian who lends his voice to the good doctor. Even after five years of working together, they still make each other laugh.

L-R: Carl Adams & Lisa Gillim (Audio Editors) & Loren Bouchard (Co-Producer & Contributing Writer)
 

There is not just comedy genius at work here. Tom Snyder Productions is a well-oiled machine, from the cast (who also write the script as much as they ad-lib) to the producers, editors and animators. Looking around the studio one can’t help noticing all the awards. But what is even more apparent is how much respect the talented crew gives the man and teacher behind the squiggle, Tom Snyder.
 

RD:Have you ever met the other Tom Snyder?

TS:No, but he sued me. Or he tried to. He didn’t want me using his name.
 

RD: How did Dr.Katz come about?

TS:Back in 1989-90 I started to realize that the emergence of the videodisc and other new technologies meant software companies were going to be hurting for content, so I began exploring all the software and technology for creating low-cost animation for the school market. It had to be low-cost, because you don’t make a lot of money for that market. You can make a lot of money on home stuff, like "Myst"but we’d been selling to the school market, so we had to come up with a breakthrough. We were watching other companies going to the cutting-room floor of NOVAsaying, "Can we have your old videotape?" or going to ABCand saying, "Can we have your junior varsity news team give us their stuff so we can put out interactive?" There are about a million tricks thought up about how people were going to get content, which is important if you think of it as a medium. We started experimenting with minimalistic looks we could achieve on the computer, and we started making educational software with those looks. Sue and Martina was the name of the first product we did.

Tom Snyder & his brilliant cast of actors
L-R: Tom Snyder, John Benjamin (Ben), Jonathan Katz (Dr. Katz), Laura Silverman (Laura the receptionist) & Todd Barry (The Video Guy)
 

RD: So what’s squigglevision?

TS: I spent long hours with one of my artists trying to develop the process. It’s a way characters pop off the screen, which is achieved when the edges of the character move. Say there is a flower pot behind a character. When they squiggle, you see a little more of that flowerpot, and to the eye it reconfirms depth. We use that to create a nervous intensity. Squigglevision is a minimalistic style we thought was just good enough to get away with it. The result was our animated characters squiggled in a way that was kind of charming and goofy. Using this low-cost technology, we buzzed along, continuing to make products for the schools. Then, because I thought it would be funny, I recorded myself as a shrink, a patient and a mother using different voices. Then we animated it with the squiggle technology. We thought, "This is nowhere near ready for prime time." But we were wrong. It was.

RD: How did you get Jonathan Katz involved?

TS: I saw him in things change, which you must rush out and rent if you haven’t seen it. Katz plays the role of a stand-up comic, and there’s a joke where he says "I think I lost my instinct for dating. I’m at a party the other night, and a woman comes up to me and says ‘My husband’s out of town and I was wondering if you’d give me a ride home after the party.’ And I said, ‘Look, if you knew your husband was going out of town, you should have made alternate travel plans.’"

I must have replayed it about 15 times, I thought it was so funny. And then Irealized a couple of days later he lived locally.

At the same time, a lot of people were saying the psychiatrist piece was cool, but I realized I was missing the talent, so I went to Jonathan. I showed it to him and he thought it was cool. He got Comedy Central involved, and then we started using comics for patients. This was just a side thing. I did it all on my own time, and before I knew it, we had won an Emmy and had a commitment for a series. Then we had a problem. And now we’re in the fifth season.

 
John Benjamin & Janathan Katz share a laugh over lunch. 
 

RD: Describe the show and the process.

TS: Basically we do a show in a day, that’s how long it takes to record. We make a story outline. For example, Dr. Katz realizes he doesn't know how to waltz and he’s gonna have to waltz at an upcoming thing, so his son Ben gets a waltz video and begins planning a whole night of waltzing lessons. Meanwhile, in exchange for several hundreds of dollars and the rule that there’s no touching, Laura, his secretary, teaches him to waltz. When Dr. Katz comes home, Ben is disappointed to find out his father doesn't need waltzing lessons, which is pathetic. That’s as much outline as we have. It’s divided into five scenes, but we have a backup script we use as glue, just in case. For the most part, it’s just letting people go.

RD: What about the patients?

TS:We have two categories of patients. The first is usually comics with a body of work. We say "Don’t pretend you’re in a shrink’s office, just try and make us laugh." So we put them in a booth, we eat bagels and they make us laugh. Then we retroscript—go in with digital audio and drop Dr. Katz in later asking questions. Otherwise the energy level is too low. They start thinking they’re in therapy (which they all are) and start getting depressed and too thoughtful.

The other breed is like Winona Ryder or Lisa Kudrow—funny folks who don’t have stand-up acts, so we’ll have a script ahead of time. Jonathan Katz is great with coming up with little bits for them, like during a session with Winona, she notices Dr. Katz has food on his cheek and she’s dying to tell him, but she doesn’t.

RD: What is Science Court?

TS: We were going to limit TV to a little wing at TSP that did Dr. Katz. It turned out Spielberg was a big fan, and he actually made Science Court happen without even knowing it. He asked us to do a pilot, and we did a pilot and they wanted to change it a whole bunch, and we said, "Why would you pick a little company in Watertown, MA, to do a pilot for almost no money and then ask them to change it? Why don’t you hire one of your $2 million production
companies that will do exactly what you want?" What a stupid thing to ask us. So we walked out on the deal. ABC had expressed interest in doing six episodes, Katzenburg said. He asked, "Will you work with us?" And I said, "I don’t think so."

So we walked out on the deal and there I was, unexpectedly, with a whole second animation team I put together to do this pilot. I didn’t know what to do. The last thing I wanted was another studio deal. In case you don’t know, networks don’t have enough to pay the fee for a TVshow, since TV shows take years to make money, so ordinarily you have to deficit-finance it or you get a studio to be your partner. I realized we could make our stuff independently. While I had assembled the teamat Chili’s in Harvard Square, we were watching the OJ trial, and we noticed that ignorant, um...er, uninformed human beings were explaining how DNA testing worked.

I started jotting down some notes. I realized that the trial format is an extremely good teaching vehicle. We could use it. But instead of being about murder, it’s about something a lot lot less horrible. The solution each week would require expert witnesses that know a lot about gravity, condensation or earthworms. So we took that and we converted it to Science Court. But we didn’t have a studio, so I had to hoof it down to N.Y.and L.A.and we ended up getting a deal with ABC anyway, which was great. So now we have two tv shows.

RD: Now that you’re a television hit, are you besieged with offers?

TS:As for Dr. Katz, we don’t have to call folks anymore, they’re calling us. We’re turning people away now, because we’ve finished our season. On a general level, we get calls all the time to animate someone’s show or create someone’s show. We always say no. It doesn’t fit what they want. I feel sorry for these big companies that make 20 pilots a year and have to throw all of them at the wall and see if any of them stick.

RD: Especially when you see them, and they fail. Does it seem endemic to the way they're produced?

TS: Oh, it’s so built-in. Part of the problem in the business is that the script should be the coin of the realm. Instead, it has become "modifiable." Rather than being locked the first time it’s written, the script goes into multiple—not one or two—rewrites. They bring in script doctors and by the end of the process, whatever charm it had is a complete mystery to the people who are doing it. And it really doesn’t work anymore. Everybody has a theory about scriptwriting. There are just enough books written on it so that you can have some 22-year-old kid who made it big in hollywood saying "there's not enough arc to the story" and doing a lecture about story arcs. Unfortunately, they're correct. There’s not a literary
theory that’s wrong. You could make a case that such and such a character wouldn't be there and it would take away tension from the second act, and there’s no way to argue with it. Butitdoesn't makeany difference.

RD: How do you avoid that and the pressure from the networks and studios?

TS:We had a little of that in the beginning, but now it’s great because we write our own scripts. We’ve had a really clear vision since 1980 when we got started, so it’s hard to intimidate us. They let us write our own stuff. We send it in, and occasionally they’ll say "you can’t say ‘worms poop.’" We’ll argue about standards and practices.

I love working with ABC and Comedy Central. People said, "Just wait till you work with the big networks. It’s gonna suck." But if you find the right people, it’s great. And it’s great for us.

RD: How did you avoid being forced to live in Los Angeles? For many of our readers, it’s a dream to do the work we love in the place we love.

TS: Yeah, that’s my motto too. I knew people would say, "You’ve got to live in L.A.," and I’d say "No." They say, "Alright, you arrogant person, you’ve got to go to N.Y.," and I’d say "No." Then they asked, "Where are you going to do it?" And I said, "My house." I’m not kidding. The first year, Dr. Katz was done in my house. And I had converted the downstairs apartment (of a two-family) into an office and we took everything out of the pantry in the kitchen and put sound tiles up. The first time we had Steven Wright in, he asked "Where’s the sound booth?" When he realized what the set-up was, he said, "Just watch. In three years, everyone’s gonna have a pantry set up in LA." That’s about how creative it is out there.

But we just kept saying no. You will keep getting told over and over again that you really don’t know what you’re doing. We were told we needed a casting director from LA. They insisted. We said no. We actually got a bartender from Chili’s, Niki Hebert. She’s our casting director now. She learned how to do it. She’s very good. She’s the coordinating producer of Science Court too.

RD: Doesn’t some of your talent need to go to L.A.?

TS: There are people that have to go there. When John, Jon and I started, we were all in Cambridge and they would come over in the car. Pretty soon one of them was in L.A. or N.Y. and I realized our talent had moved away. But with technology, I can really stay here. Ijust recorded Mary Gross for Science Court, and she’s in L.A. and I’ve never met her in person. Fortunately for me, the guy who does Science Court scripts for me moved here, so we can meet in restaurants and bars.

For Science Court, I do the outline, he writes the script, and I don’t change but three or four words, even if it’s not exactly the way I say it. You can really reduce the heartbreak if you don’t micromanage. Just think how much better Seinfeld would have been in the last five years if they just let it go.

RD: You have controversial views. Will Science Court be controversial and subversive, or more like Sesame Street?

TS: Subversive, I think, because we're gonna commit ourselves so much to narrative. If you look at Sesame Street, they committed themselves to bullets, the five-second rule. Things move around really fast. What we’re saying is, the ways kids make sense of things is through the narrative (See Tom’s article, Blinded by Science, at www.teachtsp.com/who/Blinded.html). At first blush it looks highly inefficient, because it takes a long time to tell a story and it doesn't put everything in context. But it puts things in a better context that’s more memorable. I’m not a big fan of Sesame Street. I know that’s sacrilegious, because Jim
Henson was a genius. He was very funny, he created funny characters and I love his characters. From an educational point of view, though, he created a large group of American kids who are at very good at distinguishing between the letter "a" and the letter "j." We’re the best in the world at that. But I don’t think he thought through how he was going to get kids to go the next level, and do what’s called "making sense of complex things," and a story is it. It communicates facts.

RD: Is television a life-sucking box?

TS:I think the computer is a life-sucking box. The computer has all this unfortunate political cache. It’s unauthoritarian. Kids can create a path to their own knowledge, but it’s freeing them from making any commitments to anything. If you don’t dig it, you quit, and it’s real hard to get into a movie or anything if as soon as you’re distracted you click and say "let’s change this slightly."The surrender of disbelief is what the narrative engine runs on. If you watch a kid at a computer you’ll see that there ain’t no surrender. I see the computer as a commitment-sucking box. If women think it’s hard to get men to commit in 1998, just wait ‘til 2006 when the next generation of guys comes along, who have been absolutely praised for their ability to change from notion to notion at whim. When you read a book, you read the first page, it’s hard, and sometimes after the first page, you say "I don’t know," but you go on, so there’s a commitment. There’s a female comedian who says she can’t watch TV with her boyfriend when he’s got the clicker in his hand but she didn’t know why. Then she figures out it’s because he clicks when anything complex comes along, like dialogue. So that’s the problem I’m talking about. Something comes along that requires some mediation between you and the medium—CLICK—they’re done.

RD:Your office is littered with computers. Take a stance on the controversy of Macintosh versus Windows.

TS:Well, it’s Macintosh for audio, but we use Windows for video. We do all the combination on Avid, which is a Mac system. I personally had to move over to Windows from a Mac, because I found out that all my writers and lawyers were on Windows and they couldn’t translate the documents I was sending them. But the Mac is a better machine.

RD: What do you look for in animators?

TS:We don’t hire animators, we hire people who love to draw. We don’t hire people who love to make a man walk over a fence or huge boobs or muscles, and we really are not interested in the 3D shit. We can do silicon graphics, but it all looks like hell, like everything is made of brass, and when you’re done seeing it you hate it and you want to see something real. We’ve hired a lot of women, in what has been primarily a man’s job. If they love to illustrate, they’ve been to art school, we’ll ask them to send a tape. We love local stuff, but it’s hard to find the good ones.

RD: Any advice to people starting out?

TS: Yes. Stay away from the educational interactive media program. I figure even if someone has studied interactive instructional design courses we can still teach them. It only takes six months to undo the damage. They can skip the step and save us all the trouble. o

Robert Deutsch is the editor of iMMAgine NewsMagazine.