An Interview with Brendan Hay, Producer & Writer of “Harvey Street Kids”
By Chuck Cannini
After his animated show about cave people, Dawn of the Croods, finished its final season on Netflix, Brendan Hay teamed up with DreamWorks Animation again to create Harvey Street Kids. Based on classic characters from the old Harvey comics, Harvey Street Kidsbrings a simple premise about kids who live on a block, very much in the same vein as many early ‘90s cartoons, such as Doug, Hey Arnold!, and Ed, Edd, and Eddy. Brendan Hay also worked on The Daily Show, The Simpsons, and Robot Chicken, as well as wrote the graphic novel Rascal Raccoon’s Raging Revenge. I had the opportunity to speak with Brendan about the behind-the-scenes of Harvey Street Kids, some recommendations for writers, and the writing life.
The Drunken Odyssey: Was there anything you did not accomplish with Croodsthat you wish you had?
Brendan Hay: In that last season we got our weird pie in the sky dreams of doing a baby musical or an episode about the invention of God. I’m sure we could have come up with more stories, but on the other hand it also felt really nice to have a solid resolution that hooks our series up to the feature [film].
TDO: Will you have a hand in the sequel to the film in 2020?
BH: I would have happily taken a hand, but I always kind of knew it wasn’t going to happen. For better or worse, in animation, features and TV are two worlds that don’t cross over too much.
TDO: What would you like people to know about Harvey Street Kids?
BH: One is depending on where you are generationally. We are a throwback to a simpler cartoon. We’re a show that feels very much of the moment, but there is a certain nostalgia infused into it. Aliki Theofilopoulos, the supervising producer and show runner on this, and I keep saying that [the show is] about how childhood feels. Hopefully, some adults can connect to that. Also, as I tried to do with Croodsand will try to do again, we try to be a smart show. We try to make sure we have jokes for all ages. Growing up, I always loved Rocky and Bullwinkle. Watching that show, I would be like here’s a joke that I’m going to have to, at that time, go to a library and open a book to find out. Like, who is Omar Khayyam? I would actually end up researching it and enjoying the show and joke more. For kids, there’s that. For adults, they don’t need the research. They’ll get the idea and they’ll be fine.
TDO: The main characters – Audrey, Dot, and Lotta – are based on characters from Harvey Comics. Did you or your team add anything new to the characters?
BH: Yes and no. We tried to make sure that whatever we’re adding is based on the heart of who the character was originally. Our best example probably being Lotta [voiced by Lauren Lapkus]: in the old comics, she is a kind of character who just has an outsized love and enthusiasm for things. She also is very big and very strong by comparison to the other kids. It was amazing how pretty much all the old stories were about how Lotta gets hungry and eats crazy amounts of food. Well, we’re not going to do that. It feels weird reducing her to that. But to take that and make it more like a hunger for life and a hunger for experiences and fun, and keeping that same kind of bright, positive attitude – someone who just wants to try to love and embrace everything – that still feels like it’s still very true to who she is, but we’re not limiting it to the fact that she eats a lot of food.
TDO: Did you or your team contribute your own childhood experiences to the show?
BH: Little details, like we have a sibling relationship that comes in a little later in the series. That’s based on one of our writer’s sibling rivalries in her own life. Our writers and directors and board artists all are bringing a lot of their own childhoods and lives into this show. It’s kind of a fun, cathartic process for us. I remember reading that Freaks and Geeks, when they put that room together, Paul Feig had everybody involved write down three of their most embarrassing teenage stories. They were all shared anonymously, but just to generate ideas. We’re dealing with characters who are more around the age of ten. We didn’t have to go as far as Feig, but it was just us all diving into our childhoods. As we went on, it’s a very collaborative show in general. Everyone on the crew’s childhoods became a part of the show.
TDO: Whose idea was Harvey Street Kids? At what point did you become involved in the project?
BH: There’s one executive, her name’s Beth Cannon, and this show was her idea for a very long time. She saw the potential in these old characters that DreamWorks owned the rights to that were just going untapped. She saw this great idea: a female-driven comedy. She reached out to a whole lot of different people to find the right take. There’s a writer / animator named Emily Brundige. She had a really strong take on the characters and how to put this all together. So she put together a bible for what our series became. She left the project before I came on. So when I came in, they already had this great idea. Here is this great-looking world and there are these great ideas for characters. We then just got to take them and play with them and create stories.
TDO: What is an average day like for you working on a show like this?
BH: The days vary. When I started a few years ago, especially if you’re the show runner / producer, it’s mostly writing. Early on it was just a lot of talking with the writers, generating story ideas. We were still trying to define who everybody is and what their voices were, and what are the types of jokes that we do. I’ll be there to break the story initially, then I will read the draft that they put together. By the end of it, it’s mostly producing. I think the metaphor we keep using is plate spinning. I come in, sit down with the writers for 20-30 minutes to talk about the story they’re working on. I give them my notes, my feedback, and they work off that. Then I’ll jump into watching a storyboard pitch or an animatic screening and give my notes on that. Then I’ll jump out to a record with our voice cast; I also have to be a voice director on this show. Then we’re doing postproduction, so we might be going over sound effects or music spotting. It’s just basically checking in on every department, giving notes, keep that plate spinning, and make sure there isn’t a pileup at any one point on that process, on anybody’s process, that’s going to back up the whole show. A lot of writing ends up done at home. At night, I’ll finally take a pass at an outline. It’s usually when I’m not in the office just because the office is usually split between every other department.
TDO: What is your writing process?
BH: There are two different ways, especially in TV. There’s group writing and then there’s where I do it myself. When I have to write I like to brainstorm while I drive. I just put on my phone’s microphone feature. I just talk out all the possible permutations or ideas and it’s kind of like free-associating what might work. I jot down my notes from that, then I’ll pitch that to the writer’s room. We talk about things that work or don’t work. We use Dan Harmon’s story circle method. For the actual writing process, I’m very much somebody who needs to figure out ways to cut out distractions. I like either doing “writing sprints,” where I’m only going to work for thirty minutes or an hour. That helps me stay super focused and not go on social media or stuff like that. I also started using this app called Focus At Will, which finds instruments that accompanies you and your writing or your personality. It’s suppose to help you cut down distractions. I also like writing in public. Weirdly, it chains me to focus. So I’m big on writing in a coffee house or a restaurant. If people are going to be watching me, I don’t mind them seeing me, but I don’t want them to see me on Facebook.
TDO: When I talk to young and/or aspiring writers I often hear about “the struggle.” They talk about the industry as though it’s beyond their reach. For animation, do you think these younglings have all they need to create works of their own? Is it accessible?
BH: They can … with some caveats to that. It depends on what kind of work you want to do. The plus side now is that I think the tools are there to do it yourself, especially for animation. If you can draw at all or create any kind of moving figures in art and then use a flash animation program that’s relatively simple to use from your own home, you can absolutely create your own short to help sell your own idea. Thank God for being now able to shoot a comedy short or a dramatic short or whatever you want on your phone! Post it online! Get it out there! I think it’s better to create something and get it out there than to just while away on one script in a filing cabinet and never share it with the world. Between those two options, when you’re trying to break in, just keep trying your own things. Create your own shorts. Create your own scenes. There are radio plays, there are podcasts – I think those are a really good way to go.
TDO: And if they want to break into the industry?
BH: I will say for anybody who wants to break in as a writer – the TV side of things at all, animation included – it is possible to break in through production. Not that those jobs are easy to find, but they’re slightly easier than finding writing jobs. Production is a good way because then you also learn more about the process, meet people in the specific industry you want, and just work your way up through that. Look for those internships and production gigs and know that it’s not going to mean that you’re writing. You might have five years where you’re just kind of toiling in the trenches on other stuff, but you’ll be learning that whole time and meeting people who will help you get to the next spot that you want to get to. Try to get one of those production jobs. Once you get that production job and realize you’re not doing a terrible job at it – six months, nine moths down the road – let everybody there know what you want to do is write. Try to talk to the writers and ask for their advice. Let everybody know that if they have a writing assistant gig or any opportunity, start letting them know that you’re interested. And if they think you’re really showing your chops and you’re a good PA, they’ll let you know. That’s basically what worked for me.
TDO: Anything of note that you’re reading right now?
BH: Still loving all of Brian K. Vaughan’s Saga and Paper Girls. Two comics I definitely want to recommend are Image Comic’s The Fix by Nick Spencer and Steve Lieber and Dark Horse’s Black Hammer by Jeff Lemire. The Fix is a really fun crime comic if you like the movies of Shane Black at all. Black Hammer– I’ve only read the first volume of that so far – is really moving and sweet and sad but interesting take on superheroes and superhero comics. Another Image Comic: Curse Words by Ryan Browne and Charles Soule. Curse Wordsis super fun. Just ridiculous if you ever want … I don’t know how to describe that one … magical comedy action? It’s just a wonderfully weird little book. On the book front, I’ve been on a humungous music bio kick lately. The one I’m currently reading is off to a really good start. It’s called Meet Me in the Bathroomby Lizy Goodman, which is an oral history of New York’s rock scene in the early 2000s. It’s just a fun deep dive on a whole lot of bands, some that I love and some bands that I didn’t even really know about. It’s a really fun look at the scene at that time. My favorite that I read over the past year – and I’ve read four or five – was the biography called Trouble Boysby Bob Mehr, the book about the band called The Replacements. I thought I had done a deep-dive into that band before, but in this book every other page had something I had never known. So just the depth of the access of history that Mehr gets into with that band really impressed me.
TDO: How about animation?
BH: More than anything: Bob’s Burgers. That show remains the one constant of anything I watch on TV. Recently, I was just watching some Craig of the Creekon Cartoon Network, which is a really charming new show. I’m really enjoying the characters on that. And DreamWorks – I’ll support my own company – they’re doing some nice work.
TDO: Where else can followers look for more information about Harvey Street Kids?
BH: The first thirteen episodes will launch on June 29th. I think in that whole lead up until then, go to the Harvey Street Kids Facebook page. There have already been a few extra clips released. We’ll have more and more stuff coming out in the lead up to the 29th. If you really like the show, follow Aliki [Theofilopoulos] and me on Twitter.
Chuck Cannini grew up on a diet of animation, including Disney classics, Pokémon, and Ed, Edd, and Eddy. One day, he had to choose between a new episode of Dragon Ball Z and his first middle school dance. Years later, after he graduated with a B.F.A. in Creative Writing for Entertainment, he realized he should have chose the former.