Highland Park brothers create hit 'Nature Cat' cartoon for PBS

When "Nature Cat" premiered last fall, the PBS Kids cartoon became a breakthrough hit for Spiffy Pictures, an aspiring television production studio with an unlikely address — the second floor of a Highland Park strip mall.

Spiffy, headed by brothers David and Adam Rudman, is still tucked away above a yogurt shop and a fitness studio. But with millions of viewers and several major deals in the works, the Highland Park natives may even find their way onto the mall directory.

"It's all going to change," said David Rudman, 53. "The landlord is putting our name out front with the other people on the second floor, so our anonymity is coming to an end."

The company is definitely making a name for itself with "Nature Cat." The show is consistently ranked among the top five PBS Kids shows nationally since its premiere in November, according to the network. It also has more than 114 million streaming views through various online platforms.

The show follows the adventures of Fred, a house cat who explores the great outdoors with a mouse, a dog and a bunny, voiced by "Saturday Night Live" stars including Taran Killam, Bobby Moynihan and Kate McKinnon. Inspired by Looney Tunes yet hewing to its mission of nature education, the cartoon series has proved a ratings success with its target audience — young children — while turning their parents into closet fans as well, the producers said.

"We really like to make our shows for everybody — for parents to enjoy as much as the kids," said David, the elder sibling, whose day job has long been playing Cookie Monster on PBS staple "Sesame Street."

A few years ago, the Rudmans would have been happy to make their shows for anybody.

Launched in 2003, Spiffy Pictures has created and produced several live-action projects including "Jack's Big Music Show" for Nickelodeon and "Bunnytown" for Disney. The Rudman brothers have collaborated professionally since the mid-'90s, doing quirky puppet shorts for Comedy Central and MTV.

Their amateur projects date back to the 1980s, when they began making videos with their friend, neighbor and future Spiffy business manager, Scott Scornavacco.

David Rudman led the way into children's television, landing a part-time job with "Sesame Street" while attending the University of Connecticut, learning about puppeteering from the show's creator, Jim Henson.

"It was like going to film school for me," said David, who went to work full-time for Henson upon graduation.

In 2000, he replaced the legendary Frank Oz as the primary voice and hands behind Cookie Monster, a role he still fulfills.

Adam Rudman, 48, Spiffy's head writer, has a lengthy TV resume himself, working on everything from "Tom & Jerry" cartoons to "Cyberchase" for PBS before joining forces with his brother.

Spiffy pitched "Nature Cat" to PBS in 2009 from a series of hand-drawn sketches penned by David. The concept resonated with the network.

"When they came in with this show idea, we knew immediately that we wanted to do it, because it was funny," said Linda Simensky, vice president of children's programming for PBS.

Getting the show off the ground took years of tests and tweaks. The green light came in 2014, when PBS ordered 40 episodes for season one. The inaugural run will take the show into 2017, and renewal negotiations are underway.

Each show costs about $400,000 to produce. PBS is partnered with Spiffy on "Nature Cat," providing about 40 percent of the funding. Spiffy retains ownership of the show, including international distribution rights and merchandising.

Chicago public television station WTTW-Ch.11 signed on as co-producer with Spiffy, its first kids programming venture in nearly a decade. Its primary role is as a fundraising conduit for "Nature Cat," bringing in major sponsors including the Van Eekeren family, founders of Munster, Ind.-based Land O'Frost, and Capri Sun to help underwrite the cost of the show.

The station also produces short nature "commercials" voiced by SNL alum Chris Parnell that appear in the show.

"It seemed like a natural partnership," said Dan Soles, senior vice president and chief television content officer for WTTW. "It's extra special for us because it is a Chicago-based show."

A typical 30-minute show includes two 11-minute stories. The storylines are created in conjunction with curriculum advisers, and are shaped into comedic scripts by the Rudmans. Then come individual recording sessions, often done remotely, with the animation added later by Toronto-based 9 Story Media Group.

"That 11-minute story probably takes a year," Adam said.

A recent storyline found Nature Cat bitten by mosquitoes, sprayed by a skunk and stung by a bee on the way to visit a bat cave, causing him to temporarily abandon his friends and mission, before returning with a bit less bravado.

Simensky, who first worked with the Rudmans back in the '90s when she was in animation development at Nickelodeon, said the brothers have added a missing ingredient to children's television.

"They're bringing a sense of humor to educational TV," she said. "A lot of people can be smart and a lot of people can be funny, but smart and funny is hard."

The brothers, dressed in matching blue polo shirts, directed a three-hour recording session recently from their modest offices, feeding lines and setting the scenes via Skype for Killam, who is in Vancouver filming a movie. Killam delivered the lines with manic gusto — three takes for each — as the Rudmans mouthed the words, punctuated with dramatic hand gestures and giggles.

"Great ... outstanding ... awesome," they told Killam after each line, only slightly less animated than their star.

rchannick@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @RobertChannick

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