"Sanjay and Craig," which premieres Saturday (tonight) on Nickelodeon, follows the adventures of a boy named Sanjay, voiced by Maulik Pancholy of "30 Rock," and his best friend, a talking snake named Craig, voiced by Chris Hardwick, the Nerdist. Linda Cardellini and Tony Hale are also voices on the show.
Among other things, the goofy and delightful series represents the joining of two great names from the golden age of Nick with three as-yet obscure names from its possible future. And in this joining, it also represents a positive step back for the network to where it once belonged.
It has been 14 years, after all, since the birth of "SpongeBob SquarePants." The network's more recent animated series have been wrought from DreamWorks film franchises (Madagascar penguins, incorporated monsters, kung-fu-fighting panda), while its live-action shows have taken many cues from the aspirational sitcoms of the Disney Channel.
"They're getting back to more creator-driven things," Chris Viscardi said over a Burbank breakfast the day before the series premiere and the morning after the party anticipating it. Viscardi and partner Will McRobb, who created "The Adventures of Pete & Pete," a pillar of the Nickelodeon golden age and a show I would happily defend as the greatest television series ever, are executive producers of "Sanjay and Craig," which they regard as being very much in the spirit of "Pete & "Pete" and true to their aesthetic philosophy of making things "funny, sad, strange and beautiful." ("I think we were helpful in the 'sadder,'" McRobb said.)
The series was created by Jay Howell, Jim Dirschberger and Andreas Trolf, who met in the borderless swirl of the San Francisco art/music/writing/skating scene. Howell and Dirschberger were recruited by Nickelodeon from a Web series they'd made, a cartoon called "The Forest City Rockers," about a motorcycle gang with only one motorcycle. In rough terms, Howell is the artist (he did the character design for "Bob's Burgers"), Dirschberger the filmmaker and Trolf the writer. The younger team grew up on the works of the older one, and inside the cartoon renaissance of the 1990s.
All but Howell were present for this interview; he was at a recording session with guest voice Mark Summers, the host of the classic-era Nickelodeon game show "Double Dare," which will figure into an upcoming episode.
How did it begin?
Will McRobb: It was basically [Nickelodeon development executive] Audrey Diehl surfing the Internet and finding this hilarious inspired mess that is "Forest City Rockers" and for some reason thinking to herself, "I should contact these guys to make a kids' show." It's so outside of the normal development way, but it was perfect.
Jim Dirschberger: Audrey Diehl was, like, "Yeah, if you could maybe tone down some of the ... everything, and just keep some of the fun." And we're just, like, "OK, but we're not writers." The people we were working with on "Rockers" were just as scatterbrained as we were. And Andreas was a guy around town who we were friends with; I knew his writing before I knew him. Jay and I were in a bar and were going to sit down and write, and Andreas was there, and we just mentioned, "Yeah, we're working on this show," and he sat down for five minutes and just started riffing.
Andreas Trolf: It was just a casual relationship before then, a drinking relationship between me and Jay; Jay and Jim had been working together. And once we started jamming on "Sanjay and Craig," all this other stuff worked out -- Jim and I made a bunch of music videos together, and we all continue to work together in various capacities. It's a pretty rad partnership.
Did you already have the characters?
JD: Jay had created it as a zine in I think 2004, and it was very rough. Sanjay was older, like a 40-year-old dude who was a snake charmer, with a dynamic of a straight-laced dude combined with a really crude roommate buddy who's a talking snake. I remember sitting down with Jay and he's just like, "Kids' show -- what?" And I remembered having read the zine -- "Yeah, Sanjay and Craig, that's what we got."
Interestingly enough, we had actually pitched "Sanjay and Craig" to them, and they had turned it down. We gave them an outline that was like the phone book.
AT: Episode synopses, two pages each.
JD: We're all talking over each other -- it's like the worst pitch ever. And they're like, "Get your stuff together and come back at us. But we want something edgier." So we wrote this other show that was really just disgusting.
AT: It was about four kids who lived in a garbage dump.
JD: And they're like, "Actually, this is kind of messed up, you've gone too far. That first idea suddenly seems really good, and everybody keeps talking about it." Jay, the other creator, did character design on "Bob's Burgers," and he's good friends with [creator] Loren Bouchard. We sat down with Loren for three or four hours over coffee, and he gave us a crash course in how to pitch a show: "What are you doing? You're bringing this up? That doesn't even matter! Streamline it!" He showed us the "Bob's Burgers" pitch packet, which was, like, four pages of beautifully executed writing and art, and that was it. So we combined what we had learned from the first two pitches, put it in this really simple presentation.
AT: If they liked it, that was awesome, but we were going to make it one way or another, because we were so involved and invested in the characters. Just to make it ourselves in Flash and put it on YouTube would have been fine.