Creator of Ben 10 and writer of Ultimate Spider-Man and Avengers Assemble, Joe Kelly, talks with me about writing All Ages animation.
Anthony Couto: What makes an animated television series appealing to both kids and adults?
Joe Kelly: The trick (which is harder than it sounds) is simply to write up to your audience instead of down. Kids are smart. They like to be challenged by their characters and stories – and so do adults. So if we start with that bar in mind and try not to drop below it, generally we find that the audience responds at both ends of the age spectrum.
Generally, we pick the target audience for a particular concept and build it for them first – usually kids. That focus ensures that there is a clear point of view in the tone, storytelling, etc. Then, in the actual writing of the scripts, we might throw in dialogue or little storytelling bits that appeal to adults as a bonus.
Lastly, I’m a grown-up (in theory) who likes cartoons. So if I wouldn’t watch it, I try not to write it!
Couto: How do you write action sequences that are viewable for all audiences?
Kelly: That’s easy – you know what’s allowable by S&P (Standards and Practices) and you don’t go out of that box. There’s no fooling anyone – you can’t “sneak in” a low blow or stick to the eye.
The fun part is to look at the “limitations” as challenges and figure out ways to write compelling action sequences that are appropriate for kids TV.
Couto: How do you divide up moments of humour, for example, that cater to both kids and adults? Is there a specific allotment for each, or do they have to be written for every kind of viewer?
Kelly: Funny is funny. If a grown up is watching a cartoon with their kid (or alone) they’ve already signed half of the contract – there’s not going to be anything R-rated in the show, or even PG 13 for that matter. So again, working in the constraints of the medium, we come up with gags that make us laugh. The only real test is “will a kid find this funny?” A reference to an old show might make an adult chuckle, but if a kid won’t inherently find that same joke funny – even on a different level- we chuck it.
Couto: Superman Vs. The Elite is based on such a strong, morally compelling story, based on your comic book work. What are the challenges with keeping the complex themes in content meant for kids?
Kelly: Luckily, I had a lot of latitude with that script because it is PG-13. WB Animation has been pushing the limits lately because they know that the audience buying those shows tends to be older, so I didn’t have to worry too much.
On that script, the challenges had more to do with the distinction between PG-13 and R, which can sometimes be in the eye of the beholder.
Couto: What are your thoughts on the nostalgia adults have now for shows like Batman: The Animated Series that are seen as mature? Do you think they actually reached a primarily adult demo?
Kelly: I have no idea what the actual demo wound up being for that show. Personally, I think it hit all of the bases and did so with style – kids could watch it, adults enjoyed it, etc. It was revolutionary on many levels. The material was treated very seriously, the art was “dark” and stylized – I honestly believe that it was groundbreaking.
That said, I try very hard to steer clear of “nostalgia” when I work. I have my favorites. I know what I loved as a kid and what I respect now as a creator, but I try to put that stuff aside when I work. If anything, I try to tap into the spirit of my favorites without any direct reference to the source material. For example, I wrote an updated “adult” comic origin story for Space Ghost. I didn’t look at a single episode, and I didn’t set out to mangle what what was done to fit an adult story. I did tap into my own fantasies and questions about that character – why did he have a black hood? Why did he have those two kids with him? Didn’t his universe seem a little dark? (It did to me.) Those questions begged answers that felt in the spirit of what I remembered/made up as a kid – then I translated them as the writer I am now.
When I try to chase the spirit of an established character, I usually do well. When I try to replicate something from my youth, that’s trouble.
Couto: What kind of demand is there now for content that is truly for all ages?
Kelly: There will always be a demand for work that can be enjoyed by adults and kids – that’s not going away – but it won’t be the holy grail of entertainment the way it has been in the past once everyone in the house has their own screen.
I think that ironically, “All ages” is going to become a niche category in a very short period of time. With the proliferation of options out there for consumers, entertainment is becoming more and more specialized – because a “small genre piece” can potentially reach the same audience as a “four quadrant film” thanks to the internet.
Studios are catching on to this and will stop putting all of their eggs in the “all ages” basket, because they already know that it’s very very difficult to create something that is loved universally by everyone at all times. Better to let a piece find it’s audience honestly instead of trying to warp it to fit a made up algorithm. Historically, nearly every smash hit was original and untested when it hit the theatres/tv/comic pages. They also had a vision and a point of view – which were not crafted by a studio mandate to “hit all four quadrants.” That’s the goal of writing for me – create without pre-defining a thing, let it breathe, and embrace the audience that finds it. Starting the other way is backwards.
You can watch Joe Kelly’s work on Ultimate Spider-Man and Avengers Assemble on Disney 😄 in Canada.