Deep within a refurbished 200-year-old building in New York City’s South Street Seaport, you can still see the massive old wheel that would take the grain from ships docked right outside its door. But now its surroundings are decidedly more high tech — a U-shaped table with computers where hip-looking people are have one main objective: making a guinea pig, a turtle, and a duckling look as cute as possible. Since January, this has been the home of Little Airplane Productions Inc., the company that makes the top-rated Nick Jr. show The Wonder Pets! ”We call this the cutefication process,” jokes producer Heather Silert, pointing to a monitor where someone is making a fly look less menacing.
The Wonder Pets follows the adventures of three classroom pets who travel around the globe rescuing animals in need of help. Its newsroom-style workspace, where everyone can see what the next person is doing, is a very rare scenario for a production company — nearly every aspect of creating the show, from writing to design to animation and even recording, is done under one roof. There are also quite a few unique things about The Wonder Pets itself — aside from the fact that in its debut season last year, it took the top ratings spot right out from under a certain curious exploradora’s nose. For one, it’s the first program to employ photo-puppetry animation, which involves using photographs of real animals. And, all of the music for the show (which is done in a mini-operetta style with most of the dialogue sung in verse) is recorded with a live orchestra. Thanks to Grammy-winning producer Jeffrey Lesser, several top-notch composers have worked on the show, from lead composer Larry Hochman (Monty Python’s Spamalot) to Robert Lopez (Avenue Q) and Jason Robert Brown (Parade).
Following the story of Linny the Guinea Pig (voiced by Sofie Zamchick), Turtle Tuck (Teala Dunn), and Ming-Ming Duckling (the Emmy-nominated Danica Lee), animals who span the globe in order to rescue various dolphins and kangaroos in distress, the show will air a special Save the Wonder Pets! (April 23 at 11 a.m.; a DVD will be released the next day), in which the three go under the sea to help a blowfish, and have a somewhat Nemo-ish encounter with a whale. EW.com talked to executive producer and creator Josh Selig to see how it all works.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where do you get your ideas?
JOSH SELIG: You know, because we did 40 episodes in Season 1, it’s true that after about 20 episodes we really start to think, How can we tell more stories and how can we not get repetitive? We realized we not only save animals in distress, but also figure out other ways of saving [things]: for instance, there’s one episode in which they save a tree that’s in a community garden that’s full of trash, so the Wonder Pets clean it up, plant flowers around the tree, and finally this tree sprouts a very beautiful blossom. So once we did that episode, we realized there were all kinds of ways of saving that were not what we originally imagined.
Have you learned about animals that you never previously knew existed?
Yes. I wrote an episode myself, ”Save the Baby Hermit Crab,” and I learned that in fact, as hermit crabs grow, they discard their shells and find new shells, and if you have a tank full of hermit crabs and you drop a really beautiful shell into the tank, then the senior hermit crab will move into that shell and then very quickly, all the other hermit crabs will toss their shells off and move up a level. It’s like people with their apartments — they move up a notch and somebody else gets their apartments. So there’s all kinds of fascinating things that we learn.
Do you have any pets of your own?
I have a cat, Schmoozer. She’s about 17 and she has diabetes, so I have to give her two injections every day. In a sense, I’m saving my own animal, yes. [Schmoozer cameos in the ”Save the Tree” episode.]
You’ve written for Sesame Street for many years and created another preschool show, Oobi. Do you think you’ll do more children’s television?
I think so. I mean right now at Little Airplane Productions, we really focus on the preschool area, and the last few years, we’ve worked almost exclusively with Noggin and Nickelodeon, and they’ve been a great partner. They’re really the company that first believed in us when we pitched Oobi, and then they believed in us again on Wonder Pets. And Wonder Pets is the show we’re most proud of. It combines everything we’ve learned from all these other shows, and they are some really special features of the Wonder Pets, for instance, recording every episode with a live orchestra — that’s something that is almost unheard-of in kids’ TV. And that’s possible largely because Brown Johnson, who heads up Nick Jr., has great taste, and she really believed in our desire to have a full orchestra. So now every Monday, for a couple hours, the orchestra comes in and records a full episode. But we do have some new shows in the works as well.
What other shows do you admire?
I’m a big fan of The Backyardigans. I also like Charlie & Lola, which is a terrific BBC show. There’s probably more good shows out there right now than ever before.
Today, children’s television is a lot different from when we were growing up.
Sesame Street and Mister Rogers always had lessons, there have always been some great shows. But I definitely grew up watching a lot of Bugs Bunny and Tom and Jerry, and they were great shows too in their own way. They weren’t overtly educational, but that’s where I was first exposed to classical music — watching Bugs Bunny. We all grew up hearing The Barber of Seville and all these things as scores to Bugs Bunny cartoons, and it wasn’t until much later that I realized these things actually had a life before Bugs Bunny. The quality of that animation is extraordinary, the character design, so there’s a lot of ways in which shows help children appreciate high-quality theater, writing, and music, without doing anything in an overt way. Nowadays, preschool is done in a very overt way with curriculums and research departments, but as long as there is high-quality work being made, I think there is something you can gain from it.