Friday, April 10, 2015

Lobo on the WB 3

D.C. Comics was very cool about the whole project. We sent them a script and they signed off, seemingly content to let us create the best animated Lobo we could.

My days evaporated, coordinating with everyone and writing story outlines. Scott's crew drew up the props for the first script. We were excited, digging the ideas, seeing the potential. Mike even put up a large cork board in my office covered with 3x5 cards—the mark of a show. On a Friday in mid January, the machine hummed, primed for the official production start the following Monday.

That morning, Jean called me up to her office.

Lobo was cancelled. 

Jamie Kellner and the WB finally decided they didn't want it. 

There are seven stages of grief. I never got past denial. It was like showing up at church and learning a man had shot your bride because he didn't like the bouquet.


The Nest 

For the rest of the day, Lobo swirled around the bowl as Jean worked the phones. There was no one savvier in the ways of corporate politics. If it were possible to finesse the show onto the air, you could summon no greater champion than MacCurdy. I'm not entirely sure who she called, but I would bet on Dan Romanelli, Bob Daley, Jamie Kellner, Bob Bibb and Lew Goldstein—two marketing guys who actually laughed out loud if they thought something was funny. (They were Old School that way.)

Nevertheless, by mid-afternoon Lobo finished circling the porcelain and disappeared in a surge of blue water. 

No one was willing to force a show onto the WB over Kellner's wishes. 

How did the production get so far? The WB knew we were spending money. They knew what was coming. But because they couldn't make up their minds earlier, artists who had reported for work that morning were turned around and pointed back out the door. 

The mood was depressed and ugly. 

I sent out my last memo, shutting down the production.

Bob Doucette arrived late to that year's pitch fest, but he had an idea for a series called Detention. (Rag-tag group of kids defying school authority.) Needing a replacement, the WB snapped it up and rushed the show into production. 

And that was that.

Jean had run the TV animation division for years with no one else but Joey Franks. There were no development executives. There were no executives attached to every show. There wasn't even a lawyer in the building. Warner Legal would visit every few years and tell us safe ways to parody, but they never overstayed their welcome. (Except for annual Sexual Harassment Seminars. These were conducted by a pair of Warner lawyers who kept insisting, "We are not the thought police," as they threatened to patrol artist cubicles and rip down 'offensive drawings.'  The seminars mysteriously halted after Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, never to return for the rest of my tenure.)

In the end,  the ratings finally killed us. Our shows tracked older than the 7 to 12-year-old demographic that advertising was sold around. 

And Warner TV animation no longer enjoyed the informal protection of Steven Spielberg. Having co-founded DreamWorks, he was now a competitor.

And so the growth of middle management commenced. 


Muppet Wiki

To be fair, enlargement had already begun, with an exec. brought in to handle the Cartoon Network and another exec. hired on in general. Nice people, but Jean had been magnetic north for too many years. That's where the compass pointed. That was the only direction that mattered. Jean had taste. She could tell crap from fudge. And she trusted the writers and artists. With the new regime at Kids' WB, if they didn't get a joke, the joke was out. That meant a show's humor was now indexed to comedic sensibilities honed at Harvard Business School and sharpened by countless development meetings.

(At the same time, Kids' WB pretty much left Bruce TimmAlan Burnett Paul Dini  and the other batlings alone. Batman Beyond had premiered and the new regime wisely chose to let it breath.)

And while I  remained on staff at Warners for nineteen more months, my big dog days were deader than Earth Shoes. After Lobo, I never came close to running a show again. And minus a show, I no longer rated an assistant. Mike and I packed up the 3x5 cards and bid farewell as he was reassigned. I tried writing a script for Detention, but the network rejected it. I wrote series premises and direct-to-video ideas. I wrote a pair of Batman Beyond scripts, which I enjoyed. Of course, there was my trip to Cambodia with Kathy Helppie, the State Department and the Agency for International Development. But that's for another day. 

Eventually, I lost my nice corner office on the fourth floor, ending up on 14, down the hall from Hanna and Barbara. They had capacious ceremonial offices and their own secretary, but nothing else to do except continue aging. 

The Main Man resurfaced twice more. There was an attempt to sell Lobo to Saban who wanted to pay $75 an episode. We thought it was an opening bid, but that's the way they rolled. Then Warner Online chose to do Lobo as a Web series—hot thing at the time. I wrote the episodes, but suddenly everyone had an opinion including D.C. Comics, an accountant, and a security guard who had several high concept ideas but didn't mind if I wrote them up and took the credit. (As everyone knows, you can never have enough voices when it comes to comedy.) With my contract up soon and not due to be renewed, I Alan Smithee'd my way off the project. 


The Aeneid

When I finally departed Warners in August of 2000, there was a lawyer assigned to TV animation with his own office in the building. There were executives by the gross. In addition, there were all kinds of other new faces with jobs that had nothing to do with writing or drawing an animated TV series or paying the people who did. I'd never met the woman who oversaw my out processing and collected my parking and building passes. Rugg and Ruegger and Rich Arons and many others without an 'r' in their name had already moved on. The place I left was a memory. 

Like Aeneas wandering the Mediterranean, I sought a new work life, hoping in the back of my head that the old Warners would somehow reconstitute somewhere in the TV animation industry. But that's like hoping high school will reconstitute without the embarrassments and awkward moments.

I welcome the new and cherish the old.

And remember the Lobo that almost was.

Lobo and the WB 1

Lobo and the WB 2

(Thanks to Paul Rugg@Froynlaven and Garrett Gilchrist@OrangeCow for linking the Lobo posts. For some reason, I can't get Blogspot to cough up the rest of the non-porn, non-Russian sites where I'm linked.)

(This is an update of a blog post titled Main Man Mania from back in 2008.)


Keeper said...

A couple other cases of executives ruining TV shows come to mind. There's even a book about the ruination of the Babylon 5 spinoff, Crusade -- called "Crusade: What the Hell Happened?" Execs leaving notes saying dumb things like "make the ship more of a main character; audiences want to know how it works." No, we didn't; the plot was about searching the galaxy to find a cure for an alien plague that was wiping out the human race. They had a ship to travel in; that's all that mattered.

In the early '00s, WB bought the broadcast rights for a popular series from Europe (based on a comic book published in several languages), Monster Allergy. If it's popular in Europe, surely it could be popular in the U.S., right? But oh, the executives thought, American viewers don't want to sit through the initial five episodes where the main character learns about and gains his powers; let's just start showing it with episode 6 where he first confronts the main bad guy -- get straight into the action!

Of course, this meant that viewers had no idea what the heck was going on. After about four or five episodes, the network execs realized this, so decided to start over from episode 1. Problem then was that they soon were into repeats, so again lost viewers. They also skipped episodes that featured a witch character who reveals important plot elements (maybe network censors involved there) -- and of course the main characters refer to her in other episodes, again leaving viewers bewildered as to what's going on. It wasn't long before they pulled the show, deciding that nobody was interested. Perhaps viewers would have been had they had the chance to learn the plot. (Was the idea of an animated serial, rather than something that can be shown in any order, beyond their ken?)

I also can think of another short-lived sci-fi series that lasted about four episodes before being canceled. The final episode aired was actually supposed to be the first episode, which introduced the plot -- suddenly the rest of the series made sense, but it was too late. Similar situation of "Let's start right in the action; people want action!"

John P. McCann said...

I've got to check out this Crusade book.

I wonder if they name names?

A dicey call if you want to keep working.

Rafa Rivas said...

Wow, that's amazing. I loved those webisodes, I can't believe there almost was an entire series of that!!
The animated version of Darlene looks and talks a lot like Steff.
Were there any scripts, character designs or animation trials left? That's like gold for nerds.
This is like the third time I ask, but have you thought about writing comics? I think you'd have a lot freedom working on a creator-owned project on Image.
I think I have mentioned before, but I loved those Batman Beyond episodes. That howerd character is the best of that high school.
I'm liking the new format of the blog. Very elegant.

John P. McCann said...

Artwork and a script do exist somewhere. Eventually, I'll rediscover them at some point and put them up.

Thanks for the hat tip on Batman Beyond. They were great to work on, a nice change of pace.

If I could find an artist I jelled with, I would certainly look into graphic novels. It's a cool art form.

Rafa Rivas said...

These days Deviantart makes that a bit easier. I'd probably look at the equivalent of the the Joe Kubert school or the SVA, but in LA.

I seriously think that guys like Paul, Tom, Paul (Dini), Alan and yourself could team up to do a much needed [digital] anthology magazine. With a range of genres you like and various forms of storytelling (prose, comics, prose with images, etc) to express yourselves. Animaniacs or Freakazoid are TV anthologies, and you guys rocked it. Something like that but on comics is urgent. Maybe some sort of mix or midpoint between MAD, Freakazoid, EC Comics and 2000AD, so that there is comedy, but also sci-fi and a bit of horror. I'm just day dreaming, but I'm willing to bet a lot of talented writers would love to participate in something with that kind of format.

John P. McCann said...

I may have mentioned this somewhere, but Paul Dini was into original graphic novels for awhile. He showed me some panels once, but I can't remember the subject matter.

Tom never seemed interested when I mentioned it to him once, but that's probably because he thought I was hinting around for him to do the artwork.

But your concept is sound. I'm sure there's a call for such an item.

Rafa Rivas said...

I hope so. All the writing legends of comics and animation would appreciate a nice, frienly place, perfect to publish short stories and be part of a nice group. A publishing business driven by the writers.
I'm a bit surprised that Tom neve did something with MAD.
Besides Jingle Belle, I read Dini did something called Madame Mirage. I liked his Batman comics just as much as his episodes. Nobody does stand alone stories anymore, and he rocked them.

John P. McCann said...

I also liked Dini's Batman stuff. He always had his finger in many a fine pie.

Craig said...


'Animaniacs' and 'Freakazoid!' were a huge part of my childhood. I was an astute enough lad to realize that when I saw your name or Mr. Rugg's on the title card for an 'Animaniacs' short, I was in for a special treat. It made complete sense when I later learned you'd both come from the same improv background. I've recently been revisiting my 'Freakazoid!' DVDs and listening to the audio commentaries. It's fun hearing you guys laughing at your own jokes and still having such enthusiasm for the material.

These posts on the decay of the creative process at WB are really interesting, if infuriating. It's too bad you guys couldn't have had a few more years of unfettered creativity. I'd love to have seen what you'd have come up with.