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Pleasanton Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - May 24, 2013

Hoping for a hit

Amador alum's cartoon show premieres tomorrow on Nickelodeon

by Glenn Wohltmann

An Amador graduate is hoping to make it big time on the small screen with an animated show premiering tomorrow on Nickelodeon.

The show is called "Sanjay and Craig," about a boy and his pet snake. It debuts in what's been known for years as the primo spot for cartoons -- Saturday morning.

Jay Howell, a 1993 grad, is co-creator of the series.

"I'm also the art director here as well. That means I'm in charge of how the show looks, all the characters and all that stuff," Howell said.

The hook of the show is that Sanjay and his friends know Craig can talk, but none of the adults do.

Howell didn't break into Nickelodeon the traditional way, by approaching the network with an idea or a script.

"I took a different route than most people. I started doing stuff with my partner Jim Dirschberger. We started making cartoons on our own and putting them on the Internet. I would also make my own comics as well," he said. "I think I have a pretty fun sense of humor, doing it suited me pretty well."

The network approached them after some of the animation the two were doing drew their attention.

"They saw the cartoons Jim and I were doing," Howell said. "They asked, 'Do you think you'd be interested in doing some children's cartoons?'"

He said "Sanjay and Craig" was the first show they pitched.

"Right away, they wanted to see some more, so we pitched another one, but they kept coming back to 'Sanjay and Craig,'" Howell said.

It's not the first time Howell's work has appeared on Nickelodeon -- he was character designer for the popular show "Bob's Burgers" -- but it is the first time he's been at the helm. He left "Bob's Burgers" to work on the new show.

"Once they pick you up, they start paying you to do the pilot, it's called development," he said. "Development is a very long road to go down. It evolved all the way up to us writing the actual show, and the characters still change a little bit. It's an interesting process, really. You have to show the network that you know the characters and that you've developed them really strongly."

Howell, who's 38, describes himself as a late bloomer.

"I'm all self taught. Amador Valley High School was my last art class -- Mrs. (Evie) Moriguchi," he said, adding that while he wanted to be an artist, he really didn't have a career path mapped out. "I just wanted to draw and ride my skateboard and enjoy life. I didn't start getting my career together until I was 30."

That's not to say he hasn't been doing art. Howell has had a recent solo show of his work at FFDG gallery in San Francisco, entitled "Enthusiastic Person," as well as putting out zines, self-created magazines.

"It just started to work out about five years ago, I guess," he said.

He said "getting a TV show is pretty exciting," but added it's a lot of work to actually make it happen.

About "Sanjay and Craig," he said, "A lot of it is derived from our own childhoods, the writers on the show. They try to take real childhood adventures and move them onto the cartoon screen."

While presumably none of them had a talking snake as a friend, Howell described that as the fun part of the show.

"Imagine if your best friend was a talking snake -- that's the really cool part. That's where the fantasy comes into the show," he said.

Craig is also a master of disguise, and that plays a big part in the debut, in which they break into a local hospital to see the first ever butt transplant. That's standard fare for Nickelodeon these days: funny, a little twisted, and with a bit of an edge. These aren't your parents' cartoons.

Nickelodeon has given "Sanjay and Craig" some time to build an audience, with 20 half-hour shows slotted.

"It can take up to six months per show, so you're working on multiple shows at the same time," Howell said.

Stylistically, he said, "We use a lot of hand-painted backgrounds. Our show has an early '90s Nickelodeon feel to it, I try to make it what I grew up on."

A lot of animation these days is done in Korea, and Howell went there to work with some of the overseas team.

But he spends much of his time, literally, at the drawing board.

"Basically, I'm drawing from morning to night every single day," Howell said.

Some of the actors lending their voices to the characters are well known, including Linda Cardellini from "Mad Men," Matt Jones from "Breaking Bad" and Kunal Nayyar from "The Big Bang Theory."

Howell, Dirschberger and Andreas Trolf are co-executive producers. The first episode airs at 10:30 a.m., tomorrow, May 25.


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