The Penguins of Madagascar is a quietly excellent cartoon: a madcap, zany show that redefined the Madagascar’s cuddly-yet-militaristic team in an over-the-top Brooklyn zoo. Its insular nature made it hard to keep up, but, like Community, rewarded followers with inside jokes, excellent character gags, and nods to past events. Recently, the show finished up their production run, and sooner then later the final episodes will be aired on Nick. [07/19/12 – Edit: Just learned that, today, the show was also nominated for a Primetime Emmy!] Executive producer and writer Robert Schooley took some time out of his schedule to talk about the show, the difference between CGI and traditional animation, and whether the Lunicorns were indeed a My Little Pony parody. Be sure to follow him on Twitter.
TMB: The Penguins of Madagascar seemed to relish in being its own thing instead of hewing too closely to the Madagascar movies. How much of this was intentional from the start? Did Dreamworks or Nickelodeon have reservations in taking the characters in such a different and separate direction?
RS: It was a practical decision. DW didn’t know what the Madagascar sequel stories would be at that point, so the decision was made to feature all of the characters but the four leads and exist in a separate continuity from the features.
TMB: As a followup, what were the challenges, if any, in defining the characters and the show outside of the films?
RS: Skipper was fully defined already, so it was a matter of finding new aspects to the other three to round out the team. Because we were not really related to the movies, we felt pretty comfortable letting everyone develop naturally as we’d invent new comic quirks to have fun with.
TMB: Does the New York setting pose any issues? Since everyone who works on the show is in LA.
RS: Not really. Most of us are from the east coast anyway. I’m sure if we were living there while writing the show more particular real world details might have shown up.
TMB: The director of the first Madagascar film, Tom McGrath, mentioned here that he wanted to avoid “zoo vs. wild” type contentions. Seems like you doubled down on that philosophy. Can you elaborate on it?
RS: It’s such a unique world with it’s own strange logic, I’m not sure the issue really came up much.
TMB: How did ideas for characters and plots come up? It’s impressive how rich and diverse the cast has become in just a few years.
RS: Hardest question to answer. Most ideas just come out of looking to put a character through something. A few stories came out of specifics to the zoo setting, like “Snooze at the Zoo” or webcam, but most were just coming up with funny ways to put characters in conflict with each other, nature or the world.
TMB: While I wouldn’t say the show had a “story arc,” it seems to have a very loose style that allows events, stories, and characters to be called back to, referenced, and revisited. Was there a fear about that being alienating to new audiences?
RS: Always a risk and probably something the network would rather we didn’t do, but all the shows we produce have a rough internal continuity. We like to reward fans who watch every episode. And in this DVR age it’s not hard to do.
TMB: I would like to talk about the animation for a moment. We’ve come a long way since Reboot. How challenging is it to make strong, cartoony movements (squash and stretch, smears and blurs, etc.) via CGI?
RS: We have really great animators in our studios working off very strong board poses. It amuses me when people confuse rendering (i.e. detailed fur) to character animation. On a TV budget and schedule we can’t do the same lush rendering as a feature, but I think we do get every ounce of subtlety and personality out of these characters. We are constantly amazed by the little extra touches the teams in India and New Zealand add to the acting.
TMB: Which do you prefer, traditional or computers?
RS: Apples and oranges. I like both. Kim Possible was a great looking show and I’d do that style again in a minute. A big advantage to traditional is that you can create a much bigger world, since every set and guest character doesn’t have to be laboriously built. And it can be a more stylish look, ideally. But there’s also a great feel of spacial reality in CG that lends itself to the more sitcom sorts of stories that we do on this show, and yet, thanks to the process that’s been refined here at Nick, with genuine cartoon snap and timing that is genuinely fun to watch.
TMB: How did you get into the TV animation business? How’d you get tagged as executive producer of this show in particular?
RS: Started in the mailroom at DIC, a busy studio in the 80’s. Started pitching stories to their shows, got hired on staff. Eventually drafted to Disney, worked our way up to exec producer there. We were recruited to run Penguins after they had already done a first version of a pilot that we came in to rework.
TMB: Favorite character? Favorite episode?
RS: Can’t really pick a favorite character. Honestly they’re all fun to write. I think Skipper is pretty special because Tom created him and can add little touches and ad libs in the performance that surprise and delight us. But I think everybody has added unique touches to their characters. Danny’s King Julien is a constant exploration of how far you can push an ego. I love when Jeff gets to play Kowalski as unexpectedly emotionally fragile. Or when John decided Rico should sing like Michael McDonald. And nothing made me laugh more than James when Private got angry at everybody.
Favorite episode may be “The Penguin Who Loved Me” because it’s the final Blowhole episode and it pays off a lot of running gags from the series. It may end up being the last to air.
TMB: Now that production is finished on the show, what’s next for you and the Penguins? Rumor has it that there may be a movie in the works.
RS: There is a Penguins movie in production at DW, but at this time it’s unrelated to the series. That could always change though, I guess. We, and most of the staff and some of the cast are deep into the next series Monsters vs. Aliens.
TMB: Final question: Are the Lunacorns really the show’s jab at the My Little Pony fandom?
RS: One man’s jab is another’s homage.