TMB: So the biggest question that seems to be tossed around is: why The Jungle Book characters? Is there a particular reason why you focused on Baloo, Louie, and Shere Khan, as opposed to Kaa or Bagheera?
JM: Originally, we were using Baloo in the “B-Players” series we were pitching. So when that pitch died, I kept Baloo (cuz I liked his laid-back quality), then I put him in an earlier Duck Tales concept (Launchpad’s courier service). So Baloo became the cargo pilot. I also liked the Baloo-Mowgli relationship, but I didn’t want a human, so Kit was invented. Rebecca, Wildcat, and Karnage came next. That was the main crew. When we decided to add a Rick’s Cafe American-style setting for all the pilots to congregate in, Louie became the natural bar owner. And as the series expanded, we wanted a conglomerate mogul – and who better than Shere Khan, right? That voice! There was never a thought of “Oh, which Jungle Book characters should I use and not use.” It just grew as the series grew. Bagheera’s parental, level-headed character was already taken care of by Becky… so we kept the black panthers as Shere Khan’s pilots, as an homage. Kaa was never considered… no freakin’ limbs!
TMB: It’s been noted that TaleSpin was loosely based on Tales of the Gold Monkey (which is a pretty fun show even today). Any insight in how the overall decision to base TaleSpin on that show would be appreciated. How’d you go from that show to what you created here?
JM: Yes, TotGM was in inspiration, but simply because I liked the feel of the genre: the adventurous pilot, the tropical setting. That TV show, in turn, was inspired by black & white movies of the 30’s & 40’s. Like Sky King and Jungle Jim combined, right? So I think Tale Spin still would have turned out pretty much the same even if TotGM never existed, cuz the genre already existed… but it was a nifty inspiration.
TMB: On that note, TaleSpin is unique in that the tone of the show seems more, for lack of a better word, “realistic,” as realistic as a show about talking, walking animals can be. Were there any issues from Disney execs in minimizing the wackiness? What was the pitch for this show like?
JM: I never heard any concerns from execs about the tone of the show. In fact, the pitch probably stressed wackiness more than you would think. One piece of art showed the Seaduck delivering a whale on its roof. Another showed Baloo eating a snack while driving with his feet. And another showed Kit air-foiling behind the Seaduck, holding onto the towrope with his foot while lighting a stick of dynamite with his hands. To the execs & buyers, it probably felt like an off-shoot of Duck Tales – which was hugely popular.
TMB: Episodes in particular like “Her Chance to Dream,” “The Old Man and the Sea Duck,” and “Paradise Lost” really hit some powerful and dramatic character notes. That kind of adult slant to cartoons seemed rare these days. What made you feel confident to tell those kinds of stories, given the slate of the other Disney Afternoon cartoons?
JM: There was never anything conscious about doing those shows. They felt right, so we did ’em. We had 65 episodes to fill, and every so often you wanted a change of pace. I think it was producer Larry Latham who said, “We’re not doing cartoon shows… we’re doing mini-movies.”
TMB: Where and how did you conceive and develop a character like Don Karnage? His combination of viciousness, goofiness, and excellent wordplay. How did you discuss putting that all together?
JM: Great question. Karnage is a terrific character, and one of Jim Cummings’ faves. I wanted a band of crazy air pirates (inspired by those nuts in Miyazaki’s Laputa). The notion of a “wolf pack” (like the Nazi submarines) came to mind. So in the pitch, we had a slew of smelly wolves… and a really mean-looking French poodle. The poodle disappeared, but the wolves got a leader: The Dread Pirate Anthrax (inspired by The Princess Bride). But Disney Legal said we couldn’t use Anthrax, cuz it was the name of a heavy metal band. (I pointed out it was originally the name of sheep disease, but Legal didn’t budge.) So at the last minute (just before a recording session, no less!), I wrote up a bunch of names. I knew I wanted “Don” something… like Don Destruction or Don Diego Death. Carnage seemed right, and of course Karnage would never pronounce the word as “carnage,” he’d say “kar-NODGE”. /// Backing up slightly, when we were casting for Anthrax, someone suggested Billy Crystal’s imitation of Fernando Lamas on Saturday Night Live. (“You look Mah-velous.”) That was funny, so we thought, “Hey, what if Anthrax is just a mangy, common wolf, but he THINKS of himself as royalty?” So he always speaks like he’s educated and noble, but he completely mangles the language, yes-no? Jim Cummings nailed it perfectly.
TMB: Likewise with Rebecca Cunningham – a strong single mother with a MBA. I assume she’s built off Sarah Stickney White. What was that process of that growth and change? And how much of a “get” was Sally Struthers as her voice?
JM: Sarah Stickney White is the gal from Gold Monkey, yes? I had to look that up, cuz I didn’t know who she was. She was not the inspiration for Rebecca (though there may be similarities. I don’t remember Sarah’s character.) Becky was part Rebecca Howe from CHEERS and part of a female MBA in our TV department (named Cunningham). The perfect foil for Baloo. He’s street smart, but not educated (kinda like Sam Malone), while she’s educated, but not street smart. Baloo lost his business (like Sam) to a novice business woman, and he bristles the whole time – trying to earn enough money to buy back his business. Becky was the 3rd leg of the cast’s emotional stool. Kit needs a mother and a father. Baloo needs someone to tell him to “grow up” so he can take care of Kit. And Becky needs a pilot (and co-pilot) to make her business run. (Plus, the sexual tension between single mom Becky and footloose adventurer Baloo.) /// As for Sally Struthers, I always had her in mind for the role. I asked for her, but I didn’t think we’d get her. She was doing a play somewhere, and her agent mailed her the materials. She did a voice test on cassette tape and mailed it back. That’s how it happened. Later, a Disney exec said his little son didn’t like the voice, and she was almost recast, based on this one child’s opinion, but cooler heads prevailed, and Sally stuck. (I always had a crush on her from All in the Family anyway.)
TMB: Can you share a few words on the design and layout of Cape Suzette? From the docks and planes to the city landscapes and skyscrapers, the world of Talespin feels so rich and varied. Besides the Art Deco influences, what else did you base the city on?
JM: I knew the basis of our world was tropical. So Japan, India, southeast Asia was the real world equivalent. Like a Hong Kong or a Rio de Janeiro. The time period was the mid-30’s – the time of pulp magazines, adventure serials, art deco, and (duh) Indiana Jones. When the world was still not fully explored. The world of National Geographic. So Cape Suzette grew on the banks of a bay, deep in a tropic continent. (Naturally, Cape Suzette is just a play on words… it’s not a cape at all, it’s a bay or an inlet.) Like Hong Kong I wanted skyscrapers as well as slums. It’s all there. Whatever we needed.
TMB: What’s your favorite episode? What about characters? How about one-off characters? A bunch of friends really like Ace London, but I’m personally a fan of Doug Benson.
JM: Most fans don’t believe this, but I was working so hard to do 65 episodes in a year and a half that it’s all a blur. To this day I’ve never seen the bulk of the finished episodes. Naturally, I love “Plunder & Lightning,” because it was written as a movie. Ace London and Kitten Kaboodle come to mind as characters. (Don’t remember Doug Benson.)
TMB: Any type of specific authors, comics, or stories that you based some episodes on? I noticed some based on The Rocketeer, The Incredible Shrinking Man, and so on. Any particular favorite writers or authors?
JM: I’m sure you’re right about the influences, but I don’t remember a Rocketeer or a Shrinking Man episode. We had the Ransom of Red Chief (“Chimp”) and The Defiant Ones (“Stuck On You”). Sometimes ideas came from real situations, like watching an in-air refueling jet video… that turned into Louie’s floating gas station. And I think we did a Hope-Crosby Road picture take-off.