Charlie Richards and the Road to Life at the Pond
- Monday, October 15, 2007
When Charlie Richards, creator of the Christian animated series, Life at the Pond, first moved to Hollywood, he never dreamed that one day he’d be making videos for children.
“I went from thinking that I was going to spend the rest of my life writing television for grown-ups to having a huge burden for writing television for kids,” he said.
Originally from Los Angeles, Richards worked for three years at Focus on the Family as a writer for “Family News” and later, as their creative director. He moved to the West Coast in 1992 with the hope of getting a television gig on a family-oriented sitcom. Two experienced writers—Marc Cherry (creator of Desperate Housewives) and Don Rhymer (screenwriter for Santa Claus II and Big Momma’s House)—mentored Richards as he learned the craft.
It took five years—just like Cherry said it would. But in 1997, Richards landed his first sitcom: NBC’s House Rules. When the show was cancelled, Richards was asked to pitch shows to Disney, Fox Family and Nickelodeon. To his surprise, they were all rejected. The studios, it seemed, wanted controversial content—things that would shock, even if they weren’t suitable for kids.
I spoke with Richards on the occasion of his fifth video release, The Rise and Fall of Tony the Frog. The animated film, which stars Patsy Clairmont, tells the story of Tony the Frog, a charming but ambitious reptile who goes from newspaper delivery boy to communications mogul. Unfortunately, Tony forsakes everything that matters in the process, but eventually, he learns the meaning of idolatry. Meanwhile, his buddies learn how to help their friend using patience and prayer.
As he shared about creating parent-friendly yet enriching animation for children, Richards, who is married and has four kids, also spoke about what happens behind the scenes at a television sitcom. He shared some advice for Christians dreaming about breaking in, as well as his path to success. Here’s what he had to say:
Marc Cherry—that’s a big name in television right now. How in the world did you happen to meet and be mentored by him?
A friend of mine who knew him sent him one of my “spec” scripts. He said, “You’re going to make it in this industry, but it will take five years.” He started meeting with me and going over scripts. One day, we went out to breakfast and he said, “I really like your writing but we could never work together because you once worked for Focus on the Family.” I was stunned. I knew Mark was gay, and if I had said something like that to him, I would never have worked in the industry again. Yet, he could bash my Christianity and get away with it—and he knew he could. So that was the end of that.
Is that when Don Rhymer started mentoring you?
Yes. Within a week, one door shut and another one opened. It was a very strange episode in my life.
Looking back, how do you process that incident—especially after he had mentored you?
Marc was very matter-of-fact. He was always very nice, very complimentary and a pleasant guy. But he had an agenda and he made it clear. Marc explained to me one day that every show has a moral. Every episode of every show has a moral, and he thinks it’s important to put it in. And one of morals he wanted to put in was that the gay guy is the smart guy—the good guy—and that homosexuality is good and fun.
But he hasn’t really done that with Desperate Housewives. I don’t even know if there’s a gay character on there.
No, but the message is that all heterosexual relationships are a complete mess. He’s done other shows with gay characters, though. At the time [I was there], they were finishing Golden Girls (previously called Golden Palace). He started a new show called The Crew about flight attendants and all the writers were gay. The show had one gay guy—and he was the smart one. There was actually a very successful heterosexual relationship and the network wanted to play it up, because that’s what audiences were responding to, but Marc refused. He was willing to walk away from it instead of doing that.
What happened after that?
Marc had said that it would take five years to break in—and that’s exactly what it took. I had so many close calls. Once, right before I left for an interview for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, they found out that I was actually white. They told me not to even bother going. But five years and one month later, I got the call for House Rules. I had finally landed a job in Hollywood on a show.
What was that like?
I loved my time on that show. The executive producer was Chris Thompson, who created Bosom Buddies and who was the showrunner for Laverne & Shirley. The first day, Chris is so excited because he has a package, this VHS tape that’s a combination of porn and people killing themselves—clip after clip of just really gross stuff that he insisted on showing us all.
[Before I got the job] I had prayed, “Lord, I know I’m going to have to take a stand someday [for my faith], so make it obvious. They’re going to find out I’m a Christian, and I don’t want to mess this up.” So [when this happened] I got up and walked out. He asked where I was going and I said, “I can’t have this stuff in my head.”
Well, I thought I was finished, but interestingly enough, he liked that. I was a rebel like him, even if I was going in a different direction. I got along really well with him and we had many discussions about God. There were still plenty of times when my Christianity caused a lot of problems in the writers room, though.
So can you be a Christian and write for television?
Dramas have a lot more Christians [writing for them] than sitcoms, and they suit the family lifestyle a lot more. With sitcoms, you have “run-throughs” [every day at the end of the day.] The nature of a run-through is that it finishes at five o’clock and is then rewritten. At six p.m. they give you the rewrites and you have to [make changes before the next morning.” At the end of the week, you get the rewrites on Thursday and have to have the new script to the actors by the time they get up the next morning, so they can look it over with their morning coffee. There are plenty of sitcom writers who don’t see their kids for nine months at a time. That’s what drove me from it. Am I going to keep pursuing this or are we going to leave this town and pursue a different direction?
What’s the difference with dramas?
The dramas don’t have run-throughs. You don’t have to worry about the late nights. The writers can see what the director wants [and make the changes on the spot]. Sitcoms are an awful life for writers. I knew seven sitcom writers who were Christians and all left for dramas. That’s one of the reasons why sitcoms are so morally disgusting—because the writers who stay live very different types of lifestyles. Your good family man or woman is very unlikely to stay.
What advice would you give to Christians trying to break into the business?
I wouldn’t discourage anyone, as long as their faith is strong. If I was young, I would go into the comedy side. You have a million dollar budget to do a play every week, and that’s fun. It’s fun to do it in front of a live audience, even with the canned laughter, which they call “sweetening it.” But if I had a family, I’d head into drama.
And there are Christians in Hollywood, you say?
Yes, definitely. It’s great to have Christians out there going at it. It seems like God is calling a lot of Christians out of the industry to do things on their own. It’s a great place to learn the industry, and I’ve had the privilege of mentors who have taught me how to make a story work. Taking all that I’ve learned through those years and strangely enough, apply to children’s animation. You can probably see those years in Life at the Pond.
Which is a great segue. So how did you go from Hollywood to creating The Pond series?
When House Rules got cancelled, I was working on another story, but my agent told me that Disney was interesting in me pitching some children’s shows. I did but they rejected me. I was so discouraged but then my agent called and said that they had loved me. So I came up with some more ideas—which they again rejected. Then Nickelodeon called. I pitched them and they rejected me.
Finally I asked one of the guys at Fox Family what they were looking for, and he said, “We’re looking for something like Action, on HBO.” That was a show that had bleeped-out swear words. I realized that they didn’t care about teaching morals—which I did. And they also didn’t care about what parents thought.
But aren’t parents the ones filmmakers have to please with kid’s movies?
No. When I brought up parents, they’d throw up their arms and mock me, saying, “We don’t care what parents think!” He just wanted something that got attention. They wanted hype, even if no one watched. They knew they could turn hype into product.
That had to be discouraging.
Well, I went from a guy thinking that I was going to spend the rest of my life writing television for grown-ups to having a burden for writing television for kids. But nobody was going to hand me the money to make a video. So I started with a radio show. We moved to Atlanta, where I could afford to do the first video. That came out in 2005, and it sold 100,000 units.
How did you learn how to do animation? You were a writer—that’s a whole different ballgame, right?
On House Rules, when there was down time, the other writers would take naps. To me, that was ludicrous. I’d go down and watch the director or see what the editor was doing. I started talking to people who did animation for a living, to find out how it worked. For the videos, I eventually hired a company to do the animation.
How did it do so well?
I had a lot of help. I was working with Salem Radio, who gave me a lot of support. It was also building on the radio show. And Family Christian Bookstores did a five-week sale on it that shot the numbers up.
Well, I loved the video. I thought it was funny and smart at the same time—with a great message. My five-year-old was enthralled and kept singing the music afterwards. She also learned the concept of idolatry.
We use big words and important concepts, but we try and explain them so they work for a wide variety of ages.
I think you accomplished that. What have parents told you that they appreciate about the videos?
That they know that there is a lot of humor for different ages. One mom with five kids of different ages said that it was the first time that they’d all sat together watching and quiet. A lot of Christians watch offensive shows like Desperate Housewives because it’s funny. Humor will encourage people to put things into their homes that they probably shouldn’t have. It opens doors, good and bad. Here, the humor hits adults and it hits non-Christians. It’s not as offensive because it’s good humor and it’s well-done. And yet, the gospel message is still there. It’s not banging-them-over-the-head Christianese.
What would you say your mission is?
To assist parents in teaching good morals to their kids.
And your vision?
I’d love to keep making videos. I’d like to get them into the hands of people who are not necessarily Christians. If I could afford it, I’d give them away.
How did God use your television background for these videos?
When you spend five years trying to break into this industry, you’re constantly running things through people who are in the business. You’re constantly learning—how to tell a joke, how to write for kids. Having worked with some of the best gave me a tremendous education that I could never buy. My work with Focus on the Family also gave me a sense of writing for the family and doing the right thing.
The Rise and Fall of Tony the Frog is available in Christian bookstores and online for $12.95 with free shipping. Or buy the complete Life at the Pond series (five videos) for $39.95 with free shipping.
For more information or to order, visit www.lifeatthepond.com.
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