Q&A: Dan Schneider, 'the Norman Lear of Kids TV'

The former child actor on his transition to hit showrunner, the importance of ratings and reaching kids in a fractured environment

If you grew up watching TV in the '80s, then you are familiar with Dan Schneider. Though most remembered as chemistry wiz Dennis Blunden on ABC’s "Head of the Class," it was his role as Ricky, the neighbor’s freaky son in the perpetually re-aired John Cusack movie "Better Off Dead," that left the biggest impression on '80s culture. ("A car is not a toy, Lane Myers.")

Today, Schneider, is better known as the "Norman Lear of children’s television." After he left acting, Schneider had a conversation with former "Head of the Class" cast-mate-turned-producer Brian Robbins that resulted in long-running Nickelodeon sketch comedy "All That." And that led into an entirely new career for Schneider, behind the scenes and focused on tweens.

"All That" introduced the masses to Amanda Bynes, who segued into "The Amanda Show" on Nick, Schneider’s second hit sitcom (following "Keenan & Kel"). And the pair reunited for WB sitcom "What I Like About You" from 2002 to 2006. Next was a quartet of consecutive hit sitcoms on Nick ("Drake & Josh," "Zoey 101," ‘iCarly" and "Victorious"). And his pair of current Nick sitcoms — "Henry Danger" and "Game Shakers" (following "iCarly" and "Victorious" spin-off "Sam & Cat" from 2013-14) — is all the more reason why Schneider was presented with Nickelodeon’s first Lifetime Achievement Award on March 29, 2014.

Dan Schneider spoke to Campaign US about his pivotal role in the tweens programming universe.

You started out in this business as an actor, with "Head of the Class" at the height of your success. Was your goal at an early age to become an actor?
No way. When I was a kid, growing up in Memphis, Tenn., the idea of being an actor or working in Hollywood was just fantasy to me. I thought about it, but becoming an actor or producer seemed about as likely as becoming the heavyweight champion of the world. It was something "other people" did — people who had connections. The only successful actors I’d heard of from Memphis were Cybill Shepherd and Elvis Presley.

How did you segue into becoming a kids programming creator and producer?
It was just something I fell into. After "Head of the Class" and "Home Free," I was in between acting jobs, waiting for the next pilot season. And one day, my friend Brian Robbins and I were having lunch, and he asked me to help him create a new TV show for kids, on Nickelodeon. We wanted to do sketch comedy. And since I was a huge fan (and very influenced) by "Saturday Night Live," I was excited about the idea of creating a show like that, but for a younger audience. At the time, I thought it would just be a fun "side job" to keep me busy between acting projects. But the show turned out to be "All That," which ran for 10 years. And "All That" was just the first of many other shows — sitcoms — I ended up creating, mostly for Nickelodeon.

Is there a science, so to speak, to producing kids shows? Or is the same formula as a typical sitcom with a self-contained storyline in each episode?
I don’t think there’s a formula to it — at least not for my shows. I do think a lot of the shows you see for kids are formulaic and predictable, but we try hard to avoid that. I like my shows to be weird and different. With the shows we make, the stories often take bizarre twists and turns that you’d never expect.

Where do the ideas for these series come from?
There is no special process I have for thinking of new shows. After I get one going, I start thinking about what the next one could be. And eventually, something just comes to mind. Sometimes I’ll get inspired to spin off some element of a show I’m doing into a new series. Or sometimes the spark will come from an actor, or pair of actors. And sometimes it’s just an idea I’ll have from watching the pop culture wheels spin around. I guess it’s like writing songs, or books, or creating anything. When I finish creating one, I start thinking, "Next … "

What has changed in how you produce your shows now that there are so many other ways for your target audience to actually watch them?
Fifteen years ago, my job was only to make great half-hour episodes. Today, when I create a show, I’m thinking about what other additional content I can make — extra entertainment that we can offer online, to support and enhance the main product. "iCarly" is one of the best examples. It was a show about kids who make a comedy web show. So, in addition to making 109 episodes of "iCarly," we made around 250 short comedy segments that were never intended to be shown on television — they were extra content for the website that accompanied the show.

It’s kind of like, at the beginning, I only had to serve a great entree. But in today’s world of TV entertainment, I have to serve a lot of great side dishes and desserts, too.

Your background is sitcoms, but would you ever consider tackling a kids-targeted drama?
I do like writing dramatic moments, but I would probably not ever write and produce a straight drama. My shows are usually light, fun, and silly. I often call what I do the "ice cream and roller coasters" of entertainment, because they’re mostly just designed to be fun and feel-good. But we do make some "heavier" episodes, and I love taking those detours away from comedy.

Do you follow your ratings or try not to get involved?
I think any TV showrunner who says he or she doesn’t pay attention to the ratings isn’t quite being honest. That would be like an owner of a sports team, or the coach, saying, "Nah, I don’t really pay attention to the scores." A TV show, like anything else, is a product. And if people don’t want your product, you better change it, or start making something else.

Why do most of your shows tend to conclude after about three or four seasons?
Generally, with shows on Nickelodeon, three seasons (about 60 to 65 episodes) is considered enough. I don’t know exactly why, but it’s been that way since I started making TV in this genre. I think maybe because that’s enough for an effective rerun package. And also, new is always exciting. Younger people have short attention spans, especially these days, and audiences are always looking for that new thing.

Would you consider more adult-oriented programming in the future?
I absolutely would. Writing TV for kids and families is wonderful, but we can’t write jokes about current events, politics, sex, religion, etc. We have to keep it all kid-appropriate and kid-relatable.

What is next for Dan Schneider?
A nap.

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