“I’m happy to have been a pre-computer kid…There was a whole lot of down time when we had to entertain ourselves, and I think that’s what helped me think of these stories.”
An awkward edge around love interests. A wild imagination. A desire to fit in. A penchant for adventure.
There is something we can all relate to in the character of Doug Funnie.
Perhaps this is why the animated series Doug, now passing its 22nd anniversary, still resonates with viewers.
Doug’s camaraderie with his best friend Skeeter, his never-ending mission to woe Patti Mayonnaise, and his quest to avoid the wrath of Roger Klotz are firmly cemented in cartoon folklore.
This world – the people, places, and scenarios – is largely the creation of one man: Jim Jinkins
Jinkins, 60, was born in Richmond, Virginia and from an early age began to incessantly “doodle.” With the help of his friends, and a supportive teacher, he continued to sketch and foster his artistic side.
He didn’t steer far from his early passion and chose to study animation and filmmaking at Ohio State University. Straight out of school he began to work behind the scenes in the children’s programming industry, beginning at PBS.
Things really started to take shape, however, in 1991.After years in the animation industry, Jinkins got his big break. Nickelodeon was rearing to expand its presence in the cartoon market. They were looking for original, creator-driven, projects. Jinkins stepped up.
He’d been working on a character – originally named “Brian” – now named “Doug.” It was based on him and the name was chosen to signify the most normal, common, person one could think of. Previously, Jinkins had used the character, along with his sidekick dog Porkchop, in a Florida grapefruit commercial.
Jinkins went to work and created a detailed, expansive, world in the fictional town of Bluffington. Doug, his family, friends, enemies, were based on real people from Richmond, Virginia. The theme of the show developed to reflect Jinkins childhood memories of what it was like growing up, and all the lessons learned along the way.
The show debuted alongside Rugrats and Ren and Stimpy and effectively launched Nickelodeon into the cartoon world with its Nicktoons lineup.
It’s now been 22 years since it debuted, and the history of “Doug” is largely written. What started as a simple sketch eventually made its way to the silver screen and into the hearts of millions of kids. It spawned six seasons of original episodes for both Nickelodeon (1991-1994) and Disney (1996-1999). It achieved the McDonald’s merchandise badge. And, developed a generation of fans and followers.
For Jim Jinkins Doug was only the beginning of his creative career. From that starting point he crafted and helped produce a variety of other successful series including: PB and J Otter, Stanley, Allegra’s Window, and Pinky Dinky Doo.
Today, Jinkins continues to create new characters and shows at his studio and production company, Cartoon Pizza.
There is much I WANNA KNOW about the creator of my favorite childhood cartoon.
I reached Jim Jinkins via phone from Georgia.
From the enduring success of Doug, to his extensive cartoon career, to the early days of Nickelodeon, to his desire to visit the Congo, we cover it all.
. . .
Ryan Kohls: You’ve surpassed the 20-year mark since Doug first aired. What do you think it is about that character, and show, that has maintained its relevance and resonance?
Jim Jinkins: Well, it was certainly something intentional on my part and on the teams part. We talked about it. I would say to our writers and our designers and all that, “I want this show to be relevant in 30 years.” In terms of the references made, or the kinds of things we did, I wanted to make sure it wasn’t so inside the 1990s that it didn’t make sense anymore. Some of it is by design. The rest just has to do with, hopefully, making up characters and stories that people resonate with and care about.
RK: Do you remember the first time you sketched Doug?
JJ: The very first time, wow. No one’s ever asked about that moment. It was very unselfconscious. It was not like, “Hey, I’ll create an alter-ego. Here we go.” It was really as simple as always doodling. As a little kid having to sit quietly in church, you pray there’s a little blank spot on the bulletin to draw on. So, drawing Doug was just something that came naturally. The idea of him expressing my twisted points of view and all that, that just sort of gathered momentum when it got started.
RK:What’s the origin of the full name, “Doug Yancey Funnie”?
JJ: Yancey is my grandfather’s middle name. But the thought of giving him a middle name that he’d be embarrassed about, or wouldn’t want anyone to say out loud, was inspired by a friend of mine from when I was a kid – I think his middle name was Gillman – and he just hated it. I just thought that was funny. Speaking of funny, the last name was a bit more self-conscious. We were getting ready to make a world and a series, and I don’t know, I just loved the double entendre of calling the series “The Funnie’s”. I’m thankful that the executives at Nicktoon’s steered me back towards the original name I was working with, Doug. I give them that credit.
RK: You based a lot of the characters on people from your childhood. Did you tell these people they were about to be characters in a cartoon?
JJ: I did. The most fun, I guess, was Patti Mayonnaise. There was a Patti in my high-school, and middle school, life. I sent her a card that was printed up to announce the premiere of the series. I wrote on the card, pay particular attention to Patti, you were her inspiration. That kinda stuff makes your heart beat a little faster. I hadn’t spoken to this person since high-school. She said later she was very nervous, but she was very pleased. It regenerated some connections to my past. We get Christmas cards for her and her family. Or, if they happen to be coming through, we have a visit.
The Skeeter character, his real name is Tom. It really got us back together. We stay in touch. He was my best friend for many years, just like Doug and Skeeter.
Roger was the one I wondered about. But when the Doug Movie came out we did the premiere in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia, I reached out to Roger and said, “I hope you don’t beat me up for the character.” He laughed and said, “We always had someone older who was a little further along, and little bit forceful.” He told me he had bullies in his life, which I’d never thought about. He’s a good guy.
RK: There is still a great deal of discussion that goes on about Doug. I saw a thread recently on Twitter, started by Mara Wilson, where people were talking about the race of the characters. It makes sense that Doug was white, because he was based on you. But, what did the colors of the other characters signify for you?
JJ: I had no idea heading into it that Doug would be the success that it was. So, you just think about what’s going on inside of your own mind.When it’s time to start colouring in your line drawings – and I picked out all the predictable/traditional colors of flesh – you sort of look at the rest of your markers and look at all those colors and think, “I can do anything.” As the creator of that world, it can be anything. It was a moment of inspiration I guess you’d call it because what comes behind that is something more philosophical about color that says, “It doesn’t matter what color you are on the outside, it’s what you are on the inside.” And, I wanted to get that message out there.
I’m thrilled that people think about it. I read stuff where people are convinced that Skeeter is African American. It’s great that they have an opinion and are making these characters what they think they are.
RK: It seems like getting to develop Doug was really a fateful, and largely lucky, occurrence. The idea of original cartoon programming was generally thought of as too risky. What made Nickelodeon decide to take a chance with Doug?
JJ: It’s phenomenal. That is a moment in history that may never repeat itself. It’s just lightning in a bottle. I give a lot of the credit to an executive that came to Nickelodeon and made a Thanksgiving special. I think it really began the process of inspiring them to get into animation. I hadworked at Nickelodeon before it was called Nickelodeon. I worked on their first show, Pin Wheel. That was twelve years earlier. The return on animation is so slow because it’s got to go through the world, and sell in a lot of places. It’s a complicated business. But, Vanessa Coffey is who I give credit for this vision. No one else was doing it. It was Ninja Turtles and Where’s Waldo?, stuff that came from somewhere else, a pre-sold idea. And she really convinced the executives at Nickelodeon to do the opposite and find these creator driver, original properties, and for Nickelodeon to own those. That to me is phenomenal. I don’t see much of that happening even now.
The other part of that, which seems impossible now, is that they said not only are we taking Doug to pilot, but were picking you up and letting you be an independent company, Jumbo Pictures. Now companies are vertically integrated and they have their own animation studios. But that was a moment in time where we were able to be an independent production company and deliver those shows. To me, those are miracles.
RK: Do you think the quality of cartoons has declined since then?
JJ: Quality, that’s a hard word to define. Mainly, I’m trying to listen to the stories. What are they trying to say? What is the purpose? When it really drives on sarcasm, or some sort of nihilistic darkness, it makes me sad. There are other ones that are surprising, surreal, and funny. The answer really is: It’s a huge playground. There’s a ton of stuff out there compared to when we started.
Some of it I wish never got made, others are phenomenal. It just depends on who’s driving it and their vision.
RK: You’ve always aimed to maintain a certain quality control. It’s says on your website that “the goal of your company and your cartoons is to entertain, challenge, and inspire children. How do you think your cartoons are tailored to do that?
JJ: I think the first thing is to never take for granted that we were given this voice and chance. We wanted to tell stories that would go around the world. So we had to think, what are you going to do? What are you going to say? So, we put a lot of time in the schedule for writing the episodes, and spent weeks and weeks working with our writers. I always asked that the writer put at the top of the script, what’s the issue you’re trying to deal with? And, what does Doug learn? So, when we work on the script we’re always working on the same mission, the same purpose. And, to make sure we’re not being too repetitive and challenging ourselves to keep it fresh. It’s a lot of work and there was a lot of arguing back and forth about what constitutes a good story.
RK: There’s always been a strong moral element to all your shows, but with the creation of “HoopDogz,” you’ve created a cartoon with a clear, explicit, Christian message. What fuelled that decision?
JJ: Well, both myself and my business partner, David Campbell, both grew up in very spiritual families. We were both going to church. I think that’s always been an important part of who we are. It’s definitely not all of who we are, and neither of us have a desire to get into doctrinal specifics. But, the idea is, what are the universal things? Those are the stories we like to do. In HoopDogz, they’re based on the principles of the Ten Commandments. Our legal system is based on them, and I think the Ten Commandments come to being as close to universal as it gets. So, it seemed like it was different than anything we had done, and would hit a market different than anything we’d had a chance to directly go at. It was a big challenge, but it’s been a lot of fun to work on.
RK: Having grown up in the church, was it ever hard to balance being subtle with expressing your opinions in a mainstream, primetime, cartoon?
JJ: Ah, yes. (laughs). It was very hard. We got into arguments. There’s a whole lot of writing that’s about lying. It’s a simple, basic, way of setting up a comic situation. You think about I Love Lucy, “If Ricky finds out blank, then I’m going to get in a whole lot of trouble.” The story is spun on a deception. I just tried to be funny, entertaining, and real, but not drive the plot on a deception or lie. Or, if you do that, then you pay for it, that’s the whole point of telling the story. It’s amazing how much agony we put ourselves through to avoid pain, that sort of theme was in there a lot.
I think that’s how we challenged ourselves about having a moral center, instead of going into some specific belief thing.
RK: Picasso once famously said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” Doug was only the beginning of your cartoon creations. How did you maintain that inner child to create shows that children could relate to?
JJ: I’m very immature for my age is my first, snappy, answer. Really what you find is that when you have a studio, you’re surrounded by childlike people. Hopefully you don’t get the childish ones. But, you get a lot of child like people. We all feed off of that. Hanging out with that crowd is inspiring. Having my own kids – and I didn’t have kids when Doug started – that inspired me.
I also made it a point to have an outreach thing to what we were doing. I would go to scout camps, or schools, anywhere I could go to do workshops. I could have animation workshops, but the main reason would be to be around kids. To hear what they like and don’t like, how they talk and dress. That was very much apart of twenty years of making these shows.
RK: When did you first realize you were an artist and wanted to create?
JJ: Hmm, that’s a great question. I guess it was never not there, I just never took it that seriously. I always called myself a “doodler.” The notion of calling yourself an artist felt very highfalutin, and possibly pretentious. So, I steered away from that.
My best friend Tom, the Skeeter character, he was an artist and still is. We would draw together and do projects. We fuelled each other. We were best friends from second grade through high school. We had that creative energy.
I had some teachers who would yell at me for doodling and humiliate me in front of everyone. And there were others, certain teachers, like Mrs. Wingo, who shows up in the Doug series. She was the best teacher I ever had. She recognized something in me and wanted to bring it out. So, she would make me the cartoonist of the class newspaper. It made me feel special. I appreciate those kind of mentors along the way.
RK: What role did growing up in Richmond, Virginia play in your creative development?
JJ: I’m so glad you asked that. That’s really a great question. In most ways, just like in Doug, it was normal. What I mean by normal is there was nothing exotic or anything that drew attention to itself. But, it was surrounded by history. I love history and I think part of that is I had great history teachers that made the stories come to life. But also our field trips were to all these amazing places right around where our country changed, like Jamestown and Williamsburg. Those were neat places that I just loved.
I’m also just happy to have been a kid pre-computer. And now, I’m on the computer a lot. But, we got booted outside. It was, go outside and play. So, we would go into the woods or play kick the can, or whatever, and we would make up games, stories, and put on plays. All this stuff, I think has been supplanted with kids retreating to their virtual worlds. I’m not down on computers, I think they have their place for sure. There was a whole lot of down time when we had to entertain ourselves, and I think that’s what helped me think of these stories.
RK: How did you find your own creative voice?
JJ: It’s the classic thing that teacher’s tell you, and it’s true, write what you know. For me, instead of going to some alternate universe as the base of what you were doing, it’s root what you’re writing in something real. I’m talking about how characters react, how they make a joke, how the plot unfolds. Those things have to be real. I’d always typically think about a group of people and listen to how they would talk and react. That helped all of our writer’s to keep it real.
RK: How do you generate ideas? Is it possible to explain your process?
JJ: When I fan out the shows I’ve been able to create, they come from all kinds of places. I’ll say this, my favorite way creative things happen is in that unexpected way. Pinky Dinky Doo, that show came out of me making up bedtime stories for my two kids when they were 3 and 5 years old. When a kid says, “Daddy, can you tell me a story?” it can be terrifying because you want to deliver. Sometimes you fail miserably, and every now and again it clicks. And, I started a little series of bedtime stories called, Pinky Dinky Doo, and they just laughed and thought it was funny. I feel like it’s a gift when it comes that way. I love it when that happens.
RK: Cartoons are perhaps our first glimpse at creativity as children. Most of your shows, especially Doug, Stanley and PB and J Otters, are all about creative characters and finding inspiration. Do you think cartoons play a positive role in starting a child’s creative journey?
JJ: Absolutely, yes. For us, we always want to show simple ways you can express yourself or express creativity. It’s not somebody who’s a super millionaire rockstar who flies around in a saucer, it’s more basic and showing the tools that kids typically have around them to express creativity.
RK: Is there any one character or show that holds the mantle as your favorite creation?
JJ: That would be very predictable. Doug was always my sort of twister, exaggerated, memory of being a kid. Also, it was the first. It changed my life. Doug will always have an incredible place for me.
There are other shows, PB and J, was the first time I had kids, so I see those characters and think of my kids.
RK: It says in your bio that you originally wanted to move to the Belgian Congo. Did you ever make it there?
JJ: (laughs) I want to get there before it changes names again. When I was a kid it was the Belgian Congo, then it became the Congo. I would love to get there. I’ve travelled a lot but not there. I’ve never been to Africa. Nature is such a central part of me now that I would love to go there and see all that stuff. One day.
RK: Music was a big part of “Doug,” and you created the fictional band “The Beets” in the show. They were based on your favorite bands: The Beatles, The Who, Led Zeppelin. What music are you listening to these days?
JJ: What I find myself listening to these days is pretty quirky stuff, mostly world music. A lot of it is ambient music, movie scores, those kind of things. When I go running, I have all these play lists. I like all the scoring because it makes you seem like you’re doing something epic.
RK: Other than your creations, what do you rank as the best cartoon series of all time?
JJ: Wow. In my more recent life, I think Spongebob did something amazing, and did it for a long time. As far as telling stories, and making me laugh out loud, that was amazing. In my childhood it was all about Charlie Brown. They were incredibly influential to the character Doug.
I think, also, that the Incredibles is a perfect movie. When the credits started rolling, I actually teared up because I knew in that movie I had just watched a perfect story. Every time I watch it I go, “How did they do that?” I’ve had the honor of meeting John Lasseter, and he is committed to strong characters and story telling. Putting that effort, painful effort, into making sure a great story is something they always do.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON JIM JINKINS:
1) Visit: www.cartoonpizza.com