GeekDad talks to ‘Handy Manny’ Producer Rick Gitelson

Reading Time: 12 minutes

©(Disney Channel/Playhouse Disney)©(Disney Channel/Playhouse Disney)

©(Disney Channel/Playhouse Disney)

A couple of weeks back I got to talk to Kath Soucie, the incredible voice talent about her current show, Playhouse Disney’s Handy Manny. If you remember (and if you don’t, you can always go back and read it), one of the things we talked about was the upcoming primetime special Handy Manny’s Motorcycle Adventure, which airs this Sunday evening on the Disney Channel.

I got to watch Handy Manny’s Motorcycle Adventure yesterday and… I loved it. My son’s a fan of the show (at least I guess so – he’s only 10 months old, so any show he doesn’t throw a tantrum at, we assume he’s a fan of it), so my wife and I have gotten to know it pretty well. We joke that all the Spanish we know we learned from Handy Manny. There are plenty of inside jokes and sweet little moments that will raise a smile with those familiar with the characters – my favorite, Pat, particularly comes into his own – and if it’s your first time seeing Manny, it’s a really nice story about friends and family.
I’ve said it before – this is a show for preschoolers; it’s not something you’re likely to turn back on once the kids are in bed. But it’s a sweet show about what communities could be like in less cynical times.
I was fortunate enough to get to talk to producer Rick Gitelson about the special, as well as about his work on some other great kids’ shows like Imagination Movers and the now-classic Rugrats.
GeekDad: This is our second piece about the Handy Manny specials – we spoke to Kath Soucie a few weeks back, who plays Dusty the Saw. How did she get involved?
Rick Gitelson: I worked with Kath on Rugrats, so I’ve known her for a long time. She was one of the only people who, when we were casting Handy Manny, I specifically wanted to bring to the show. It’s a small part for her – On Rugrats she played the twins, Phil and Lil, but she played their mom too, Betty, who is a great character; we used to have a lot of fun with her. We use her in such a small way on Handy Manny, but because she’s so versatile she’s great in that role.

GD: How did Handy Manny come about?
RG: Handy Manny started with Marilyn Sadler and Roger Bollen; I guess it was some execs at Disney who were looking for a preschool show for boys. Marilyn and Roger were sent off with that mission and they came back with this idea of a repairman with talking tools. They pitched it to them, and it was off and running. They took that and it was formulated into a show concept. It was a little amorphous at that point, but the basics were there – it was always a show about a Latino repairman with talking tools. It didn’t have far to go, we just fleshed out who the characters were and how an episode would work and the structure of the storytelling, and it took off from there.

GD: Has the show changed much from the ‘napkin sketch’ stage?
RG: The art, the conception is very similar, Manny stayed pretty much the same and you still had the anthropomorphized tools. It didn’t really change all that much. Manny looks similar, I mean he’s evolved, and the art evolved but the concept was basically the same. Very early on there was some discussion about having power tools and some other hardware type elements in the show, but that didn’t really mesh very well. The basic concept stayed largely intact throughout the process. I think that’s a tribute to what a strong concept it is. When I saw it, when they brought me in and said “we have this idea” I immediately said “I’m in.” I don’t think anyone wanted to mess with it too much. Other than nuances like the characters and their relationships; how Mr. Lopart would work into the stories, the addition of Kelly – it was things like that that came in. But largely the core stayed the same.

GD: How did the primetime special come about?
RG: That’s probably more of a Disney corporate question than a question for me! I was just told, hey, we want to do some specials. We had done specials before, but never had something this long. We wanted to do a semi-movie, but for pre-school. I felt that if we were going to do a long-form; which is really four times the length of a normal episode, we needed something different in terms of storytelling; I felt we really had to get Manny out of Sheetrock Hills, and get him on the road. There were elements like that we wanted to bring in and get him more out in the world, and we tried to take it a little beyond what the show was in terms of the action and excitement and drama. We also wanted to differentiate it, and not have it be like a standard episode.

GD: Are there any elements from the special that you’ll be keeping, or introducing to the regular episodes?
RG: The motorcycle now is a featured element in the show. It’s been introduced in the show already, so it’s not new but that is a bigger element. The special has kind of opened some doors for us. We’ve introduced some new members of Manny’s family, but we’ve pretty much stuck to the core cast in this. We’re planning a couple of other specials, there’s another hour-long episode in the works that will introduce some new elements to the show, and there’s a lot of little things we have down the line that will introduce some new characters, some new tools. We have some fun stuff on the horizon. We have an episode coming up where Manny goes to work on a construction site. That’s going to be fun, and a little bit different. The special we have coming up on Sunday will be set out in the desert more, but this episode will be a little more urban. It’ll be fun to play with, we don’t often get to see Manny in the ‘outside world’, we’re used to him in Sheetrock Hills, so it’ll be fun to get him into these new environments and see how he functions and how the tools function.

GD: I think parents like to speculate about Manny and Kelly’s relationship – can you see that developing in the show at all?
RG: It’s funny – that’s a question we get a lot. There was a time, early on in the show when we were exploring that a little bit, I suppose it was my more ‘adult’ side coming into the show. We generally feel that it’s not really that age appropriate. We talked about “Will they ever…?” and whether we could have a wedding episode where Manny marries Kelly, but the show has a real evergreen nature, you could come in at different points in the story. You can’t really have an arc to the story, because the episodes air in different orders and depending on when someone becomes aware of Manny they could come in a different point. We really want to keep it evergreen. Honestly, I don’t see us ever changing that. I love the relationship between Manny and Kelly and I think it’s nice that they have this beautiful, platonic friendship. It works for me. I thought I would be a little disappointed, I thought it would have been nice to explore something more there, but it soon became apparent that it wasn’t what the show needed to be about, and wasn’t really appropriate.

GD: How does an individual episode come about? Does it generally start with a story you want to tell, or a lesson you want to get across?
RG: We take stories from wherever we can get them! We don’t really have a pattern, and we’re just lucky we can come up with stories. Often times the episodes more come from stories rather than lessons. I think the better ones are more story driven, and that nicely fits a lesson or some education into it. But if we have an idea for an episode, and it starts with a lesson, it’s certainly worth working on and we’ve done plenty that way. But there’s no set way. We take them however they come and they’ve certainly come in many forms. We’ve done almost 200 stories, so we’ve done all the obvious lessons, and it’s hard not to repeat ourselves. We do seem to be finding new ways to vary those lessons and vary the stories. It’s a rich world, we’ve had the good fortune to have introduced some great characters, some people who are great to revisit, and Manny’s ability to travel around his community provides so many possibilities for storytelling.

GD: Have changes in animation and production technology affected how the stories are told?
RG: Because the show is CGI, there are limitations in what we can do – similarly there are limitations in what you can do with hand-drawn animation, too. There’s a lot of work goes into creating characters and settings, so obviously we try to reuse things for economic reasons. Obviously advances in technology make things less expensive, and made it a little easier to render characters and settings and perhaps the world opens up a little more. But I don’t think it hinders us at all, because one of the things we set out to do was to create a sense of community for Manny and the tools; it was really important to the characters and to the series. I think we’ve done a good job of that and I think it’s because we go back to the same people a lot. We learn more about their relationship with Manny and their world and their pets and their families. So I think in a way it’s actually benefitted from some of the restrictions. But to answer your question more directly, I do think that technology can affect storytelling, but only to a slight degree. I think you still set out to tell the best story you can, and I don’t think that’s changed since the days of cavemen.

GD: Have the stories and characters evolved much around the voiceover cast?
RG: I am so fortunate, and so blessed to have such a phenomenal cast, they’re a joy, because they’re just higher grade people – We auditioned a lot of people for the roles and we hired the best people for the parts, and we hired some of the best voiceover talent in this town. They really bring a lot to it – there’s wonderful back and forth between what they bring and what we write for that and they really deliver on the stuff that’s written so specifically for their little nuances. It’s a wonderful cycle that we go through to hone them and hone them. And sometimes it doesn’t work out, but this show is fortunate to have a group of voiceover talents that bring so much to it. The original characteristics were in place, but you have to make room to find some of the attributes as you go.

GD: Do you have a favorite episode of Handy Manny?
RG: I really love the holiday special. It was very early on, I think it was the first half-hour special we did. It’s just a really nice story about how Manny does wonderful things for his community no matter what time of year it is or what else he has on his plate, he does things to help out the people around him. It’s also got a wonderful Mr. Lopart story, where he finally relents and allows Manny to help him in what Lopart refers to as ‘his gift to Manny for the holidays.’ It’s really sweet in that way, I just think there are some great performances between Mr. Lopart and Manny. It’s also set in the evening, and Nelvana just did a beautiful job – I think this was the first time they had dressed the set with snow or lit for evening. It’s just a nice culmination of things. We won an award for that from NAMIC, which is an organization that gives awards for multi-ethnicity in communications. It’s wonderful episode in that it shows a lot of different celebrations from Hanukah to Kwanzaa to Christmas. I thought it was nice in terms of what kids could learn about other holidays around the world.

GD: What about a favorite character?
RG: I love Mr. Lopart. I love writing Mr. Lopart. I love his pomposity and his vulnerability. As a writer, he’s a joy to write and then to have Tom Kenny come in and perform the lines… As a writer he’s my favorite. The childlike part of me loves Pat. And a lot of kids love Pat. He’s silly, he’s in his own world, and that just makes him a lot of fun to watch. And he’s very physical. It’s interesting- I ask a lot of kids who their favorite character is, and people love Flicker. It seems like Flicker has really found a soft spot in kids, which I was really shocked by, but people just love the addition of Flicker to the gang. Writing for them, for these particular characters and then having this voiceover talent perform them; it makes them all fun.

©(Disney Channel/Playhouse Disney)©(Disney Channel/Playhouse Disney)

©(Disney Channel/Playhouse Disney)

GD: What’s your favorite other show you’ve been involved in?
RG: Well, currently I also do Imagination Movers.

GD: I like that show – the songs are great and it sort of reminds me of The Monkees.

RG: That was sort of the way we planned it. The guys are great; if you’ve seen it you know that they’re all incredibly talented. They’re a joy to work with, the show’s fun. You can see from what I’ve done, I’ve been very fortunate to work on shows that have an element that appeals to adults. I started with Rugrats, which had a lot of actually very adult elements to it, and I feel like I’ve been able to maintain some of that. Imagination Movers has some of that, it doesn’t talk down to little kids. Rugrats, I worked on that for six years and that has a special place in my heart as well, but I feel like having been involved in the creation of Handy Manny and Imagination Movers that makes them really special to me.

There was a really nice article on the Movers, it was in Wired and I think it was part of the GeekDad column. I was going to look it up before getting on the phone with you. It was one of my favorite reviews of the movers, so I guess someone else over there really likes it.

GeekDad Note: Rick was referring to GeekDad Z’s post from last August, which you can find here.

GD: Do you have kids, and do they watch your shows?
RG: Well, my oldest I’ve just dropped off at college, and my youngest is now eleven. I remember when I was working on Rugrats they’d give me ideas. My eleven year old gives me a lot of good ideas. He actually gave me a good one for Imagination Movers last week; he said what if Warehouse Mouse needs a haircut? He made me pay him for it too. He said “you guys get money for this, right?” I said if we use it I’d give him fifty bucks, he said “well I want the money now.” It doesn’t work that way, I said, it’s only if it goes on the air. I ended up negotiating with my son over this! And he wanted a credit. I told him we’ll pay you, but you don’t get credit for one idea, you only get credit for a full story.

GD: You won a Humanitas award for Rugrats. Can you remember the episode, and what made it special?

RG: I was actually double nominated in that category that year. One of the episodes was called Autumn Leaves, it was actually the very first thing I’d done for ‘Rugrats’, it was a story about the leaves falling the trees in the autumn, and the Rugrats thought the trees were sick and were trying to figure out a way to put the leaves back on. The other one which was nominated and which actually won was an episode called Hand Me Downs and it was about how Tommy was going to be handing down clothes to his new baby brother Dill, and Angelica convinced him that if he hands down his clothes then eventually he’ll disappear, but he decides to give his brother his hand-me-downs anyway, even though he might disappear. It was a very sweet episode. It was very rewarding for me to win for that.

GD: What do you think about there being no award given in the children’s animation category this year?
RG: You mentioned that in your e-mail to me, and I still don’t know how to respond to that. I’m astounded. You can tell me that there isn’t anything out there in children’s animation that they could find that enriches the human spirit? Really? In children’s animation there’s nothing? It’s astounding. I think it’s a disservice, I think there’s got to be something out there. There were multiple submissions made for Handy Manny – I’m not saying we’re the last word or the only thing worthwhile. But nothing? In any show? I know plenty of people who submitted material. I’m a little taken aback by that.
We are up for a similar award, called the Gabriel Award that will be presented in a couple of weeks. We’ve been very fortunate to receive numerous awards over the past couple of years; from the Humane Society, the Environmental Media Awards – this was the first year we were nominated for an Emmy, so I think we’re on the right path.

GD: What Handy Manny episodes were submitted?
RG: One of them was a wonderful episode called The Big Picture, where Manny was working with Carmela who is the artist in Sheetrock Hills, and she was trying to come up with an idea for a mural, which she was going to paint on City Hall. She realized in her travels of the town that the mural should be the people of Sheetrock Hills, because that’s really what makes up the community. I think there’s a really nice message that it’s the people of the community that are important and that’s what makes a town a town, not the buildings or the stores. I think it’s a really sweet story, but it’s really a subjective thing, what makes a humanitarian approach to storytelling. Have you seen the episode where we introduce Flicker? Again it’s really sweet – we have this tool, who’s like a wayward tool and Manny takes him in.

GD: What do you think are the best kids shows at the moment?
RG: Anybody who’s just trying to do something positive for children is doing a great job out there. I think if you’re entertaining kids, and informing them about the world, you’re doing something good. I think we’ve a great combination of that on Handy Manny and on Imagination Movers. I think Disney overall are doing a great job on that, if you look at Little Einsteins, if you look at Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. I think there’s a lot of great stuff for preschoolers out there and there’s a lot going on on Nick Jr., but a big part of what kids are looking at on Nickelodeon, it’s SpongeBob. So I think we’re doing a good job with the demographic, there’s a lot for kids to enjoy and a lot for them to take away from it as well.

Special thanks to Rick and to Kath Soucie for taking the time to talk to me, and to Lakeitcha Thomas at the Lippin Group for unwavering support in arranging and scheduling the interviews. ‘Handy Manny’s Motorcycle Adventure’, airs Sunday October 4th at 7pm on the Disney Channel (US only). Guest stars include Donny Osmond and Kris Kristofferson, and it features new songs written and performed by Tom Kenny and Andy Paley.

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