Spiderman, Mortal Kombat, Sonic Underground. No, it's not FOX's Saturday morning line up, it's Terence Taylor's resume. Before jumping into horror, the Brooklyn born author spent over a decade writing and producing children's programming . From his days as one of the few black students at St. John's University, to his years writing Gulah Gulah's Island and Arthur, Taylor's story reveals the seemingly random events that often lead to a career in television and writing, the things he learned along the way, as well as the current nature of Kid's TV.
Did you go into college with the intention of working in television?
God, no! The idea never occurred to me, even after I was in college. When I got out of high school I could write, I could draw, but didn't know what to do with either. I started as an art major at Brooklyn College and after a year realized I wasn't cut out for it. With an art degree it was either go into advertising or do my own work, and I was sure I'd starve. This was before I started hanging all night with artists at East Village loft parties. I had no idea then of how to support the artist's life I live now. Friends at St. Johns University talked me into transferring there for Communications, so I did. It beat the two-hour commute from Queens to Brooklyn every day, and I knew I'd know somebody. Yes, major life changes made for all the right reasons. You'll be happy to hear that I've kept up that same level of deep thoughtfulness in most of my big decisions.
I was one of what felt like a handful of black students in St. John's then. For most of my three years I was that funny bad college comedy movie black kid in a white crowd. The Dean of Students stopped just short of putting the course schedule on the wall and throwing darts at it to determine my first semester schedule. I remember him looking over the course sheet, then at me and saying, "How about 'Survey of Foreign Cinema'? Watch movies for two hours, you'll like that, right?" Changed my life. The first year I saw Godard, Truffaut, Fellini, Eisenstein, Hitchcock...all the greats.
After months of watching old movies I'd never heard of, I was in love. I took every class the teacher offered and scheduled my classes in the morning so I could spend my afternoons at movie houses that ran old movies before I went to work in the evening at a department store. This was before DVD and VHS -- we had "arthouses" then, in the dark and distant 70s and 80s. The snappy Joyce Theatre used to be a drafty old movie house called the Elgin, Carnegie Hall had a movie theatre downstairs called The Thousand Eyes, there were others scattered all over Manhattan. By the time I graduated, I think I'd seen every art movie ever made. They were all great, even the awful ones. I wanted to be a director. Film was graphics and storytelling all rolled up in one, and I'd spent so much time reading Andrew Sarris, Pauline Kael, Molly Haskell and the rest on the auteur theory, I was sure that was my future.
As Rick says in Casablanca, I was obviously misinformed.
What was your first job in the world of television?
The film teacher at St. John's was this amazing guy named Alan Seeger. He taught during the school year and directed film and television off season. Alan was directing segments of a New York State Education Department funded TV show called "Vegetable Soup". It was funded to teach kids about different cultures, long before multiculturalism became a buzzword on PBS. Part of the show's funding was to train minorities in media. Alan told me they were looking for production assistant trainees, I applied and got one of the jobs. A white friend from Long Island ranted about the evils of affirmative action and how he was getting screwed for being white and affluent because a lower middle class black kid from Queens like me got a shit job that paid $150 a week. The friendship didn't last much longer than that conversation. $150 a week sucked, but you could actually live on it in 1978, amazing as that sounds. Times change. Fast.
TV Production was my second education. We shot and cut everything on 16mm film and transferred finished segments to videotape to edit together into a magazine format show. I got to work at some of the best post houses in New York with some of the best techs, because that's what they did between feature jobs. You can't learn anything faster or better than working on low budget productions because you have to be so damn creative to fake what the big guys can afford to buy. I had art talent, so I did props and set dressing. I was good with kids, so I was put in charge of them on set to keep them busy without tiring them out before they shot their scenes. The show even made me get my driver's license, which saved my ass as a New Yorker who didn't have to drive -- I have a New York born friend who still doesn't, and has to be ferried around L.A. every time he visits. Fortunately he's a famous artist, so they do that. Not so much for kids' TV writers.
What was your first writing gig in the world of television and how'd you get it?
"Vegetable Soup" gave me my first writing credits, too. I was hired as a production assistant trainee and promoted to full PA shortly after with a pay bump of another hundred a week. (hey, in '78, that meant you could summer in Europe! LOVED the pre-Euro exchange rates...) After a writing trainee left, I was "promoted" to doing his job too, for the same money. I wrote lyrics for ethnic recipes recorded by "Woody the Spoon", an animated character voiced by a young and struggling Bette Midler. So I can honestly say my first job was writing song lyrics for the Divine Miss M.
My first live action script for the show was a short adaptation of "Stone Soup", an old fairy tale about a stranger who gets a village of varied people who don't speak to each other to combine food from their cultures into a pot of boiling water to make a multicultural stew. It was a pretty traditional adaptation, but I wrote it, propped it, location scouted, helped cast it and went on location to help shoot. I even hand-painted this great canvas bag to be the stranger's knapsack with stars and mystic symbols.
The actor who played the stranger gave me the first profound piece of advice I ever got as a scriptwriter, and I never forgot it, even if I've forgotten his name. He pulled me aside the first day we did a reading at the office to ask me if I'd ever read the script aloud, and I said no. It had never occurred to me. He gently pointed out that things that look good on the page may not read well said aloud. I saw what he meant as soon as I heard the lines being read, and made changes before we shot. We were all happier. I still read everything I write aloud at some point, even the fiction.
How did you end up in children's entertainment?
As you can see, I fell into it by accident, but loved it once I landed there. My first job led to more. One job usually leads to another, as you meet people who like your work and recommend you to others. At the time, there wasn't much money to be made in kids' TV, and a lot more shows produced in New York. Everyone was there because they loved kids and TV production, and wanted to make good shows that taught kids good things.
Then Star Wars came out and George Lucas made history by keeping marketing rights that the studio laughed off. When he became a billionaire off Star Wars toys, the world changed. People realized kids were a major market -- they couldn't buy anything on their own, but could hound their parents until they bought anything to shut them up. Anyone who'd ever bought a Sesame Street toy for their kids could have told them that. Then Reagan deregulated commercial time and program length showmercials were born.
More important to the kids market, Transformers and a host of other toy lines realized they could make half hour animated commercials for action figures called shows. They started funding the animated adventures of their toys. The children's TV market has been driven by licensing ever since. I stayed happy in it while it was fun, but one day my friends and I were at a Nickelodeon nine year anniversary party, and saw that the accountants outnumbered the creatives. Our Kid Camelot was dead. Kids' TV had become big business and too valuable to be left in our hands.
When you moved to LA, did you already have a job lined up for yourself?
No. Not bright. I was working at WNET/13, and writing a spec thriller screenplay for a director friend. I had an epiphany one night that I could move to LA and pitch myself there before I aged out of the market. I made a one month test trip to test the waters, then cashed out my 13 pension and moved out to share a house with a friend of a friend. The first year was deadly -- I didn't know anyone, didn't know what the hell I was doing. I had a stack of numbers people gave me as I left New York, but got so freaked when one of the people I called was a total shit that I didn't call any others. Such a New York neurotic...LA is for the brave and bold -- be daring, never show fear. They'll eat you alive.
I decided to fall back on my experience in Kids' TV in NYC. A friend met an animation agent at a party and told her about me, bless him. He gave me her card, I sent her scripts from past jobs that she loved, and suddenly I had an agent at a known agency. She had me write a spec script for "Beetlejuice", and I got meetings. I learned that anyone will take a first meeting if you have an agent -- no one wants to be the one who turned down the next big thing, so they all want a look -- but second meetings are harder. You're dealing with middle management mostly, development execs who pass through the studios like water. None of them want to sign someone who won't make them look brilliant, but not enough of them had the ability or courage to recognize brilliance. It was always ironic to me that the ones most concerned about keeping their jobs were the ones least likely to take the risks that would save them.
After a year of writing development bibles for new shows to pitch to the networks, and a year of meetings where I did everything but dance on the ceiling to sell shows, I finally got out of development hell into scriptwriting on series. Much more fun, and you have a real answer when someone asks if you've written anything they know...
Why did you finally decide to leave LA?
The job market changed, and so did I. The air was being taken over by what I called "animation auteurs" like Gendy Tartovsky, who did "Dexter's Lab" and "Samurai Jack"; Craig McKracken, who did "Powerpuff Girls" and "Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends"; John Kricfalusi, who did "Ren and Stimpy" -- and my favorite, Jhonen Vasquez's "Invader Zim". It used to be that studios optioned properties, pitched them to the network, got money to develop the show and hired a stable of writers and producers to work it out as they moved to approval for air.
The new paradigm was that shows came in with everything in place, created by producers who'd usually spent a few years at the studios. They could design the shows, write them with a team of friends and storyboard the action themselves. All the animation was being done overseas in Korea, so it didn't matter. An entire generation of writers lost work, some deservedly. Digital and broadband move even faster now -- it won't be long before anyone with talent and the right tech can create their own shows and put them up on broadband sites for play on big screen home HD TVs. Some shows have already made it to commercial broadcast from the 'Net -- soon they'll completely bypass traditional networks.
From my point of view in 2001, it was either sell my own show or find other work. By then I was getting tired of kids' TV and rolling into midlife crisis. Even if I could sell a show, I wasn't sure I wanted one. I'd been writing horror stories and a vampire novel on the side for years. As my disenchantment grew I decided to explore that side of me, to the horror of friends I'd made in kids' TV. Anyone who's read Bruno Bettelheim's "The Uses of Enchantment" can tell you there are a lot of similarities, but I still love the look on people's faces while they try to figure it out.
Please share your strangest "only in New York" story.
The strangest? That's hard, it's a strange town. In 1981 I was looking for a loft in Brooklyn with a partner, and we leased a large space in a building off Flatbush between Bergen and Dean. We struggled for months to carve a home out of a raw concrete space and failed. The relationship broke up, but not before we found two spaces for sale in a building in Gowanus, where I live now. A few years ago, as the horror that is the Atlantic Yards project began to rear its head, I read an article in a local paper that listed buildings being taken over by abuse of eminent domain. I realized that the building I would have been living in was one of them. At the time, leaving it seemed terrible, but in the long run, losing that space was probably the best thing that could have happened to me. since it got me to buy something else. I feel for the current tenants.
Only in New York. You never know if something that happens to you is good or bad for years.
Which New Yorker do you most admire?
I go with the Time Person of the Year approach, and say YOU -- anyone in the five boroughs reading these words. New York is the best place in the world to be and the hardest to survive in. Anyone who's got the chutzpah to take it on, from cab drivers to shop clerks, painters to TV execs, online journalists to kids' show or horror writers deserve admiration for giving it a shot. New York is the best example of "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" -- it's a kiln of a city that sears off weakness. It either fires your strengths, or burns you away completely. Anyone willing to make the choice to move here or fights to stay earns my admiration. There isn't a day in New York I don't feel like Lewis Carroll's Red Queen felt about the Looking Glass world: 'Now, HERE, you see, it takes all the running YOU can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!'
Given the opportunity, how would you change New York?
I would make it the best of all possible worlds, a city that was kind to all its residents, instead of nudging out the lower income artists, innovators, experimenters and just plain folk that gave the city its reputation to make way for the rich. I'd find a way to make room for the wealthy who pay the bills and bring in services all of us enjoy, and a way to keep affordable housing and food for the rest of us. I don't want to see New York turn into what Paris has become -- a beautifully preserved movie set for displaying tourist attractions and collecting cash from wealthy residents and visitors before it shuts down at night so everyone can sleep and start all over the next day. We're getting damn close.
Under what circumstance have you thought about leaving New York?
None. Well, maybe nuclear war or alien invasion -- I mean if ray guns start blasting...otherwise, none. The only time I left was to try out L.A., and after that, never again. New Yorkers are like Dorothy in reverse -- you leave Oz to discover that everywhere else is only Kansas. No offense to the real Kansas...I mean the black and white old movie Kansas. I prefer Oz, Brooklyn style.
What's your idea of a perfect day of recreation in New York?
Pretty standard, I suppose. Waking up late to warm weather (but not too warm) and brunch with friends along 5th Avenue in Brooklyn, biking together across the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan, blasting 80s dance tunes and 90s techno on my Ipod, to take in a new digital Imax thrill ride like Spiderman 3 (did it) or the new Harry Potter (planning to). Meander back down by bike, window shopping on Broadway and east for Japanese import toy stores like Toy Tokyo and Giant Robot, until drinks and dinner downtown. Then out dancing in the East Village or party uptown in Harlem. Breakfast at a favorite all night restaurant at 4 am after Last Call, and a sleepy subway home with the bikes. Unless they've magically disappeared in this fantasy and then it's a cab across the Manhattan Bridge back to Gowanus, with a damn nice dawn view of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Somewhere in there should be some sex. Good sex. Safe sex. With someone you care about. Or just met. (How do you think you get NEW kids' TV writers?)
And music. Always music. It's New York.