The animated series Big Nate, based on the beloved comics by cartoonist Lincoln Peirce, about the titular underachieving sixth grader, premiered on the Paramount+ streaming service earlier this year. Nickelodeon once again had another runaway hit on their hands and ordered a second season less than a month later. Those who may not haven’t gotten on board the streaming train are in luck as this month Nickelodeon will air episodes of the Big Nate cartoon on the Nickelodeon network starting Labor Day Monday, September 5 at 7:30 p.m. ET/PT, with new episodes continuing to air Fridays at 7:30 p.m. ET/PT.
The Beat had the chance to chat with Big Nate‘s executive producers John Cohen and Mitch Watson. During our conversation we discussed the Monty Python mixed media influence on the show’s visual style, expanding the world of Big Nate, as well as what’s to come next season.
Taimur Dar: During lockdown I rediscovered the works of Terry Gilliam and of course Monty Python. I was definitely reminded of Gilliam’s Python cartoons in Big Nate with the fantasy sequences and use of mixed media. I’m curious if that was indeed an intentional influence?
Mitch Watson: 100%. That all came about because we knew we were going to be doing it in CG and we knew when we went into Nate’s fantasies we were going to be doing Lincon Peirce’s style from the books. Dave Skelly, the art director, and I wondered what we were going to do when we went into somebody else’s fantasies. We can’t do the 2D because that’s only Nate’s [fantasies]. Dave knew this guy named Sam Koji Hale who had done this kind of stuff before. So he sent me some of Sam’ work and the moment I saw it I said, “This is exactly like Terry Gilliam and Monty Python,” which I’m a diehard and huge fan of. Sam is now the art director on the show because Dave is doing a different Lincoln Peirce show. Sam functions in many ways the way Terry Gilliam functioned with the Pythons. The shows are written and storyboarded. There are particular sequences we call the “Sam Koji Hale style.” We give Sam the storyboards and he will disappear for a period of time. The next thing you know he will send back the material as it’s going or when it’s completely done. It’s very similar from what I understand how Gilliam would do it. They would ask him for interstitials to bridge the scenes.
Now that we’ve started going back into the studio a lit bit, we’ve built Sam a little stop-motion room. As the series moves on we’re going to pushing more into not just the way we’ve been doing the cut and paste stuff but more aspects of stop-motion.
John Cohen: It reminds me a lot of this Light & Magic docuseries on Disney+. Everyone should watch it after they finish Big Nate! It really is this group of people, similar to how Sam works, who are so inventive and creative. Whether it’s stop-motion or different styles of animation, there’s just this amazing toolbox and incredibly talented people.
Dar: Something that separates the Big Nate cartoon from most other kids cartoons is the use of licensed music. Those songs aren’t inexpensive hence why licensed music isn’t used regularly animated TV shows with their limited budgets. How did you approach incorporating songs?
Cohen: We’re making this show very much for kids and also non-kids. We’re making this for everybody in the audience. The show plays comedically with a level of sophistication for adults just as much for kids. We’re very proud of that and something we all get a kick out of it. As a part of that, that music sensibility has been something very important to us from the very beginning. We’ve worked very closely with the incredibly talented team at Nickelodeon and Paramount who have been very helpful in securing this stuff and getting all the needle drops that we want because they add so much personality and fun to the series.
Watson: We’ve used the music for nostalgia feel to make people watching it feel smile inside. We found that one of the best ways to do that was with those needle drops. It sets the mood instantly. You don’t even have to do anything. I’m glad you picked up on that. I’m glad you picked up on that. A lot of people have commented on the music. You don’t normally see that in cartoons.
Dar: The Big Nate comics have so many great characters you’ve been able to include in the show. But you’ve also created some new characters created for the animated series. One of my personal favorites is Zeff voiced by Chester Rushing. What goes into developing new characters for the Big Nate cartoon?
Watson: Zeff is an interesting case because he came about by necessity. He was in an episode and we liked him. Then Lincoln Peirce, the creator of the Big Nate books, really liked him. When you are doing a CG-animated show you are limited by the amount of characters that you can do. We thought, “What if we just made Zeff the character who works everywhere in [the town of] Rackleff?” He’s a funny character and it would be a funny gag to see the same guy working in every single place. It would also be a very economical way of doing it. He’s become this weird Zen-like character who appears and has knowledge of different things.
I’m trying to think of the different characters we created.
Dar: There’s the drama teacher Dr. Lagaze.
Watson: We needed to fill out the school with different teachers. I don’t think the books had a drama teacher or they weren’t used that much. Myself, and Emily Brundrige, who wrote the first Lagaze episode as well as Sarah [Allan] came up with Lagaze. We all had theater backgrounds and all at one point dealt with a very pompous theater teacher who was solely teaching in the school because they couldn’t make it in the real world. The kids were a captive audience and they could just spout their stuff. That seemed like a no-brainer. There are several background student characters that we’ve created along the way that are now so popular among the crew and the people watching the show that we’ve given them bigger parts. That’s kind of how it works. These characters take on a life of their own and we set them free. That’s the only way I can describe it.
Dar: Gross-out humor is definitely a part of Nickelodeon’s brand and the Nickelodeon Big Nate cartoon certainly embraces it. Did Nickelodeon have you pull back in any way?
Cohen: They’ve been very supportive. You’ll try stuff and almost as you’re pitching the joke you realize that this is probably a bit too much. We’re trying to do stuff that makes us laugh and the entire team like the crew and animators. We’ve been walking a line but doing some really silly and funny stuff.
Watson: Usually they’ll make us trim particular things out of a gag if it’s too gross. The one that comes to mind immediately is the “Bad Hamster” short that played theatrically. There’s a part where the hamster gives birth to babies. There were more babies and it was more centered around the butt, which they made us trim back a little bit because they said it was too gross. Anytime you’re dealing with poop that gets toned down. But like John said, for the most part we’ve been able to get away with quite a bit. [Laughs].
Cohen: We’ve been so thrilled by the reactions. We’re not allowed to share specifics but the show has been a big, big success for Paramount+ and Nickelodeon. One of the things that has come with this level of viewership is we get a lot of fan generated content and art. People have reached out to us on social media to tell us their favorite characters. That’s been so much fun and just a thrill. We’ve continued to develop the show into the second season. Ahead of the show premiering on Nickelodeon on September 5th we’ve continued to develop and deepen the characters and make them feel like living breathing people. And we’ve continued to expand the world itself. There’s just such a huge number of characters in the mythology that Lincoln had created in the comic strips and books.
Watson: There will be some new things introduced. You’re going to see new things happening with characters like Dee Dee. You’re going to meet parents of some of the characters. We’re also going into the story and history of Martin, Nate’s dad, and learn more about his past and his family. John said it. Lincoln gave us the framework but even he said eventually we have to move outside and find the other things that are in that world. What you’re going to see a lot of in Season 2 is moving out and expanding the relationships and bringing in characters who may or may not have been in the books. Specifically for Dee Dee we have some very interesting things planned and Nate’s family as well. And for town itself. If you watch the first season and look closely, you’ll see whenever there’s a package or item, most of them have a marker that says “Made by the Eew Corporation.” That corporation becomes more part of the story. We seeded it in the first season and it becomes more prominent in the second. Along the lines of what we were talking about with Sam Koji Hale, we’re going to expand that stuff. We have one episode that Sam and I dreamed up together that’s going to be a blast.
Dar: I can’t wait to see it for myself!
Nickelodeon will premiere Big Nate on Monday, September 5 at 7:30 p.m. ET/PT, with new episodes continuing to air Fridays at 7:30 p.m. ET/PT