How many cartoons star a kid of Indian descent having adventures alongside his best pal who just happens to be a talking snake? That's the premise behind Nickelodeon's "Sanjay and Craig," which will launch its third season later this year.
CBR TV welcomed star Maulik Pancholy (Sanjay) and creators Jim Dirschberger and Jay Howell to the world famous CBR Yacht, where those spoke with Kevin Mahadeo about their style of comedy, what inspires absurdity, and so much more. The conversation covers everything from their secret mission to deliver positive messages for their audience to how Pancholy and Chris Hardwick (Craig) work together despite rarely recording alongside one another. All three touch on the fact that having a diverse character and his family at the heart of their show is not an accident, it's simply a reflection of the world around us and of the audience watching the series.
In the first part of the conversation, Pancholy, Dirschberger and Howell discuss where they find inspiration for the show's absurdist comedy, and how they impart messages that will be relevant to kids while not being preachy. They also talk about working with the creators of "The Adventures of Pete and Pete," how that collaboration helped shape the tone of the series, and the odd process of animation, in which each part of the process is slightly separate from every other, including the voice actors from each other.
On finding the balance between hiding whatever message they want to impart in subtext and actually getting a message across:
Jim Dirschberger: I think what we do well is we take that one idea of maybe feeling insecure about your laugh -- maybe some kids feel weird -- and then just wrapping that in, you know, never ending layers of absurdity. As long as the core of the episode speaks true to something a kid can relate to, I think we can really go anywhere from there.
Maulik Pancholy: It is kind of amazing how you guys have tapped into the mind of a child. [Laughter] You have adult brains, but it's like whenever I hang out with kids, I have a couple nieces and nephews, they do these crazy things that I feel like we could get into the cartoon. Like I have this seven year-old nephew who I was visiting the other day, he literally was laying on a big bouncy ball and pulling his pants down and being, "Look at my butt, look at my butt!" I'm like, "Oh yeah, butt doctor." [Laughter]
Dirschberger: He's 14 years-old, totally normal.
Pancholy: He's about to graduate college.
Jay Howell: Maulik will often be like, "What's this character supposed to be feeling here?" And we're just like, "Uhhhh... We just-- I don't--" [Laughter]
On whether Pancholy ever fully understands how the show will come together prior to seeing the finished episodes:
Pancholy: I feel like it's remarkable how well it comes together, because there's this counter-intuitive thing, I think, in animation where we're never in the same room with the other actors. I think we did like the first six episodes, Chris Hardwick and I got in the room together to really establish that chemistry between Sanjay and Craig. But I'm amazed at how well it works, that even just like reading the lines -- of course you know the story and you know the character and whatever -- but you're not reacting to the other characters, you're not sure what the animation's gonna look like, and then it comes together in like this amazing way. And I feel like it's such a--
Howell: It's our directing. I mean, we're incredible! [Laughs]
Pancholy: Honestly, it's such a credit to like the editors and the animators and the directing the way it all comes together in this great storytelling way.
Dirschberger: Both Chris and Maulik do a lot of improv that I think fills in the gaps. I think it would be a lot drier if you guys were just reading it. Chris and Maulik are always like, "Let me do one more. I can do better than that.
Howell: We'll even go through a page and he'll go, "Can we go back? I just feel like now that I've read a couple pages I want to go back and do it again." I'm like, "Yeah!" And then he'll say something that's not even written and I'm like, "Perfect, let's put that in the show" because he's feeling it, you know?
In the second part of the conversation, the creators and their star discuss the fact that a character of Indian descent, and his family, are front and center in the show, as well as why the issue of diversity is both an important thing for television and why there's not some kind of agenda attached to it. Following that, they discuss what fans can expect from the third, totally absurd season of the show when it airs on Nickelodeon later this year.
On how and why the show features a lead character of Indian descent:
Dirschberger: I know that we wanted to do something different and we wanted the show to represent -- at the time, like before it premiered, there wasn't a lot of real kids on Nickelodeon. I think being realistic with how a lot of kids are growing up today in like, an increasingly diverse school and world, you can't bury your head in the sand and pretend that isn't real. So we wanted the main character to feel progressive like that.
Howell: Without being forced. We're not trying to force diversity down people's throats. This is the world we live in, so... ta-da!
Dirschberger: I think that's how kids act. They're not aware of it. They're just like, "Oh, Sanjay's my friend," or "This kid's my friend" and it doesn't really matter until people make it a big deal.
Howell: When we came up with the concept, I already had like this idea -- a different idea -- called "Sanjay and Craig" about a snake and we were like, "Why don't we just age this down for kids and not change anything else really." It wasn't like, "We should do an Indian thing," we just rolled with it, basically.
Dirschberger: I think having that, again, you know this represents real kids, and they're not like millionaires; they don't have secret powers, they can't fly through the air.
Howell: We're proud of our diversity.
Dirschberger: But we don't try and hide behind it either. It's just kind of like, he is who he is.
Pancholy: For me it's awesome because I wanted to be an actor from the time I was a really little kid. I literally would watch TV and never see anyone who looked like me on TV so I had that sense of, "How am I gonna do this?" My parents were like, "How are you gonna do this? There's no one on TV like you at all." I do some social advocacy work in the Asian-American community and I was out at the Indian cultural center a couple weeks ago -- I didn't tell the kids who I was, I was there for like other stuff -- and one of the parents was like, "You guys, you know this Maulik from 'Sanjay and Craig?'" The kids went nuts, and to see all these little Indian kids who like love the show because they see a version of themselves. That's the thing with Indian-American characters on TV I feel like -- not so much anymore, but in the very near past they had to be more Indian to be on TV, and that was not my experience growing up in this country. I was just like a kid who happened to be brown.
Howell: Well, that's the thing. "Why does he have to be Indian?" Why can't he be Indian? Why do you care? [Laughs]