Nickelodeon has always been on the cutting edge of original animated programming. From the early ’90s with its first three “Nicktoons,” Doug, Rugrats, and Ren & Stimpy, the network has produced dozens of great shows with a bevy of memorable characters. Add to that ever-growing and impressive list the title characters of its newest show, Sanjay & Craig, which premieres tomorrow, Saturday, May 25th, at 10:30am ET/PT. The series features the adventures of Sanjay (played by 30 Rock‘s Maulik Pancholy), a regular, though quite awesome, kid, and his wise-cracking, shape-changing, disguise-wearing pet snake, Craig (played by our own Chris Hardwick).
The program is the brainchild of first-time creators and executive producers Jim Dirschberger, Jay Howell, and Andreas Trolf, who come from different disciplines and take different roles of the series. “My background is in fiction writing and film writing,” Trolf told us on a visit to Nickelodeon animation studios, “Jim is a production and post-production maniac and Jay is an illustrator and a painter. So, bringing all those things together, we were each able to do a few things on the show.”
Since they’re brand new to TV animation, the network gave them some veterans to act as showrunners. Those just happened to be Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi, the creators of the classic Nickelodeon dramedy, The Adventures of Pete & Pete, who brought some of their melancholy strangeness to Sanjay & Craig. “Will and Chris sort of helped shape it to where it is now and put a lot of that weird-ass vibe they had on their show,” said Howell with a chuckle. “Surreal kids stuff. They really affected us with that and helped us get some of that strange, weird, sad stuff they do.”
Unlike a lot of animated shows, Sanjay & Craig is “board-driven” as opposed to script-driven. This refers to storyboards being the key to an episode and not a 20-page script, as is generally common. Dirschberger explained the rather in-depth scheduling that goes into an 11-minute episode: “We do our premise and work with the network to make it into an outline, then hand it off to our board team. That’s usually about two to three weeks. The boarding takes five or six weeks and we’re doing check-ins along the way. Then it’s straight to record and animatic for about four weeks. Then Jay, who is also the art director, breaks down the art with the art team. They have a six week schedule with the art.”
The reason for the length of time for the storyboarding, we learned, is that the 3 or 4 page outline, with specific beats and gags spelled out, gets turned into a thousand-panel storyboard. “If I could describe an episode to you in 30 seconds,” says Trolf, “that’s a premise, then talking about it for a minute would be the outline, and then the eleven minute episode is the storyboard.” But that’s not even close to being the end of the process. “From there it goes through a punch-up and revisions process, and then we do the record, and the storyboard and an animatic and it gets shipped to Korea [where the actual animating is done] and there we go.” And unlike script-driven shows where the pages are relatively set in stone, the board-driven process of Sanjay & Craig allows for changing things at any point in the process. “Sometimes a joke won’t even occur to us until it’s in the animatic,” says Trolf. “It’s a process that’s meant to continually refine one idea.”
The characters were the result of an original short by Dirschberger and Howell, but it wasn’t always aimed at kids. “In the original cartoon, Sanjay was a 40-something-year old snake charmer,” says Dirschberger. The changeover from adult to kid main character wasn’t as difficult as you might imagine. Dirschberger shared that they really just wanted to make him a regular kid, without a weird quirk or affectation. This is not the case for the snake sidekick, however. He adds, “Craig has always remained kind of the same. He’s always been his crass buddy who stays up late partying and getting him into trouble.” And Craig is also quite adept at being seen by people and having it not appear strange. Trolf says of the snakey sidekick, “Part of the fun of Craig being a talking snake is that we can do what we’ve termed the “Squash and Stretch” stuff with him. He can be a rope. Sometimes we can use him as a whip in an action sequence.” He’s also a master of disguise. “He puts on a backwards hat and a t-shirt and people think he’s a kid.”
While casting Hardwick in the role of Craig proved a relatively easy task, getting the proper Sanjay was a bit more difficult. “It’s the first biracial main character on a show, but also the first Indian main character on a show,” Trolf tells us. “We met with almost every Indian actor in Hollywood and that was overwhelming because we met so many amazingly talented people and so many people that could potentially be Sanjay.” Ultimately, they found their Sanjay in Jack Donaghy’s former devoted assistant. “Maulik walked in and in ten seconds we knew. He opened his mouth and we were like ‘whoa!'” shares Trolf, “We stopped seeing people that day. He’s like an adult Sanjay.”
And how well do Hardwick and Pancholy get along as their characters? According to Trolf, like a dream come true. “He and Chris have this amazing chemistry. When they record together, which isn’t all the time because Chris is so busy, but it’s always best when they do, when he and Maulik are in the booth together, it’s Sanjay and Craig, they’re best friends. They just turn it on, and they’re ad-libbing new stuff. They just riff off of each other so well.”
So, for crazy fun times with a kid and his talking snake friend, with a Ren & Stimpy and Pete & Pete vibe thrown in, check out Sanjay & Craig, premiering this Saturday morning at 10:30am ET/PT on Nickelodeon. And stay tuned for more new animated programming on the network over the course of the year.