How Kids TV Made Playwright Matt Hoverman a Star

Broadway producers disappointed him twice. Winning an Emmy for "Arthur" let his spirits rise again.

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Photo: Michael Winslow.

It feels like nearly every week there is a media blitz announcing when the new season of a popular adult series is available for streaming. Given the promotion and popularity of shows like Stranger Things, The Handmaid’s Tale and Game of Thronesit can often seem like these programs are the most important shows on TV. There is a special niche of TV, however, that not only strives to entertain, but also to educate. It deserves far more fanfare than it receives, and that is kids programming.

Many adults have fond memories of growing up on educational TV shows such as Sesame Street, The Electric Company and Reading Rainbow. Even now, Sesame Street continues on HBO after its long run on PBS. It is likely thanks at least in part to Fred Rogers of the eponymous Mr. Rogers Neighborhood and his testimony before the US Commerce Committee back in 1969 that children’s TV programming survived, and continues to thrive.

One of the creative, caring people working in the world of animated TV shows for kids is the Emmy-winning Matt Hoverman, who has written for Arthur (on PBS) and now for Sofia the First (on Disney) — and began as a playwright. I recently asked him about his niche — how his writing fills a vital need in children’s lives.

Robin Rothstein: Can you tell me a bit about your background? What draws you to creative writing?

Matt Hoverman: I’ve been writing and acting in plays since the third grade, when my teacher Terry Dion kept me after class to write a musical called Mabel, The Queen Of The Gypsies, and then cast me as the villain, Horace Scope. My mother says it was like a light turned on inside me. All I remember is getting laughs and loving it.

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I earned a BA in playwriting at Brown, where I worked with Paula Vogel, who was brilliant, inspiring and, ultimately, for a guy who dreamed of writing linear comedies, kinda confusing. So, I gave up writing and got an MFA in acting at UCSD. After that, I moved to NYC and worked as an actor for a few years, but found the life of a balding character man limiting, so I gathered my courage to refocus on playwriting, where I felt I could express more of what was in me. I felt there were other actors who could play the parts I could play, but no one else could tell the unique stories I had in my heart and imagination. And temperamentally, I am more suited to long periods of time mulling over plot points and witty lines by myself than touring the country on a bus with extroverts.

RR: How did you transition to TV writing from playwriting? What are some of the biggest differences between the mediums?

MH: After The Barrow Group produced my four-character comedy Who You See Here as a showcase production in a tiny theater, a well-known producer optioned the play for Broadway. Hearing the news, a friend — head writer of Arthur — suggested I write an episode for them. I figured I was headed for the stars, so why not get a little practice writing for the kiddies? I auditioned (which consisted of watching about 20 episodes and then pitching a few story ideas), and my first episode went well. Soon, I was regularly writing for the show.

During this time, I didn’t think I was transitioning from playwriting to kids TV. Arthur, like many kids’ shows, has no permanent writing staff except for the head writer. Everyone else is freelance. So, although I was constantly writing scripts, I had plenty of time to attend the pre-Broadway workshops of Who You See Here, do rewrites, write my next play, The Glint (which was also optioned for Broadway), and dream of the “big time.”

Kids TV certainly is a niche.

Ironically, the development process of the plays helped prepare me for TV writing. The major difference, of course, between theater and TV is that in one, the writer holds the copyright and is king (or queen) and in the other, you’re a hired gun. Still, a show going to Broadway by an unproven, unknown playwright is going to get notes — plenty of them. I struggled at first with my ego (and my fear), but eventually learned to honor my producer and director’s requests while staying true to my intent and voice. That turned out to be a really important skill to have in TV. I’ve seen other writers get shut down by a lot of notes (and then let go). I have learned not to take it personally (being a professional writer means someone is telling you you’re not doing it good enough all the time), and to just use the note as a challenge to do something even more creative.

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Another big difference is that in a play, you are writing about the high stakes moment(s) that irreversibly change your character’s lives. In a TV episode, it’s not that deep dish. You have to find an emotional through-line where the hero of your story changes in some way, but it’s on a much smaller scale — and you pretty much leave the world of the characters the way you found it.

RR: Your main TV writing is animation for young children. What skills did you need to acquire and hone for that specific sub-genre?

MH: I often hear people in the biz say that children’s television is a kind of ghetto that isn’t respected and is really hard to escape from, once you’re known as that kind of writer. Of course, those same people entrust you with their kids’ most formative years, so who are you gonna believe?

As with much TV writing, in kids TV you need to be able to tell a clearly structured three-act story with snappy, funny (age-appropriate) dialogue and at least one exciting twist. You need to be able to think visually because so much of your story is being told through action. You need a fertile imagination and access to a kid-like perspective. Probably most importantly, you need to be able to match the tone of the show for which you’re writing. This is deceptively challenging. At first glance, kids’ cartoons can seem very simple, but they’re far more nuanced than you probably realize.

RR: Does arts education play a part in content and storytelling?

MH: Some shows are really built around a math or vocabulary lesson. They tend to have certain conventions that help young audiences take in the information. Like, a character will talk directly to the audience to explain a word or concept.

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The shows I write for tend to teach lessons that are social/emotional — like learning to have empathy for someone different than yourself — and we do it by tying “learning” to the characters’ emotional arcs. Sometimes these are small concepts — like learning to trust your gut or believe in yourself; sometimes they’re larger — like coming to terms with the death of someone close to you, or how to face injustice in the world.

Kids TV certainly is a niche, and there are different areas (and age groups) within it. The cartoons I grew up watching from a very early age were violent and funny and magnificent. These days, those kinds of cartoons exist for more mature kids, but I write for the pre-school and slightly older “bridge” audience. Basically, four to eight years old. For this audience, there is more of an educational imperative.

But even within that age range, there is a spectrum: from super-simple shows like Tumbleleaf on Amazon, where a whole episode could be a young fox learning to play with a kite, all the way up to something much more complex, like Arthur. Shows have different focuses: some are STEM/educational shows (like Curious George, for which I have written) that teach the audience math, science or engineering; some are teaching social/emotional lessons (like Arthur); some are primarily adventures with humor and heart (think Disney Junior).

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I supported my acting career as a teaching artist in NYC’s inner-city schools for years, and that had a big impact on my kids TV writing. I was also a lonely kid who watched a lot of TV; I could tell the difference between a show that was merely entertaining and a show that had a real message.

With every story I write, I ask myself: What kid out there needs to hear what I’m saying in this episode? I do my best to endow every episode I write with meaning because I think it’s vital for kids to grow up believing that their lives can have meaning, that they can act and impact the world with purpose. I think that’s particularly important in the time we’re living in.

RR: Name a favorite episode or two.

MH: When I got the offer to move to LA and join the staff for Sofia the First, I wasn’t sure at first. (Disney is one of the few producers of kids TV shows that actually has a full-time writing staff and writers room.) I was a balding, middle-aged guy, who at that time did not yet have a daughter. What did I have to say about crowns and gowns? I was also feeling a little depressed, as my Broadway plays hadn’t come to fruition. Even though I had won an Emmy and Humanitas Prize for my kids TV work, my big fancy agents had dropped me, saying children’s animation “doesn’t count.”

I created Disney’s first disabled princess.

But then I watched an early episode, where Sofia dares to ride the flying horses at her royal school with the boys, instead of sitting in the stands with the other princesses, and I saw my way in. She was out to change the world.

My sister is developmentally disabled; I had read about the disabled community’s hunger for a princess who looked like them. I resolved to create Disney’s first disabled princess. It took a bunch of rejected story pitches, but on my very last script of Sofia’s last season, I got my episode approved. In “The Lost Pyramid” (which has yet to air), Sofia meets Princess Cassandra, an “archeomagicalogist” (a person who studies ancient, magical objects) who happens to be blind. Cassandra’s skill with reading braille allowed her to become an expert at reading the raised stone carvings in the walls of ancient pyramids, and her courage and ingenuity empowers her to become the Indiana Jones of the princess set, plunging into musty, booby-trapped tombs without fear. I’m really proud of that episode.

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RR: Are you still writing for theater or just TV?

I continue to write plays… it just takes a lot longer.

RR: I sense a story coming on.

MH: Another advantage of writing for kids TV is the hours tend to be more family friendly. So, in addition to actually seeing my toddler in the morning and night, I was also able to attend a few weeks of rehearsal of my play Who You See Here, which, after the Broadway producer released the option, received its premiere this summer by the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse.

RR: What’s coming down the pike?

MH: I’m currently on a new show for Disney that I’m really excited about — Fancy Nancy (based on the popular book series). Another show about a little girl who likes to wear tiaras! I guess it’s my vein of gold.

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RR: What’s your advice for writers?

MH: At 10am, the morning after one of his shows would open on Broadway, director Hal Prince would always schedule a meeting for his next show. That way, whether the previous night was a hit or a bomb, he was on to his next project. I think the key is to stay flexible, stay creative and keep moving. Be open to finding success in ways you didn’t expect and that don’t necessarily look like what you first envisioned. Make friends with notes, criticism and rewriting. That’s just being a pro. Keep the pen moving across the page. Or the fingers moving on the keyboard. If you get stuck, make a list of three possible solutions — at least one of them should be ridiculous. Write with purpose. No matter what you’re writing for, endow it with the real lessons you’ve learned in this life. Try to make the world a better place with your writing. Then your writing is about something bigger than your own career. I believe you’ll find more success that way.

In short, be of service.