The Interviews

JJ Sedelmaier


An Animated Life and Career

Interview by Leif Steiner & Emily Potts
December 20, 2016

JJ Sedelmaier
JJ Sedelmaier has been the co-creator and producer of some of the funniest animated reels in the last 25 years, including the SNL TV Funhouse cartoons, “The Ambiguously Gay Duo,” and “The X-Presidents,” as well as the first season of MTV’s “Beavis & Butthead.” The crudeness of the comics were not only part of the charm, but part of the gig when working on fast timelines in a pre-digital world.

As a kid growing up in Evanston, Illinois, Sedelmaier was fascinated with cartoons, so when he ventured to University of Wisconsin in Madison, he taught himself how to animate, since there were no courses on the subject at the time. After graduating, he packed a U-Haul and moved to New York City to pursue a comic book career. He soon discovered that the field of comics was very limited, but through some helpful contacts, he landed his first job working on Strawberry Shortcake in Big Apple City. It was a shitty cartoon, but he was in heaven, finally doing what he loved.

Eventually, he landed at The Ink Tank under R.O. Blechman, the legendary illustrator and animator. Besides being a good animator, Sedelmaier had an ease with clients, so Blechman made him a producer and client liasion. He didn’t love the role at first, but, admittedly, he learned how to handle all aspects of running an animation studio, and he was quite good at it. For six years he worked side by side with Blechman—an experience Sedelmaier describes as “transformative.” In 1991, he and his wife Patrice, founded JJ Sedelmaier Productions (JJSP) in White Plains, NY.

Here he shares some behind the scenes stories from the early days, including his rocky start with former SNL head writer, Robert Smigel, being censored, and what it was really like collaborating with other artists and big studios before everything went digital.

What was the first big job you landed after opening JJ Sedelmaier Productions?

I guess it was a double-whammy… My pal, the late “Honest Tom Pomposello” introduced me to Scott Webb at Nickelodeon and we were handed a package of intros and promos that launched and promoted the “Nicktoons” series of cartoons. This included the opening/closing titles for the three-show block, which included, Doug, Rugrats, and Ren & Stimpy. I asked cartoonist Craig Yoe to design the titles, and then worked with the shows’ creators on three, ten-second promos.

The other project that we pulled in simultaneously, was the 7Up International “Fido Dido” campaign. I had produced this at The Ink Tank my last two years there, and I was actually continuing as the producer after Patrice and I opened JJSP. When the campaign was reactivated in 1991, BBDO/NY felt very comfortable working with me and decided they liked the continuity I was able to provide. This was a big money deal because it was a series of live action/animated spots and it was the branding for the product all over the world, except the USA. RSA/USA was the live action production company with Bill Mather as director of the live, and I directed the animation. We shot at Silvercup Studios in Queens, and even employed sophisticated motion control and CG in the spots. It totally validated us as a studio that had arrived, even before we got there! By the end of our first year, we were named one of the three best animation studios by Shoot Magazine, the weekly commercial industry rag.

How did your partnership with Robert Smigel work?

Robert and his collaborators (whether at SNL, Conan, Comedy Central, etc.) would handle the script and we would do all the storyboarding, design, and animation production. They were amenable to script suggestions, but the production schedules were so tight that we weren’t looking to slow down the process at all. The scripts and writing was so complete and solid anyway, that it wasn’t necessary. Advertising is a different matter—there’s more time to tweak and wiggle all aspects of the production into place.

The reason the SNL cartoons looked the way they did was because of the schedule. We’d sometimes do three minutes of animation in a week and a half. A 30 second commercial often takes about eight weeks to produce. You do the math.

You’ve had a long relationship with Smigel … were there ever any bumps in the road?

Before Robert and I created the Saturday TV Funhouse cartoons in ’96, there were two other projects we did together. Finishing the first one convinced me it was the last time we’d ever speak, let alone collaborate. It was a parody commercial called “Cluckin’ Chicken,” and SNL staff producer/director Jim Signorelli (who did ALL the landmark commercial parodies) paired us up. Robert had never done animation before, and these were the days of traditional ink and paint on acetate celluloid. To make a long story short, he was asking for changes on previously approved material—specifically Clucky’s eyes, and I lost it on him. Totally went ballistic. Regardless of how well the film turned out (it’s become an SNL staple/classic), I figured Robert and I were on either side of a burned bridge.

Fast forward about a year. I get a call from NBC to come and talk to them about doing titles for a new show replacing David Letterman’s slot, called Late Night with Conan O’Brien. I walk into the meeting and sit with Jeff Ross, the producer, and Conan. We exchanged pleasantries, and then Robert walks in. He explains that as executive producer and head writer, he has the idea of animated titles he’d like to use for the show’s opening. I’m barely able to concentrate because all I can think of is the “Cluckin’ Chicken” experience. I finally break into the conversation and ask him to think about what we’re embarking on. I asked, “Do you really wanna do this again? I said really awful things to you.” He gave me this strange, puzzled look and said, “Well. . . everybody says that to me. . .” That was 1994, and we’ve done stuff together ever since.

Robert also gave you equal credit for the skits on SNL, isn’t that right?

Right. We had just finished a storyboard for one of the TV Funhouse cartoons, but it was killed before we went into animation. I think it had mayor Rudy Guiliani in it, and there was a plunger involved. . . Anyway, we submitted an invoice for work done and delivered, but we soon received a call from NBC Business Affairs informing us that they wouldn’t be issuing a P.O. for the invoice. Policy was to not pay for incomplete portions of a project. I asked Robert—who often acted as an in-house Guardian Angel for us—what to do, and he said, “Ask for your own JJSP studio title card at the end of each cartoon.” This was incredibly generous of him. We always had a list of credits, but now we would have a held studio logo—he was sharing the spotlight with us, because he had an end title sequence with his name on it at the end of each film.

I called NBC and told them that if they weren’t going to pay for the storyboard, I wanted a title card at the end of each cartoon, and Robert Smigel had authorized it. They couldn’t have cared less, and actually sounded stunned with relief, so I immediately went to work designing a title card, and it became our new logo! It’s been the most jarring lesson in what branding is all about. Everyone remembers and recognizes that title card, and our company name.

What was the cartoon that was pulled from SNL, and why?

Conspiracy Theory Rock, created in 1998, was a parody of the popular and charming “Schoolhouse Rock” cartoons. We were the first studio to produce actual Schoolhouse Rock cartoons for ABC after the hiatus they were on during the Reagan administration, and we were able to use the original designers to do our SNL piece.

It looked splendid and was quite funny, but the fact that it slammed ALL the networks as corporate information filters didn’t sit well with some network execs.

While we were doing the cartoon, we all were curious how the hell this was ever going to make it to air. We were reassured that it had passed through all the various channels and was indeed a go.

It mysteriously disappeared from subsequent reruns of the show, and although it would periodically turn up on YouTube, it would soon disappear after having been removed for “questionable content.” Bill Moyers used it in a PBS Special as an example of corporate self-censorship, and the The Nation did a sidebar focus in an issue about censorship.

How did the Beavis & Butthead collaboration come together?

Andy Arkin, a representative of ours, had heard about an animated series project that MTV was considering producing. Andy and I both had a few pals at MTV, having created and produced several of the distinctive and groundbreaking ten second MTV IDs. We went over to 1515 Broadway for a meeting to listen to their pitch for this series idea they had, called Beavis and ButtHead. Seems that this guy Mike Judge, had made a couple of cartoons on his own starring two teenage idiots that were shown on MTV’s “Liquid Television” program. The response was extraordinary. It was also a “Three Stooges” sort of thing— the guys loved it, but the girls not so much… except in New Jersey (true story) where everyone loved it.

Andy and I were asked what it would take to produce a series of these. We had just become friends with John Whitney Jr. out in Los Angeles, who had this idea of doing “paperless” animation, working in a digital domain. After looking at the simplicity of the Beavis structure, we theorized that by at least halfway through the production we could be doing more re-exposing of existing footage than creating new animation for each episode. We agreed to do the project only if we could work with John and his producer David Lipman at USAnimation in North Hollywood, California.

We did all the animation conventionally on paper in the studio, it was FedEx’d to USAnimation with our pastel background art, scanned then composited, and sent back with a video cassette for review.

MTV moved Mike Judge and his family out to Westchester County where our studio is, and he’d spend the mornings with us in White Plains and then head to Manhattan for recording and meetings at MTV. It was crazy, but it obviously worked. It effectively brought back series/longer form animation production to New York. Nothing was farmed out of the country. It all worked out and we were able to do 120 minutes of animation in five months.

Fun Fact: After being in production for a couple weeks and the news had hit that JJSP was handling the project, I started getting phone calls from my industry pals and other studios. The basic question was, “Are you F%$#ing nuts?! There’s no money and no time to do it!” I began to realize that we were the only studio left that was crazy and inexperienced enough to agree to do this, though the digital approach—as loony as it seems now—was cost effective.

Why did you leave after one season?

We had become consumed by the animal! It wasn’t the type of studio Patrice and I wanted to have or manage. We ballooned up to 60 people. I’d pass people in the halls that worked at the studio, and I didn’t even know them. It had also become drudgery and more managerial than creative. By the time we had finished the first season at the end of May 1993, we were ready to bail. The cake at the wrap party said “We Are Outta Here!”

But I don’t regret a moment of the experience, and it taught us all early on what we didn’t want to be as a studio.

Had it happened later in our development, I can’t say we would’ve reacted the same way. It made us judge each and every project we took on in a very careful way and it has worked for us the quarter of a century we’ve been around. … Stay small, stay nimble.

Of all the things you’ve done, do you have a favorite character or show?

Well, I do adore Ace & Gary from The Ambiguously Gay Duo. I come from a childhood of wanting to draw superhero comic books, and to be able to parody this realm of pop culture (comics AND “Saturday Morning” cartoons) was a dream, which also makes me fond of our Captain Linger character (created with Stuart Hill). But I also love the work I did for the Chicago Tribune rebranding. One of my favorite media campaigns. TV, theatrical, print, transit, billboards. . . YEESH! And NO voices, just performance—like Chaplin/Keaton characters. It’s mighty tasty!

 

Seymour Chwast illustrated this Hewlett-Packard spot when I worked at The Ink Tank. It was the first time a Beatles tune was used in a commercial.

What has been the best collaboration so far?

There is NO way I could ever pick one experience as a fave. They’re all different and there’s never been a sour note! Here’s a list of creative pals I’ve had a chance to work with: Gary Baseman, David Levine, Al Hirschfeld, Seymour Chwast, Garry B. Trudeau, George Booth, Neal Adams, J.J. Sempe’, Guy Billout, Bill Plympton, M.K. Brown, Al Jaffee, Don Martin, Lee Lorenz, R.O. Blechman, Peter deSeve. . . If you told me when I was a kid that I’d have had the chance to know these stellar talents and work through creative challenges with them, I’d say what the other studios said to me when we started Beavis & Butthead: “Are you F%$#ing nuts?!”

This sort of stuff is truly a thrill and one of the most wonderful aspects of what I do—getting to play with artists, designers, cartoonists, etc.

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