Five-Minute Time Out: Word Girl. The story behind TV's smartest superhero (and her hilarious villains) in the interview.


Uh . . .

I’m kidding. We work with really super talented writers. Most of our writers don’t come from the world of kids’ television, they come from The Onion, Saturday Night Live, Mad TV, Family Guy. They are brilliantly funny.

I also love the fact that the show is smart without being smart-assed. I hate it when my kid watches some show with snotty kids and the next day she’s saying some snotty catch phase. How do you walk that line?

I think it comes down to comic sensibilities. I get put off by mean-spirited humor or cheesy humor or stupid humor. Anyone with half a brain can come up with a catch phrase. To me, it’s also about the sweetness quotient. The Simpsons is a perfect example. It’s full of irreverence, and yet at the end of the day you know that Marge loves Homer. It’s got good values.

I also love how well-rounded the characters are. I love the fact that Becky can kick major robot ass and has an awesome vocabulary but gets all girly over ponies and sucks at art. It seems like so many cartoon characters – especially girls – wind up being flat and one-dimensional, the girly princess or the jock girl or the snob. Do you think that’s true?

Ooooh, yes. I was really tired of the way that girls are represented in cartoons. Part of the reason why that is that cartoons tend to be created by men. 2.jpg “I was really tired of the way that girls are represented in cartoons.” I was very aware of that and I wanted to create more believable characters, like [Word Girl’s mother] Mrs. Botsford. She’s the district attorney. Mr. Botsford is the stay-at-home dad.

Conventional wisdom is that girls will watch shows or read books with boy leads but boys won’t watch if the girl is the hero. Has that been the case for Word Girl?

That certainly was a question will boys watch a show called Word Girl? We’ve done some focus group testing and the answer is that boys like the show equally. The boys say their favorite character is Captain Huggy Face or one of the evil villains. We think what hooks boys in is that it’s action-packed.

I like that it’s kind of subversively feminist, like little boys will watch it and think, “Hmm . . . maybe girls aren’t so bad after all.”

Thank you! That’s the goal!

What shows did you like watching when you were a kid?

The ones that informed Word Girl were Rocky and Bullwinkle, Bugs Bunny and The Electric Company. They didn’t distinguish between adult humor and kid humor it was just funny. There has been a trend recently to strip away adult humor and in my opinion that has dumbed down television and underestimated what kids are capable of.

You said you wanted the characters to be ethnically ambiguous. Why?

Because minorities are underrepresented on television and because in terms of vocabulary, there is a huge gap between high-income and low-income kids, and many low-income kids come from minority families. I really wanted to create as universal a role model as possible. I’ve heard a lot of people assume different ethnicities for her: white, black, Hispanic, Indian. But we also pride ourselves on making the extras in the cartoon diverse too. We wanted to present a world as diverse as the world we live in.

So why vocabulary?

Vocabulary is a hot topic now in education because vocabulary is the bedrock of literacy. If you don’t know a word and you encounter it in a text book, math book or science book, your comprehension is compromised. 3.jpg “I’ve heard a lot of people assume different ethnicities for her: white, black, Hispanic, Indian.” If your comprehension is not strong, your learning success is not strong. It has a huge impact down the line.

Well, the show did prompt my five-year-old to use the words “dazzling”and “sweltering” in a sentence.

Oh, fantastic! I love to hear those examples. She did it on her own, put it in context?

We got into the car one day and she said, “Mommy, it’s sweltering in here.”

Oh, that’s so great! A lot of people were questioning whether the words were too big for kids, but we’ve been hearing anecdotes about two-, three-, and four-year-olds using big words. I have a friend whose four-year-old pooped in the potty and apparently it was quite big. Mom commented on that and the daughter says, “I know, I’m flabbergasted!” Her mom said, “Where did you learn that?” and the kid said “Word Girl!”