Kids and adults say the darndest things at a focus group for a cartoon show. 2,630 words. Story and illustrations by Mark Fearing.
Kate DeMarca sat in a reasonably comfortable chair behind the glass in a darkened room watching eight and nine year olds file into a fake living room. She was working on her third latte. That isn’t a good way to keep calm but the interns, who seemed impossibly young and thin, will bring you anything you want during a focus group.
Focus Pocus was a faceless building buried amongst the strip malls in the Valley and it was already 95 degrees at 9 in the morning. Normally this wouldn’t be a big issue but for the fact that the air conditioning was on the fritz. So Kate, Stanley Demowitz and Leah Cause were starting to feel like they were in a sauna.
“It’s not just me, right? I mean, it’s hot in here, right?” Stanley said.
Kate rolled her eyes because he was the SVP in charge and now Stanley needed permission to feel hot. If his Dad wasn’t the CEO of Bank of California and who happened to be best friends with the head of the animation studio Kate worked for, he’d be… what? A banker? A stay-at-home dad? A regional sales manager for toilet paper?
“But the kids are comfortable, that’s the important thing. Their room still has cooling,” said Leah, always the voice of staying-on-track and getting-to-the-point and getting promoted.
“It’s fucking hot,” confirmed Kate.
The speaker box buzzed as the focus group leader started The Occasion. That’s what they call it now when you bring people in and show them crap to get their opinion, The Occasion. Because it’s so damn special. The woman leading the focus group looked like a third grade teacher: friendly, forgiving and comfortable in hiking boots.
“Where did they find her, Maine?” asked Kate, not expecting a response.
“She is a recent transplant from Maine! A third grade teacher who does this when she’s not subbing,” explained Leah. Of course Leah knows that. She’s 13 years younger than Kate and still gives a shit about the endless mind-numbing conveyer belt that’s called television animation.
Kate realized she better snap out of her funk. After all, it was her show that was being tested today. And she hadn’t developed anything that had gone to series in three years. And this one had taken four years and almost five million dollars — wouldn’t her sister be impressed with that number? — and now it was almost greenlit. It had been developed and redeveloped and reimagined and realigned and recast and re-every-fucking-thing a million fucking times. Now it was in the running to make it on the air. And then Kate could start all over again pretending to care.
The last project she cared about went up in flames three years ago when the shit-head VP of Production attached a notorious drunk as the pilot’s director who happened to hate the president of the animation division. Let’s just say it ended with a baseball bat, which was supposed to be a unique and attention-getting piece of visual paraphernalia in the President’s office. Later, the studio replaced the entire carpet in the President’s office instead of just steam-cleaning it. That impressed Kate.
“OK, kids, today we have a special treat!” started Ms. Maine. The kids laughed, wiggled, picked their noses and crammed into their mouths what was left of the bagels they had been given before being lead into the Focus Chamber. It was like the Monday departmental meeting, Kate realized. “We are going to show you a new cartoon today! How many of you watch cartoons?” Hands went up, odd comments ensued. One boy in a green sweater pulled his half-chewed bagel out of his mouth to answer.
Kate had never really wanted kids and no longer felt guilty about that. These kind of experiences reminded her why.
“That little girl in the red dress is darling,” said Leah. “We should see if she has a headshot to send to casting for that new School Around The World show they’re making.” Yeah, thought Kate, get that girl into show business at age 9. No doubt that will create an awesome person. Instead of the girl becoming a doctor, we get another singing 15 year old who loves to Instagram her boobs.
“I can’t tell you anything more about the show, but you might recognize some of the characters. After we watch it, we are going to talk about it, OK?” Ms. Maine told the kids.
“What I really want to know is if they like this 20-minute show enough to buy the toys,” insisted Stanley. The truth is that was what mattered. The studio’s TV Animation division wasn’t profitable just making toons. But if it could sell 100 million dollars in plastic crap worldwide from a 20-minute series that was really just a toys ad, the execs had a good show.
Ms. Maine turned down the lights and rearranged a few of the kids who were trying to sit atop one another as the giant wall-sized TV brightened with the opening credits and emitted the upbeat theme song. It had been the 30th theme song they’d developed for the show. It had to be catchy enough to work in psychological warfare — and now it was. The screen came alive with dancing ducks and Porkpie Possum who was a premium character for the studio. The animal sold over 3 billion in products the past year alone. But the truth is it was mainly diapers and feeding bottles. Porkpie didn’t connect with kids old enough to wipe themselves and this show was supposed to age up the little possum and attach him to the modern world, or so said one of the millions of memos to top executives.
Kate watched the show even though she could hear it in her dreams. She knew the story inside-and-out, backwards-and-forwords, upside down and inside out. The main plot was about Porkpie trying to find his cheese which he’d dropped on the way home from the grocery store. Sort of like a Tolstoy story but minus the drama and the Russians.
“Leah and Kate, notice how the little boys are drifting away? They’re starting to goof off and not watch it even though we’re only four minutes into it,” complained Stanley who apparently was still awake.
“This issue has come up before. Boys are reacting to Porkpie less and less, but the action in the story should get their attention,” reassured Kate.
On the small screen at that moment, a giant wolf fell into the lake causing a sailboat to overturn and Porkpie to rush out and save the duck who was in the boat. Why is a duck in a sailboat?” asked Leah. “I mean, ducks can swim.”
Because, Kate wanted to say, Doodles Duck is Porkpie’s main antagonist and he needed to get involved quickly in the plot.
Instead, Kate snarked, “It’s just a cartoon, Leah.”.
“But there needs to be logic!” snarled Leah.
“Really? The show is about a talking possum, in a hat, looking for the cheese he lost in a city filled with ducks and wolves and cats because of no internal logic what-so-ever other than those are our characters,” shot back Kate.
The kids all cheered when Porkpie saved a kitten from a tree and gave it back to a Yeti.
“What’s the Yeti doing in here again?” asked Stanley.
Kate sighed. “Consumer products asked us — well, told us — to include Yeti The Yeti. He’s not big enough for his own show, but hopefully…“
Leah cut in. “Hopefully, this will make some sense sooner or later.”
“Leah, do you see the kids asking one another why there is a Yeti hanging out with a possum who lives in a city of ducks and cats and wolves?” Kate asked. Leah turned back to the looking glass. Stanley farted. Kate was soaking wet with perspiration and starting to get dizzy.
“I don’t think it’s connecting with the kids,” Stanley complained again.
“Kids are always distracted. Especially on a Saturday morning when they are carted into a strange building and told to watch cartoons,” Kate insisted.
“They aren’t being punished. The way you talk about this, you’d think they are bing tortured,” noted Leah.
“I think we’re the ones being tortured. The fact that after four years and 5 million dollars we still don’t trust ourselves to make a TV show must be some level of hell,” said Kate.
“I think the girls like it better now that June is on,” Stanley pointed out. June was a super cute cat and for some reason a love interest for Porkpie. More like a celebrity marriage of convenience build a better brand.
“The show should have been all cats,” confirmed Leah.
“I agree,” said kate, to everyone’s surprise. “That’s how it started. But we were told to put Porkpie in there. Then told to put Yeti in there…”
Stanley interrupted. “That was only after the Yeti movie struggled, but toy sales were boffo!”
And then the screening ended. The kids cheered — a sound so cute and fulfilling, it made Kate smile and take comfort in the little moments.
“Well, let’s hear what they say!” Stanley said.
“We may not want to,” reminded Leah.
Ms. Maine turned the lights back up and asked the kids to find a comfortable spot anywhere in the room and told them now was their chance to talk about the cartoon. Right away, the little boy in a bright green sweater, the one who took the half-chewed bagel out of his mouth, started talking loudly. “I didn’t like it.”
Then all the kids started yelling out.
“Yeah, it was dumb,” said the girl in the red dress.
“I hated the colors,” said a little boy wearing contrasting plaids.
Ms. Maine tried to regain control of the room. “I want to ask a question and you raise your hand if you want to answer, OK?”
The Green Sweater Boy raised his hand and asked. “Are you going to ask us if the cartoon sucked?” The kids all started laughing. Ms. Maine winced.
“That kid’s a jerk,” said Kate.
“Who was your favorite character in the cartoon?” asked Ms. Maine with so much sweetness in her inflection that it made Kate’s teeth hurt. But Kate was interested to hear the kids’ answer. A dozen hands went up.
“None of the characters. I wish they’d all died,” said Green Sweater Boy.
“I liked when the screen was blank better,” said a boy with buck teeth.
“Yeah, the empty parts were the best,” echoed Green Sweater Boy.
“Jesus Christ! Where did they get these barbarians?” Kate said aloud.
“Did any part of the cartoon make you scared?” asked Ms. Maine. Hands shot up. Of course, Green Sweater Boy was first.
“The whole thing sucked so much, it made me afraid.”
“Yeah, it was scary because I hate possums,” said a boy in overalls.
“Let’s talk about that,” said Ms. Maine. “Do any of you dislike possums?”
“My dad says they are the ugliest creatures in the world. He said he ate them when he was little and they taste like ass,” overalls boy explained.
“I’d rather watch YouTube,” the Green Sweater Boy remarked.
“This looks bad, Kate,” Stanley said solemnly. “We need to compete …”
“We can’t compete with other kids playing video games. Or dancing to the hottest pop songs. This is a just a show about a possum,” said Kate.
“That’s just an excuse,” pontificated Leah.
In The Occasion room, the children were completely unleashed now. Ms. Maine didn’t even try to stop them. She just smiled at the camera that was recording this defiling.
“About 20,000 people worked on this show. The only vision was to get something on the air to hurry along toy sales before Christmas,” said Kate defensively.
“Whoa – our shows are not just about selling toys,” countered Stanley. “They have to have that special charm and create a meaningful, refreshing and supportive world of entertainment. That’s the aniation division’s motto.“
“Yes, I knew the doofus VP who wrote that before he was fired,” shot back Kate.
Ms. Maine called an end to the massacre. She opened the door and the kids began to file out. But their discussions continued. A quiet boy wearing a ‘I Am Video Games’ t-shirt spoke up for the first time.
“I liked it. I would like to see more.”
“Stuff it, freak,” Green Sweater Boy bullied him. “The show sucked and, if you like it so much, go work with the losers that made it.”
Kate couldn’t take it. She got up and ran from the sweat lodge.
“Kate, where are you going!” Stanley yelled as he and Leah chased after her. Kate ran into the hallway, turned to the right where the kids were coming out from The Occasion room and saw Green Sweater Boy. He was still going on about how dumb the show was and saying that anyone who liked it was dumb, too. Kate ran up and kicked Green Sweater Boy in the ass. As hard as she could. Green Sweater Boy started to cry.
“What the hell?” yelled Stanley, grabbing Kate.
Ms. Maine screamed and quickly ushered the children into a holding room and tried to calm Green Sweater Boy.
“You kicked a kid!” scolded Stanley.
“You’re a kid kicker,” echoed Leah.
“I kicked that kid. He was an asshole,” defended Kate
“I need to call HR. I’m not sure the studio, especially this division, can tolerate kid kickers,” said Stanley.
Kate felt the cool air drift in from The Occasion room. She started to feel more under control. She went into the holding room where the kids were downing brightly colored juice boxes and eating more bagels. The Green Sweater Boy looked fine. Kate walked over to him.
“What’s your name?” Kate said to Green Sweater Boy.
“Donald,” he said.
“Donald, I’m sorry for kicking you.”
“Are you, like, the one who made the cartoon?” he asked.
“I’m one of them and was sort of in charge. I guess you didn’t like it.”
Donald chewed his bagel. “It wasn’t that bad. But I like to talk. My Dad says that’s important. And everyone was laughing the more I talked.”
“True,” said Kate. “Well, I’m sorry and…”
Donald was starting to panic. His eyes bulged.
“He’s CHOKING!” Ms. Maine screamed. Stanley and Leah ran in.
“Someone call 911!” screamed Stanley who obviously didn’t think of actually doing that himself even though he had a cell phone in his hand.
Kate had been a lifeguard all though high school and college. She’d even considered becoming a paramedic before being wowed by the world of entertainment. Donald was waving his arms wildly and throwing his head back and forth. Kate calmed him and carefully performed the Heimlich.
A moist blob of bagel the size of a softball flew out of Donald’s mouth and hit Leah in the face. Donald gulped a huge breath, then smiled and took a big drink from his juice box. Kate won a Bronze Possum Award from the studio for saving a kid’s life. They were all interviewed on KTLA.
Kate’s show didn’t get picked up to series. But the blame was spread around, as it usually is. She kept her job now that she was a hero and realized that at her age what the hell else could she do? The next week. Kate started development on a new show with Porkpie. In this version, he was a well-known YouTube star. The show would start viral with two-minute clips of Porkpie pretending to play a video game on his new YouTube channel. And, of course, the games would be for sale on all the platforms. Porkpie was truly a possum that would never die.
Television Fiction Package for Emmy Season