Butch Hartman created The Fairly Oddparents and has been a powerhouse in the world of cartoons for over twenty years. He worked on iconic Cartoon Network shows like Dexter’s Laboratory and Johnny Bravo, as well as creating hit Nickelodeon series: Danny Phantom and T.U.F.F. Puppy. I spoke with Butch about his time at Cartoon Network, Saturday Morning Cartoons, celebrity voices on The Fairly Oddparents, the future of The Fairly Oddparents and more!
Alex Obert: Which cartoons did you watch on television as a kid?
Butch Hartman: Well I grew up in the seventies, so I primarily watched Speed Racer. I watched a lot of Bugs Bunny. A lot of Flintstones. There was a station back where I grew up in Michigan called Channel 50 and we saw Bugs Bunny, we saw The Flintstones, Battle of the Planets was on and I watched it a lot of Hanna-Barbera Saturday morning stuff too growing up.
Alex Obert: What do you think of the lost art of Saturday Morning Cartoons? It’s nonexistent these days.
Butch Hartman: Yeah, it’s unfortunate. With so many channels being out, you can watch cartoons anywhere now. It definitely lacks its specialness, the act of getting up and specifically seeing cartoons on a certain day. But still in a good way, it’s kind of cool because you can get whatever kind of stuff you want at any time. When I was a kid, if you wanted to watch the Charlie Brown Christmas Special, you could only watch it a week before Christmas. And if you missed it, that was it. You couldn’t see it anymore. The fact that you can go out and get that right now is very interesting to me. I remember when my daughters were born, they were born in the mid-nineties, I got them The Wizard of Oz on VHS. And we watched it probably eighteen times that first week and I remember I only saw The Wizard of Oz fifteen times growing up, once a year. And I was like, “I wonder how this will affect their minds seeing this more than eighteen times in a week.” I haven’t seen any horrible effects yet. (laughs) But it was an interesting thing to think about.
Alex Obert: How did cartoons continue to be involved in your life after childhood leading up to a career?
Butch Hartman: Well I just always wanted to do them and I wanted to make them. I moved to California and went to CalArts, it’s an arts school in Valencia, California. It was founded by Walt Disney. I knew that I wanted to be an artist. I wanted to work for Disney for years. I’ve never worked for Disney. I’ve worked in a lot of other places, but never for Disney in any official capacity. Cartoons changed my life because I would not have moved to California without them.
Alex Obert: How were you introduced working for Cartoon Network?
Butch Hartman: I worked at Hanna-Barbera in the early nineties. Right when I started working for them, they were bought by the Turner company. When he took over, he turned Hanna-Barbera into Cartoon Network basically. I think he was also at MGM at the time, so he took all the MGM cartoons from their library and put them on. Then we made original stuff through Hanna-Barbera and lo and behold, Cartoon Network was born.
Alex Obert: And when Cartoon Network came into existence, a whole new generation of cartoons was introduced such as Dexter’s Laboratory and Johnny Bravo. What was it like working on these shows that led the new generation?
Butch Hartman: It was really fun. I knew Dexter would be big from when I saw the pilot, it was really funny. I had a pilot in the mix at the same time and I just wasn’t as good a storyteller at that time, I didn’t really know how to tell a story as well as Genndy did. He really told a great story and he had a great character in Dexter. It was a really fun show to work on. And Johnny Bravo, again, just another really great character. This is the guy that thinks he can get every woman in the world. And he had a great voice talent in Jeff Bennett, who did the voice. I just knew those two were gonna be big just because the characters were so funny. That’s what makes a great show in any capacity, a great character.
Alex Obert: Was it a tough transition to work for Nickelodeon?
Butch Hartman: Not at all. I came to Nickelodeon because Fred Seibert, who had worked at Hanna-Barbera when I was there, he took over and was running Hanna-Barbera. And then he left and came to Nickelodeon. He was doing a new show called Oh Yeah! Cartoons and so I went over to do cartoons with Fred. That’s where I sold him on the idea for Fairly Oddparents. And that’s where it all started.
Alex Obert: Was working for What a Cartoon! and Oh Yeah! Cartoons similar?
Butch Hartman: It was all similar. It was just one of those things where I was very fortunate to have a good idea in Fairly Oddparents and I had some good ideas in Hanna-Barbera. But I wasn’t a storyteller, it really took me a while to grow into being a storyteller. When I sold Fairly Oddparents, I remember really realizing that it’s not just about funny drawings, it’s about character and story. And that’s when it really started to come alive for me. I needed to make great characters that can be funny anywhere. And that’s how I learned.
Alex Obert: Where were you when you got the news that Fairly Oddparents was approved for a full series?
Butch Hartman: I was actually sitting at my desk working on a short for Fairly Oddparents, we were doing some shorts. I did about ten shorts of Fairly Oddparents and I was just finishing up I think my tenth one when I got the word that we were making a series. When I say series, they just picked up an order for six. I did the six and it took me about a year. We did the first six and we ran those first six, they wouldn’t pick up any more other than six at the time. So they picked up the six and then they ended up running them over and over again for a year, then the ratings kept going up and up. They realized they had a hit. It took them a year for us to get new ones on the air, so we ran those first ones over and over for a year and they kept going up in the ratings.
Alex Obert: I wanted to inquire about some of the well-known names you have had do voices for The Fairly Oddparents throughout the years and get your thoughts on your experiences with them. The first one is Jay Leno.
Butch Hartman: Jay’s great. What a nice guy. He’s been everywhere and met everybody and seen everything, so he’s not very excited by anything. He seen it all. He just comes in and he’s like “Let’s get the work done! Here we go, guys!” Very nice, very polite. He comes in and he does anything we want, but we expect them to be there for three hours and he’s done in twenty minutes. He’s done and he’s out and he wants to go home. (laughs) Every time we recorded him, we had to do it after he taped The Tonight Show. They were fortunately taping right down the street from us, so that worked out well.
Alex Obert: Whose call was it to have him voice The Crimson Chin?
Butch Hartman: It was mine. I had drawn this character named The Crimson Chin, as you know. And just in passing somebody said, “You should get a guy with a big chin, you should get Jay Leno to do that!” And I’m like, “Yeah, right.” So I said to the accounting lady, “You know, just for the heck of it, let’s see if Jay Leno would do this.” We called him and he said sure. And next thing we know, he was on the show.
Alex Obert: How about Adam West?
Butch Hartman: Great guy. Again, another situation where we didn’t think he would do it. We called him up and lo and behold, he did it. He’s done about eight or nine episodes for us as Catman and he’s great. We really love him. He’s a really, really talented guy. And we’re really honored to have worked with him. Funny how they both play superheroes too!
Alex Obert: Chris Kirkpatrick.
Butch Hartman: Chip Skylark! What a great dude. I haven’t seen him for a long time, he did a couple Chip episodes back in like 2002/2003. That was the last time I worked with him, but what a great guy. Great singer. What a great sport. And he was willing to do anything we asked him to.
Alex Obert: Ben Stein.
Butch Hartman: What a sweet guy he is. He’s a very funny dude. Totally knows that the reason we called him was because of the blasé voice. He’s very political and we’d talk politics with him a little bit. But what a smart guy. All these guys are just really kind-hearted, sweet guys who if you give them a job and they like it, they’ll come do it.
Alex Obert: How was the KISS episode pitched?
Butch Hartman: (laughs) We were doing an episode where Timmy had to save the universe, of course. Someone said, “You know what we should do, we should hide the mystical thing inside of a guitar. And who could have the guitar, maybe it’s this band like KISS. We could call them Smooch!” We never thought we could get the band KISS. And then again, someone said, “Let me just throw it out there to KISS.” And we threw it out there. Gene Simmons agreed to do it. He said we could use the song Rock and Roll All Nite and we could use the KISS makeup and all the costumes and stuff.
Alex Obert: What was it like working with your team on Channel Chasers?
Butch Hartman: That was really a blast because everybody on the show is a cartoon geek, obviously. And as you know, that episode takes place in about twenty different TV shows we all grew up with. Of course we couldn’t say them by name, we can just pay homage to them. We ended up having a great time. We got to do a take on Charlie Brown and a take on Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, we got to go from our animation to CGI. It was really, really a lot of fun. It was a nerd paradise.
Alex Obert: One of the characters from the show that I’ll always remember is Jorgen Von Strangle. What was the inspiration behind his character?
Butch Hartman: Arnold Schwarzenegger all the way! I thought it’d be funny to make Schwarzenegger a fairy. (laughs) And that’s where that came about.
Alex Obert: Aside from Timmy, which character do you cherish the most?
Butch Hartman: I think Cosmo. He’s the most lovable out of everybody. I say this and let you know that I love all the characters, but Cosmo has a special place in my heart because he always means well, he always does the wrong thing and I think that’s how we are. We mean well, but sometimes we mess up. (laughs) He’s just great because everybody seems to love Cosmo. He’s very charming. I also like Mark Chang and I love Mr. Crocker. I love Mr. Crocker with all of my heart.
Alex Obert: How did Cosmo’s voice changed from the original shorts to the series? Was it a new voice actor?
Butch Hartman: The actor who does the voice, Daran Norris, he just started out as kind of a cool Phil Hartman guy. And as we went on and on, we just kept writing him dumber and dumber. And finally the actor started doing this really high-pitched voice that made him even stupider. It was kind of just an evolution.
Alex Obert: I’m curious as to what’s on your iPod.
Butch Hartman: I have a few of the Fairly Oddparents songs. I have Shiny Teeth. I have a song from our first Fairly Oddparents live-action movie called Lookin’ Like Magic. I have another song called Wishful Thinking from our second Fairly Oddparents live-action movie. I have a lot of classic rock. I love sixties music. I love British Invasion, that kind of stuff. That’s what I have mostly. And eighties stuff too.
Alex Obert: In closing, what does the future hold for The Fairly Oddparents?
Butch Hartman: We’ve got a lot of great, fun stuff in the works. Nothing’s been finalized yet, but I’m really hoping to do some more Fairly Oddparents in the future. I’m really excited and hopefully we can make that happen. I think if we do, the audience will be very excited.
Alex Obert: I’d love to thank you so much for your time and a fun interview.
Butch Hartman: Thank you!