A Talk With Josh A. Cagan

For what feels like ages now, Undergrads has been a big part of my life.  Although originally airing in 2001 and being cancelled only after 13 episodes, I didn’t personally get to see it until roughly 2005 due to Teletoon(in Canada) airing the show every year. At this time, I was out of college, working a job I hated and going to college.  Personally, Undergrads was almost the perfect animated representation of my life at the time and holds a special place in my heart because of it but that doesn’t detract from it being a genuinely heart-touching, funny and all around great show.  

Due to the 10 year anniversary passing, the three main creators of the show Pete Willams, Josh Cagan and Andy Rheingold decided to come to the Calgary Expo and make an appearance.  This was amazing news and upon hearing it instantly tweeted Josh telling him how excited I was and was surprised to get a response back. Meeting the guys was a great experience but I was surprised to hear how little they were aware of their fan-base (strange to me as I don’t personally know someone who hasn’t heard of the show) and even MORE surprised with Josh actually agreed to allow me to ask him some questions I’ve had about the show and his career in general. It’s with great pleasure I get to bring you our “conversation”…

Paul: First of all, Josh A. Cagan, what does the “A” stand for?
Josh: AS LOUD AS POSSIBLE.
Anthony, after my grandfather.

How do you pronounce your last name?
Like “Reagan.” Also like Reagan, my wife puts a lot of faith in astrology.

Where are you from originally?
West Hartford, Connecticut. A nondescript suburb in a nondescript state.

How much did you like/dislike high school? What was your favorite class?
I hated high school for the first year, as I was still pretty beaten down by the two-year misery-fest that was junior high. Then I started taking acting classes, which led to drama club, which led to having friends. High school, like most impossible, awful things, is a lot better when you can turn to someone and say, “Jesus, this is
awful, right?”

Did you finish college/university? What did you major in?
Did I ever. I have two degrees in theater (note: never do this), specifically playwriting. I did my undergrad at Boston University, and my grad work at Rutgers University. As much as I poke fun at burning a hole in my parents’ bank account, and wasting seven years of my life, I did actually get my gig at MTV through a Rutgers alumni. So there’s that.

Do the words “Happy Song Buddy Man” mean anything to you?
In the early days of IMDB, it was about as well curated and maintained as your average wastepaper basket. But friends would use it as the word of god regarding drunken movie arguments. I was getting tired of a website that was 35% accurate being heralded as The One True Resource, so I told IMDB that I was a Japanese pop star. It believed me, and still does to this day. So when people would be, like, “No OF COURSE Tom Hanks was on ‘Dukes Of Hazzard,’ it’s right there on IMDB, I’d be like, “Let’s see what else IMDB regards as fact.”

How long have you been writing?
I’ve been writing since I was 13. I used to do my homework on a TRS-80. Look it up, and then laugh and laugh about how old I am. Anyway, I was a terrible student, so my mom would walk by my room to make sure she heard typing. I realized that typing always sounds like typing, no matter what one might be typing. So I would just write whatever to amuse myself (and I still do to this day). Stories, poems, and then monologues and sketches, then finally, short plays. I entered one in a statewide playwriting contest, and I was one of the winners. Even though I was acting and directing in high school at the time, I got the most attention for my writing, and as the years went by it just became the thing I did best. Certainly the thing I did better than anything else. I don’t do much else well.

What type of stuff do you personally enjoy to write?
Broad comedy, or sensitive coming-of-age stuff. The thing I loved about “Undergrads” was that it allowed me to do a lot of the former, with a healthy helping of the latter.

Are you married? If so, when and how did you meet your wife?
I am, to a vivacious redhead who’s sort of the perfect cross between Roger and Jessica Rabbit. We were introduced by a mutual pal in NYC in 1998, and have been together ever since. Awww.

When and how did you meet Pete and Andy?
Pete I met while I was working at MTV as the development writer in their animation department. It was my job to work up 5 minute pilots with artists and animators who didn’t really know about structuring a screenplay. Pete was sort of a legend around the office, because he was just a kid, but had animation and character chops that people twice his age would kill to have. And everyone knew that his show idea had great potential, but nobody really managed to crack it.
I didn’t at first, that’s for damn sure. I wrote two really bad, jokey shorts based on the characters, and nearly killed the whole project once and for all. But the more I got to know Pete, the more I really wanted to imbue the show with his oddly skewed aura of cynical innocence. And that’s when everything began to lock in.
We met Andy when we got picked up for a season, and needed a grown-up. Which is to say, Pete and I had exactly no TV experience, and no idea how to run a room. We interviewed a ton of writers, but Andy was far and away a perfect fit. He had a great combination of writing chops, patience with our inexperience, and knowledge of how the Viacom beast worked. And, most importantly, he was funny. And liked beer. And indie rock.

What was the creative process like for you guys?
We figured out a rough, 13 episode path that the show would take, and then we, with occasional input and contributions from outside writers, just wrote and talked and wrote and talked and wrote some more. And laughed. We laughed a lot. Still do.

Which episode that you wrote was your favorite?
“Drunks.” I had created the character of Bobby Whiskey in college, off a buddy of mine that would do the stupidest things imaginable, and then blame alcohol like it was a poorly chosen friend. “Whiskey made me take my pants off.” “Whiskey made me sleep in the street.” So Bobby emerged as a guy who REALLY wanted to help people with their problems, but only had one solution to offer: Booze.
To this day, I still can’t believe that a character I drunkenly came up with in a dorm became a character on a nationally broadcast television show. It really feels like I got away with something.

Which is your favorite that you didn’t write?
“Risk.” I am not a gamer (That’s Andy and Pete’s bag), but the attention to detail in the script is funny no matter how much or how little you know about the world of Risk. It’s also the first thing that Pete wrote on his own, and I’m still very happy that he decided to give it a go.

What was your favorite on-going gag?
“Sober!” “Sober!” “Soba!” Just makes me laugh and laugh.

Which character are you able to relate to easiest? Why?
I mean, Brody was basically me at the age of 18, only with a false veneer of self confidence and an entrepreneurial streak. But out of the four guys, I’m a Nitz with a moon in Rocko. (Astrology, guy!) I was about as successful with women as Nitz (and a virgin until 21 to boot), but I had Rocko’s deep, abiding love of drinking and screaming.

You do a variety of voices on the show, which was your favorite?
Is “two voices” a variety? Well, for fun’s sake, let’s say my favorite was Nerd #2. The one who sort of sounded like Kermit. But, look, I loved doing Brody.
Pete pointed out recently that after a certain point, we didn’t write dialogue for him, and instead, I would just get in the booth and talk. “I WATCH THE MOVIE GOOD!” came from this process.
They let us get away with so much shit. It’s astonishing.

Do you relate to Rob Brody at all?
I was never as motivated as him, but I do watch the movie good.

In total, how long would you say an episode takes to complete, from first draft to air?
OY, SO LONG AGO. Uh…I think when we were really humming, we could turn an episode around in 2-3 weeks. But those 2-3 weeks don’t include all of the character work and season-planning we did beforehand. The writing is really the easiest part. It’s all of the pre-writing that takes real time.

How involved were you in…

…the show’s production?
Almost not at all. I can’t draw, I can’t balance budgets, I can’t talk to people, and I don’t like leaving my couch. Pete and Andy were WAY more involved in the production end of things, and we were all helped immensely by our producer Dave McGrath.

…character creation/the story?
That was a massive team effort by the three of us. Pete came in with a handful of characters and sketches, and we built them out from there. So, like, Pete knew there had to be a Kimmy, but I was the one who put in all of her drama student stuff. Both Kimmy and I were almost thrown out of acting school for not being able to juggle, for example.
But the show would not have been the show with any other combination of writers. Everything you see in there was decided on by the three of us. WE WERE MAD WITH POWER

If you had to kill any ONE character off the show, who would it be and why?
Carson Daly.

If you were Nitz, would you go for Kimmy or Jessie?
I would go for Kimmy’s awkward stage manager roommate. Sure, she didn’t exist on the show. But that’s what would have happened.

Were the four “Undergrads” based on real people? Do those people know they’re represented in the show?
They sure are! Pete talks about that at length in the panel video, and he’s more qualified to discuss it than I.
That said, Krueger is based 100% on my friend Steve Krueger, and I assure you he is exactly like that.

Who decided that Cal “The Ladies Man” should have a girly voice and annoy everyone?
That’s all Pete. His buddy didn’t talk like that, but he was a little ditzy, and the ladies went nuts for him and his ditzy handsomeness.

Is Nitz perpetually doomed to be “the friend” because of his oblivious nature when it comes to women?
I think he’s doomed to be “the friend” as long as he thinks (consciously or unconsciously) that doing friend-like things will eventually add up to a relationship and/or the sex. Until then, it’s a role he keeps casting himself in.
It’s interesting. Because he and Jessie have an actual friendship, that could have turned into an actual relationship. But Nitz spent so much time cultivating this sort of pretendship with Kimmy, that he (potentially) missed the boat on the real thing.
My heart goes out to him. I made a lot of those same mistakes. I got better. So will he.

Will Rocko ever find love?
He might find a favorite beer.

Do you think Cal will ever graduate, being as “special”… as he is?
I’m pretty sure he’s in the drama program, so, yeah.

How long has The Dougler been in college?
Since the second Clinton administration.

What’s an awkward “coming of age/college” story of yours?
Please to enjoy the genesis of the cake scene from “New Friends”: http://www.plinky.com/answers/22708

Say FOX buys Undergrads, signs you guys to work on three more seasons to start BUT Simpsons, South Park or Family Guy will be cancelled and you get to choose which. This is a non-negotiable part of the contract. Which do you choose and why?
Simpsons. They had a great run. I think they could use a nice, long break.

What can you say about where Undergrads went and the process in getting it back up and running?
Undergrads somehow both vanished and remained visible for the last 10 years. I’d be surprised if there were 20 people in the US who know what it is. Certainly, nobody I work with in Hollywood has any idea that it was a thing. You have to remember it ran all of six weeks here.
In Canada, however? It didn’t go anywhere. Teletoon just ran the same episodes over and over and over again, as you know.
The crux of the problem is that Pete doesn’t own the rights. DHX, formerly Decode, does. So the plan is to get the rights back, get another studio interested, and roll from there. In the meantime, the three of us are going to try to do one more Canadian con appearance this year. This kind of took us all by surprise.

From the way the final episode ended I assume there was more than one season planned from the start?
Yeah. One doesn’t go into this sort of thing without hoping for multiple seasons. The main thrust of S2 was going to be Nitz fully giving himself over to the college experience, and doing all of the things he avoided S1. I was with Pete when he had his first drink, and I hope to be with Nitz for his.

Did you honestly not believe anyone cared about Undergrads? Have fans tried reaching out to you before?
I knew there was a fan base in Canada, but I didn’t really process that. It was always like, “Oh, somebody likes it somewhere. Not here, though.” Also, I reached a point where it seemed counterproductive to keep pursuing something that nobody in my industry heard of or cared about.
That’s why when we hit our 10 year anniversary, I thought, “Okay. Well, I want to celebrate this, as it was a HUGE part of my life. Where can we do that? Don’t we have fans in Canada? Let’s try that.”
We thought we were gonna have 20 people. We had 250 for that Saturday panel, with another 100 turned away. These aren’t Wheaton numbers, but they might as well have been to us.
Occasionally (VERY occasionally), someone would say something on Twitter. But, no. No one really made a concerted effort. But it’s not like I was looking for fans either. Not because I don’t care about the show, but because I was afraid of seeming…Sad? Like, “Hey, anyone remember my show and want to talk about it?”
But I got over that. I like talking about it. As long as people want to hear about it, we’ll talk about it.

Was Kidz Bop received well by anyone? Is there any special you’d like to say about it? (I haven’t seen it)
The brand does well in the states. I have no idea what kind of numbers the DVD did. It’s pretty awful, but they paid me during a time nobody else did. It’s, like, a “Kids Incorporated” type thing, with showbiz kids dancing around and singing rock songs on the Universal Orlando backlot.

Zoé Kézako is a french cartoon that I’ve actually caught before (Canadian TV, eh?) but didn’t understand anything in it. Do you fluently speak French? If not, did that provide any new challenge for you? Do you speak any other languages?
Andy Rheingold was supervising the translations of the scripts from French to English. I don’t know if they ever ended up doing an English language version. Again, this was a strictly paycheck gig. There was a little chubby girl character named “Mariponpon,” which I think to this day is an amazing name for a chubby French girl.
I barely speak English.

I haven’t been able to find a way to see Linus at all, could you describe briefly what that short film was about and how you came into it?
Oh, I’ll see if I can scrape up a copy. It’s a short film my best friend Zac and I made about the “Peanuts” characters in their 30s. I’m very fond of that script.

How did it feel to finally break in and write a full blown movie?
Like a fucking victory. Between the show being cancelled and selling my first screenplay, I went almost completely broke, couldn’t find work, the whole deal. Thank god my wife supported me through that process.
Pete’s responsible for that happening, by the way. He passed my spec script on to his managers, without even reading it. They’re still my managers to this day.

Did you get to meet any of the actors/actresses?
BANDSLAM was shot during the Writer’s Strike, so I didn’t get to meet anyone until the premiere. Charlie Saxton, who’s just the nicest fellow, reached out to me on twitter shortly beforehand, by saying, “Hey, I’m in your movie. I hope you don’t think I suck.” That meant a lot to me.

What immediate differences between television and movie writing did you notice?
Movies tend to be longer…
But all being a dick aside, the processes are different, as far as how many more people I’m trying to please with a feature script (manager, agent, producer, producer’s assistants, the studio, the studio security guard, etc), as opposed to the people I had to please with an Undergrads script (Pete, Andy).

What was the critical reception like for Bandslam?
90% amongst top critics from Rotten Tomatoes. Three stars from Ebert. That right there made the whole thing worthwhile. That and the money.

If given the choice from anyone in the industry to direct a script of yours, who would it be?
Pete Williams.

What’s your dream movie to work on?
I’d love to do a sequel to ED WOOD about the last year of his life, when he lived in boozy squalor writing porn. I think Depp would crush it.

If you could go back and change any one thing in your career, what would it be and why?
Not a goddamn thing. I’m here now. I’m still working. Still going to meetings. Still occasionally getting paid, and supporting myself and my best gal. Everything that happened in the past got me to here. Why change anything? I’m pretty stoked, generally.

What are the plans for the immediate future? What about 10 years from now?
Immediate Future: To keep on pushin’. To work more with people I love and respect. Staying out of trouble. Having a nice drink now and again.
10 Years From Now: Celebrating UNDERGRADS’ 20th anniversary.

Do you consider yourself “famous”?
“No”.

Will you do the Expo again and if so, come out for drinks after?
I’ll reserve the table at The Palomino.

It’s been my distinct pleasure talking with Josh and look forward to seeing what trouble he gets himself into next. Here’s to what’s to come for “The Click”!

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Paul Fleck

Paul has been writing since high school and specifically about media since 2006. In that time, he has done work for numerous sites as a freelance writer and as an editor for Game Guiders.

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