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JCB Interview

Photo courtesy of Jon Colton Barry.

This is the first of its kind for Scoobypedia. An actual interview from someone who worked on a Scooby-Doo production. In this instance, I will be talking to Jon Colton Barry, head writer, who developed the currently airing Be Cool, Scooby-Doo! TV series. (Season 1 can be found on the Boomerang website, while season 2 can be found on Cartoon Network and Boomerang in most countries.) Jon has also been very sociable on Twitter (his handle is @joncoltonbarry) and the Scooby Addicts forum, spending time discussing the behind the scenes of the show with the fans, for which I'm very grateful for, as I’m sure other fans are.

So without further ado, I present An Interview With… Jon Colton Barry. (Questions are asked as Scoobypedia. Replies from Jon Colton Barry are shortened as JCB.)

Scoobypedia: How did you get into the biz?

JCB: Well, I grew up in a creative household. Virtually everyone in my family is or was in the entertainment business, so it seemed like a normal vocation – the way other people might become a podiatrist or an assassin. My father is Rock & Roll Hall of Fame songwriter, Jeff Barry, and my mother is a writer, TV producer and songwriter, as well. I started working as a professional commercial artist in 6th grade and was co-running an advertising agency art department by college. Afterwards, I spent most of my 20’s as a singer/songwriter fronting various bands, while supplementing my income working as a script doctor, ghostwriter, story editor and creative consultant for a few successful TV and film writers - until the music business imploded and writing became my main focus.

A dear friend of mine, the eternally missed Alena Wilson, suggested I try writing for the stage and I fell in love with it. I spent five years developing and honing my particular comedic voice and style; writing absurd, sketch-inspired stage shows, including a very well received linked-comic vignette show called “Play Things.” That was the show Dan Povenmire (who I’d known for years) saw just when he sold “Phineas & Ferb” to Disney. Dan asked if I’d be able to bring that voice and sensibility to his new show and I said, “Well, sure, if they’ll let me!” “Phineas” turned out to be a perfect fit, as I’d developed, by that point, a fairly useful skill set, well-suited to that particular series: silly-smart comedy writing, commercial art and songwriting/music. It was great fun and a wonderful experience.

Scoobypedia: How did you get involved with Be Cool?

JCB: I worked very closely with, director/writer, Zac Moncrief on “Phineas.” He and I, not only became close friends, but quickly realized we both took our work seriously in the same way and saw eye-to-eye creatively. He shared my attention to detail and character nuance and there are many, many small moments throughout the series that Zac and I hand-crafted carefully to achieve very specific effects. There are so many of these subtle, little moments in “Phineas” that others may not notice, but of which we’re both very proud. Beyond that, I wrote and he directed some of my favorite “Phineas” episodes, like “P&F’s Winter Vacation,” and the first Emmy nominated episode, “The Monster of Phineas ‘n’ Ferbenstein.”

After “Phineas,” Warner’s hired Zac to create a new Scooby Doo series in reaction to the previous incarnation, “Mystery Inc.” That show had a lot of fans and took a lot of interesting chances, but I think WB wanted to go in a different tonal direction. SDMI, they said was 75% scary and 25% funny, and they wanted to reverse that. They wanted a Scooby series that was, and I quote, “smart and funny like Phineas.” When Zac first showed up, he was given a blank slate, apart from some loose ideas and a bunch of very pushed, cartoony character designs created by art director, Richard Lee, who had been stranded on a creative island, like Robinson Crusoe, for a few months trying to “create” a new, funny Scooby series only by drawing increasingly exaggerated versions of the Scooby gang until they resembled wildly squashed and stretched Tex Avery designs - which we had to pull back a little. Zac asked WB to hire me to head up the writing and development of the characters, comedic tone and writing style. I guess Zac felt that if WB wanted that “Phineas thing,” I was the guy to go to. Besides, I think Dan Povenmire was busy that week.

Scoobypedia: Given the many references to the original series, with familiar monsters, settings and character tones (such as Shaggy & Scooby's hunger), how much did you research this new version? Did any previous exposure to Scooby-Doo, if any, help in the writing?

JCB: Zac and I watched the first few classic series because our basic plan was to go back to the original paradigm: those five characters driving around in the Mystery Machine solving mysteries in a variety of locations. It’s surprising how few iterations of SD actually had that classic set-up. We had not really watched the original SDWAY or the 1969-1972 series for a long time and, apart from the warm, fuzzy nostalgia, we were surprised by how poorly done they actually were. The animation was lazy, the mysteries and stories made no sense. Worst of all, Fred, Daphne and, to a lesser extent, Velma – had no personality at all. They had no points of views as characters. It became clear, as we watched later iterations, WHY they added Scooby Dum, Scooby Dee, Scrappy Doo, etc and even removed Fred, Daphne and Velma, making all these changes to the original: it was because the original five characters (apart from Shaggy and Scooby) were pure cardboard. No one cared about them – or, at least, HB/WB assumed no one cared about them. What they never did, which was a revelation to us, was they never asked, “WHY don’t people care about Fred, Daphne and Velma?” and then did something to fix it. Since we were trying to do a comedy, Zac and I decided to finally give the entire gang clear, unique comedic points of view and personalities to make them compelling, interesting funny characters that could hold their own with Shaggy and Scooby – but in their own, individual, complementary ways. BCSD is a comedic ensemble show and one of the most gratifying compliments we’ve gotten have been from people saying, “Daphne (or Fred) was always my least favorite character, but now they’re my favorite!” That made us really happy. So, we went back to 1969 and didn’t remove anything, we only ADDED traits to the characters and series to create the great, funny, beloved show that everyone knows and remembers – but that never actually existed!

Scoobypedia: Is there anything you're particularly proud of that maybe hadn't been done before?

JCB: Well, as I said above, giving the entire Scooby Gang full, well-rounded comedic personalities was the idea for which we were most proud - mostly because it had never been done before and seemed so obvious in hindsight. Along with that, I think this was the most human gang. SDMI played with romantic relationships, which some people loved and others found a bit awkward - but I was proud of showing a group of teenagers interacting simply as best friends in a realistic manner.

We were also proud that the show was smart and sophisticated as much as it was silly and absurd. We never talked down to the audience and created a show that parents could enjoy as much as kids. The characters were aspirational and, although they had some major flaws, they always had each other’s backs and got through things together.

And, of course, there’s Daphne. I really wanted to get away from that whole “the pretty one” thing. The “fashonista” crap. My goal for her was that any adjective you’d use to describe her personality would have nothing at all to do with her gender. Virtually everything she says and does could have been said or done by either a male or female character. It made no difference. She was just this eccentric, creative, empathetic, funny, smart character that couldn’t care less what anyone thought of her. I had no agenda in terms of “feminism” or “empowerment.” I just wanted to create a funny, unique character – and if her character participates in any of those worthy ideals, all the better.

Finally, if you notice, I held Scooby Doo to four words per dialogue beat. Someone else had to say something or a long enough time had to pass before he could say another four words. This, seemingly very restrictive rule, ended up being a HUGE blessing. Choosing those four words very carefully gave greater impact to Scooby when he DID speak and, I discovered, the more erudite or sophisticated I made those words, the funnier it was. I feel Scooby really popped in this series and he had a unique flavor unlike any other Scooby Doo in any other SD series in 45 years. Mostly because every word he said counted. It also made him the perfect foil for Shaggy, to whom we added a bit of Groucho Marx – making him sharper and wittier than ever before. In general, most of my comedy references are pre-1980:Monty Python, Marx Bros, early Woody Allen, early Mel Brooks, which was all such smart, silly, surreal, absurd, irreverent “heroic” comedy that could go anywhere and do anything, throwing logic out the window, but grounded in solid structure and informed by the entire history of comedy. You don’t see that influence in most modern comedy - especially in animated shows. Even though most of that stuff is before my time, knowing your history and drawing from it creates fresh tonal hybrids of the classic and the modern.

Scoobypedia: What was the approach of writing season 2 compared to season 1?

JCB: Season 1 was really about finding the show. It took a while to get the whole crew, the voice actors, everyone – on the same page in terms of the show we wanted to make. We all found it together, learning what was working and what wasn’t. By the time we got to the last 4-5 eps of season 1, I think we hit our stride and really knew the show. We had a great momentum going into season 2 and WB trusted us a bit more to stretch out and try different, unusual stuff with the stories and characters.

I had a lot of ideas that were developed very early on before we even began writing the series and I kept a notebook of things I wanted to try. I eventually was allowed to attempt most of them. “The People vs. Fred Jones” was an early idea I wanted to do. Even the season 2 series finale was based on ideas built into the early development of the characters. Mostly, season 2 was just a more relaxed, fun writing experience, which allowed me to have fun and push and pull on the characters in ways we never could have in season 1. After Zac left, things became a bit more tense and I lost some of the control and freedom I had to see the episodes through to completion, but I’m still very proud of what we accomplished in season 2 and I’m glad it’s been so well received.

Scoobypedia: Just so our readers know, Be Cool has ended production. But given the opportunity of more episodes/seasons, was there anything else you would've like to have done?

JCB: Sure. I really, really love the Scooby Gang we created for this series. I could write them forever. There are endless stories I could tell that would explore the characters in ways you wouldn’t believe. We only scratched the surface of what could have been done with this series and this version of the gang. Specifically, I would have liked to have explored more about Daphne’s background, as well as Velma’s upbringing. We really built a lot of eccentricities into these characters that had to have come from somewhere. How they became who they are is something I would have loved to delve into.

Scoobypedia: Is there anything you'd like to plug that you're currently working on now?

JCB: I can’t really mention anything, specifically, but I am currently creating/developing/writing a variety of new, really exciting projects with old cohorts like Swampy Marsh, Piero Piluso and Zac Moncrief, as well as a VERY cool TV movie I’m REALLY excited about. No one’s seen anything like it. There’s also a live action series I’m currently developing. There may even be a very special project I think people will flip out over when and if it’s finally announced. The future looks really fun and amazing. I can’t wait!

End of interview.

I’d like to give a big thanks to Jon for his time and the opportunity for me to do this, not just for me personally, but for us to have an interview from someone who has actually worked on one of the incarnations. This particular incarnation from Zac Moncrief and Jon Colton Barry is seriously worth checking out.

Goodbye for now!