Derek Iversen began his unlikely career in animation as a PA on the very first season of Spongebob Squarepants. You might say he was got by The Hook: he spent about a decade with the show, on the production staff before becoming a writer on Seasons 6-9. Since then, he’s written on countless awesome TV shows, become an elected official in the village of Valley Glen (business card and all!), and created his own Nickelodeon short, “Carrot and Stick” inspired by his dog Rosie, whose image blesses the end of this interview. In honor of his episode of Bravest Warriors premiering tomorrow (5/18), Derek and I sat down to discuss sketch comedy, time travel, and a certain absorbent (and yellow and porous) friend.
Did you always want to be a writer? What’d you want to be growing up?
First I wanted to be a fireman. Then a police officer – huge jump there. Then I wanted to be an astronaut, until I realized I get motion sickness. So I thought I should be an astronomer – a little safer, little less barfing. But in 5th grade, my English teacher Mrs. Carol gave me high marks on a short story assignment. I got really encouraged by that; I thought, “Hey, maybe I’ve found something I’m good at!” So pretty much from then on, I wanted to be a writer.
Wow, 5th grade? Were you a wunderkind, writing a ton as a kid?
Nah, I wasn’t that ambitious. In high school I took Theater with another great teacher, Mrs. Karic. She encouraged us to write our own scenes and monologues. So I had the opportunity to try stuff out with my fellow students, and hopefully crack them up with idiocy. Then in college at University of Arizona, I joined a group called Comedy Corner and got really into sketch comedy. I thought if I could make a living doing that, THAT’s what I want to do. There’s nothing like doing live comedy before an audience. It’s thrilling.
Did you stick with comedy after college?
Some friends and I formed our own group! The People Who Do That. We became the kings of Tucson comedy… which, shockingly, didn’t pay the bills. So some of us decided to truck it out to LA to try to make it in the big city.
Did you have a job when you got to LA?
Nope, but I got a really stupid one: phone customer service for a pager company. Let me just say, the introduction of cell phones was NOT the only thing that killed off pagers… but I had a friend working at Nickelodeon, so I managed to get a job as a driver on The Angry Beavers. This was back in the olden days, when if artists needed reference materials, someone had to actually go pick them up from libraries or – RIP – video stores.
Soon after, I got a job as a production assistant on a show that Nick had just picked up: Spongebob Squarepants. At the time we all thought, ‘This is a strange little show that hopefully will get a cult following.’ It did a little better than that. So that was kind of my ‘big break’. But it took me 7 years of working on the show to become a writer on it.
How did that path look?
Long and meandering. Because for some time, I thought I wanted to do sketch comedy, and that animation was my day job. I was a PA on seasons 1 to 3 and a coordinator on seasons 4 and 5. In that time I started chipping away at animation writing, because I had to actually learn how to write cartoons. I was used to writing for the stage, and animation is a visual medium. Much more so than even other kinds of TV, let alone theater, so I had to learn to tell stories visually. And stories that kids could relate to—I’d always written for adults, so my stuff went right over kid’s heads. But I wanted to write and kept knocking on the door, and in season 6, became a staff writer. I was one until season 9.
Do you think your background in sketch comedy aided that transition?
Oh yeah, absolutely. When you do a sketch in front of a big throng of crazy college students, it’s clear when it works and when it doesn’t. Sketch taught me not to waste the audience’s time: you get in, do the joke, and get out.
How was working on Spongebob? Any stories, secrets, lore?
It was a wild ride and a lot of fun. I’ve gotta be the only one who remembers this, but I swear it’s true: back in the first season, Steve (Hillenburg, creator) had a sign on his door that read, “Have fun or you’re fired.” It sounds cruel, but it actually set a good tone. We did have a lot of fun! And there wasn’t much firing—it’s not like the hatchet fell every time somebody frowned. The crew had awesome camaraderie, and I think that’s reflected in the show. I sincerely believe the environment of a show, how it’s made, affects how it turns out. If a show is made with a tense crew where everyone fears the creator, it shows on-screen. Conversely, if the crew has fun and makes each other laugh, that’s clear on-screen too.
So despite the sign, no one was afraid of Steve Hillenburg?
No, no, the sign is misleading. He’s a total sweetheart. Success couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy: just a thoughtful, funny, sincere human being.
That’s exactly what you wanna hear about your heroes. What’s your favorite thing about the show?
Well Spongebob is definitely a reflection of Steve! As are the other characters, but mostly Spongebob. And to me, the greatest thing about the show, and the reason I think it’s been such a huge success, is that Spongebob is genuine. He’s without guile. He’s enthusiastic without any reservation. And I think, especially when the show came out, a lot of cartoons in the kid realm starred adults disguised as kids. And Spongebob was never that; he was always for kids, always had a kid’s spirit. That’s part of why we never defined his age: he has kid and adult qualities. He’s just sincere—and sincerity is underrated.
Do you have a favorite Spongebob episode?
Man… that’s like choosing a favorite child. But I’ll go ahead and do it. I have several favorites. One is “SB-129”. I’m a bit of a sucker for time travel – it’s part of why I enjoy Bravest Warriors so much. “The Fun Show” is awesome too, it’s a classic. Of episodes I wrote, “Not Normal” was my first and still a favorite. It’s a bit autobiographical: I was a weird kid and always felt like I needed to conform to some idea of normality. After a while, I decided that didn’t matter and I was going to accept being my weird self. And the same is true of Spongebob.
How did you come to write for Bravest Warriors?
After Spongebob, I was a staff writer on Sanjay and Craig, which Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi executive produced. They’re great guys and a blast to work with. They’d also produced Bravest, so I found out about the show through them. I watched it and just thought it was madness in the best possible way. Last year Will mentioned they were looking for writers, so I gave it a shot. I really wanted to be part of the show and feel lucky that I got to be!
What are your favorite things about Bravest Warriors?
I love time travel and sci-fi, and you get both of those in BW. That’s a treat. But I love that it also goes right to the heart of teen angst. That’s a sandbox I don’t get to play in a lot, as I’m usually writing for kids or preschoolers. It’s a lot of fun to deal with broken hearts, romantic attraction, all that gooey hormonal stuff.
Do you have a favorite character from the show?
I like Danny a lot, because he’s kinda pathetic. I just want to help him out. But I can’t resist Catbug. He’s amazing. And I’m a big fan of Impossibear. Something about his gruffness… he’s selfish in a way that reminds me of Bender from Futurama. If I ever got to do another BW episode, I’d want it to be about Impossibear. Finding the mushy heart he hides inside.
What is your episode, “A Apple, B Banana, C Chili” about?
I did a sort of anti-consumerist scree cleverly disguised as a Bravest Warriors episode. The team succumbs to the power of marketing. They have to escape the clutches of a Costco-like superstore. It seemed like a uniquely weird challenge they hadn’t faced before. I think that’s why it was chosen from the ideas I pitched—when you’re pitching on a show with a lot of episodes, you’ve got to find the part of the floor that hasn’t been painted yet.
Aha – don’t they go in that store to grab Wallow a snack?
Haha yeah. Wallow gets hangry on a mission so they go to buy him some chips or a granola bar or something and it goes terribly wrong. I love episodes like that – we did it on Spongebob too – where it’s the simplest possible objective. The goal of the episode is one tiny thing, and then it balloons out from there and becomes ridiculously huge in a way it never deserved to be.
What would you be if you weren’t a TV writer?
Maybe a lawyer. Or a crazy activist trying to make the world a better place and not getting very far. I’d probably be quitting my job at the EPA right now out of sheer frustration. At least writing cartoons, I can express the absurdity of our world—but hopefully to make people laugh, instead of cry.
What are your favorite cartoons?
Well, Spongebob’s pretty darn good. I always loved Ren and Stimpy, the latest news notwithstanding. I’m a simple man: I love Road Runner. I couldn’t resist the simplicity of the gags. You always know what’s going to happen – Road Runner’s gonna get away and Wile E. Coyote is gonna eat it. But you don’t know how he’s gonna eat it. The magic is in the details. I’m a big fan of The Simpsons. And I enjoyed Aqua Teen Hunger Force; Master Shake cracks me up. I love how stupid and petty he is.
After writing for so long, is it ever still challenging?
Absolutely, it’s always a challenge. I think a lot of people struggle with being too precious with their ideas. It’s a collaborative medium: stories change and change and change again. You can accept compromises and look for the good in them, or you can fight against them. My view is, you have to choose your battles. Even the creator doesn’t have complete control. And the best creators and showrunners delegate responsibilities. They trust the people they’ve hired.
Do you pitch show ideas around?
I haven’t as much lately; I’m busy story editing a preschool show now called Hanni and the Wild Woods. But I made a Nickelodeon short a few years back with my friend Miles Hindman, called “Carrot and Stick,” about a pair of buddies who live in a junkyard. Their nemesis is a dog named Rosie, based on my own dog Rosie. It’s a mixed media show – a combination of puppets, live action and 2D – so we wanted her to play herself. It didn’t work out. She’s cute and all, but cute doesn’t make you a good actor…
(Rosie, sweet and perfect in every conceivable way aside from acting ability.)
What else are you working on?
Well besides Hanni, I just got back from teaching an Animation Writing class in Jamaica for a few weeks – that was amazing. It was through The World Bank; they’re trying to build an animation industry over there. I’m glad they found me, it was a ton of fun and some of the student’s ideas were really cool. I also have a YA sci-fi book I really want to write. The trick is finding the time to do it; it keeps eluding me. Earlier I said animation is very collaborative – not so with this book. I have a very specific vision, and I’m excited to tell exactly the story I want to tell. I also write as Spongebob and Patrick on their Twitter accounts – which is a tougher gig than it sounds! All of the 140 character zingers have to be contained to their universe. But it’s fun and keeps me connected to the characters, and I love that.
Thank you for the interview Derek! So much fun talking with you. Good luck on all your many projects, I’ll be on the lookout!