‘Arthur’ Creator Marc Brown, EP Carol Greenwald Talk Final Season, Hopes for Feature Film With John Legend

‘Arthur’ Creator Marc Brown, EP Carol Greenwald Talk Final Season, Hopes for Feature Film With John Legend

This week, Arthur took his final walk down the street — at least on linear TV.

After 25 years on PBS, the iconic animated kids show that gifted generations of children lessons about friendship, kindness and what it means to grow up aired its final season, including a time jump finale titled “All Grown Up,” which saw the famous aardvark and longtime friends like Buster, Nadine, Francine, Binky and sister D.W. in their adulthood.

It’s a bittersweet ending, both for its current young viewers, as well as the millennials who were around for its early seasons after the show’s 1996 debut. With the end of the show comes the reality that for many of its longtime fans, some now parents themselves, they too are all grown up.

But those saddened by the original show’s conclusion may take solace in the fact that Arthur’s story — which began as a bedtime tale turned series of books created by Marc Brown for his son Tolan — isn’t quite over yet. Produced by WGBH, the now-concluded TV adventures will continue in other mediums, including a new series of timely and topical shorts, a podcast and a potential feature film that could feature one musician very familiar with Arthur memes.

Following the finale’s airing on Monday, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with creator Marc Brown and executive producer Carol Greenwald about why they chose to end the show now, what’s in Arthur‘s future and the legacy of a show that, above all, taught children to believe in themselves.

When and why did you decide that now was the time to end Arthur? Had you ever thought about it before or even ending it in a different way? 

CAROL GREENWALD I don’t think we ever had any alternate ideas, but I could not remember them because it has been 20 seasons. (Laughs.) But we got to the point where we’re like, OK, we think we’re going to end episodic production and how we wanted to end it was pretty clear. We all agreed on it, Mark, Peter, Greg, the director and the team at WGBH, our production team.

MARC BROWN We had thought about this a few years ago, and we thought we still had ideas and stories to do, but wouldn’t 25 years be a nice number that we could end with? We agreed because we’ve done over 600 stories for kids, and those are subjects that will not be dated anytime soon. They’ll continue to be helpful to kids for many years on PBS. They haven’t closed the door in that way. The other thing that helped us make this decision was that we have new ways to talk to kids with a podcast, [and] with games that kids can play that are educational. PBS has left the welcome mat out for us to do spots on PBS that deal with important subjects that are more timely, so we can jump in with these characters that are familiar to kids and talk about important issues that they’re dealing with at any given time.

In the finale, you chose to grow up the Arthur gang, but most of the episode is about the kids’ anxiety and questions around who they might be. Why did you decide to split the episode this way? 

GREENWALD All the things we try to do, we think about it the way a kid thinks about it. And we know that there’s a part of kids that’s always like, “Hmm… I wonder what I’ll be when I grow up? What’s the world going to be like when I grow up, and where am I going to go?” I think, we thought, well, if we’re going to think about doing a show about them being grown up, then let’s do a show where we have them go through that process, and then we reveal who we think they’re going to be when they grow up. I also want to credit Peter Hirsch, who came up with those futures. That was pretty great. We sat in a room, and we batted it back and forth, and then he went away to write. There were so many times he was able to do a callback to an episode that may have planted the seeds for the future, which was fabulous. He knows those characters so well [that] he was able to get where the characters were going to go exactly.

You had to figure out the looks of your future Elmwood City residents. How did the team approach that? 

GREENWALD We’d done a little bit of thinking about that. But I do have to give great credit to our animation and design team, many of whom have also worked on the show from the very beginning. They worked at Cinar, and then they went to Cookie Jar and then we changed animation companies a few times. But then when we came back to Oasis, there were people still in Montreal, still working there, and they knew these characters backward and forwards, as does our director, Greg Bailey, who also been with us from the beginning. We did batt around a lot of images. We would look at something and say, “Oh, no, Francine is not cool enough here. She needs to look cooler. We think she’s going to look really cool when she grows up.” Then they make some adjustments. And Arthur, he’s a little schlumpy because he is Arthur, but we want to give him that goatee. It was just really fun.

Throughout the series, you had the task of trying to ensure characters who remained kids for 25 years were consistent but still grew and developed through storylines that were repeating. What were the challenges around that?

BROWN We were also making sure what we said in episodes didn’t conflict with something we said 20 years ago because kids will call us out on those things. (Laughs.) That’s been very important. I have to credit our director Greg Bailey, who had this encyclopedic memory of everything that happened. He would remind us we did that with Buster, and so we can’t really do that. It’s just been all of us trying to be vigilant about making sure that everything lines up in this world because it’s like a giant puzzle, and we keep adding new pieces to it.

The finale ends in quite a meta way that feels like it’s responding to your older audience as much as your younger one. How important was it for the finale to speak to both audiences? 

GREENWALD We were very well aware of that. I described this to someone as when you read a really good book, and then at the end of the book, there’s an epilogue, and it’s so satisfying because you get to see where everyone ended up. I was like, “Let’s create that sense for our audience.” Both kids, who may or may not have experienced this, and the people who grew up with Arthur, they’ve watched and read this very long book. Now, let’s give them that satisfying epilogue. But again, as always, trying to make sure we keep that kid’s POV in there. Also, going back to the beginning is, I hope, an invitation to all the kids who are watching now, and even to the people who grew up with Arthur, to go back to the beginning. Those episodes are going to still be on PBS Kids for everyone. There’s a lot there that is still fun to appreciate.

BROWN I was really happy because I mean, I see myself as Arthur a lot. Sorry, John Legend. We’re going to have to share him here. (Laughs.) [Adult fans on social media have frequently said John Legend looks like Arthur.] You know, he’s a lot of me when I was in third grade. And I think if I were in third grade now and I was thinking about a career, a graphic novelist made sense. It put my loves together, telling stories, being an artist, and using pictures. So I was really happy that Peter came up with that idea. It felt right to me.

The finale is just one episode of several in the finale season. How did you approach the final season overall? 

GREENWALD We were cognizant that we were getting close to the end, so we were saying, “What are the ways we want to make these stories resonate, so people get a feeling for where the character was?” For example, we did an episode where Ladonna, who is in a military family, had moved to Elwood City, and she had to move away. We thought, this is exactly what happens to kids in military families, so we want to capture that. And then, you know, what does that mean to her friendship with the kids of Elwood City, D.W. and Bud’s friendship. We wanted to have that kind of episode happen. But we also wanted to do some fun Arthur episodes. We love the idea of doing an episode about silent movies, so that episode with George getting his friends to watch was great. Also, in the episode, our director wrote, “All Will Be Revealed,” we go much more deeply into what happened to the snowball. He was like, “I’m going to write this episode because there are so many things that we’ve seen on social media that the fans are crazy about, so I want to do an episode that has all that stuff in it.” So it was a combination. What are the typical Arthur episodes we would do and does somebody have a funny idea? Also, we want to close the loop on some of these things for our characters. I think that was where we got to “All Grown Up.”

BROWN I think aside from the big idea of the last episode, we just wanted to tie up 25 years in the prettiest bow we could possibly imagine. That really was our secret agenda.

Beyond being the longest-running children’s show on TV, your show is also distinguished in that many people worked on it from beginning to end. What was that experience like? 

GREENWALD It was amazing. I mean, I think one of the things we’ve all realized is that we’re a big family. Each person, both part of the beginning and then people who came in later, has contributed to expanding this world. We had an actor playing Fern, and she would have a particular way of recording these small parts. One of our writers listened to her and said, “Oh, wow, I love the way she sounds. I think there’s more to Fern than what we’re hearing.” So Fern created her arc between the actor and the writer. Then the animators and designers would pick up on things. It’s just been great to do that. I will say one other person who’s been with us from the beginning because I particularly love this is Marc’s son, Tolon, who was an intern at the animation company the first season, and now he’s also been working on it. Many of the cast members have been there from the beginning. Francine[‘s voice actress] started when she was 15 and now she’s 40. She’s watching with her kids, and that is so lovely and meaningful.

One thing that’s been continually celebrated with Arthur is its diversity, and not just its historic 2019 episode “Mr. Ratburn’s Wedding.” What did you enjoy most about those other moments where you got to help children, both those different and like the characters on screen — to see and believe in themselves? 

GREENWALD I think this whole process really started early because we did “Arthur’s Eyes” as the first episode, and after that broadcast, we got letters from kids who were blind, who said, “Wow, it’s so exciting to see a character with glasses on TV.” It was really meaningful to us, so we were like, if just that little thing of having glasses is so meaningful to a person, let’s have a blind character. So very quickly, we introduced Marina — she was the one who was the biggest Henry Skreever [Arthur’s equivalent to Harry Potter] fan, she’s a gymnast, and we’ve seen her as Prunella’s friend throughout the whole series.

There have been many times when the show has helped people understand her life experiences. I love that we’ve been able to do that, and I think it’s part of the gift of 25 seasons. Because it’s not a very special episode. I believe in some ways, that’s the most meaningful thing to me, and I feel that’s our job, to tell you the truth. I also feel like it’s our job not to be in a bubble. Sometimes we get push back saying, “You shouldn’t be making shows about these things because we don’t want to expose kids to these tough issues.” Of course, I think the person who’s saying that doesn’t realize that there are many kids who this is not exposing them to it, this is their world, and it’s much better for everyone to understand those experiences because it’s going to enrich their lives.

Arthur memes have taken over the internet — from D.W.’s declaration that a sign can’t stop her because she can’t read to Arthur’s famous fist. These are funny moments that feature children with bold confidence and vulnerability —  an emotional honesty that feels like it disappears for some of us as we age. What inspired these kinds of memorable moments on the show?

BROWN We never lost sight of the dignity of childhood when we were putting these stories and ideas together and but I’m so glad you brought up the confidence that children have about their ideas, and it’s so wonderful to see that. We are so lucky to have amazing talented writers who come to every episode with a memory of their childhood which is respectful, and that’s what we look for in the writers that work with Arthur. Because if they don’t have that memory, if they can’t put themselves back there and remember what it was like to be a child, we don’t want them.

Part of this conversation and the greatness of Arthur has been how the show has conveyed a child’s experience so realistically and respectfully. How were you able to do this so well, consistently, for so long?

GREENWALD It’s about thinking about this audience, not as we’re talking down to them because this audience is pretty smart actually, as three or four-year-olds. They have detectors for when people are talking down to them. So authenticity is definitely one of our watchwords. Obviously, we wanted to be funny, and we wanted to have a lot of fun. But we also wanted kids to walk away, saying, “Oh yeah, that does feel real to me.” Marc says it was always important to tell the truth to kids. I think he pushed that, and that was very important. Kids are who they are. They aren’t perfect, and this is my favorite thing about Arthur. Our characters have never been perfect. They have screwed up royally. They have had to figure out how to apologize [and] how to fix things. That’s what real kids are like. The good thing about that is you learn from that process when you make a big mistake, and you then hopefully come back as your best self by learning from those experiences.

With the trend of reunions, reboots and anniversary specials, have you considered a return to the Arthur universe? About bringing the Elmwood City group back together maybe older 10 years from now? 

BROWN I like your idea. I think it’s a great one. I’m going to share that with the team. (Laughs.) But you know, one of the fun things that we did with the final episode was we came full circle with the original actor, Michael Yarmush, who played Arthur, which was so much fun. I can still remember when he came to my studio in Hingham, Massachusetts. It was when the show was pretty new, and Fred Rogers, my friend, came to film an episode for his television program in my studio. The subject was demystifying animation for kids, so we had Michael there, so kids could see that he was a real boy. That was how the voice of Arthur happened. That was a really fun day. I’ll never forget it.

My son Tolon has been a producer on the show almost since it started, and he’s working with me, as Peter Hirsch is, on this new show Hop. But he had this idea several years ago about wouldn’t it be interesting to do a live-action version of Arthur. I couldn’t wrap my head around it completely, but it’s an intriguing thought. There might be a feature film in the works soon, too, about Arthur. I’m so excited. (Laughs.) There was one maybe 15 years ago, and the right people weren’t coming together, so I pulled the plug on it. But now, we’ve got a great idea. I think it’s going to be intriguing for kids. It’s going to be helpful to kids. The subject matter is very timely, and maybe there is even a really interesting person involved… I mean, if I could pick one person I would love to be a part of this project, it might be John Legend.

Interview edited for length and clarity.  

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