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'Sanjay and Craig': Inside Nickelodeon's clever, gross, '90s-inspired 'toon -- EXCLUSIVE CLIP

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Image Credit: Nickelodeon

Sanjay and Craig manages a neat trick: On one hand, it’s a quick-paced, eminently GIF-able product of the Internet age that stars actors from cool-comedy touchstones like 30 Rock and Arrested Development. On the other, it’s a clear throwback to a simpler time.

The cartoon’s specific brand of gross-out humor (as well as its title) evokes classic ’90s shows like Ren and Stimpy and Beavis and Butthead. Its premise — “kid and his talking animal best friend have active fantasy life, wild adventures” — is a slightly updated take on Calvin and Hobbes. Its format — a half-hour featuring two different mini-episode — hearkens back to the Nicktoons of old. And its team knows more than a thing or two about pre-millennial entertainment: The show is executive produced by Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi, the creators of beloved flannel-era touchstone Pete & Pete.

But while Sanjay‘s young creators did grow up watching the Golden Age of Nickelodeon — and ordering copies of Pete & Pete‘s theme song “off the back of a box of Life cereal” — they say their show isn’t a conscious callback to that era. “We’re just making the cartoon we wanted to make,” says animator Jim Dirschberger, who brought Sanjay to life along with Jay Howell and Andreas Trolf. “The sensibilities from older Nick shows tie into what we’re up to, but this is entirely our own new, good thing.”

So, what exactly are Dirschberger, Howell, and Trolf up to? Check out this exclusive clip to find out — and learn more about the method to their madness by reading the interview below.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you come up with the show’s premise?
Dirschberger:
Jay originally designed Sanjay and Craig as a zine in about 2004. [At the time,] Sanjay was a snake charmer who was 30 or 40 years old. We took this weird concept and recreated it so it’s about just a regular kid. At first, there was a push to give Sanjay some sort of occupation. You watch a lot of TV, it’s like, “Oh, he’s a fashion designer, or a rock star, or a millionaire!” We just want him to be normal, you know? Because in talking about classic Nickelodeon stuff, that’s what’s so great. They’re regular kids.
Howell:  I think we’re reactionary guys in a lot of ways. We see stuff happening on TV, these lame trends. And I think all of us, consciously and subconsciously, are against that kind of stuff.
Dirschberger: I don’t know how kids can relate to a show where you have an 18-year-old model pretend to be a 12-year-old girl.

There’s a lot of gross-out humor in the series. Do you think it also has heart? And if so, how?
Dirschberger:
Maybe not in the butt episode. [During the premiere’s first cartoon, “Brett Venom MD,” Sanjay and Craig sneak into a hospital to watch “the world’s first butt transplant.”] That was one where we focused more on the butt than the heart.
Howell: These episodes stem from childhood experience, stuff that we’ve all been through.
Dirschberger: There’s an episode called “Unbarfable,” and it’s about how one of their friends has never thrown up. Jay hasn’t thrown up in like 11 years or something. We’re always trying to make him barf. Nine times out of ten, [the show]’s coming from real childhood experiences that we exaggerate.
Trolf: We don’t have much interest in moralizing, or having a tidy ending. I think what you take away from it is relationship stuff.
Howell: The lesson to me is, have a cool friend and have a great life and have wild adventures. That’s the lesson.

What have you learned from working with Will McRobb & Chris Viscardi?
Dirschberger:
They’re seasoned veterans of working with networks, so they know network-speak that’s completely foreign to us. They have a really good handle on the sincere stuff, and as crazy as we go with some of the butt and the gross jokes, they’re the anchor: “Bring it back to the heart. Have some sort of emotional hook to it.”

You mentioned dealing with the network — what jokes have you had to fight for?
Howell:
Not a day goes by where we don’t get a Standards email.
Trolf: We definitely keep them on their toes.
Dirschberger: They’re open to things that are gross, but you get odd notes about, like, putting helmets on people. It’s more of the safety-type stuff. I think the very first note we ever got from the network is in “Brett Venom,” when the butt is bouncing around, if we could have really disgusting fart noises. Like, “Yeah, you should be sure to push it, and make it sound really disgusting.” We’re like, “Hey, I think we’re dealing with the right people here!”

The Internet as we know it didn’t exist when the first Nicktoons were airing. Do you try to work an Internet sensibility into the show?
Dirschberger:
It’s something we’re aware of, but it’s also important to keep the show kind of timeless. I don’t want the characters to do the Harlem Shake or something. We try to have the kids off their cell phones as much as possible.
Trolf: The technology is important for us because we can connect more with people who are watching the show. When I was a kid, I would have died for any bit of extra content from The Simpsons.. And now we get to make all this extra digital content that kids will get to engage with.

What inspired Sanjay‘s visuals?
Howell:
We definitely wanted something that looked like our favorite shows —  traditionally animated, like cool Hanna-Barbera or something John K[ricfalusi] did.
Dirschberger: A lot of shows don’t do extremely detailed backgrounds — they’ll throw some watercolor texture in there, but they stop short of going all the way. We went crazy. I think there’s a level of detail, a level of jokes, [that] you don’t get on any other show, especially animated shows. We wanted the world to feel real and lived in, and have something for the viewer — you’re watching it the second time through, maybe you catch a joke you didn’t notice the first time.

That seems like a level of detail kids will miss. Are you aiming the show at an older audience as well?
Dirschberger:
I think so.
Howell: We’re making ourselves laugh, so, yeah.
Trolf: That’s the most important litmus test.
Howell: We don’t pander to kids — we just make funny stuff.
Trolf: We’re trying to make something engaging. If you make something smart that a kid can relate to, an adult will find something there too. It definitely relates on two levels, we hope.

One more thing — on the show, Sanjay has a crush on a girl named Belle Pepper. Is she an homage to Patti Mayonnaise?

[Note:McRobb used to write for Doug. According to a rep for Nick, Dirschberger, Howell, and Trolf enjoy giving him a hard time about it.]
Howell: No, I hate Doug. [laughs]
Dirschberger: Yeah, none of us like Doug. He’s kind of a wimp.
Trolf: I have nothing against Doug, I just think he’s a wiener.
Dirschberger: He’s got this awesome dog who’s much cooler than he is, smarter than he is. I wanted to watch a show about the dog and Skeeter or something.

So I guess that’s what Sanjay and Craig is.
Dirschberger:
Yeah, Skeeter and Porkchop!

Read more:
’30 Rock,’ ‘Arrested Development,’ ‘Breaking Bad’ actors unite for Nickelodeon’s ‘Sanjay and Craig’
Watch Michael Imperioli in the ‘Sopranos’-heavy ‘Nicky Deuce’ — EXCLUSIVE VIDEO
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