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Dan Schneider, King of the Tween Comedies

By Michael Cavna
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 26, 2009

HOLLYWOOD -- The hottest Nickelodeon actor this side of a sponge is shooting her scene, and the laughs on set are strong though not quite uproarious. Miranda Cosgrove, star of the cable hit "iCarly," is nailing her take, but the scene still lacks the show's customary build-to-wacky laughs. The scene needs some heat.

Fortunately, the show's creator, Dan Schneider, is a one-man comic spark. From behind a bank of equipment, he barks out the order: Bring in the flash paper that will be placed inside one of the young actor's smoothie-shop cups. The scene starts again, the smoke effect goes off -- pop! -- without anyone getting singed, and hilarity ensues.

Meanwhile, the career of the man behind it all remains relentlessly, well, on fire.

Schneider, a former teen actor (TV's "Head of the Class" and the John Cusack film "Better Off Dead"), is arguably the most successful tween-show creator/producer of his generation: He has shepherded seven straight hits, helping to launch the careers of such young actors as Amanda Bynes, Jamie Lynn Spears, Drake Bell and Josh Peck, and now Cosgrove. With a 15-year winning streak, he is Nickelodeon's version of the '80s-era John Hughes. And Wednesday, the network will announce that it's picking up Schneider's latest project, "Victorious," a "Fame"-esque comedy set at an elite performing arts school that stars Schneider alumna Victoria Justice ("Zoey 101").

Given the track record of Schneider (who, by the way, appeared briefly on the '80s show "Fame"), it's almost certain that "Victorious" paraphernalia will be heavily populating the back-to-school aisles by this time next year.

What's his secret, exactly? Surely he must have a focus group of rugrats at home, guiding him precisely to where the comedic gold resides?

Nice try, but Dan's no dad. "Really, I'm just a big kid myself," says Schneider, 43, who's married to best-selling "Hungry Girl" author Lisa Lillien (they met at Nickelodeon in the '90s).

It's telling, too, that his production company is named Schneider's Bakery, because the creator reveals a connoisseur's precision for summoning childhood. "Do you drink Coke?" he asks an on-set visitor, extending the question like a confection. "I buy this Coke, imported from Mexico. This doesn't taste gummy, the way Coke does now. It's pure cane sugar, like when we were kids."

Like when we were kids. Ah-hah. The words linger like an elixir. That's the first ingredient in his formula for success: He is an adult who understands, perhaps never forgot, what appeals to the tastes of the young. Namely, what Schneider is selling is not moralizing lectures -- "My shows are meant to be entertaining, not educational," he explains -- but rather a sort of conspiracy among kids. Parents are either clueless or never seen.

"I have a rule," says Schneider. "Kids get to be the star."

That's certainly true of the Emmy-nominated "iCarly," in which a Seattle teenager (played by Cosgrove) and her friends host a popular Web show; the highly rated show -- co-starring Nathan Kress and Jennette McCurdy -- is about good-ol'-fashioned fun, albeit with newfangled technology. And really, if you're a tween viewer -- or a tween's parent eager to get in on the fun -- how irresistible is that?

There must be a secret formula. After a day and a half in the land of Schneider's Bakery, here are seven Ingredients for Success we could sneak out with, after cornering the creator, his stars and his colleagues:

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