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:
1. It's Acting, Not 'Drama'
As a veteran of some unpleasant sets while a young actor, Schneider has a rule: "There's no drama on set, even if the show is a drama."
Jerry Trainor, the physically gifted actor (think a 30ish Jim Carrey) who plays Carly's elder brother/quasi-guardian, concurs. "It's so much fun on the set," he says.
For setting the mood, having experience as an actor "is a massive help," says Schneider, who in the mid-'80s co-starred on the high-school sitcom "Head of the Class" with Howard Hesseman and Robin Givens. (In the book of Teen Actors Made Good, he deserves a healthy chapter not so far from Ron Howard's.)
Cosgrove, 16, who has known Schneider roughly half her life, says: "It helps a lot that Dan is an actor -- he helps people get the point of the scene across. He'll come over and have five ways to do it and make the scene 20 times funnier."
2. Don't Talk Down to the Kids
Even interacting with tweens on the set, Schneider has a knack for talking to them, not at them.
"He knows what kids like," Cosgrove says. "It's really difficult -- it's harder than people think: to make kids laugh but not insult them. He's really good at that."
Adds the "iCarly" star: "He'll even put in things [in scripts] that we say or tell him."
3. An Uncanny Eye for Talent
Schneider discovered Cosgrove when she was 8 and soon cast her in "Drake & Josh" (at about the same time, she appeared in the Jack Black comedy "The School of Rock"). And he cast Victoria Justice in the Emmy-nominated "Zoey 101" when she was barely a teenager, the actress says. Now, Schneider is convinced Justice is poised to be a breakout performer.
"I see a mega-superstar waiting to explode -- she's a rare combination of funny and pretty," enthuses Schneider, who notes: "So many pretty girls don't want to be funny anymore."
4. Loyalty, Loyalty, Loyalty
"The core of Dan the person is that he is loyal, and he looks [for ways] to use people he likes," says Trainor, whom Schneider first cast in "Drake & Josh." "He's got that memory."
Shortly after "Drake & Josh" ended, Trainor was working in the ticket office at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles when his old boss called.
"I got an e-mail from Dan directly," Trainor recalls. "It was like: 'So it's Miranda's show, there's a big-brother role, whaddya think?' And I thought: 'Do you know where I am right now?' "
That loyalty also extends to Justice, who this month guest-starred on a special episode of "iCarly" that drew 6.9 million viewers -- a record for the show. When Justice turned 16 this past February, she says Schneider said to her: "I can't give you a car for your Sweet Sixteen birthday, but as a gift, I can give you your own show."
5. Embrace Your Techno Toys
After high school, Schneider -- a Memphis native who briefly attended Harvard and then Memphis State University -- worked at a computer store in the '80s, repairing early Apple computers. He figures he sent his first "instant message" in 1983. Pursuing geekdom has served him well.
"I love the Web in a big way," says Schneider, who on set looks like a grown-up video-gamer, as he nearly simultaneously types script notes on a laptop, eyes the camera angles during takes and posts Twitpics.
Schneider, in fact, first tried to give a character a Web show about a decade ago, with "The Amanda Show." "It was really revolutionary," he says -- but he was too far ahead of the curve. (At about this same time, we should note, Schneider's wife-to-be was an executive at Nickelodeon's Web site.)
With "iCarly," the timing dovetailed perfectly.
"He dials in to what kids already do," says Trainor of his boss.
Many of the "iCarly" actors are big into Twitter, but as with "iCarly's" real Web-site-within-a-Web-show, Schneider uses it as tool to interact with viewers. He now has 15,000 followers.
6. Find That Funny Word
As a writer, Schneider can offer a mini-thesis on why "banana" is funnier than "apple." And if he can't find that just-right word, well, he'll make it up.
For one episode, "I made up the word 'hobknocker,' " recounts Schneider, citing a coinage that meant nothing more inappropriate than "fool," "moron" or "nub."After the show aired, though, people began appropriating the new word and attaching tawdrier definitions.
"Within days, if you went on UrbanDictionary.com," he says, "you could find all these alternate meanings that aren't accurate because I invented the word."
7. Work 'Round the Clock
As he embarks on his eighth straight show, Schneider does admit to one downside: He feels like "an engine that never gets a chance to relax," and says he works 100 hours a week.
Trainor corroborates: "He's the show-runner in a very literal sense. He's there morning and night, writing scripts and giving notes to the directors. He is ever-present."
But the CEO of Schneider's Bakery acknowledges: "It's a huge high to be able to earn a nice living doing the thing I love most -- making comedy." And millions of viewers continue to give their compliments to the chef.