It was the fall of 1997 and Butch Hartman needed a job. He had just been let go by Hanna-Barbera following the cancellation of Johnny Bravo, which he had worked on as a writer and episode director. With two weeks left on his contract and a wife and a month-old daughter to support, Hartman knew he needed a strong idea to keep him afloat. For many people, the inspiration for such an idea can take days, weeks, even months; for Hartman, it took about 15 to 20 minutes to come up with The Fairly OddParents.
In the amount of time it takes to watch your average Ted Talk, Hartman drew three characters that would go on to become three of the most recognizable animated stars of the early 2000s. First, he drew a ten-year-old boy, who he initially wanted to make into a scientist before scratching that idea because it would too closely resemble Dexter's Laboratory. Deciding that rather than focusing on science, he would go with magic instead, he drew a fairy godmother with a hairstyle straight out of Bedrock. Finally, because he had never heard of a fairy godfather before, Hartman gave the fairy godmother a husband who dressed like a car salesman. In those 15 to 20 minutes, Hartman had created Timmy Turner, Cosmo, and Wanda, the stars of his much-beloved and award-winning hit series, The Fairly OddParents.
The Fairly OddParents, which premiered on Nickelodeon 20 years ago today, was Hartman's first animated series and Nick's first major cartoon of the 2000s. It is the second longest-running Nicktoon at ten seasons (SpongeBob SquarePants holds the top spot) and is viewed as an essential cartoon in the lives of many who grew up in the first decade of the new millennium. For its 20th anniversary, SYFY WIRE discussed the origins and legacy of the series with Hartman and the individual who gave Hartman the opportunity to make his name in animation, his co-executive producer Fred Seibert.
Hartman and Seibert first met in the early 1990s when the latter took up the position as president of Hanna-Barbera shortly after it was bought by media mogul Ted Turner. Hartman was working as an artist at the company, part of a new generation of creatives that included Genndy Tartakovsky (Dexters Laboratory), Craig McCracken (The Powerpuff Girls), Donovan Cook (2 Stupid Dogs), David Feiss (Cow & Chicken), Van Partible (Johnny Bravo), and Seth Macfarlane (Family Guy) — many of whom would go on to not only reshape Hanna-Barbera but to legitimize Cartoon Network as a channel that could deliver high-quality and successful original cartoons.
The young roster of talent would get their first shot at making their own cartoons when Seibert created the What A Cartoon! show, an anthology program that would help the company break new ground by going back to animation's roots, producing the kind of short cartoons that would play alongside feature films.
Hartman directed three shorts for the series, two starring Pfish and Chip, a lynx and a great white shark who work for a bomb squad, and Gramps, which focused on a crotchety senior who tells his grandkids an inconceivable but factually true story of how he saved the world from an alien invasion. Hartman's first two shorts were a bit rough, which confused Seibert because Hartman had done such an exceptional job selling his ideas.
"Butch gives the best pitch in the universe," Seibert tells SYFY WIRE. It led to Seibert approaching Hartman one day and asking him why his cartoons didn't deliver once they got past the initial pitch. Hartman was honest about his early shortcomings and informed him that after every short, he would look to see what aspect of the production didn't work, and then dedicate himself to improving it. "It's really rare that somebody thinks that they're not good at something and then figures out a way to get good at it," Seibert explains. "Butch proved to me that he was like the hardest working man in show business, so by the time he got to Gramps, he moved from the back of the line to the front."
In early 1997, Seibert jumped ship to Nickelodeon where he created a similar program, Oh Yeah! Cartoons. There was one person Seibert wanted on board with him at Oh Yeah!, and that was Hartman, in part because he wanted to help Hartman make his own cartoon.
"I knew he was ready," Seibert says.
The only issue was Hartman himself.
"I said to Fred, 'I can't, I'm a pretty loyal guy, I like working with [animator] Van [Partible], and I can't leave him in the lurch,'" Hartman recalls, though Hartman's hesitance didn't stop Seibert from trying.
"I would call him up once a month, and say, 'Are you ready? Are you ready yet?' And he was never free," Seibert says. "And then, one month I don't call him and his agent calls me saying his contract is up."
The producer, with his wish finally coming true, called Hartman once again and asked if he was ready to come to Nick — and if he had any ideas. Hartman replied that he was finally ready to join Seibert and that he had an idea that Seibert would love. The producer told him to bring it to Nick on Friday, three days from the initial call. With 72 hours to come up with a new idea, Hartman had nothing — that is until those fated 15 to 20 minutes.
Because he was still under contract for those last two weeks, Hartman was obligated to share his new idea with Hanna-Barbera and Cartoon Network, who both turned him down, which didn't bother Hartman as much as you would expect. "I was actually kind of glad because I got to go take it to Fred," Hartman says. That Friday, Hartman brought in the original drawing — blown up by the Hanna-Barbera xerox department — which was then titled "Fairy Godparents," a number of storyboards, and a script where he would come up with the names Timmy (named after his youngest brother), Cosmo, and Wanda (originally named Venus).
"I knew where he had been and I knew where he was going," Seibert says. "I was ready and he was ready." Seibert accepted the pitch immediately.
During the production of the first short, Hartman made some small changes to the character's looks. He changed both Wanda's hair and Timmy's hat from blue to pink; Wanda's hair so that it would not blend into Timmy's bedroom and Timmy's hat because, as a gag, he colored it pink one day when his blue marker ran out and found that it worked better.
Seibert wanted there to be some sort of restrictions on Timmy's potentially omni-powerful wishing powers, so Hartman came up with guidelines in the form of "Da Rules," a large, floating rulebook Cosmo and Wanda would whip out to keep Timmy's more unlawful and taboo wishes in check (most of the time). These rules, which would cumulate throughout the series, ranged from the simple ("You can't use magic to win a competition," "You can't wish for true love") to the wildly specific ("No breakfast wishes after 10:30 a.m.," "Fairy magic has no effect on armadillos"). The title would also go through a pair of changes, going from "Fairy Godparents" to "Oh My Godparents" before settling on The Fairly OddParents, which was ChalkZone co-creator Bill Burnett's suggestion.
About 10 months after the initial pitch, on September 4, 1998, the first OddParents short would premiere on the eighth episode of Oh Yeah! Cartoons. The short introduces us to Timmy (Mary Kay Bergman, later Tara Strong), who, after being sent to his room early by his bossy babysitter Vicky (Grey DeLisle), meets his fairy godparents Cosmo and Wanda (Daran Norris and Susanne Blakeslee, respectively), who assist Timmy in getting some well-deserved retribution on the babysitter.
After the first short, Seibert asked for Hartman to change Timmy's hair color, as its original red made him look more like Vicky's kid brother. Hartman changed it to brown — and Seibert has a tinge of regret about it today. "Honestly, while I understand why it's so great that Vicky's hair is red, I always wished that Butch had kept Timmy's hair red because it really sticks out," he says.
Hartman would go on to produce nine more shorts (referred to as the show's "Season 0"), which would expand on the world of OddParents and introduce the audience to some of the supporting characters who would appear throughout the series, such as Vicky's younger sister Tootie (Alison Hood, then DeLisle), a fairy homage to Arnold Schwarzenegger named Jorgen Von Strangle (Norris), and Von Strangle's wife, The Tooth Fairy (DeLisle), as well as The Crimson Chin (Jay Leno), Timmy's favorite comic book hero.
In January 2000, in between the airing of the seventh and eighth OddParents shorts, Hartman received a call from Nick asking for six half-hour episodes of The Fairly OddParents. For Hartman, it was the opportunity he had been waiting for.
"I've been in the industry for 15 years, and I knew all the pieces that needed to be included to make a series," Hartman says. "It wasn't just about writing characters, it wasn't just about writing a funny joke. It's having to be a manager of people, you need to deal with the writers, the artists, the voice actors, the musicians working on your score — edit it all together and deliver something people want to watch, and then do it again."
From its very first episode, OddParents was one of Nick's highest-rated programs. "Nickelodeon was trying it in different time slots all over, and it always doubled the rating of whatever came before," Seibert shares. In no time at all, OddParents found itself being the second highest-rated program on children's television, only behind Nick's golden goose (or sponge if you will), SpongeBob SquarePants. At one point, OddParents even surpassed the almighty sponge as the No. 1-rated kids program, an astounding feat considering that those early seasons are considered the prime years for the Krusty Krab's resident frycook.
One reason why OddParents could compete with SpongeBob was due to the reach of its audience. Besides 12 million children watching the series week to week, 10 million adults did as well.
"Fairly OddParents is one of those rare shows that really resonated with people beyond demographics," Hartman explains.
The show's peak would come in 2008 when Hartman introduced a new character who would shake up the dynamic of the series: Cosmo and Wanda's baby, Poof (also voiced by Strong). The beach ball-shaped fairy baby would first appear in the Season 6 opener, a two-part special titled, "FairlyOdd Baby." The special would not only go on to become the highest-rated episode of the series, but also the highest-rated hour in the history of the channel. Hartman recalls receiving a call shortly afterward from the head of Nick, telling him that the only program that drew a higher rating that year was the Super Bowl.
"That's what I was told, that's what I'm going with," Hartman says, adding that Nick was actually close to canceling the series until the ratings came in for the special. "Poof really did save Fairly OddParents."
The show would continue, on and off, until 2017, earning itself a number of Annie Awards and both Daytime and Primetime Emmys across 10 seasons. Hartman also helped bring OddParents to the third dimension, writing the three live-action, made-for-television films that had Drake Bell starring as Timmy Turner. In its final season, OddParents would make the jump from standard to high definition and be animated using Flash, which Hartman describes as being "really fun," but also admits that it "took a little training to get used to."
Hartman has stayed busy since 2017. His latest series, HobbyKids Adventures, is streaming on YouTube, and Hartman hosts his own personal YouTube channel where he hosts live streams of him drawing, answering fan questions, and even offering up tutorials (such as "How to do a Professional Storyboard") for aspiring animators. He and his wife Julieann Hartman are also preparing to launch their own streaming service, OAXIS, focused on family entertainment.
As he hits 35 years working in the entertainment industry, Hartman is set on exploring new ventures for his talents, but that doesn't mean he is done with OddParents just yet.
In February, Viacom announced that Timmy and his fairy godparents would be returning in a new live-action Fairly OddParents series that will appear on Paramount+ (which is where the series is currently streaming), joining the likes of Invader Zim, Rocko's Modern Life, and soon Rugrat. "I'm really looking forward to seeing where this series can go and how it will appeal to a new generation," Hartman says.
Not announced in that press conference was news of any new Fairly OddParents cartoons. That said, Hartman says, if given the chance, he would have no issue once again spending his days and nights drawing "wands and wings, and floaty crowny things" once more.