Thursday, June 3, 2021

From SpongeBob to Destroy All Humans to Dukes of Hazzard: An Interview With Writer Jay Lender


Who lives in the pineapple under the sea?  Who lives in a flying saucer and annihilates humanity?  If you asked yourself those questions, you can probably credit it to Jay Lender, writer, director, and storyboard artist. 

An interest in drawing eventually led Jay Lender to pursue a career in animation.  His most famous contribution is writing and storyboarding the original seasons of "SpongeBob Squarepants," including episodes like "Graveyard Shift." Yes, he's the one who came up with that episode's "Nosferatu" stinger.

Besides animation, Jay has worked on a multitude of different projects with his longtime collaborator Micah Wright. This includes writing video games like "Dukes of Hazzard: Return of the General Lee" and "Destroy All Humans: Path of the Furon."  

In this interview, we discuss how he got his start in the entertainment industry, his ventures into the world of gaming, and more.  I want to thank Mr. Lender for taking the time to answer my questions.

1. What led you to pursue a career in the entertainment industry?

When I was a kid, my family ran a bakery.  I spent a lot of time in the factory.  My dad was the salesperson, so I'd get bored of listening to him on the phone.  I'd go down to the factory line to watch them make bagels, or pay a visit to our in-house advertising department, a closet, really, where Willie Evans designed the art for the bags, supermarket circulars, displays and other fun stuff we were always doing.

Willie was an old-school poster painter, the kind of guy who painted the specials on the deli, and his cartoon work had a friendly, neighborhood appeal that made everybody smile.  At a very young age I got to see you could have a career in art, and that you could move people, make them happy, etc. with just a simple drawing.

After that, I knew it was to going to be animation or comics for me, and I'm happy to say it has been both, and more.

2. You worked on the early seasons of "SpongeBob" as a writer and storyboard artist.  How collaborative was the writing process?

It was insanely collaborative.  There was never a moment on the show when any of us were operating entirely alone.  Even Steve Hillenburg had Derek Drymon and Tim Hill for the pilot.  We stood on each other's shoulders and got to places we could never go alone.  It was Steve's vision, of course, but filtered through the sensibilities of other personalities.  Everybody brought a unique ingredient, and together we made a stew that none of us could quite have made alone.

The process began with the writers.  They batted around ideas in their sessions together, then individuals would expand them into three-page outlines that would get run through the ringer by the writers.  When they were approved, the outlines were handed to the storyboard teams.  We would use the outline as the jumping off point for whatever seemed to work best.  Sometimes we used the written story beats.  Sometimes we changed them, sometimes we ignored them. 

Because the storyboard teams were working with drawn images we often found different solutions to problems, funny things to draw, or better avenues to go down.  We were explorers in a scenario created in the writing room.

Back then we worked on post-it notes, and we put everything on the wall, so you could see the sweep of a story as you went, and so could your partner.  You'd build on or towards what the other person was doing, make suggestions or changes to their section, and the whole thing grew together.  At the end of the first week, Steve and Derek would visit to see where you stood, and then make course corrections.

The second week you'd refine the story, add lots of fun to it, then on Thursday afternoon Derek and Steve would come in and sit with us rewriting and punching things up until they thought it was ready to be seen by the group.  The next day we'd pitch it to everybody, and based on their reactions, and notes from the studio representative, Eric Coleman, we'd make further changes, before cleaning up the panels and assembling a final board.  All very collaborative.

Storyboard from "Graveyard Shift."  Photo courtesy of Jay Lender.

3. On the subject of collaborations, you've worked with Micah Wright on a multitude of projects, what's the creative process like when you work together?

I yell, Micah yells, the finished work appears.  In specific, we generally beat things out in detail before we start writing in earnest.  That means in-person meetings to watch "research" material, then lots of talk about what would be cool, what would be different, and what would be necessary to make a particular kind of story work.  We're both super-opinionated, and the process we seem to have settled on is that whoever feels most strongly about a given point is the one who is right.

We toss up a lot of ideas quickly, organize them on note cards, then break up the resulting outline into sections.  Each of us writes up his bit, then we assemble them, and go through the whole thing line by line rewriting, standardizing the voice, checking continuity, etc. until we have a proper unified draft.  Then we make notes and hand out sections for big changes, if there are any, before meeting again to go through it line by line.  Repeat until done.  It works something like that.

4. "Spongebob" is known for, among many things, it's humor.  How challenging is it to write comedy, especially with regards to animation?

Given the opportunity to either cry or laugh I'll always take the latter, so the challenge for me is to NOT write comedy.  That said, even in my more dramatic work, there's always comedy; you need the light in order to feel the dark.  The trick to comedy, at least for me, is not letting your internal critic shut you down.  That's the biggest challenge for me, thinking that it's not funny enough, or more often that it's too weird.

Yet, I wrote the "Nosferatu" gag.  That's about as unscrewed as my brain ever got.  I couldn't tell you where it came from, but it made me laugh, and Steve felt the same way.  In the end, that'll probably be on my tombstone, "He wrote the Nosferatu gag."

Comedy comes from a lot of different places.  From surprise and familiarity.  From repetition and uniqueness.  From cleverness and stupidity.  Steve Hillenburg used to say "Stupid is funny," and we certainly lived by that on "SpongeBob."  

I did an episode called "Big Pink Loser" where Patrick thinks he can win an award by copying everything SpongeBob (a winner) does.  When it came time to write the part where SpongeBob teaches Patrick how to open a jar, I did probably 20 panels to describe it, but Derek said, "No...stupider, break it all the way down," and he started sketching all the stuff about Patrick not even understanding how to put his hand on the jar.  Training myself to think like that was the challenge.  There were places I couldn't go, but there were places I could go that other people couldn't go.  We all learned from each other.

5. You co-wrote a "Dukes of Hazzard" game and parts of a "Sopranos" game.  How did you and Micah get attached to those projects?

"Dukes of Hazzard" was a bit of a dream come true for two guys who were kids when the show was first run.  I had a "Dukes of Hazzard" lunchbox!  At the time we wrote that game we were the go-to guys for Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.  We had done two "Willy Wonka" games and "Looney Tunes: Back in Action," so they trusted us.  

The "Dukes of Hazzard" was an old library title they had licensed out to an Australian company called Ratbag Games.  They made a somewhat open-world rally racing game with a "Dukes of Hazzard" skin and no story of any kind.  By the time Warner Bros. saw the nearly finished product there was a "Dukes of Hazzard" feature film on the schedule, so suddenly the game was representing what they hoped would be a film franchise.  They knew they couldn't release the game with no story and no characters, so they hired us to figure something out, but we were told we had to stick with the level design.

So, we had to invent a story that explained why each level's goals were what they were like why the boys are driving a black charger in level three, and the General Lee in all the other levels.  It was a really exciting challenge, and I think we delivered on it big time.  You'd never know we invented a story out of whole cloth to go with pre-existing challenges in their original order.  I also story-boarded the cut-scenes, so in a way I got direct an episode of the show.

The original cast, except for Denver Pyle and Sorrel Booke, who had passed, were brought in to record the voices.  At the recording, John Schneider (who played "Bo" Duke on the show, ed.) said "This is as good as any of the episodes we ever made!"  and Tom Wopat (who played "Luke" Duke, ed.) said, "Heck, it's better."  Low bar, but high praise!  25 years after a million grade school Rosco Coltrane impressions, I got to write the character and have James Best perform it.  Little Jay's dream come true.

The "Sopranos" game was a different story.  We were brought in to write a level or two and were essentially dialoguers, not really part of crafting the story.  As I recall, we walked into the middle of an internal personality clash between 7 Studios and the head writer on the project.  It was a bad scene.  We completed our level and were quickly shuffled away.  I don't recall there being anything particularly "Sopranos" about the final product, certainly not in our level.

It was probably the wrong brand for the kind of game they were trying to make.

While criticized for its gameplay, many critics praised "Dukes of Hazzard: Return of the General Lee" for its writing and faithfulness to the source material.  The same can't be said about "The Sopranos: Road to Respect."

6. Given your background in television and animation, did writing video games provide any unexpected challenges?

The biggest challenge back then was convincing people they needed stories at all.  They understood the games needed dialogue now that photo-realistic-like characters were starting to make the scene--they couldn't be mute like Link--but they didn't understand the difference (and relationship) between dialogue and story, and they didn't see that those things were all part of crafting an experience for the audience, which is what writers ALWAYS do. For the game designers, who were the lords of their little fiefdoms, it was a turf war.  They didn't want outsiders coming in to tell them that what they were doing could be better.

The problem was that (especially in the case of IP from other media) we were sent in to save their hash.  Our presence was often seen as an embarrassment, as though it were somehow proof they weren't good enough, but that wasn't the point at all.  We were simply specialists, there to help them make their work better, not to take over.

Nevertheless, many of them fought against us, fought against the entire idea of story.  So, I guess the biggest difference between games and traditional media was that baseline hostility.  I think they've come around now, but it was back in the 2000's.

7. You co-wrote "Destroy All Humans: Big Willy Unleashed" and "Destroy All Humans: Path of the Furon," how did that happen?

Micah has an iron memory for stuff like that, so he's the guy to ask how we got the job.  We were both surprised they didn't go with the original writers, but we were thrilled to work with the characters.  The first game was lightning in a bottle, it came out at a unique moment when open-world gameplay and destructible environments were new, but largely unexplored.  Storage space was overflowing, allowing for endless dialogue, and the market was ready for a game for adults.

The writing was clever, the look was good, the potty humor and anal penetration jokes were plentiful, what more could you want?

Anyway, we were brought in to essentially make two games simultaneously.  "Path of the Furon" for the big-boy consoles, and "Big Willy Unleashed" for the Wii.  I think we probably didn't write them with the economy we use now, but we had a blast.  The punning was non-stop, and Richard Horvitz makes everything funny.  Crypto, the bastard son of Jack Nicholson and Paul Lynde, allows you to say all the worst things you can imagine, but with a smile, and a tiny heart in there somewhere.  It was great fun.

Unfortunately, both productions were troubled, beset by slashed budgets and schedules.  Neither game was released with anything like the polish they had planned or hoped for.  We were savaged in the gaming press, such as it was back then.  In my opinion, the original "Destroy All Humans" was a soft playing experience that skated by on novelty and charm.  The sequels needed to bound over that low bar in order to make a mark, and we didn't even match the original.  

We were all disappointed.

Those games would almost certainly never be greenlit today with that kind of humor.  We live in a very different time now.  I think it would be interesting to find out what a Crypto story could be in a more enlightened (i.e. "woke") time.  How could we make fun of political correctness without disrespecting the very good and necessary ideas behind it.

How does Crypto, a dyed in the wool misogynist and serial anal rapist, function in a world that, quite rightly, doesn't think any of that is funny anymore?  THQ Nordic approached us a while back about making a sequel, and when we told we'd love to take a crack at it with that as a key element of the story, they said they wanted to go in another direction.  Maybe they thought we weren't the right guys for the job, or maybe they think they can tell the same jokes we did a generation ago.  I guess time will tell!

8. The "Destroy All Humans" series is known for satire in addition to its destructive open-world gameplay.  With that said, how did y'all approach spoofing the 70's and what the decade offered?

Spoofing the 70's came naturally for us, having been raised during the decade, but it required a surprising amount of research.  You can't do just bell-bottom and disco for thousands of lines of in-game barks (thoughts, ed.).  We took on Patty Hearst, ABSCAM, and Vietnam.  The idea that a Colonel Sanders lookalike could get cheap meat from the bodies of the Vietnam War to sell out of his restaurants is probably the darkest idea in the series, and it's on the Wii!

9. How involved were you and Micah in the making of the games?

We were more involved with the studio that made "Path of the Furon" than "Big Willy Unleashed."  Jon Knoles ran the production, and he was one of the few game guys we worked with who was genuinely interested in how we could help him make his game better.  We got involved early on, and I believe we had some influence on level order, which helped make the story work better, the flip-side of our "Dukes of Hazzard" experience.

"Destroy All Humans: Path of the Furon" had a rocky development.  If you want to learn more about what happened, read my interview with designer Jon Knoles here.

10. Do you recall any story or gameplay ideas that ended up on the cutting room floor?  I read you had hoped to get John Saxon to voice one of the characters.

We would have loved to have gotten John Saxon, but I don't know if he was approached.  I can't imagine he would have said no.  What did the man ever say no to?  But yes, the character Saxon, who looks like John Saxon and wears a yellow outfit like the one John Saxon wore in "Enter the Dragon" is indeed a not- at-all-veiled tribute to the actor.

As for stuff that might have been cut?  Probably lots of stuff.  It happens when you write thousands of miscellaneous in-game lines, but I can't remember anything specific.  I got to turn Pox into an orangutan, what more could I want?

11. Do you know if there were plans to continue the series?

No one voluntarily stops making money.  The plan is ALWAYS to make more, if the audience wants it.  For whatever reason the well dried up during production, the resulting games weren't up to snuff, and THQ lost confidence in the brand.

12. What are your key takeaways from writing video games?

I think we broke down a lot of walls in the business, particularly regarding the way story and writing are perceived in games by game designers.  We are living in the aftermath of that, but there is one mistake I hope isn't repeated, and that is seeing story and gameplay as two separate things.  They're NOT.  What you do as a player is part of the story being told.

There was a vicious cycle 20 years ago, where because game designers saw the story as separate, they would try to load it all into cinematic, with each being a break between levels.  Story was seen as optional so they made the cinematics skippable.  They were literally training their audience to not care about story, to not care about the very thing that makes you care about the gameplay.

Perhaps what has made this mentality go away is the emergence of multiplayer games like "Call of Duty" and "Fortnight".  That gets the adrenaline junkies out of the way so the rest of us can concentrate on making a meaningful experience.  As such, there's been an explosion of great storytelling in games over the past 15 years, bringing to 3D open world games and other genres the kind of depth of emotion we enjoyed in text adventures and point and click games of the 80's and 90's.  I hope we never go back to the old days.

13. What do you do when you're stumped for ideas?

I ask the boss to remind me of the deadline.  I don't know what it is, but deadlines either increase creativity, decrease the strength of my internal critic, or both at once.  Either way the work gets done.  When it's just me and my muse I'm often paralyzed.

14. You directed and co-wrote a horror film called "They're Watching."  What was the genesis behind that particular project?

Micah struck up a friendship with a producer named Mark Lagrimas, who had spoken at a Writers Guild event.  A year or two later Mark introduced Micah to a friend of his from the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, who wanted to put some of his money into a movie.  So Micah pitched him on a big action film, and when it became clear they weren't looking to lay out that much dough he tossed out this other idea we'd been batting around.

It was about a crew from a home renovation show returning to Eastern Europe to film the follow-up segment about the American woman they put into a village teardown months earlier, only now the formerly charming villagers hate the homeowner's guts, and they hate the film crew more.

It's not a horror movie per se; we like to think of it as a workplace comedy gone terribly wrong.  It's a slow burn with lots of laughs, all about voyeurism, ugly Americanism, and selfie culture, and the last few minutes are batshit crazy.

"They're Watching" released in 2016.

15. You've worked in the entertainment industry for about 30 years.  How has the industry changed, especially television and animation?

The Internet has completely upended the business that I entered in the early 90's.  Back then there were only a few TV and cable channels, video games were big, but not a huge draw on people's time the way they are now, and there was all but no Internet.  TV viewing happened at home, on a television and only there.  It was the traditional media world with the notable exception being the rollback of "fin syn" rules, which allowed for vertical media integration the likes of which we hadn't seen since the 50's.  That's another story.  Back then you could work in one place for a long time.  The audience was not as fragmented as it is now.

When something like "SpongeBob" premiered it was running opposite only a handful of other shows that might appeal to their demographic.  That meant big numbers by today's standards, and a chance to dominate the cultural landscape.  It may be impossible for anything to get that kind of mindshare now, with all the other competition for our time and eyeballs, from social media, Internet, video games, and now the endless libraries of streaming media that make so much more content available at a given moment than before.

We don't know where we're going to land yet, but it's not anywhere we've been before.  Nobody knows what the entertainment business of tomorrow is going to look like, let alone 10 years from now.  Many fortunes will be made, but it's uncertain whether workday careers are going to be possible for anywhere near as many people as the industry actually employs.  Unfortunately, that's the way companies like it.  The more fungible we are, the less they have to pay us.

The other big change is that when I got into the business there many, many white faces around me.  I'm sure there will be for a long time to come, but thankfully I'm seeing lots of new faces out there.  We are far more gender balanced and racially diverse than when I entered the business, and thankfully so, since it means new ideas, new perspectives, and an opportunity to be less of the problem and more the solution.  I could do with a little less ageism, now that I'm twice as old as the new recruits, but that's Hollywood!

16. What are some projects you're currently working on?

I've been writing spec features for a few years, two based on work by a great novelist, David Michael Slater.  Micah and I continue to write features and pilots.  So far I haven't sold anything, but now that COVID is letting up who knows?  More recently, I got back into animation.  I did some work on a Russian cartoon that will be out next year, and I've been working on a Chinese pre-school show for a few months.

This is the upside of the new world, we're all one industry now, and I can find interesting things to work on anywhere.  My full-time job is under NDA right now.  It's a secret!

17. If you weren't working in the entertainment industry, what do you think you would be doing?

I hope I never have to live this answer, but I think I could work almost anyplace and in any job where I have a free hand to make things better.  The worst experiences I've had in my professional life have always been with people who just want things to be good enough, or worse, out the door.

18. What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

You'll never magically write the perfect word or sentence or idea on the first try.  It's a process.  Get something on paper, then rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite until all the garbage is burned away and it's a diamond.  Then rewrite again.  If you can't finish the idea, move on to another part of it, or another project entirely.

Your brain will be working on the first one in the background, and when you come back to it you may already have the solution to your problem.  I have dozens of projects at different stages of development.  Feature outlines, pilot scripts, cartoon pitches.  There's always something to work on.  The longer I go at it, the more of these things are completed.

The goal?  When I finally make that big sale and every producer in town says "What else have you got?"  I'll be able to bust out my trunk full of material.

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