Student Becomes the Teacher: An Interview with Todd J. Greenwald

Alicia Carroll ’16/ Emertainment Monthly Staff

Photo by ®Todd J. Greenwald™
Photo by ®Todd J. Greenwald™
This month I had the pleasure of speaking with Todd J. Greenwald, Emerson alum, class of 1991, and creator of the popular Disney Channel show Wizards of Waverly Place. He was a Television Production concentration, with a minor in writing. After participating in the LA program with an internship, he decided he wanted to go into writing. He very quickly got a PA position on one of Peter Engel’s shows. He worked his way up the food chain and sold his first script 20 years ago, this month.  He has an exciting new MTV project he is collaborating with Randy Jackson to complete. He hopes to expand into edgier work for an older age group. We talked about his work with Disney, his upcoming projects, and some sage advice for aspiring writers at Emerson.
Emertainment Monthly: What gave you the idea for wizards?
In network season, everyone kind of watches the produced pilots, and my D.O.T.S. pilot got passed around-this funny show you have to watch. Disney caught it and said “I have to meet whoever wrote this pilot” so I met with someone at Disney, and they wanted me to write a pilot for them. I wrote this pilot called “the odd cousins” that got thrown together in Southern California, one is a grungy Seattle girl and this peppy SoCal girl, and it was supposed to be for the Michaulka sisters Aly and AJ.  And I met with them and it didn’t really work out, pilots don’t work out for a variety of reasons, but they loved the pilot and they wanted to keep me working. So they said, “we have this show called Hannah Montana, and we want to know if you wanted to work on it.” So I said, “okay sure.” Hannah Montana blew up and they said “Okay Todd, we want you to do another pilot, we are really interested in doing a show about magic and a family, so what do you got?” so that was my spring board for creating an idea, and I created the idea for wizards, literally, in traffic on the 101, and I came up with the wizard concept and it just kind of grew from there.
Fun Fact: The kids in the first pilot for Wizards were named Jordan and Julia, after his kids, but they had to change the names because nickelodeon was coming out with Just Jordan. He also named Alex’s parents after his grandparents! Adorable.
In my opinion, Wizards is very different from other shows on Disney channel, so what do you think sets it apart from the others?
That was our intent. We don’t write down to our audience. Disney big thing is “messy is funny” so when they had Maria (Theresa Russo) and David (Jerry Russo) getting messy, I said “I don’t want any part of that” because messy isn’t funny. What set it apart was our lead character was a bad girl. She defied authority, went against the grain, and spoke her opinion. A lot of parents were not happy with that, because their daughters and sons were emulating the rebellious girl who was lead character. The more they said no, the more we wanted to make her a bad girl.
But we also wrote jokes for the parents, so the parents could enjoy watching. There are a lot of 80s references in wizards. A lot of the spells are 80s hair metal songs, or just 80s songs or movie references that are really subtle, that the parents would enjoy, kind of like what they did in Looney Toons and Bugs Bunny. And our stories were random. Our jokes were random, but everybody thinks that random is just random, but there is a method to randomness. You cant just be random for random’s sake. You have to really have a point of view with random, which they didn’t really grasp, but the audience did. That is what set the show apart, so that’s kind of what made things stand out.
Everything wasn’t a happy hug with an “everything’s great” ending, it was more real to a different kind of kid, or tween. And it kept us entertained, because we have to write it, or talk about it.
Writing for a youth demographic, do you feel a responsibility to write positive characters as role models?
When I was writing for these NBC shows, which were a good breeding ground-Saved by the bell, California dreams- they always had a moral lesson attached to it. So those shows taught me to be a responsible writer and give a moral lesson to things. It was nice to do that, but a parent asked me “Why is Alex saying reading is bad? Reading stinks?”  I said “Because some people think reading stinks” and I am not here to teach your child to read, you should tell your child to read. You are responsible for telling your child this is just a television show.
Television in kids and tweens is really powerful, they do respond to characters and may start emulating them.  So when I got more involved in storytelling as a creator, there’s till is a responsibility, but Disney has their standards, so we aren’t going to write crazy things. I still wanted to be real and show the rebellious girl was something exciting for me and if someone says you aren’t being responsible, I say no, you aren’t being a responsible parent, there are so many other options, turn it off. Do I know there is a responsibility, yes, do I take it to the extreme of trying to teach and change the kids’ world, no, I just want to provide a reality and some escapism from life.
Since you had such a creative vision for it, are you happy with the direction it went in?
It’s tough, everyone thinks writing for children is easy, but it is actually more difficult because those are the years you go through puberty and you change. What you think you were one year is not who you will be the next year, and to keep a character the same from season to season, in a kids show, is actually wrong. A character should change from every year. That age is where you find yourself. So you see Alex in the first year, her fashion was a little different, and then she grew up and got a little more fashionable, she got a little edgy.
It went a little dark, definitely season three…we started to push Disney into a more serialized telling with werewolves and vampires and the world that twilight made so popular with this generation. At the end of the day, it’s still a family show. And the story always starts as a family story and then how wizardry and magic fit into that. It wasn’t like we have a spell, now lets write about it, no. It was a story about how Alex felt overshadowed by Justin in school, every kid can relate to that, okay, now how do we make it crazy with magic? Alex make Justin disappear. Okay, how do I fix that?
So the start of every episode was relatable, which I liked. As we started to move away from that I wasn’t too happy about it, but it’s more Disney. And they were successful, which is great, and the fans liked it too. Every season grew to be something different. And with the Emmy awards, and the fan response, people liked it so, you kind of have to grow with the show.
You said that you have written for NBC as well as Disney, is there anything that draws you to a certain demographic?
Well, in show business you can pigeonhole yourself and my start was definitely in tween programming. After I did that, I did go to primetime, I worked on a WB show called Life With Roger. I went to the primetime world, and there was a lot more security in children’s programming because there isn’t as much pressure performance wise, ratings wise. After that Life With Roger experience where it got cancelled…they said “Todd you wanna come back to tweens?” I’m like “sure.” So I have this track record, and it would be dumb for me to throw that away.
I did go back to According to Jim and Family Affair, but I eventually decided that I wanted to stop writing for other people and start creating my own shows, which is when D.O.T.S. started. That’s when I got into my own creative space. To be a paid writer, working for 20 years consistently, I know I am very fortunate, and I am grateful for it. The kids and tween writing just so happens to be where I work consistently, and now the creating for other shows and demographics are coming out now. So it wasn’t my intention to write for kids, but that is where the jobs were for that, and now it is starting to grow into other things, as well.
What, in your opinion, makes a compelling story?

  • It is relatable and told with the truth.
  • It has a beginning, middle, and end, and a journey.
  • Has a unique point of view, and attitude.
  • Every scene should always move somewhere.
  • Everyone should be able to connect to it somehow.

Everyone knows you as a certain person, everyone knows your friends as certain people. Everyone fits into these archetypes and stereotypes and they want to be able to relate, but also escape. And they want to be able to relate to it, but also go to the extreme “that person is just like me, but I would never do that” etc.  You know you have a show about wizards, how do you get people to like wizards? Well, you start with a story about a family, and then you make it funny.
Any character can go through a plot journey. That’s easy because that is really just logistics. But the characters going through an emotional journey during that, it is really how the characters interact rather than the “plottiness” of the story. You understand where the character is coming from.
If you can give Emerson students looking to be in your position someday any advice, what would you give them?
Have voice, an original point of view. For me, comedy and jokes are about a point of view, a unique point of view. Seinfeld had a quirky, observational humor. Larry David, he pisses people off. So what is your unique point of view that people can understand? As a writer, what is your unique take to something? Writing for TV that’s tough, because you have to write a spec script. As a writer, writing your own creative stuff, don’t edit yourself and be unique.  But if you want to be a TV writer you have to be able to watch a show and fit into the mold of what the show is. You have to be able to write the characters and the voices for the characters, you are a student of the show.  People hiring you as a staff writer, that would be your first position, you would get more leeway, but “I like your point of view, I like what she has to say,” that is what makes you stand out and be unique.  So you can be a part of the show, while still contributing and being fun and different.
Advice for Spec Scripts
If you are going to be on a staff of a show you have to show them through a spec script that you can:

  • Watch a show-watch a few of them.
  • Know the characters.
  • Write the voice of the characters.
  • Write a story that that show would tell
  • Write at the pace and the rhythm of the show.

Other Nuggets of Brilliance:

  • Writing is rewriting. Write something, and then put it away for a while. When you come back to it, you may find it isn’t as good as you thought.
  • You can also edit forever, so it is a balance.
  • Connections are very important.
  • Your entry level position (PA, Assistant etc) is for meeting people. Get your first job, work hard, be nice, and meet people.
  • Never be above entry level work, no matter how talented you are, you still have to work your way up.
  • Now is a great time to create an identity and a creative voice for yourselves with your production skills.

Fun Fact: He was featured in some of the first Nintendo commercials, and in Michael Jackson’s “BAD” Music video!
Todd J. Greenwald was a delight to speak with, and I hope passing on his advice to you all is helpful. Maybe in upcoming years we will see him in the Director’s chair, but until then, he will be working with Randy Jackson on his upcoming MTV project. I don’t know how much I am allowed to reveal about it, but keep a look out for the pilot. It looks like it is going to be great. He asked me to give a shout out to fellow Emerson Alum and producer Franco Bario! Also, you can keep up with Todd J. Greenwald on Twitter @ToddJGreenwald and on Instagram at toddjgriz!

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