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SHEEP IN THE BIG CITY Debuts Friday on Cartoon Network

By Steve Fritz     November 06, 2000

When Cartoon Network debuts Mo Willem's Sheep In The Big City later this week, understand that you are looking at a classic piece of what's called New York style animation. 'Yes,' concurs Willems, who's main studio is in Gotham's East Village. 'The stereotype is New York animators can think, and L.A. animators can draw. What New York animators draw is a little bit odder, more quirky. They also have more of a sense of story and an art feel to it. Most of the people who work with me in the studio have a number of other interests. They do comic books. They illustrate. They do lots of other things. That's another thing about New York animators. Most of the people I know in L.A., the only thing they do is animation.

'It's a tradition that goes back as far as Max Fleischer, through Ralph Bakshi and on to today. We are kind of independent. The way it is in New York is suddenly there's a lot of work and then just as suddenly there isn't. That makes you very resourceful.'

Admittedly there are always exceptions to the rule. A classic example is L.A.'s Klasky-Csupo Studio (home of those truly lovable Rugrats), which heavily reflects co-founder Gabor Csupo's Hungarian origins. Then again, the network that buys most of K-C's output is Nickelodeon, a New York City-based outfit. Another New York operation, oddly enough, is Children's Television Workshop, which produces Sesame Street.

Willems is quite aware of this. Before Sheep he worked for both Nick and CTW. Then he pitched his project to Cartoon Network, and one could say he hit the proverbial jackpot.

'It's been over two years from pitch to over the air,' Willems recalls. 'I remember when I originally pitched the show: they turned around and said, 'Why don't you make a seven-minute cartoon.' As I was writing the script, they turned around and said. 'We liked that. Why don't you make it a half hour?' Then we spent a year making the pilot, and as we were finishing it, they greenlit the series. So all of a sudden we were going around building a studio and getting the right people. That took another year to get done. It's taken two years, but it feels like it went by pretty fast. It seemed every time we were getting closer to completing the project, Cartoon Network would come around and a new step would begin.'

And to make matters absolutely complete, before the pilot episode has even aired, the net gave Willems the green light for a second season. So what is this new series that has Cartoon Network so hot and bothered? It's probably one of the most politically sarcastic, over-the-top, pun-ladened pieces of satire to hit the airwaves since South Park. Of course, Cartoon Network doesn't give Willem the same scatological freedoms enjoyed by Parker & Stone over at Comedy Central. Then again, the basic premise is enough to give us who miss political incorrectness reason to smile.

The story revolves around a sheep, appropriately named Sheep. He lives on Farmer John's, which happens to be next to a very Top Secret Military Organization run by General Specific. The Top Secret Military Organization has just perfected its latest world-destroying weapon. The only catch is the weapon can only be powered by sheep. Correct that: it can only be powered by a very special sheepi.e. Sheep.

Of course, Sheep is a truly gentle soul, and rather than become the heart of a new engine of destruction, he takes it on the lam (lamb?) for the Big City. If the Big City resembles a certain other big city, Willems will cop to it.

'All our people have to do is go outside for some coffee,' the creator states from his downtown Gotham office, 'and every time they come back with a script. It's supposed to be a very funny, very silly show, but there is a certain kind of melancholy and alienation that is very New York. I know living here there's been many times I've felt like a sheep in the big city, and there's a number of other people living here who feel the same. That's especially so for Sheep, who does feel the world is out to get him and people are chasing him. And he's ill equipped to deal with it because Sheep doesn't even have opposable thumbs! That's really what the show is about.'

Still, there's two more important influences on the series, both of these very Californian. The first is the legendary UPA Studio. The other is Jay Ward, creator of such trail-blazing series as Rocky & Bullwinkle.

'To a certain degree that's true,' Willems concurs, 'but Rocky & Bullwinkle was not particularly a big influence on me. I think what happened is both Jay Ward and I came from the same place. I think that Rocky & Bullwinkle was based in part on the old UPA style. That's a source that's interesting to me. To me, another major influence though was Monty Python, particularly anything by John Cleese. One of the things we do a lot is interrupt the story and throw in another sketch. Some times we'll run into the end credits before we finish the sketch. One of the things that both we and Monty Python do is constantly mess with the format.

'I do think that Rocky & Bullwinkle was brilliant. What I liked about that series was that it was working consistently on two levels and it never talked down to people. One thing that hasn't been done in animation since then has been a variety show. Another show that does that is Sesame Street. In fact, I stole a lot of their philosophy. Sheep is a variety show. It's not a sitcom or the seven-minute format, which is what I think most cartoons model themselves on.'

The idea of mixing Sesame Street with Monty Python might sound hard to imagine, but the series does manage to pull it off. You can see for yourself starting on November 17 at 9:30 p.m. eastern, when Sheep In The Big City will make its debut.

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