By Annette Hinkle
Kids love him … parents just want him to go away. Well meaning with an aim to please, he inevitably leaves unintentional chaos and mayhem in his wake. Though he provides some good moral grounding, he’s a bit rough around the edges. His methods are questionable while scatological and off-color humor abound.
He’s Uncle Grandpa, everyone’s favorite “family friend/relative” and the brain child of Sag Harbor’s own Peter Browngardt. Uncle Grandpa wears a propeller hat and rainbow suspenders. Always on the lookout for fun, his catchphrase is “Good morning!”
He’s also Cartoon Network’s latest animated television offering.
“He’s the ultimate cartoon character,” explains Browngardt. “He flies around in an RV and goes anywhere — outer space, underground — and when someone has a problem, he randomly crashes wherever he’s needed.”
“He helps people,” adds Browngardt. “Usually he sort of causes the problem he’s trying to solve, but he makes it better and everyone learns from it.”
See, there is a moral to be found here.
Some of Uncle Grandpa’s storylines include helping a girl who’s afraid of the dark, someone struggling with homework or a teenager who’s just getting her license.
“They’re common problems, but they go on this crazy journey with lots of adventures,” adds Browngardt who says the character evokes the spirit of Mary Poppins and Cat in the Hat.
The inspiration for storylines is born from meetings where Browngardt and other animators and writers throw around ideas about life experiences that were important, if not life-altering, when they were kids.
“There’s a little Santa Claus in there too and the Easter Bunny or some other mythological sort of character that brings — not presents — but help,” says Browngardt.
But Uncle Grandpa doesn’t do everything on his own — he gets assistance on his missions by Belly Bag (a talking fanny pack), a dinosaur named Mr. Gus, a sun-glass wearing slice of pizza named Pizza Steve and a giant realistic flying tiger who is named Giant Realistic Flying Tiger.
When asked if there’s anyone in Sag Harbor who might have been the inspiration for Uncle Grandpa, Browngardt admits, “It’s a little of my dad and family friends we call uncles.”
Uncle Grandpa premiered on CN on Labor Day, and if you think the show sounds like the kind of bawdy entertainment pre-adolescent boys would appreciate, you’d be right on.
“We did really well,” says Browngardt of the show’s ratings for its premiere. “We won boys six to 11 and came in number seven in all of cable. We had 2.1 million viewers.”
This kind of stuff matters to Browngardt, who grew up doodling and making home movies in the backyard with his older brothers but has turned his childhood passion into the ideal adult dream-job.
Browngardt lives in Los Angeles these days and Uncle Grandpa is the second animated series he has created for Cartoon Network. He’s even brought big brother Tom (11 years his senior) in to work on the series.
“Tom is a picture editor on the show – we were making films when I was a kid, now we’re working together,” says Browngardt.
Uncle Grandpa may have his own time slot now, but he actually debuted as a character in another show Browngardt created for CN — Secret Mountain, Fort Awesome. Despite the fact Browngardt won an animation award in Annecy, France last summer for that series, it didn’t bring in the audience CN wanted, and it was canceled.
But you can’t keep a good, well meaning uncle-like figure down, and Uncle Grandpa was granted a new life of his own by CN.
“I created Uncle Grandpa as a short in 2006,” explains Browngardt who was a storyboard artist and writer on the show Chowder at the time. “Cartoon Network finds people from the studio and cultivates talent. It’s kind of amazing they do that. I know of no other studio that does.”
“It’s very unusual. They’re hands off and try to invest in those they believe can do it and are passionate,” he adds. “It’s pretty amazing. They want whatever you’re going to pitch. This is your dream, your passion and that’s where good things come from.”
Browngardt not only created Uncle Grandpa, but he also provides the character’s voice.
“I love it – I get to act with celebrities,” says Browngardt. “It’s weird acting alongside professional actors. But it’s awesome. I take it really seriously. It’s important to me.”
While Browngardt, 34, grew up on Looney Toons and Tex Avery cartoons (largely influenced by his four older brothers) he notes that shows like Uncle Grandpa reflect a new trend in animation.
“There’s movement with adventure in Uncle Grandpa,” he explains. “The networks are looking for a new voice, the next generation – that millennial generation which grew up on 24-hour cartoons. And it’s a very different voice than 10 years ago.”
Browngardt explains that these days, the style of the art is more reflective of underground comics and illustration rather than the flat and graphic design reminiscent of 1950s cartoons which was popular a decade ago.
“Now they’re more dimensional and more about appealing to kids growing up with the Simpsons and writerly play,” he says. “Kids aren’t growing up on those older cartoons.”
And of course the beauty of it is, when you’re lucky enough to work at the Cartoon Network, in truth — you don’t have to grow up at all.
“I still feel immature,” admits Browngardt.