‘Arthur’ Creator on Ending the Beloved Series After 25 Years, Arthur’s Racial Identity and the ‘New Puzzles’ Ahead
The students of Lakewood Elementary may be all grown up, but “Arthur” isn’t really ending.
The PBS Kids series, based on Marc Brown’s picture books of the same name, is the longest running animated children’s show in TV history, and on Feb. 21 aired the four episodes that comprise the 25th and final season. But at 75, Brown finds himself invigorated by possibilities that remain for his beloved aardvark, including podcasts, games and more.
Series finale “All Grown Up” looks 20 years into the future to see who Arthur and his animal pals become, an idea that emerged from one of the questions children ask Brown most frequently. Buster ends up a schoolteacher, while Francine presides over a trendy sneaker business and Muffy campaigns to become Elwood City’s newest mayor. D.W. is a traffic cop, Binky is a weatherman and George runs the Sugar Bowl, everyone’s favorite cafe. Arthur himself, aged up with new hair and a beard but holding onto his classic round glasses, is on the verge of publishing his first graphic novel, which tells the story of his childhood life and friendships, beginning with his first pair of glasses — a reference to “Arthur’s Eyes,” the 1996 episode that started it all.
Brown published the first “Arthur” book in 1976. He was involved in the TV adaptation from its inception in 1996 until the very end, most recently serving as co-executive producer (and appearing in “All Grown Up” as an anthropomorphic version of himself). In January, he published “Believe in Yourself: What We Learned From Arthur,” a book that distills some of the shows major lessons and features original art of his own as well fan art he’s received from children over the years. And up next, he’ll debut “Hop,” a new series aimed at preschool-age children about “the power of friendship,” following a frog with one leg that’s slightly shorter than the other.
Even after 25 years, Brown seems almost shocked that people love “Arthur” so much. His eyes widen and his jaw drops when he hears from adults who grew up with the character, and he places a hand over his heart when people fondly bring up the series’ theme song. And he’s eager to share secrets from production — like that D.W. “amuses” him more than any other character because she’s based on his three little sisters, and that the Season 8 episode “Bleep” was inspired by his own young neighbor, who came home with a naughty new word she’d learned on the school bus.
After the premiere of “All Grown Up,” Variety spoke to Brown about trusting others to take care of his characters and some of his favorite memories from “Arthur.”
Why is the 25th season the last one?
We decided a few years ago that 25 would be a nice place to end. He’s become the longest-running animated children’s show in history, and we have gathered over 600 stories now about topics that I think are going to be timeless. They’ll go on helping kids and families. But when we started “Arthur” 25 years ago, we didn’t have a lot of the technology that we have today, and we want to try some new things and see how we can play with those to reach kids. Podcasts, and new games that we can invent; we want to continue doing public service spots on PBS, maybe specials! The door is open to us to try new things with PBS. It’s fun to solve new puzzles!
You appear as yourself in the final episode. Since many of the characters in “Arthur” are based on people from your own life, had you been wanting to insert yourself into the world for awhile?
That wasn’t my idea — I like to have Arthur be front and center! I like to be behind the curtain. And I think I appeared one other time. It was in an episode where Sue Ellen came to a bookstore, and I was signing books. Go figure!
You’re credited as the creator of the series, and have produced it since its inception, but I’m curious about your role in the writing. You were never in the writers’ room, correct?
Oh, no. I’ve just been so lucky to work with this incredible team. Frankly, that was the hardest thing for me to deal with when this whole television extension of “Arthur” began, because I had him all to myself, and all of a sudden, I had to share him with with other people. And what I discovered was, these people were a lot smarter than me!
Writing a script for television is a special talent, and I haven’t tried to do that. But there is a similarity I discovered between making picture books and making television shows. There’s the addition of sound and movement, but I’m still casting my characters, costuming them, doing the sets. [On the show,] I’m doing all the things that you’re doing in a picture book, but I’m working with a team. And that was a lot of fun.
Since you took a backseat on the writing, what were your main focuses as a producer?
There were so many things to do. I’m very detail oriented, and I wanted to make sure characters looked the way they should. I would redraw things for animators, and the designers who were coming up with sets and backgrounds and things. I felt like that’s where I could best offer help. And tangentially, I was involved in some of the stories, because every year we would have a writers’ meeting at the beginning of a new season. We would come to these meetings with ideas and hope that the writers would feel an affinity for some of them.
I remember walking in, and this was all new to me. I had two words: “desk wars.” And one of the writers had an affinity with that, and wrote this wonderful, full story about desk wars in Arthur’s classroom [which became an episode in Season 8]. And then another idea I threw out: where do all our socks go? They just disappear in the washer, the dryer. And Peter Hirsch, our wonderful head writer, had this great idea to do a story about the sock exchange [secretly run by family pets in Season 7]. It was like that, tackling all kinds of subjects. Like, not many shows will have fun with head lice!
Every day is different, and I love that about my job. Whether it’s going through a script and making suggestions or working with a storyboard artist. I learned how important camera angles are in telling a story, when you really need to move the camera or when you don’t, and how we wanted that to be perceived by the viewer. I love the visual, so I really concentrated on that. I had favorite storyboard artists. I’d say, ‘Oh, let’s give this script to this storyboard artist, because I know he or she is going to do a really good job with that!’ And designing new characters. One of my favorite things was when a new character was on an episode. ‘Well, what kind of animals should we make that person?’
Fred Rogers was a good friend of mine. And he used to talk about the space between the screen and the child. He called it sacred. And I think, in many ways it is. I think all of us were very conscious of telling kids the truth. And we wanted to use that space in an honest and truthful way.
Do you have any all-time favorite episodes of the show, or ones that were most challenging to make?
When we started, I gave them all my books that I had written, and they turned them into episodes. And then we quickly ran out of books, so we had to come up with new ideas. So I found myself giving ideas to the writers that I had hoped I would do a book on, like “Arthur Writes a Story,” or “Arthur Turns Green.” Things like that, that I found myself having to adapt back into books that had already become television. That was that was interesting.
I have a question that I hope will be fun for you. For me, growing up, I saw Arthur and his family and much of Elwood City as Black.
And I’ve learned that many other people watched the show the same way. I think different things contributed to that. There’s the color of the characters, but also the fact that the theme song is performed by Ziggy Marley, and there’s a lot of jazz music and other elements that feel influenced by Black cultures. Have you thought much about that as a way your young viewers see the show?
I love that. And the magic that all of these characters happening to be animals levels the playing field. And any child can walk into a story and feel an affinity with any of the characters that they want to identify with. That was just this incredible bonus that happened with “Arthur.”
To expand on that, it’s been canonically established that race does exist in this universe. For example, Brain celebrates Kwanzaa and has family from Senegal, and in 2020, there was the public service short “Arthur on Racism” about anti-Blackness in Elwood City.
You know, I myself didn’t really put a race on Arthur. That would be my honest answer. But like I said, I love the fact that I can walk into a school in Harlem and talk to the kids, and they all think he’s Black. And we don’t have to really discuss it. It’s just there. I hear it all the time, and I love it.
People have such a personal relationship with your characters. While writing the books or working on the show, when did you realize what a huge piece of culture that you were creating?
Oh! Ugh, I’m really bad at accepting compliments! I’ve got to work on that.
I guess when we started winning things, like the Peabody Award and Emmys. And it was wonderful to win the Television Critics Award for the Mr. Ratburn episode [Season 22’s “Mr. Ratburn and the Special Someone,” in which Arthur’s teacher get married to another man]. Those things.
But one incident comes to mind. And it’s not a big deal — but to me it is. I was at a book signing a few years ago, and there was a woman in line, and I signed her book and we chatted. And then she got very confidential, and she got really close. And she started to whisper to me. She said, “Mr. Brown, my kids are all in college now. But I still watch ‘Arthur.’ Is there something wrong with me?” I said, “No, there’s nothing wrong with you!” I said, “I’m so happy that you do that.” And I let her know a secret: that we embed adult humor into so many of the episodes when we can, when it’s appropriate and when we think of fun stuff. And that is a way to draw in parents and caregivers to sit down with their kids and watch the show. And they have this wonderful opportunity. When they see something they don’t like, or that they do like, they say, “Well, what did you think about that? I don’t know if I like that!” Or, “That seemed kind of weird to me!” It’s an opportunity to share your values. And that’s what we always hope happens.
What feedback have you gotten since the final season premiered?
Oh, it’s a little overwhelming. One of my sons said, “You’re blowing up Twitter!” It’s just great to see people of all ages — I mean, after 25 years of this show, we now have a fan base that are parents who were kids who grew up with Arthur. Not many people can say that. It’s something that I really treasure. And I think people were happy with the last episode, so that makes me happy.
How often do you get to talk with kids these days about how they feel about the show?
Ugh, COVID has gotten us away! My favorite thing to do is visit a school and talk and share with kids about my job and how much I love it. My dad used to work on the railroad, and he hated going to work every day. When I was six years old, I saw that. And it made a really big impression on me. I said to myself, “I want a job someday that I love.” And I got fired from a few jobs that didn’t work and I wasn’t right for. But I tell kids now that they are my boss. And every morning, when I go to my studio to work, I feel like the luckiest person in the world, because I’ve got this great boss. And the right job, finally.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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