TV producer Bob Mittenthal has been working in the entertainment business for over 30 years. He is one of the key people responsible for putting Nickelodeon’s Double Dare on the air and has also worked on the less popular game show Think Fast. In 1991 when Welcome Freshmen made it on the air for Nick, Bob was excited to create a show that vastly appealed on what its like to be a teenager. Well for this interview he in fact did share the highs and extreme lows of working at Nickelodeon Studios while also creating the show he cared so much about.
- Was being in showbiz something that you always wanted to do?
Pretty much. As a kid I watched as much TV as I could get away with. My dad is kind of a strange guy and really loved to buy consumer electronics and as a result we had TVs in practically every room of the house including, at a certain point, my bedroom. I had terrible sleep problems growing up and I used to watch TV (with the volume really low so in case anyone would wake up, they wouldn’t know) until all the channels went off the air for the evening. (That used to happen.) I especially loved to watch the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and the shortlived Fernwood Tonight with Martin Mull and Fred Willard. Those shows especially made me think I wanted to be a comedian.
- How eventually did Double Dare get started and do you ever wish you had continue on with the series?
Nickelodeon in the 80s used to acquire all or practically all of its own programming. With rare exceptions like “You Can’t Do That on Television,” all TV shows being made for children were educational and pretty boring. As Nickelodeon made the switch into being an ad-supported network they realized that in order to be successful they would have to have programs that people would actually want to watch, but at the same time were still appropriate for kids (non-violent, non-sexual, etc.) Since no one was making kids shows like that at the time, Nick decided they would have to make them themselves. The cheapest TV shows to make were game shows – they were unscripted and you could grind out four or more episodes in a day – so with limited budgets, that’s what kind of show they wanted to make. I was working in on-air promos at the time and I had the reputation of being pretty fun to be around and a real student of TV (because all I’d ever done in my life was watch TV – see above) so I got invited to a small creative meeting to throw around game show ideas. We kind of figured it out from there.
As far as wishing that I had been a part of the production of the series: sure. Being on the crew of a TV show is an amazing experience. The process of production is really intense. The hours are long and there’s a ton of pressure, and as a result the crews tend to form tight bonds. I was still working in promos when Double Dare started and didn’t get to work on the production. I used to visit the set to shoot promos and stuff and I would always get invited to the wrap parties; everyone knew I was one of the creators and they were all incredibly nice to me but I wasn’t a true part of the family. I’ve had that experience on many shows over the years but I was kind of an outsider on Double Dare and would have been liked to have been more involved.
- What was your first impression of Nickelodeon Studios when you got there?
By the time Nickelodeon Studios were built, I had left on-air promos and was working as a freelance writer & producer under contract at Nickelodeon. Shows I was producing were being made on the sound stages at Universal as the studios and core building were being constructed so I watched them go up. Nick executives used to travel to Orlando from New York and get tours of the facility during construction and occasionally I’d go with them. I remember being pretty impressed with how state of the art it was technically. The control room was gorgeous – it was the first control room I’d ever been in where all the monitors were color – usually only the Program and Preview Monitors were color and everything else was black and white so they wouldn’t be distracting to the eye. But because it was built for the tours who’d be passing through the glass-walled “view tube” behind, they wanted to make sure it was all pretty and eye-catching.
The lighting system was really cool too. In all the studios I’d worked in before that, they’d have to use ladders or scissor lifts to access the lighting grid up in the ceiling. At Nick Studios they installed a system where each section was on a motorized hydraulic “pantograph” (kind of an accordion-like thing) which would lower to the floor.
- What was a typical day like being there?
I don’t remember it all that well. There were a lot of frustrations. Parking at the studio was always a big deal. As an executive producer, I usually had an assigned parking space somewhat close to the building, but there wasn’t enough space in the parking lot – it was a park employees lot if memory serves – and I think sometimes people had to park if lots far away and take a tram or something. I spent a lot of time dealing with complaints and listening to people tell me why they needed an assigned spot or how they should be paid extra for the time it took them to get from the lot to the studio. I was sympathetic. It sucked. But after a while I felt like I had to avoid people because I couldn’t have another conversation about parking.
We shot our shows over two days – usually on the weekends I think to accommodate the busier tour schedules those days. The rest of the week we’d prep that week’s and the next week’s shows and write future shows. Our office was in the core building which didn’t have any windows – or none in the offices used by non-permanent employees. The air conditioning worked really well. It was always freezing. We’d hole up in there all day trying to be funny and trying to deal with an unending list of problems from our cast members being accused of being bad influences on the cast members of other shows, to having other productions pilfer all the best tech crew guys and having them replaced by guys who just weren’t as good.
We were a low budget show but we were really ambitious and wanted to make a show that we were proud of. We didn’t get a lot of attention from the network so the only thing that mattered to us was making something that made us laugh. That meant that we spent a ton of time problem-solving and trying to find alternative ways of doing things. It was really hard. We usually didn’t have time to even leave the office for lunch but when we did, it was nice to go outside and walk to The Grill. The food wasn’t great and there were usually people we’d see who’d want to talk to us about the parking situation but at least we were outside. The daily thunderstorms were a highlight. Orlando is the lightning capital of the world I’m told. Really the best part of the day was going out to dinner and being able to drink a glass of wine or ten. We were really into food and there weren’t a ton of great restaurants in Orlando at the time but we spent a great deal of time seeking them out
- Do you remember other shows being filmed where you were at?
Yes definitely. I mostly remember the other scripted series: Clarissa Explains it All, High Honey I’m Home, Fifteen, and Roundhouse. I think Total Panic and Nick Arcade might have been in production down there as well when we were but I remember the scripted stuff because we were always getting the shaft because of them.
- I noticed that the camera style on WF looked shot in a single camera mode though I may be wrong. Can you explain what kind of filming techniques were used and was it ever difficult in that format?
Welcome Freshmen was shot in a variety of ways. The first two seasons it was a sketch show. Most of the sketches were recurring and built around a theme, and we tried to shoot each sketch in the way that best fit its content. For instance, one of the recurring sketches was the “Mervumentary.” The character Merv saw scandals everywhere at school and was trying to uncover them with his probing camera. Those were all done in a single shot with a handheld camera. A lot of time we’d try to do remote stuff outside the studio either in the park or around the area. That was all single camera too. Most of the rest of the show was shot multi-camera. In the third season we switched to a straight sitcom format. That was all multi-camera unless we did remotes.
- How was your experience with the Florida staff who worked at the studios? I always hear positive stories.
It varied. The freelance production staff who worked on our show tended to be really good. The tech crews varied. Some of them were great – they had bought into the whole Hollywood East idea of Orlando and moved down there with their families in an attempt to have a saner life. But the talent pool was not deep and when the best guys weren’t available, the next tier tended to be pretty inexperienced. There are some skills in production that are really specialized – operating a “Fisher boom” for instance. That’s the rig used to mike a sitcom or soap – it’s incredibly difficult to operate. The operator has to move the mike around above the heads of the actors and have it in the right position to pick up each line. The mike can’t be in the shot and it can’t cast a shadow. It demands a ton of physical coordination and the intelligence to understand the lighting plan. You need the memory to remember from limited rehearsal who talks when. It’s hard as hell and there are only a handful of guys who can do it well. There weren’t a lot of those guys in Central Florida.
As far as the full time employees at the studio, they weren’t answerable to an individual show. They worked for Nickelodeon (or possibly for Universal, I’m not really sure) and sometimes their interests didn’t align with mine.
We had a couple things working against us. The message we were constantly getting was that the studio was primarily in the business of providing an attraction for the Universal Studios and making a show to put on Nickelodeon was secondary. Our bosses in New York wanted a good show and insisted that we stay on budget but no matter what, nothing could jeopardize putting on the show for the tour. Producing a TV show is a complicated process with a lot of moving parts. Producing a live action show with kid actors is even harder because of really strict laws about the hours kids could work. Add on top of that the fact that you have to be on the studio floor working – or looking like you’re working – at particular hours on particular days made it that much harder.
Welcome Freshmen had it harder than most other shows. We were a small show with a really low budget. It was non-union everything. Unlike Clarissa Explains it All for example, which was DGA, WGA, and AFTRA I believe. That meant that where Clarissa could hire professional directors, writers and actors – i.e., people who did those things for a living, we had to hire either people who were trying to become professionals but hadn’t done enough stuff to get into the guilds, or else people who were in the guilds but needed the work and were willing to take the risk that they wouldn’t get caught and punished for working non-union. We unearthed some gems in that regard: My partner in writing and producing the show Tim Hill made his directing debut in our final episode. He’s gone on to be a major director and writer in Hollywood. Adam Weissman also did his first real episodic directing for us and he’s gone on to have a great career in Hollywood. Jed Spingarn was our staff writer one season. He’s worked on a ton of great shows and created The Thundermans for Nickelodeon. But more often the limitations with who we could hire just ended up making more work for me and Tim and Mike Rubiner the other real creative partner I had on the show.
- I read the book Slimed by Matt Klickstein and you did mention that the talent pool in Orlando was pretty shallow. Was it hard to find a group of actors for the show?
Yeah, it was really hard. I adored the cast of Welcome Freshmen. The kids were sweet, smart, funny kids but they were really raw. We cast them based on our instinct and what we felt was their potential. Not on their experience. I think we were the only scripted show that was ever done in Orlando at Nick or Disney where the talent was all local. When we wrote parts for new characters and had to do casting it was a real crapshoot. I remember we did a sketch about career day at school with a bunch of ridiculous jobs and the guy we cast as a matador couldn’t get his lines out. The more takes we did, the more flustered he got. I think we really traumatized the guy for life.
It was a little easier with the adults. There were some local actors who were good. Mike Speller who played Mr. Lippman was local and he was hilarious. The guy who played Walter’s Dad was a scream. There were some others but not a whole lot.
- If you could take home any type of prop from the studios or set what would it be?
Probably the microphone that Mr. Lippman used to make his morning announcements that always turned into a stand up routine of freshman jokes, ala “What’s the difference between a freshman and a sack of manure?… The sack.” Either that or the drum set that his secretary Ms. Petruka used to punctuate his jokes with rimshots.
10. Was it ever a distraction for you when guests who took a tour of the studios through a glass monitor from up above and watch you all film?
It wasn’t a distraction exactly but I hated it. It was just really bad for my self-esteem to feel the reason I was there was as much to look like I was producing a TV show as it was to actually produce a TV show. As I’ve mentioned several times, TV production is arduous. It’s also pretty boring. If the boom is casting a shadow sometimes there’s no way around it other than to move some lights. Everyone has to stop what they’re doing while lighting and audio work it out. Sometimes it would take ten minutes. Jim Scurti, one of the best camera operators in the business and an incredibly sweet guy had moved down to Orlando for the reason I cited above. He loved to read and when there was a stop down of any length, sometimes he would sit down on his camera pedestal and pull out his book. He was reprimanded for this by management because it didn’t look good for the tour. It really upset him and it upset me because I liked the guy but also because it hurt my show. It hurt morale and eventually he stopped wanting to work at the studio – and this guy was nationally known and would get booked all over the country. I ended up with a lesser camera operator because of bullshit like that. Morale was always low because of the conflict between tour and production. And relationships between the crew and management were not good especially with the better crew guys. They always felt like management favored the yes men who weren’t as experienced but would do whatever they were told. This too hurt the show in lots of ways. So it wasn’t so much having people watching that was the problem. It was what the studio felt they had to do to make a great tour experience for the guests that was the problem.
11. WF had gone through a change in the show’s format where it went from doing sketches,stand-up to being a sitcom-y show. Was there a reason for that?
Yes and no. If I recall correctly, it was a choice that I wanted to make and that I sold to the network because I felt that it would help ratings. I thought that people had trouble grasping the sketches – because it wasn’t a typical sketch show like SNL or All That. It had actors playing characters – Jocelyn Steiner was Alex. Rick Galloway was Walter, etc. – And then those characters would appear in sketches about being a freshman in high school. I thought people would find it easier to buy into a straight sitcom. But that was only part of the reason for the change. The other reason was that Tim Hill and I had gotten kind of bored of the sketch format and had run out of freshman jokes for Mr. Lippman’s Morning Announcements. We wanted to tell bigger stories than we could in short sketch.
12. Back then Orlando was seen as Hollywood East though it never really happened. From your years living and working there how great was it to have all the TV and film production going on in the area?
I never really lived there. I would come down for production but my home was always in New York. I think the Hollywood East idea was something they were promoting more than it was ever a viable reality. I didn’t like living in Orlando and I really like living in New York which is better-suited to my temperament. I admire that a lot of young people moved down to Orlando and managed to get a ton of experience which allowed them learn and go on to have great careers in entertainment when they moved on to New York or Los Angeles. I feel like that was probably the best thing to come out of it. It became clear to me pretty early on that until Orlando could find a way to draw writers, actors and directors to make their homes there, it might be a center of production but it would never be a center of culture the way New York and Los Angeles are. If they could have kept it going for a generation, things might have changed but it’s about more than studios. It’s about the things that make artists want to live in a place which tend to be different than the things that make normal people want to live in a place.
13. Do you still keep in touch with anyone from the show?
Not that much. I’m Facebook friends with lots of them but I’m not that active a facebooker – more of a lurker. Mike Rubiner, who was one of the writers and producers on the show, is still a close friend and my writing partner. I still consider Tim Hill to be a good friend although I haven’t been in touch with him for a while. I did see Dave Rhoden (who played Merv) at a big event they did in NYC to launch Matt Klickstein’s book SLIMED!. It was really great to see him. He’s turned into a fine young man. He kind of updated me on what the other cast members were up to.
14. If you could pick out one flaw about the studio what would it be?
Hm. I don’t want to sound ungrateful. I was a young creator of shows and the existence of the studio allowed me get my shows made, but I kind of feel like the whole concept was flawed. From the moment they committed to having a certain amount of production days every month, the thinking became “What do we have to do to get something in the studio?” rather than “What do we have to do to make great TV shows?” There’s not much relationship between those two ideas. I always thought they should have quietly turned it into a TV academy and charged tuition to people who wanted to learn how to use the equipment. For the visitors it would have looked the same as if they were making shows.
15. Have you ever been slimed?
I work in the entertainment industry; I feel like I’ve been slimed every day of my life. But I’ve not been literally slimed. It never struck me as that interesting. Maybe if I’d grown up with Nickelodeon I would have felt differently.
16. Did you have a favorite ride at Universal Studios Florida?
Back to the Future was kickass.
17. How do you feel knowing that the WF and all the 90s & 80s Nickelodeon shows made such a positive impact on fans and is still loved today?
It makes me incredibly proud. Welcome Freshmen wasn’t a particularly popular show, especially compared to Clarissa which launched at about the same time. We probably would have been canceled if it hadn’t been so cheap to produce. I think I understand why it didn’t break out. We were on TV in the same era as the similar but much more popular Saved By The Bell which I considered a really second rate show. But what I didn’t understand then and I understand much better now is that comedy for kids and tweens is really different from comedy for adults. Kids need a lot more fantasy fulfillment and a lot less humiliation and pain. Growing up is scary for them and a show that makes high school seem glamorous and fun is really appealing. That’s what Saved By The Bell did. Those kids were beautiful and even their problems were glamorous and “aspirational.” The only real comedy on that show came from Screech. The audience could laugh at him while identifying with Zach and Kelly. (Even though in reality the audience was probably a lot more like Screech.) There was nothing glamorous about Welcome Freshmen. It was like a show of all Screeches. High school was a time in my life when the world made me feel like there was something wrong with me. I know I’m not alone in that and I wanted to make a show that held that up to the light and robbed it of its power to hurt by turning it into comedy, but that’s not what kids want. In that sense, Welcome Freshmen was written like an adult show but set in a kid’s world. I’m still really proud of it – especially the writing. There was an episode in our final season when Manny was in love with a girl from school whom his mother had hired without his knowing it to babysit for him. It was as humiliating as anything on The Office or Curb Your Enthusiasm. I loved it. I think it was based on a true story from the life of Tim Hill’s wife Veronica Alicino. It’s still one of my favorite shows of anything I’ve worked on.
18. Favorite behind the scenes memory.
I think I’ve blocked out most of the specific memories. I remember after our final season, our art director, Mark Simon, had T-shirts made up for the crew with a caricature of my face looking extremely stressed and in pain and the slogan “Welcome Freshmen – They said it couldn’t be done.” It was an inside joke – every time we asked for something from the studio – a piece of equipment, a particular crew member, etc. – they said, “Sorry. It can’t be done.”
19. What do you think made Nick Studios so great and special?
The only thing I admired about Nick Studios besides the actual equipment was the smart and talented people who bravely moved down there to do the kind of work they desperately wanted to do.
20. Would you like to see it be re-opened?
Yes, but I think they would have to solve the conflict between being an attraction and being a working studio. I think there are other things that you could do with a Nickelodeon Studios that would be frankly more interesting than watching a guy move lights around. Technology would allow it be the kind of place where visitors could do things like interact with scenes from Nick shows, and touch and feel sets from real shows, etc. And it would be a great TV School.
Thank you Bob so much for the interview. Was great to hear your experience and i’ll be sure to inform you more of the project!