When witnessing wacky, zany fun on your television screens you have to ask yourself,”how do these people come up with this”? This can also attributed to Nickelodeon in the 90s. The game shows and sitcoms were a full inside scoop of stepping into a kids mind. Script writer Thomas Cavanagh was the full writer for many of the game shows and variety shows such as Nick Arcade, Get the Picture, Outta Here, Double Dare, What Would You Do. Here he talks of how the brilliance of Nick Studios, how one particular variety show was a hard formula to do, and the evolution of filming in Florida through the years. His website you can learn about him here http://www.thomasbcavanagh.com.
1. How eventually did you get started writing scripts for Nickelodeon?
I had been working as the Production Coordinator for the Disney Channel’s new Mickey Mouse Club but wanted to be a writer. When that show went on an extended hiatus between casts, I had planned to move to Los Angeles. However, I was invited to submit an audition writing sample for the new Let’s Make a Deal, which was shooting at the Disney/MGM Studios in Orlando. While I was waiting to hear back, I was offered my first writing job at Nick for a daily variety show called Outta Here. I accepted and then had the opportunity to write for a number of other shows over the next few years. I did not get an offer from Let’s Make a Deal, by the way.
2. What was your first impression of the Nickelodeon Studios when you got there?
I had seen it before it opened. Having worked in the Orlando film and TV market, I had been able to visit Universal Studios Florida and see some of the Nick property. But being in it as a working contributor was fun.
3. What was a typical day like being there?
There was a cool energy. A lot of young-ish people pulling long hours but having fun. Ironically, compared to a lot of other jobs, I spent relatively little time on the set or in the control room (which was also visible on the studio tour). As a writer, most of my time was spent in the Nick offices, well, writing. Although the money wasn’t very good, it was some of the most fun I’ve had in my career. Where else could you get slimed as part of your job?
4. One thing I wanna talk about is the show called Outta Here in which you wrote for. If you can recall was it something that wasn’t taken too lightly from network execs which is why the show is hard to find online?
I really enjoyed working on that show and made some lifelong friends I have kept to this day. But it had something of an identity crisis. It was a variety show that didn’t know if it wanted to be a game format like Double Dare or a comedy like Welcome Freshmen. The budget was very limited and sometimes the only way I could get something on the air was to do it myself. A lot of the staff popped up in bits because we would do it for free. There was also a requirement to feature the Universal Park in the show so we had to make sure to fit that in.
Outta Here also taught me that what I thought was funny was not always what kids thought was funny. I wrote some bits for Outta Here that I thought were hilarious but did not have a proper kid sensibility. For example, we sent one of the hosts out into the park to ask people if the rumors about Elvis being alive were true. While the tourists in the ride line answered, a white jumpsuit-clad Elvis would be buying a hot dog in the background. We all thought it was funny but kids didn’t get it. It was too subtle and, newsflash, they have no idea who Elvis is.
5. Was there a particular show there you loved visiting the set of?
They were all kind of cool in their own ways. I would say that Hi Honey, I’m Home or Clarissa Explains it All (neither of which I worked on) were neat because they were sets for narrative sitcom formats.
6. Orlando back then was shaped up to be Hollywood East but never lived up to it. As a Florida native how great was it to have all the tv and film production going on in the area and why do you think it has since decreased?
It was fun. When I worked on the Mickey Mouse Club, we had Superboy filming in the stage next to ours and we used to see Superboy zooming around backstage on a gas-powered skateboard. Several movies passed through, as well, such as Days of Thunder when it filmed in Daytona and Quick Change, which shot the airplane scene in a Delta jet fuselage that Disney had in a third soundstage. When I worked at Nick, I think Swamp Thing and Seaquest DSV were filming on property. It was cool. I’m not sure why things never took off, but I don’t think Hollywood ever saw Orlando as anything more than a glorified location.
7. When the game shows were being produced there did it matter to make every script, involving jokes and giggles, more bigger and better than the next one especially since they had a live audience?
We were always pushed to make them the best they could be. There was always a very genuine ethos to always respect kids, make it fun for kids, make it about kids being in charge. The live audience helped the energy but, honestly, it could get tough keeping them engaged when you were shooting five episodes of a game show per day. I worked on several things that did not have a live audience and the energy was not the same.
8. Did the sound stages help out alot to make your job easier considering how the large the studio was?
Not sure I understand the question. As a writer, the sound stages didn’t really affect my job at all.
9. Have you been slimed yourself?
Yes. I was also the referee in a giant wrestling ring of whipped cream for an episode of What Would You Do.
10. Did you have a favorite ride at Universal Studios Florida? Past and present.
At the time, Spider-Man was great. The park has expanded now to include Islands of Adventure, so I would have to say the Harry Potter Ride and Jurassic Park are my new favorites.
11. In terms of the actual lines you wrote was there any original story-line you would’ve to kept for any show but had to change it instead?
I mostly wrote game shows (Nick Arcade, a few Double Dare episodes, Get the Picture, some pilots, etc.), variety (What Would You Do, Outta Here, You’re On), comedy (Welcome Freshmen sketches), some educational (Launch Box), and some promos. Everything gets re-written either by me, if I was head writer, or by the head writer/producer. It’s all about getting the best material on screen. Rewriting is part of the process.
12. How great was all the staff who worked there? I always hear positive stories.
Super cool. As I said earlier, some are friends to this day. Thanks to Facebook, we all still keep up. The same for the alumni of the Mickey Mouse Club.
13. You may not be aware but how do you feel knowing that all of 90s Nickelodeon shows made such a positive impact on fans and is still loved today?
If it comes up in conversation, I am always amazed at the reaction I get when someone learns I once wrote for Nickelodeon. There really is a genuine nostalgia for those old shows. People loved them and I am happy to have been a small part of it.
14. What have you been up to these days?
I am currently the Associate Vice President of Distributed Learning at the University of Central Florida. My media work eventually led me into the exciting world of e-learning. But I have continued to write. I have published three crime novels, including a two-book series from St. Martin’s Press. One of my novels won the Florida Book Award Gold Medal and was nominated for a Best Novel Shamus Award by the Private Eye Writers of America. For more about me and my books: http://www.thomasbcavanagh.com
15. Favorite behind the scenes memory.
Too many to share here. Every time I and the other staff and friends got to do something on camera was a hoot. Walking through the park on the way to the cafeteria with Marc Summers and getting mobbed by kids was surreal. I do remember the first time I saw words that I wrote come out of someone’s mouth on a TV monitor. That was cool.
16. Do you think your experience being there was a learning process in terms of the work you do now in a beneficial way?
Absolutely. I would say that everything in my career has helped me in some form or fashion.
17. What do you think made Nick Studios so great and special?
At the heart of Nick was the emphasis on kids. Kids were the bosses, kids made the rules. That was the idea anyway and that made it special.
18. Would you like to see it be re-opened?
That would be great. I have heard that from others. It’s likely however, that the time for Nick Studios has passed. I’d love to see those crazy shows return, though. Just look at the popularity of shows like Wipeout and American Ninja Warrior to see the grown-up versions. I believe that kids would love to see an updated Double Dare, for instance.