Teen Titans Go! Is a cartoon in a category all by itself. Irreverent and wacky, it is a softer (though more surreal) take on the normally hard-edged DC universe. The show follows the adventures of the Teen Titans as they fight evil, and also deal with pain and angst of being teenagers. Believe it or not, you mix those two things together, you get fantastic results. Funnier than anyone would expect it to, with vivid and memorable characters, we thought we would take a moment to talk to the show’s producer, Michael Jelenic, about the finale airing tonight at 6:30 on Cartoon Network. Michael Jelenic is best known for producing Batman: The Brave and the Bold, which was an awesome and frankly, under-appreciated show. I was pretty excited to get a chance to actually talk to him about reboots, the art of unimpressive magic, and what it is like to put the Teen Titans in wildly surreal scenarios.
From your take on Batman (The Brave and the Bold) to your take on Thundercats a few years back, you seem to have a very unique approach to rebooting properties. Do you ever fear alienating the core fan base?
Michael Jelenic: It is tough, because it is often a property people already love, and when you give them something that is not the exact same, they tend to get mad. For me it boils down to if we capture the essence of whatever property we are working on. With Teen Titans Go we brought in a lot of the original cast from Teen Titans, which I believe helped us win over some new fans. We may have taken it in a slightly different direction, but the essence of the Teen Titans is there. That is important to us.
The show has a very surreal and at times, irreverent tone. What do you think inspired that? Did you deliberately set out to make it like that, or did it evolve? The “Meatball Party” episode comes to mind when I ask this. Surreal, but delightful. How do you pull that off?
Michael Jelenic: *Laughs* We knew we wanted Teen Titans Go! to be different, but it sort of evolved in that direction. Meatball Party is a perfect example. It is a strange episode, but we loved doing it, and people really responded to it. That gave us the freedom to be able to continue to go in that surreal direction. Because people seemed to approve of it and enjoy it.
On the other extreme, do you ever get a backlash from the die hard fans who refuse to give anything fun a chance and just want the DCU to be filled with edgy characters with edgy representations?
Michael Jelenic: No matter what you do or what direction you go with characters like this, there is always going to be someone who doesn’t like it or gets mad about it. I’ve seen a few Twitter tirades aimed at me and the show’s writer, Aaron Horvath, that seems particularly angry. But you just have to laugh that stuff off. The proof is in the fact that we keep coming back. There will always be a few haters. You just learn to roll with it.
So regarding the surreal tone of the show, what do you think helped inspire that for you? Was there a particular cartoon growing up that made an impression?
Michael Jelenic: Not so much a cartoon, but the irreverence of (comedian) Andy Kaufman. There is something I find very enjoyable about comedy that some people “get”, yet also makes some people scratch their heads. Kaufman did that better than anyone, and that made a lasting impression on me.
I love Andy Kaufman. Kept us guessing right until the end. So with the Teen Titans Go! finale airing tonight, are there any secrets you can give up or Easter Eggs you want to spill for the sake of our readers?
Michael Jelenic: Well, the Titans try to take down Mumbo, who is a magician. This, of course, inspires Robin to get into magic. Problem is, he is REALLY bad at magic. On top of that, it is really awful magic he is doing, like the old “removable thumb” gag that has been around for a century. It makes for some funny scenarios. Even more so because Raven can do ACTUAL magic, yet no one seems to care. Yet there Robin is, doing these stupid tricks, and everyone is blown away. It makes for a funny dynamic and a very fun episode. I have been doing stupid magic tricks my whole life for my friends, so I can relate to Robin in this episode.
You are talking to someone who knows the old “bite a quarter in half” trick, so trust me, you are not alone in that. Either is Robin.
Michael Jelenic: Haha, good to know! Also, there will be a post season episode coming soon with puppets. Like, actual puppets.
Wait, you mean, like non-animated, with Teen Titans puppets? Are you playing with me right now? That sounds like it could be the best thing ever.
Michael Jelenic: Yes, not sure when it will run, but it will be after the end of this season at some point. And yes, like I said, puppets. Real, actual puppets.
Aw man, that makes me very happy. Speaking of puppets makes me think of Muppets, and Muppets make me think about pop culture, which leads to my next question. There seem to be a lot of pop culture references made on Teen Titans Go! They are a lot of fun to spot. Heck, I think I saw a quick Megazord Power Rangers reference in last week’s episode. Have there been any pop culture references you have really loved or really been proud of?
Michael Jelenic: I grew up in a time of terribly awesome TV from the 80’s, so I tend to most enjoy the references we made to those shows. Shows most people wouldn’t know like Webster and Small Wonder. The really bad shows that were so bad they were good. I like slipping those in there.
Yeah, I grew up suffering through the same stuff. I always tell people about Small Wonder (“No, I swear, they had a daughter who was actually a robot!”) and no one ever believes me. Remember that show Out of This World, where the girl’s dad was an alien who lived in a space cube next to his daughter’s bed?
Michael Jelenic: *Laughs* There is an Out of This World reference next season! *Laughs again* Looks like you are one step ahead of us. We also did a Ducktales homage that I was really into. We even almost remade the whole intro of the show on Teen Titans Go!, but it ended up being too much to take on.
Well, that is one of the best intros to any cartoon, ever, so kudos for even trying. So speaking of next season, what can you tell us? Any hints about what we can expect or any future cameos?
Michael Jelenic: One thing I think fans of DC will be excited about is there will be a Young Justice crossover with the Teen Titans. I know a lot of fans that think we caused that show to moved, but that was not the case. What will happen is, Young Justice will call out Teen Titans for being a little immature, and this will cause the Titans to do some soul searching and maybe try to grow up a little. Don’t worry, it wont be quite that simple. But we think the crossover is gonna be great for fans of both series’.
That sounds pretty awesome (and quite meta). So I was curious, with Brave and the Bold and now Teen Titans you have taken some of the edge off of very edgy DC characters. Do you ever catch any heat from DC directly about that?
Michael Jelenic: No, DC have honestly been awesome. Mike Carlin and the others guys we talk to at DC have been nothing but supportive and enjoy the direction we take the show. Thank God. *Laughs*
I also notice that Teen Titans Go! has messages and morals like other cartoons, but does not cram them down the viewer’s throats like most shows aimed at kids do. Is that a conscientious choice on your part?
Michael Jelenic: Yes, we like to be careful with our messages. While we want the viewers to walk away having learned something, we don’t want to stand there and spoon feed it to them. We want to give them something fun and interesting and original. If we can slide a moral message or lesson to learn in there, that’s even better. Kids are not stupid, so always putting the fun before the message is hopefully what makes the show work and resonate with its fan base. You do not pander to them, and they appreciate that.
Kids can be a tough audience, but you seem to be doing a great job. Congrats on all the success of Teen Titans Go!, and we are genuinely looking forward to tonight’s finale and spending some more time with this kooky crew of superheroes next season as well. Keep us posted on that puppet episode and Young Justice crossover, please. We don’t wanna miss those.
Michael Jelenic: Will do, thanks Remy.
The finale for Teen Titans Go is on tonight on Cartoon Network at 6:30, so make sure you tune in. Robin just might end up pulling a quarter out of your ear.
[Photo via Cartoon Network]