Disney's Recess celebrates 15th anniversary
When you think of Disney Channel’s Recess, which ran from 1997-2001, the first thing that comes to mind probably isn’t the 1978 NBC sitcom Taxi.
But according to the animated series’ creators Paul Germain (Rugrats) and Joe Ansolabehere (Hey Arnold!), it was the inspiration for their hit animated series. “We were big fans of those ’70s sitcoms, and Taxi was a show we really loved,” says Ansolabehere. “If you think about it, it is similar. You [have] your own little core group, let’s say five or six core characters who are types of characters that you knew are best friends.”
Like the sitcom co-created by James L. Brooks — who Germain actually worked for — the Disney cartoon focused on a group of elementary school-aged friends, documenting their daily adventures during the titular time in their day. Over the course of 127 episodes (and four movies), the series saw T.J., Spinelli, Mikey, Gus, Gretchen, and Vince, as well as its wide cast of supporting players, do everything from facing down bullies to even getting kidnapped by kindergarteners.
“If Rugrats was a show about looking up at the world, and seeing the world from the ground, Recess is a show about [being] nine years old and out there with bigger and little people. How do you navigate it?” explains Ansolabehere about the show’s central premise. Adds Germain, “The answer is, with the help from your friends.”
With the beloved series celebrating 15 years since its conclusion, EW spoke to the duo behind it about why it struck a chord, and the odds of it coming back.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The show was popular around the world. Why do you think that was?
PAUL GERMAIN: We were trying to make it universal with time [and] space. We dressed the characters in ways that seemed classic and didn’t seem contemporary at the time.
JOE ANSOLABEHERE: A lot of times when you’re writing a kids’ show, especially at Disney at that time, people would want you to be hip, to use the latest lingo that’s in the magazines. We always felt, I think it was because of Rugrats, if you do that you just date it. It’ll always be 1991 or 1972 or whenever you wrote it. We just thought, if we’re going to have curse words or words that mean cool, let’s make up our own words. We talked about that a lot at the time like, “What happens on the playground?” It’s its own universe.
GERMAIN: The playground was something that wasn’t going to change in time. We figured it would always be true, because this is a universal human experience and that’s what we wanted to capture. One of the things that we thought about is that while school is a universal experience, the part of school that you always remember is stuff that happened on the playground at recess. That was what the initial concept of the initial pitch was. There are all these shows about school [but] they’re all in class.
ANSOLABEHERE: It’s one of those few universal experiences of childhood all around the world: Going to school.
What would you say you’re proudest of having accomplished with the show?
GERMAIN: The thing I’m proudest about has to do with what we talked about initially. We really felt like we captured an aspect of childhood and talked to our audience about their own experiences. That’s what we wanted to do, and I felt like we really achieved it there.
ANSOLABEHERE: I totally agree. That is the thing that I’m probably proudest of, too. Another thing that came up recently for me is that you look back at your work of the past and you think, “Well, I could have done that better. I could have done this better.” Recently, Paul and I were at a museum and we showed an episode of Recess. Both of us were like, “That really came out great.”
GERMAIN: It feels like cinema. The way cinema speaks to you, we’re proud that Recess spoke to our audience the same way.
In lots of ways, Miss Grotke seems so far ahead of her time, especially in terms of how she’s teaching the class history. How did you develop her as a character?
GERMAIN: Joe and I were talking about, what did we want to do for teachers. We had Miss Finster, who represented the old sledgehammer, the mean old teach you’d have when you were a kid. We thought, what are other kinds of teachers? I said, “Let’s do a ’60s hippie teacher.” Wouldn’t it be funny to have this teacher who they don’t particularly get or relate to what she’s saying? The adults watching the show would be laughing hysterically because she’s spouting a particular way of thinking that is how we think.
ANSOLABEHERE: The other thing that happened is, we’re liberals and we were working in this place, Disney, which is an extremely conservative place. If we made fun of her a little bit, we could say what we really thought. It would be a joke. We were making fun of ourselves in a way, if that makes sense. The other thing that happened was that we cast this woman who we were huge fans of from Taxi and Moonlighting, Allyce Beasley. She has this wonderful voice and she just ran with the character and made it her own.
GERMAIN: We’d bring it in and she said, “What if I say this?”
ANSOLABEHERE: We’d go, “Sure!” Then the writers got into it, too. Some of the writers had different politics than us [so] they were making fun of us, too. It was an interesting thing. They would say Columbus supposedly saved America or whatever it is, and she would make a comment and you’d go, “Oh, all right.” It was just a fun character to write.
NEXT: Could there be a second Recess?
One thing that stands out about the show is the range of female characters, from Spinelli, to Gretchen, to even the Ashleys. How did you approach developing female characters?
GERMAIN: That’s an interesting question. Joe and I are from all-boy families. He’s the oldest of five boys and I’m the oldest of four. Neither of us had sisters. As we got older, both of us had really intense relationships with women, with our wives, and the women that we knew. I think, just because of our politics and the way we think, we just really wanted to say, “What are girls really like?” Joe had a daughter. I had a son. We wanted to talk about, “What are the images they’re going to see?”
ANSOLABEHERE: Also, when we were thinking about women, we were thinking, “Who are the women we like? Who are our friends?” Gretchen was based on the woman Paul ended up marrying. [But with the Ashleys] it’s not just some pretty, “airhead” girls. We didn’t have [any] in the show. The Ashleys are as close as they come, and actually you get to know who they are, too. That was about a clique, [but] they’re a little bit more interesting. The other thing is that Paul and I never wanted to have a token girl writer in the room. We wanted women writing on the show, really telling us, “That’s wrong. That’s not how a girl would talk. That’s not what a girl would do.” The two who come to mind immediately, there were actually several of them, are Holly Huckins and Rachel Lipman.
GERMAIN: If you let the characters evolve and develop and you let them be complicated and you put combinations of them together. Then you can keep going. It’s like a book that never ends because it just keeps getting richer and richer. You keep learning new things and the characters develop. We always wanted to allow that to happen, so we purposely designed the characters so that they could grow and become more than what they were.
ANSOLABEHERE: Another one besides that is Vince, because in a lot ways, you could say he’s the token African-American guy. If you look at, for example, the skin tones of all the characters, all of them have different skin tones. Our idea was, everyone in the world is a different racial mix. Looking back if I wanted to say there was a change, I wish we had more African-Americans and Latinos, different races in there mixed in, more prevalent. But the Ashleys are all different races if you look at their skins. You asked about the things I’m proud about? One that I’m proud of is that Vince was a real character.
The show still has a lot of fans. What do they tend to ask you about most of the time?
GERMAIN: One of the things people ask us about a lot is whether the show will come back. We hope that might happen some day. We’d love to do it. It’s something we’re really proud of and we’d love to figure out new ways to tell these stories. That’s one thing.
ANSOLABEHERE: The other thing people ask, it’s such a compliment to me, is, “What would happen to the characters when they grow up? What happened to them?” There’s a lot of fantasy. Kids are really into the idea that T.J. and Spinelli would grow up and become boyfriend and girlfriend or get married. They always ask me that one. Or, what happened to Gretchen? Did Gus go into the military? All I think is that I love that people are that into it to think about it that much. That means we engaged with the audience, is how I feel about it. I don’t have answers for them.
If the show were to come back, do you think you would be able to capture the same kind of timelessness with all the technology that’s in kids’ lives now?
GERMAIN: Yes, and I’ll tell you why. Even then we would figure out ways of talking about the aspects that are classic and timeless and not about the technology. We would probably address it, maybe even make fun of it. We even did that at the time on the series. We did an episode with these trading card games, where the kids turn into zombies because they get too into the game.
ANSOLABEHERE: Gretchen has basically a cell phone.
GERMAIN: Yeah, we made fun of early cell phones. Stuff like that.
ANSOLABEHERE: Also because, if you go look at a playground right now, it’s still the same. No teacher let’s you take your iPhone out on the playground. It’s still a universal place. It’s still what it was. The rest of the world changes but recess never does.
GERMAIN: You go to an elementary school playground at recess, [and] they’re still bopping one of those tetherballs around. They’re still playing dodge ball. They’re still running around. There’s still cliques. What makes the clique? It might be slightly different but not really.
ANSOLABEHERE: We’ve had a lot of ideas about it. You’d either do it with another group of kids and it’s today but it’s recess still. Or, you could go back as if it’s the next day if you wanted. I just feel like there’s no way that idea is dated. That’s why we did it that way. That’s why we tried to find the universal.
Are there any plans to bringing Recess to any streaming platforms? Rugrats and Hey Arnold! are out there, but Recess is really hard to find.
GERMAIN: We’re hoping that someday something might happen with that, but so far it’s been discussed. We’ve brought it up. You’d have to contact the Walt Disney Corporation.
ANSOLABEHERE: I hope articles like this one might one day spark a groundswell [with] Disney.