NPR has a great show called How I Built This where host Guy Raz talks to people who created successful multi-million dollar brands as they tell the story of how they did it. Most of the episodes are very good. This one about The Chipmunks characters was of particular interest to me since I always wondered what was going on with that brand as early as 8 years old when I was trying to figure out the corporate structure and mechanics of how to build my own empire of cartoon characters – back in an age with no world-wide-web with any helpful information on it, I had to fill in a lot of the gaps on my own. Some of the things I would try to figure out along these lines were:
-What’s up with the Padding Bear stop motion animation shorts? They don’t appear to be American-made. How old are the books and how old are these little stop motion movies?
-Dr Seuss cartoons – The Grinch, The Lorax, The Sneeches – these arent episodes in a series, they’re all – what? – specials that aired on tv whenever a deal could be made? So Dr Seuss would just have a successful book and then be offered to make a tv special half hour animation of it? or how did that work?
-Peanuts – “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown” and “Snoopy Come Home” were staples in my childhood but these too were specials just made from the newspaper comic strip? How does that work exactly?
-The Chipmunks – I was familiar with The Chipmunks Witch Doctor song and their Christmas song (“I still want a hoola-hoop”) as a kid and I knew both were old 50s era classics by the context they were presented on tv and radio so I knew their 1980s Saturday Morning Show and related media (an animated Christmas Special that preceded the series and an animated Chipmunks Movie that was a longer version of the Saturday morning show) were revivals of a sort. But how did these characters resurrect after having no public presence for 30 years? Then when all Chipmunk media died in the early 90s – why? Where’d they go?
The Chipmunks have made 2 comebacks experienced in my lifetime. The first obvious one I just detailed and their confusing fizzle from the public until 2007’s live action Chipmunk movie and its sequels – including the much derided “Sequeakual” – which have spawned new cartoons and more movies and made the characters Billion dollar money makers. The episode’s description summarizes:
Years after his father created a hit singing group of anthropomorphic rodents called The Chipmunks, Ross Bagdasarian Jr. made it his mission to revive his dad’s beloved characters. Over the last 40 years, Ross Jr. and his wife Janice have built The Chipmunks into a billion dollar media franchise – run out of their home in Santa Barbara, California.
Knowing that the Chipmunk revival was a son juicing up a creation of his father and working hard to build it into something was the draw of the tale for me. Kids of mine reading this in the future: please revive my stuff! Run with it. Work hard at it. Go be Bagdasarian Jr’s with my shiz.
Hearing them tell their story also makes the Saturday morning cartoon more touching. It always excited me and was one of the first themes I downloaded to my 2nd generation iPod in the early 00’s but hearing the tale of how a husband and wife were shopping the Chipmunks wherever they could and working day and night to make them what they became brings new energy to the lines of the theme song hailing their comeback. “Watch. Out…. CUZ HERE WE COME… it’s been awhile but, we’re back with style”… Go get em, Alvin.
It’s also especially rewarding to hear Dave Seville himself tell all these stories – as not only is Bagdasarian Jr the voice of Dave in those 90s cartoons, but his Dave voice is his natural speaking voice without change to the good-hearted-overworked-slightly-neurotic-but-optimistic cadence I felt in every line of David Seville on the show and now from the real-life Chipmonks manager, Ross Bagdasarian.
The podcast fills in these blanks and more and I learned the corporate treachery and screwovers the couple went through who own and have dedicated their lives to the Chipmunk characters, and that they evidently went to court over The Squeakual being such a piece of garbage (since the court case was settled with terms that they not talk about it, you don’t get any juicy details in the podcast or anywhere else online except for that it seems that there was an issue over not paying royalties or profit shares of some kind that the Bagdasarian’s were entitled to, and that the family was unhappy with the writing quality over their characters and sued for future control over how they’re treated. I think that’s what I gleaned from the vaguely worded articles I read on the subject, anyway).
Listen to the How I Built this episode with Ross Bagdasarian Jr. and Janice Karman through your podcast app (if you listen to podcasts at 2x the speed like I do) or play it below:
Bonus romper clip: At the end of every episode they have a postscript titled “How You Built That,” featuring a shorter version of the main show that focuses on a new or recent Startup instead of an iconic brand or long standing successful business as is the normal spotlight of the show. The postcript for the Chipmunks episode above is how Daniel Clark-Webster and his three friends came up with RompHim – a company specializing in male rompers.