A Talk With Jeff Parker
A Talk With Jeff Parker

A few months ago, Jeff Parker surfaced on my radar… via e-mail.  PtP had just run an interview with Mike Nawrocki (of VeggieTales fame) in support of a 3-2-1 Penguins! DVD release.  Nawrocki had mentioned Parker in passing during the interview, but I really hadn’t given it much of a thought.  Parker’s work and I really hadn’t traveled in the same circles… as of yet.

But Parker, probably with the help of Google or some such other technical mechanism, certainly travels in PtP’s circle—or Nawrocki’s, at the very least.  In an e-mail note, Parker expressed gratitude for the nod of recognition from Nawrocki, and—in what I later found to be his typical sardonic fashion—sent a backhanded nod in Nawrocki’s direction as well.

Intrigued by Parker’s response, I engaged in a short correspondence with Parker, followed by an informal phone interview—and culminating in the more formal interview transcribed below.

Jeff Parker, helmer of Fancy Monkey

Parker’s resume is a deep and impressive one, if you’re at all familiar with children’s products available at Christian bookstores.  His official bio from publisher Thomas Nelson tells the tale:

After winning a playwriting competition at Sacramento State University, [Jeff Parker] went off to USC to study film production and creative writing. Following graduation he went to work for Agapeland where he met Nathan Carlson and Wayne Zeitner. His next big project was the creation of Jungle Jam, which began as a series of musical albums for kids… During this time, Jeff also went to Focus on the Family, where he wrote for Adventures in Odyssey, managed the Creative Writing Department, and met Phil Lollar and David Buller.

Since 1990, Jeff Parker, Nathan Carlson, Phil Lollar and David Buller have worked together to entertain and enrich children and their parents all over the world. As Woolly Mammoth Entertainment, they created and developed the hit radio series Jungle Jam and Friends the Radio Show!, which also featured the RazzleFlabbenz and Sing Along with Bert the Moose! In 1999, Wayne Zeitner from Everland Entertainment joined the team. They changed the name of their company to Fancy Monkey Studios, and are launching brand new programs, still designed to make kids and their parents laugh through stories that show the goodness of God and the relevance of the Bible.

One of the projects Woolly Mammoth developed was, in fact, what became 3-2-1 Penguins!, successfully pitched to Nawrocki and Phil Vischer at Big Idea.

Another is one that I think is even better, and which PtP reviewed on DVD earlier this year: Little Dogs on the Prairie, a series of incredibly fun half-hour programs—set in an Old West prairie dog town—that teach kids valuable lessons about the dangers of things like pride, stealing, lying, and cheating.

After a series of misfires, Parker and I finally connected for a formal interview, which Parker courteously sweetened after the fact with a little of his trademark humor.

It looks like your primary gig is the Jungle Jam series; is that right?

Jeff Parker: It’s the primary project these days at Fancy Monkey, yes. The one we’re devoting most of our time to right now.  That and perfecting our perpetual-motion machine, but that’s top secret.  Well, it was.  You are like some sort of master interrogator, Greg!  I can tell I’m gonna have to watch myself around you.

How long have you been doing Jungle Jam?

JP: We started doing the albums in 1989, with All God’s Creatures Are Special.

I’ve got to tell you, I’ve been listening to the cassette of songs from Little Dogs on the Prairie in my car for the last week solid.

JP: Pretty fun, huh?

It is!  I can’t get that stuff out of my head.

JP: Buddy and Julie Miller, our husband/wife song producer/writer team, are absolutely amazing.

Yeah.  Yeah, that’s great stuff. It was a very pleasant surprise for me to run across the DVD series for Little Dogs.  What was the genesis of that project?

JP: I was watching a Discovery Channel program on prairie dogs and had been looking for character and environment ideas to base a children’s series on.  Something that would translate well to video.  Anyway, I saw this wonderful show on prairie dogs and how they have dog towns and almost human-like social characteristics.  I had the name “Little Dogs on the Prairie” before the show was over and fleshed it out from there.  Prairie dogs are such interesting creatures, it seemed like a natural fit for children.

What was the first market for those episodes?

JP:  Video for the CBA.  I don’t think it’s called the Christian Booksellers Association anymore, but it used to be the CBA.  It’s probably the Christian Gift Association now.  I don’t know, so much has changed.

Well, with the number of stores that have closed, I don’t think they’re even selling gifts any more!

JP:  It’s jaw-dropping what’s happened.

So as I understand it, there are eight episodes of Little Dogs available.  Is that right?

JP: Eight stories in three collections, although when they move to download I’d guess the stories will be available individually.

Do you have any more of those in production?

JP: Not at the moment.  We’ve talked about it.  If time and finances allow we’ll likely do more Little Dogs videos, but we’re up to our ears in Jungle Jam right now.  That and our turn-lead-into-gold alchemy machine, but that’s top secret.  Well, it was.  D’oh!

Well, I sure hope you get backing for more videos, because those sure are good programs.

JP: We aren’t looking for backing, actually.  As long as people are paying for their Jungle Jam downloads and not copying them illegally, all should be well.  If not, like I say, we have our fingers crossed on that alchemy machine.

Now, I noticed online that collection number two of Little Dogs, Lying’, Cheatin’, and a Hot Lollipop, is no longer available on DVD.  Is that going to be coming back soon?

JP:  I don’t think so.  I think the next move for those is going to be as downloads.  It’s a rapidly changing world, Greg.  It’s still Greg, isn’t it?  By the time we finish this interview, downloading may already be over and we’ll be on to something else.

Well, that’s a great move, as that’s the direction that everything is going.  So when do you expect to have downloads available?

JP: I’m going to say before Christmas 2009, probably starting quietly in the middle of the year so we can get the bugs worked out.

That’s something to look forward to.  Now, I have to confess that I don’t have children myself and I don’t spend a lot of time with my siblings’ children; so the whole children’s market is just not on my radar.  So I was probably less aware of Jungle Jam and Little Dogs than I should have been, and then ran across them in connection with my interview with Mike Nawrocki covering the release of the latest 3-2-1 Penguins! DVDs.

JP: Oh?

And he mentioned that you had brought that idea to them back around the turn of the century.

JP: Just before, yeah.

How did that come about?

JP: I was talking with Big Idea about doing a project and pitched a number of ideas to them, and the one they thought was the most interesting was, originally, called “Penguins in Space.”  “3-2-1 Penguins!” was one of the many alternate titles.  “Jason and the Penguinauts” was another.

Where did you come up with the idea?

JP:  At my desk, as usual.  “Is this drawer stuck again?  Rats, my tea’s cold.  We should do a children’s series about flightless birds who can fly.  Uh-oh, I’m supposed to be at the dentist right now!”  No different from any other day.  I’ve always thought penguins were funny and interesting and they seem to appeal to children.  They have a natural charm, right?  And they’re about the size of a prairie dog, which is entirely unimportant, unless you want to put one of each on a teeter-totter.  But the idea of putting them in space—making flightless birds fly—struck me as interesting.  “You got penguins in my spaceship!” “Well, you got spaceship on my penguins!”

Now the vocal characterizations for the birds (in the series as produced) I think include an Australian—Midgel—and then Fidgel sounds British.  Were those vocal characterizations included in the original concept?

JP: No, the accents came later.  That’s a Big Idea thing.  They like that Monty Python sound.

Yeah, yeah.  Right, right.  They do that in the VeggieTales series, too. 

JP: Obviously someone was heavily influenced by that exceptionally funny group.

Yes, and I think a bit of Gilbert and Sullivan influence there, too.

JP:  It seems likely.

And where did the names come from for the penguins?

JP: You know, I wish I could say I came up with them, but I so didn’t.  I had the characters and I was working out the penguins idea, how they got into the spaceship, the names rhyming and all.  And a guy that I am incredibly fortunate to work with all the time—Nathan Carlson, who is absolutely brilliant—popped out with the idea for the names.  I was doing the “Huey, Dewey, Louie, and Clyde” kind of thing, where you have three names that rhyme and one that doesn’t.  And Nathan just blurted out “Zidgel, Midgel, Fidgel—and Kevin!”  He’s insanely clever.

Very original.

JP: As soon he said them, I was rolling on the floor laughing.  Which is my usual posture when Nathan’s in the room.  Every comedy writer should get to work with someone of that caliber.  It’s dangerous because after a couple hours, your cheeks are in total pain from all the grinning.  The names were totally his idea.

Very catchy, very unique.  And that was so true of the Penguins program: the whole feel of the thing was unique.  And now it’s very obvious to me, while watching the Little Dogs on the Prairie series, that a lot of the same thinking and creative minds produced that—because the gags and the jokes and the clever puns and twists of phrase come so fast and thick in Little Dogs that, like Penguins, it’s great adult entertainment, the children’s aspect of it aside.

JP: Well, hopefully it’s entertaining for adults as well as kids, because if you had kids, or even took some time from your completely self-indulgent life to hang out with your siblings’ children—sheesh, Greg, seriously—you’d know that adults end up seeing the shows as much as kids do.

Yes, it really helps if you don’t get sick of it!

JP: If you can make it through the fiftieth viewing without pulling all of your hair out, then maybe, just maybe, we’ve in some small way succeeded.

Now, I’m not at all familiar with the Jungle Jam series.  Is the model for the construction of the Little Dogs program consistent with a general pattern: three stories, each followed by a song?

JP: Sometimes Jungle Jam will have two stories, but sometimes it’s just one.  With Little Dogs it varied as well; it was nice to be able to do twenty-minute story on the third DVD.  So on Jungle Jam we change it up, too.  With the shorter, ten-minute stories, they’re handy for people to play on the drive to church, whatever, so that you can get a beginning, and middle, and an end while you drive.  If you have a longer drive, you can enjoy two of them.

Right.  Now, the feel of the “lessons” in the stories is very Judeo-Christian; Jesus is talked about, but the values and the lessons communicated seem very broadly applicable to anyone who’s coming from a faith background.  Was that kind of deliberate in the design?

JP: Broadly applicable?  Uh, not deliberately, no.  I guess when you translate biblical principals into something an animal can say, it’s tricky because you don’t want to raise off-point questions.  “Does an animal have a soul?  Do they have an afterlife?”  So the principles probably do get broadened out a bit.  But we try very hard to teach clear, easily applied, accurate biblical lessons.

So from that perspective, there wouldn’t be an awful lot of room to discuss how you’d incorporate Jesus or the Holy Spirit into the Little Dogs world.

JP: Well, you and I could certainly discuss it, sure.  But when an opera-singing snake starts talking about the Holy Spirit—I don’t know.  I guess that’s an inherent limitation of using animals.  Are aardvarks pre-trib or post-trib?  Do elephants have a point of view on the Trinity?  Does a bear postulate Calvinist doctrine in the woods?  I mean, you can see why we let our narrator handle the lesson heavy-lifting with a direct quote from the Bible, right at the top of the story.

So you’re not sneaking a Christian message into the story—

JP:  Oh my no.  We’re very clear up front about where this story is coming from.  I don’t want anyone randomly tuning into an episode of Jungle Jam and being surprised at the end that there’s a Christian message.  We put the Bible verses right up front.  Imagine you were listening to a story with your young kids and all of the sudden at the end you got a strong pro-Muslim message.  No, this definitely falls into the category of “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.”

Well, I sure look forward to the opportunity to see more of Little Dogs, and I think our readers will enjoy that, too.

JP:  I look forward to all of you seeing more of them too.  Now seriously, Greg, think about spending a little time with your siblings’ kids.  Life is short.