Flummox and Friends: Making TV for Quirky Kids
When you were a kid, did you ever wish Schoolhouse Rock taught lessons about playground social dynamics as well as math and science? A socially awkward child like I was certainly could have used something like Flummox and Friends, the new "off-beat, live action television show designed to help kids navigate the social and emotional world." I talked with Christa Dahlstrom, Flummox and Friends creator, about why her show is so needed, why you and your kids should watch its pilot, and what her next steps will be.
What is Flummox and Friends? Who's it for, and why?
Flummox and Friends is a live-action comedy for quirky kids about navigating the social and emotional world. We've just released a pilot episode that anyone can watch for free online. The main characters are a trio of inventors and their next door neighbors. We think of it as The Big Bang Theory meets Pee Wee's Playhouse.
The show is targeted at kids aged 6-11, especially those who struggle with the unspoken rules of social interaction. We see it as a show that parents and kids can enjoy watching together and that education professionals can use support their existing social skills curriculum.
Most people are familiar with the 1 in 88 number (autism prevalence in children in the US) and we see the show as for the "3 or 4 or 5 in 88." What I mean by this is that there are lots of kids who struggle -- to greater or lesser extent -- with social and emotional stuff but who don't have a clinical diagnosis, who aren't necessarily part of the special education system and therefore don't have access to those supports. We hope that we've created a show that's accessible to a wide audience that reaches beyond the identified special needs community.
How were you able to make the pilot of Flummox and Friends happen?
The project is inspired by my experience as a parent of an eight-year-old boy on the autism spectrum. It seemed like whenever I share details about his social skills curriculum (part of his inclusion program at school) with parents of “typical” children, they say, "why doesn’t my child get that? My child could use that." It seemed like there was a much broader audience for social skills instruction. I wondered why there wasn't a fun TV show to teach social skills the way there were shows to teach reading and math and science.
And although it seemed wacky, I decided to try to make one myself. My background is in learning design, writing and media production and I drew heavily on that experience along the way.
I teamed up with Jordan Sadler and Liesl Wenzke Hartmann, experts in social communication with a wealth of experience working with children on these skills. They also had been looking for lively and engaging ways to help families reinforce the learning from therapy sessions and social groups. They were seeing lots of products targeting social emotional teaching on the market but very few that were actually engaging and fun, few that were not didactic and preachy, and that adults and children could really enjoy together.
They helped to shape a curriculum to support the concepts I had already mapped out and the episodes I was writing. We pitched the idea on Kickstarter and raised enough to shoot a pilot episode with a fantastic cast and crew. The grassroots support we got from our core audience - special needs families and the professionals who serve them - was critical to our ability to get this far.
Tell us about some of your collaborators. What kinds of folk did you seek out, and why?
Jordan and Liesl have a developmental, play-based, strengths-based approach to what they do and were really on board with wanting to do something very different from what is currently on the market for teaching these kinds of skills. Besides creating the underlying curriculum, they participated in shaping the script -- both on paper and at read-throughs and rehearsals -- to embed the teaching moments in a natural, non-didactic way.
The actors are all very experienced professional performers from the theater, film/television and improv world and did such an amazing job of bringing the characters to life and creating an ensemble that really "jelled" immediately. For the music and animation, I wanted a very eclectic mix of styles in the show's short segments. I sought out people whose work had a strong and unique sensibility and gave them a bit of initial thematic direction, but then let them come up with the piece. When I started working with Morgan Taylor, who did the Everybody in the Pond segment and Matt Friedman, who did the segment with "Fuzzy" going to a party, I asked them each to come up with something around the theme of going to a party -- what's fun about that, what might be hard about that -- since the episode has a party at the heart of the plot. What they created is very true to their own styles and very different ways to look at that theme.
I think the common factors for everyone who worked on this show were a sense of fun and play, a philosophy that kids are very smart and perceptive and that you don't have to slow things down or spoon-feed the learning points, and the belief if kids are laughing and having fun, they're going to be more likely to learn, remember and connect to the message.
Do any of your actors or collaborators identify with the social areas Flummox and Friends is meant to support?
Absolutely. There are collaborators, such as illustrator Matt Friedman, who is autistic and identifies as such. There are others who were part of the production who spoke with me about identifying with the autism community even though they don't have a diagnosis, and many who have family members and friends on the spectrum. We also included personal insights from adult autistics and neurodiversity advocates in our family and teacher guides and I think these reinforce our perspective of teaching social skills from a place of acceptance and building adaptive skills rather than "fixing."
But also, there were just a lot of conversations as we were developing and shooting the show with moments of illumination and self-reflection where the cast or even the crew would remark about just how difficult these "unspoken" rules are and how counter-intuitive many of them seem, and that realization, I hope, can lead to a deeper level of understanding of differences in general.
What parts of the production process surprised you? Do you have words of wisdom to share with budding kids' TV show auteurs?
To be honest, every milestone feels a little surprising given that this project started out as something that seemed a little crazy and quite unlikely! But it's become very clear that this is an amazing time for independent creators of all stripes. There are more and more models for making and sharing creative work without getting "permission" from traditional media gatekeepers. What's surprising is that these independent models aren't some "fringe" idea any more. Even people that I've spoken with in the entertainment industry are acknowledging that this is a legitimate, logical strategy for shows like ours. I would suggest anyone doing creative work read the essay Make Your Thing by Jesse Thorn, which is very inspiring on this topic.
What are some of your favorite reactions to the pilot episode? Are kids reacting to it the way you'd hoped?
I've gotten some "video reviews" with kids talking about the show that have been so much fun to watch, especially seeing the kids on the videos laughing as they remembered parts of the show that they liked and thought were funny. I've been really touched by several notes from teens and young adults who've liked the show and commented that they wish there would have been something like this for them when they were kids. I love hearing things like, "My kids have watched it every night!" Kids don't watch things just to be polite!
And through our online survey, we've been hearing from parents and professionals that the show really is creating springboard for conversations about being in the group (the theme of the episode) and what's hard about being in the group sometimes. It's gratifying to hear feedback that describes kids generalizing the concepts to the show in real life and using moments and lines from the show to express something about a situation in real life.
Have you received constructive criticism?
Of course. And that's the great thing about putting a pilot episode out to our core community. We've heard from people who care enough about this to let us know what they think we can do to make it better. We're looking at responses to our online survey to understand if it seems we need to adjust how we're targeting our age group, the pacing, etc. And I would much rather take "notes" (the industry euphemism for constructive feedback) from our audience than from television industry people at this point because our audience knows best what will work for them.
And I've seen a debate among autistic young adults on a discussion forum who were talking about whether the characters were accurate portrayals of autistics. I think it's pretty great that people are engaging in this discussion -- especially given that we're an independent kids' show pilot! It's going to be a challenging balance for us since our show isn't meant to be about autism per se, nor are we trying to create "clinically accurate" autistic characters. We're a comedy at heart, and so everything is a little heightened as it is with most characters in comedy. When a group of people is profoundly underrepresented in the media, any time there's a character who veers towards that representation, it's going to create a lot of dialogue because there is a lot riding on those scarce portrayals.
And I must add that I've gotten plenty of feedback about how we should have celebrated Nikola Tesla instead of Thomas Edison and lots of historical background about why. Duly noted!
Where would you like Flummox and Friends to go from here? What's it's ideal path for world domination?
A lot of people have asked me which networks we're pitching to. I tell them we're doing things a little differently -- treating Flummox and Friends more like a startup business and less like an idea to sell to someone else. Rather than going the traditional route of trying to get a network to develop the show, we've developed our idea and created our own pilot, with funding directly from our target market. And in this way, we're pitching it our audience first. Because we trust they'll be the best judge of whether this is a show that families would watch and love.
We hope to produce the first season of Flummox and Friends independently and distribute it through new and emerging online content distribution channels. That means we'll be looking for private investors to finance the production of a series of episodes. Early fans can help make that possible, because we can take these "early adopters" along with us -- virtually -- into our pitches to investors and production partners to show that we've already created something that has the beginnings of a loyal and passionate fan base and that can be financially sustainable.
How can folks help you spread the word?