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Mr. TV: Head of the Class

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If you’re a TV historian like me, you will remember Dan Schneider as the cynical, wise-cracking Dennis Blunden on 1986-91 sitcom Head of the Class. Originally spotted at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., by movie producer Gene Quintano and cast in the low-budget 1984 film Making the Grade, Schneider turned a respectable acting career into one of the most successful runs as a kids programming producer.

With an unprecedented track record on Nickelodeon—seven consecutive hit series—Schneider’s current sitcoms are iCarly and the recently introduced Victorious. He also created The WB’s What I Like About You. I had the chance to talk to the man who I now fondly refer to as the Jerry Bruckheimer of kids programming.

How do you go from actor to mega successful creator of kids-oriented programming? I was always aware that actors can come and go. Starring on a TV show was a great ride, but I didn’t just want to rely on others casting me to have a career. So, during Head of the Class, I took a stab at writing an episode. To my surprise, the executive producers bought the script, and it was produced. I remember the pride I felt seeing my name under “written by.”

Did you, at that point, decide you preferred writing over acting? No, I wouldn’t put it that way. I always loved acting—still do. I just didn’t want to put all my eggs in the acting basket. I knew Head of the Class wouldn’t last forever, and I had this fear I might end up as Gilligan or Arnold Jackson struggling to find acting work. But not long after Head of the Class ended, I was fortunate to be cast opposite Matthew Perry (pre-Friends) in a comedy called Home Free. Then my career took a weird twist when I was asked to write and produce a pilot for Nickelodeon. It was a kids sketch comedy show called All That. At the time, I considered it a side job—something fun to keep me busy until my next acting gig.

So at that point you had not given up on acting? Not at all. But All That became a hit, and next I found myself writing spin-off sitcom Kenan & Kel. So, I was working on two series at once, and I was loving the action and energy of writing and producing. I don’t think I ever made a conscious decision to give up acting, but in 1996 I auditioned for the lead in a sitcom and I got it. I had the contract in my hands. But I ultimately passed because I didn’t want to stop writing and producing All That  and Kenan & Kel.  

Talk to me about the writing process. Do you get involved in every episode? I have a relatively small staff of fantastic writers who I work with to come up with stories and outlines. But when it comes to writing the actual scripts, I usually do that alone, or with one or two of the writers.

Whenever I interview a TV personality, I always ask them if they track the ratings for their shows. Since we met via The Programming Insider, I know you do. Any show runner who tells you he doesn’t care about ratings is lying. It’s a direct gauge of how the audience is responding to your show. It would be like a football coach saying he doesn’t care about the score.

I know you’re a fan of classic TV theme songs. Why are they important, and what is your all-time favorite? The big networks have virtually abandoned TV theme songs. Granted, there are exceptions like The Big Bang Theory. A theme song is like the soul of a TV show. Imagine Cheers, Friends, All in the Family, M*A*S*H, Mary Tyler Moore or Happy Days without their classic openings. Luckily, Nickelodeon gets it.

As for my favorite TV theme song of all time?  Maybe The Brady Bunch, Gilligan’s Island or The Beverly Hillbillies…too many great ones to decide.  But if I’m forced to choose, I’m gonna go with either iCarly or Victorious. Ha!
Want more Mr. TV? Check out his daily podcast here.