How can we describe Ken Pontac? How about the guy behind "You Are a Pirate?" Not enough? Well it's hard to describe the man that has done everything from "Happy Tree Friends" to "Arthur" to game work, to . . . you get the idea.
I encountered Ken when I found he was going to be at AODSF. Of course, my instincts instantly told me to ask him for an interview, after those instincts saw his convention profile, and my instincts picked their jaw up off the floor.
Let's meet Ken Pontac, the writer, the legend, the meme-producing engine.
1) Ken, how would you even describe your current career?
It’s always interesting. I never know what I’m going to work on next, or where. Last year I went to Japan to work on a videogame, researched every country in Africa for an episode of Arthur, got to put words into the mouths of characters from comic books I grew up reading, and laughed until it hurt (appropriately enough) writing ultra-violent content for Happy Tree Friends. This year there are many promising projects being waved in my face, and 85% of them will disappear. I live on the 15% that actually do happen. Sometimes I’ll get a call about a job offer from a year or more ago that I’ve forgotten about, to which my wife Susan will say, “Huh. Can’t believe that project’s still flopping on the beach.”
2) How did you start on the path to writing?
I was always a very avid reader and consumer of pop culture. I loved all the early Warner Brothers cartoons (and pretty much any cartoons) and thought about how cool it would be to work on stuff like that. I was always writing little stories, either in my head or on paper, and drew hundreds of pages of comics as a kid. I started as an artist (I went to Art Center in Pasadena before I dropped out), but when I sold my TV series Bump in the Night I had to write a bunch of scripts and discovered how much more I enjoyed that aspect of the process.
3) What roles did your hobbies and fandom interests, if any, play into your career?
Every aspect of my childhood has played a huge role in my career. I’m like a professional kid; people pay me now to do the stuff I’ve always loved to do. This is really evident when I have to read a big stack of comics as homework for some project, especially when the comics are a legitimate tax deduction. A ton of my fun is tax-deductable: movies, music, comics, etc. are all research. It all influences me, just as it did when I was growing up (a process I don’t think I ever completed). A big bonus has been the ability to meet and work with some of the artists and writers who inspired me in my youth, a fan’s dream come true!
4) How does it feel to look back on such a productive career – and what surprised you?
Sometimes when I’m asked to put together a bio I look at all the projects I’ve worked on and go, “Wow. That’s a lot of stuff that people have seen.” I’ve worked on some major cultural icons; characters that people remember. It’s pretty satisfying to know that my efforts will outlive me, and hopefully continue to amuse and inspire future generations. It’s fun to consider that Mr. Bumpy and his pals are traveling as radio waves towards the edge of the universe at the speed of light, where perhaps they’ll be the basis of a religion on some alien planet. A few years ago astronomers from the Ames Research Center and the University of California discovered the most Earth-like planet yet, located only 15 light years from Earth. We did the show about 15 years ago, so maybe Bump in the Night is showing there now. I should get royalty checks.
As far as what’s surprised me, I’d have to say that the transformation of my song You Are A Pirate into the massive meme it is today totally blows my mind. I recently spoke at Los Altos High School’s Writers Week event, and after I played the Pirate video a little girl raised her hand and asked, “So, did you write that song?” When I confirmed that I had she put her hand to her mouth to cover her shy delighted giggle. That melted my heart!
5) What do you say to young people right now looking at a similar career – what do they need to know?
They need to know how to spell and how grammar works! I don’t want to sound like an old fart waving his cane at whippersnappers, but when I see the way a lot of kids write I cringe. Texting is one thing and writing is another. It makes a big impression on the people who might hire you if you look illiterate on the page. Having gotten that out of my system I would also suggest reading voraciously and consuming culture (TV, movies, games, concerts, museums, the Internet) as much as possible. The most important thing I would say is to reach out to others who inspire you. If there’s a writer you like, or an artist, or filmmaker or whatever whose work has touched you seek them out and contact them. And by “contact them” I don’t mean “stalk their ass.” If you don’t know the difference between those two things you probably shouldn’t contact them. Almost ever major good thing in my career has come from me taking the initiative to reach out to someone who didn’t even know I existed. I wrote a fan letter to the creators of Happy Tree Friends and it turned out that they were fans of some of my work. One thing led to another and I ended up working on the series. This sort of thing can only happen if you take the first step. 99% of the time you’ll never hear back, but that 1% can be life-changing. I welcome anybody reading this to contact me (just Google my name and see if you can figure out how; social networking makes it easy). Don’t just send a friend request with no message, take a few lines to introduce yourself and explain why you initiated contact. The rest will happen or it won’t.
6) What has changed about writing and media since you started working in it?
Well, now you’re making me feel old! For one thing I don’t have to write on the cave walls with a burnt ember anymore; I have a new fangled Electric Thinking Machine that’s tied into the Interwebs. All knowledge is available at the touch of a button! I recently wrote a song for the Arthur animated series that had a fact for every country on the African continent. Researching that in a library would have been possible, but infinitely more difficult. Besides having a dozen Wiki pages open at once I also had a rhyming dictionary bookmarked and another page open that told me how to say “hello” in the various languages of Africa, allowing me to write:
Meeng-gah-bou is “howdy do” when visiting in Ghana.
Dumela mma is how you say hello inside Botswana.
The Muslims greet the folks they meet with Salaam alaikum
In Gambia, Morocco and Sudan’s home town Khartoum.
There was a link to the woman who posted this information about “hello”, so I contacted her, said hello (in English) and she became an incredible resource for the song, helping me with pronunciation, fact-checking and inside information about the continent that I could never have gotten from books or the Internet.
7) What are the best ways professionals like yourself can help encourage others in their careers?
I love talking to schools and convention audiences, and I try to answer every question I’m asked with patience and respect. Interviews like this are great, and I welcome any legitimate journalist to contact me.
8) Your work has become the part of so many people's lives – how does that feel?
It’s very gratifying. I don’t have kids and never will, but I feel like I’m the nutty uncle to generations of children. And I never have to change a poopy diaper!
Thanks Ken for the interview and all the work you've done!
Find out more about Ken's productive career here: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0690570/
If you're in San Francisco President's Day Weekend, don't forget to see him at AODSF.