From the minute Marc Brown meets you, he’s sizing you up. Just maybe not in the usual way.
“People remind me of animals,” said Brown, the 75-year-old creator of the illustrated character Arthur Read, the 8-year-old spectacled aardvark who, since the release of the book ‘Arthur’s Nose’ in 1976, has been helping children navigate in the world around them. “When the kid I’m talking to is reading a book and all the characters are animals, they don’t care what color their skin is. They’re immediately drawn to the character they identify with and feel an affinity .
For more than 25 years, Brown and a team at WGBH, Boston’s PBS affiliate, have produced the animated adaptation series “Arthur,” in which the aardvark, his friends, and a lineup of animal guest stars tackle tough subjects. such as bullying, divorce and disability. . The series, which has won praise from children and parents for its candor in portraying difficult situations – as well as seven Emmy Awards and the distinction of the longest-running animated children’s series on American television – will air its last new episodes this week. (All four will air Monday afternoon and stream for free on PBS Kids.)
“One of the reasons I love ‘Arthur’ is because of the imperfections in our characters,” said Carol Greenwald, who created the series with Brown and is now an executive producer. “It’s important to show the kids that you can really mess up and that it’s not the end of the world. You can learn from your mistakes and become a better person again.
Both Brown and Greenwald said the original idea was for the series to not only reflect issues relevant to children, but also present a world in which they could see themselves. When they started, Greenwald said, the WGBH team sent people with cameras to capture neighborhoods around Boston to help the animators diversify the homes in Arthur’s world.
“Arthur lived in a nice little house with a picket fence,” she said, “but we wanted to diversify the world enough that kids who lived in apartment buildings or in smaller, low-income neighborhoods would have feel part of this story.
And Elwood City, Arthur’s fictional home, felt like home to many viewers, not just in Boston but around the world. So when one of the show’s writers revealed in July that the show had wrapped production – and when PBS later announced that the show’s final episodes would air this winter, the backlash, at least on the networks social, was a collective fist (a riff on a popular Arthur meme).
But for fans who’ve been with Arthur through more than 250 episodes, there’s some consolation: the characters will live on in a new Arthur podcast, games and digital shorts, (reruns of “Arthur” will continue to to air on PBS Kids for the foreseeable future.) And the series’ final episode will unfold to give viewers a taste of what Arthur and his friends will become.
“There are definitely surprises,” Greenwald said.
On a recent video call from his sunny West Village living room, Brown was outspoken, playful and mischievous. His clothes and furniture were neatly arranged, his white hair neatly combed – it wasn’t hard to see where Arthur, a fan of polo shirts and v-neck sweaters, was getting his sartorial cues. Brown, who is still an executive producer on the show, reflected on his longevity and why now was a good time to end it, and he talked about some of his new projects, including the long-gestating film Arthur which has recently gained new momentum. . (He also set the record straight on a few fan theories.) These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Congratulations on 25 years! Did you ever think you would have this conversation when the first episode premiered in October 1996?
Not in my wildest dreams. I thought it would last two years – if I was lucky.
Many writers help create a show and then step back. Why are you still so intensely involved after 25 years?
I still have the same feeling as when PBS came to me and wanted to put Arthur on TV. I had invested 15 years before in the characters, and I received a lot of letters from children. It was like a small family and I wanted the characters to be true to my vision. And so I was a guard in the corner that way.
So many stories are inspired by real-life experiences you had when your kids — Tolon, Tucker, and Eliza — were little. Now that they are adults, is it more difficult to come up with new ideas?
So many episodes stem from the experiences of our editorial staff – and they turn out to be always useful and relevant for kids! There are episodes, like the one about head lice, that every time we put them out, because it’s still a recurring problem for a lot of kids, it gets a lot of positive feedback.
Why end it now, then?
Technology has changed over the past 25 years, and kids are now watching stories on their iPhones, listening to podcasts, playing games on their devices — they get information in so many other ways. We look for ways to try new things.
Were you surprised by the reaction?
It was wonderful to see the response. I still get many messages on my Instagram page: “Is Arthur really finished?” I love seeing the reactions of these young adults who grew up with Arthur, the fact that these characters are still fresh in their minds. It’s great that it touched so many people so deeply that they want it to continue.
In the first book,Arthur’s nose“, Arthur looked like an aardvark with a long snout, not a mouse with glasses. What happened?
The second book, “Arthur’s Eyes”, came from when my son Tolon was getting glasses. He came home and said, “Dad, I thought all my friends were prettier.” You can’t make this up! So of course Arthur also had glasses. As the series progressed, I got to know him better, and he became kinder and more human – and his nose got shorter. It was not intentional!
Have you ever met an aardvark?
[Laughs.] I’ve never encountered any aardvarks, although I think there may be one living in an apartment across the street.
The series is notable for its diverse characters, including those with blindness, dyslexia, autism, and dementia. How did you ensure that these representations were accurate?
We work with a series of experts for each episode, like the one we did on Arthur’s grandfather, Dave, who was battling Alzheimer’s disease and can’t remember Arthur’s name. Things like this are so important, and so many families struggle with this. We heard of a father who watched the autism show and found out through the show that his son had autism and wrote to thank us. The show has helped parents understand their children. Matt Damon’s mother happens to be one of our wonderful experts who has helped us with many episodes. That’s how we got Matt Damon as a guest star. The poor guy didn’t know what hit him!
The show hit the headlines in 2019 when he revealed that Mr. Ratburn, Arthur’s teacher, is gay. The episode also showed her marriage to a man. Did you have any concerns about how people would react?
We want to represent the world around us. ‘t about his sexual orientation. It was about the fact that their teacher, whom they love, found a partner he loved, and they were happy for him.
When the New York Times spoke to you in 1996 – shortly after the first episodes aired – you received 100,000 letters a year from children. How much fan mail do you get these days?
I get letters asking for Francine’s phone number – well, Francine [a monkey character on the show] doesn’t have a phone number! Years ago I was really stupid: in the book “Arthur’s Thanksgiving” I put our home phone number in a little illustration of a bulletin board that said “Call Arthur at 749-7978” . Every Thanksgiving, the phone started ringing and ringing and ringing. My wife, Laurie, had the best response. You would hear a small voice say, “Hello? Is Arthur there? And she said, “No, he’s in the library.” This was when we lived outside of Boston; it lasted a few years!
What’s next for you?
For three years now, I’ve been working on a new preschool animated show called “Hop.” It is a small frog, and one of its legs is a little shorter than the other. It’s a show about the power of friendship, solving problems together, and kindness.
And my dream of an Arthur feature film, which I decided would never come true, might actually come true in a way that I could be proud of. When this idea was born 15 years ago, I spent way too much time in Los Angeles talking to people that didn’t make much sense – in my mind. But now I think I’ve found the right people.
Can we take a quick tour? There are several fan theories that I would like you to confirm or deny.
Let’s start with the most plausible: Arthur lives in Pennsylvania.
Well, I grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania. Lakewood Elementary School was where I went to elementary school. I can still see my third grade class and all my friends, many of whom have become characters in Arthur’s world. But I also lived in Massachusetts for many years, and used a lot of elements from there – the movie theater in “Arthur’s Valentine” was the theater down the street from where we lived. When Carol and I were trying to come up with a name for Arthur’s hometown, she suggested Elwood City, which is also in Pennsylvania, near where she lived as a child. That’s how it went, guys!
Arthur is getting married.
I’m not telling you! You will have to log in and find out.
arthur takes place in a multiverse.
Arthur is a reality television series directed by Matt Damon.
I hadn’t heard that one. It’s interesting.
The whole show is played by aliens.
Well, we did something similar a few years ago with Buster and his fascination with aliens, so…
It’s not a no?
I couldn’t be happier to inspire people’s imaginations. This is a good thing!