Cheri Steinkellner Co-Creator of Teacher's Pet
As the saying goes, there's a little child in everyone. In the film Teacher's Pet the excitement and embarrassment of being a shy fourth grader comes alive through the eyes of someone who bares only a tail and a dream. Spot, a talking blue dog (voiced by the incredibly eccentric Nathan Lane) wants out of the doghouse and into an elementary school classroom. When an opportunity presents itself - through some wacky scientific experiments by Dr. Ivan Krank (voiced with classy comic panache by Kelsey Grammer) - Spot quickly follows his best friend and master, Leonard, to Florida to make the evolutionary switch from man's best friend to middle-aged man (thanks to dog years). Hysterically goofy, flamboyant and fruitful, the feature film derived from the original Teacher's Pet television series promises laughs for both children and adults. The quick wit and brainy imagination of Co-Creators and Executive Producers, Bill and Cheri Steinkellner, has turned an outlandish story of courage into a heartfelt stomach aching howl.
I had the opportunity to talk with Teacher's Pet Co-Creator and Executive Producer Cheri Steinkellner about the film. Working with her husband on such award-winning shows as Cheers and ABC/Disney Teacher's Pet has brought to life a wave of creative brilliance that everyone can love.
Hi Cheri! Thanks so much for speaking with me today about Teacher's Pet. Now I know you and Bill have had a great history together both personally and professionally. How long have you worked together?
Cheri Steinkellner: We have been living together, working together, having children together since 1978.
Wow! So what is it like to work with your husband?
CS: It's actually really good because we're interested in each other's problems at work.
Well I hope there aren't too many of those.
CS: We don't bore each other with our tales of woe because we share them!
Now onto Teacher's Pet - where did you get the idea?
CS: Well, Gary Baseman had the original idea for a dog who dresses up like a boy and goes to school because Gary sort of resides in this alternate universe where things like that could happen. And I think he imagines that his dog, when he would go to work, would put on his clothes and go to school. We pitched the original idea to Disney and had a whole bunch of ideas we were looking to develop. Then we brought them home to our little tech-marketing group, which are our three little children. They all really liked the idea and so did we coincidentally or "coinkedinkely".
I just began working on the TV series, this is going back five years now, and our son was in the fourth grade. We set (the story) in the fourth grade because we knew what a time in one's life of total embarrassment and total mortification it was. So nothing could be worse for a kid who doesn't want to stand out and be noticed than to have his dog show up in his clothes and be around his new classmates.
So when did you realize that you wanted to transition Teacher's Pet from TV to film?
CS: I think early on, actually as soon as the pilot was done. We all thought that when the TV show really took off, wouldn't it be great to have a film ready to hit the theaters right as the show was peaking? So, they endorsed it to begin a bigger story, a story with more scope than the regular school stories that we did on television. We began developing the story and the show went on the air, but while it was really well received critically, it never found an audience. It didn't really find an audience, but by that time it was too late because we had already written the movie. We were able to continue making the feature step-by-step. People really liked it at Disney and wanted something separate from the series. That's how this little thing that probably should have never actually been born made it through the whole gestational period.
In your opinion, how does the movie actually differ from the original TV series you created?
CS: The TV series is basically a 'fish out of water' story. It's about what would happen if this little dog went to school with all of his doggy ways and was able to actually live the life of a little boy. In the series what we had tried to do, especially because we were designated as an educational TV series for ABC, was we tried to do little lessons for kids. We had to deal with coping with different kinds of school issues: politics and all the kinds of things that come up in school life. For the movie we really wanted to do something that was better than a 'fish out of water.' We didn't want to tell a 'fish out of water' story. We wanted to tell a story about somebody really pursuing their life's dream. So, we expanded it from just this little dog dressing up like a boy to this little dog really wanting to now take it a step further and become a real live boy. And because we were at Disney they gave us permission to call on Pinocchio and the iconic Disney stories. We were really able to tap into that whole dream of becoming a real live boy. And then to us what really made it a movie were the consequences of having that wish come true. Especially when we finished, we realized 'What if he gets what he wants? What if he becomes human?' that everything he said he was going to do isn't fulfilled because he forgot about dog years!
That is the funniest part for me!
CS: I have to tell you we cracked up for days! We were so happy that he forgot about dog years because it was a story that we thought has never been told before. It couldn't be told because only we had the justification for something that insane!
It was great though. The whole movie was very wacky and goofy. I loved it when Nathan Lane's character, Spot, mentioned his hairy knuckles. That was just the funniest part!
CS: And lower back pain! He says that he has it!
I know you mentioned before that your son was in 4th grade when you thought of the idea. Were any of the characters based on anyone you knew or your son knew from grade school?
CS: Yeah, oh sure. We pretty much take everything from life, as we know it. Probably the funniest example of it is Ian, Dr. Krank's nephew who wishes to be turned into a reptile or amphibian. He's sort of the huge-faced-football kid. He originally was based on a young lad that our daughter, who is 17, now went to school with when she was in the fourth grade. He used to eat school supplies. He was really non-discriminatory. He didn't stop at paste. He also ate parts of his pencil and paper and anything that really you could buy at Staples or Office Max. So we based Ian on this boy. Leonard is really not based on anybody. He's just the composite embarrassed 10-year-old.
Very much so! I know you and your husband wrote for Cheers and Who's the Boss? - both comedies that are aimed at a more adult audience. Now comparing that to Teacher's Pet, what was the transition like?
CS: You know, I think that we didn't make the transition well enough. I think we hopped right into it - for ourselves and the audience that we knew. And I think that's part of the reason why we weren't able to reach a very young audience for whom an animated blue dog would be amusing. I think that's part of the problem that this project has is that it would really be a great show for anybody who likes Cheers and likes that kind of humor. Probably, I think in some ways even more summarized into a South Park or Family Guy audience. But because it's kids, what we are really hoping for was that it got this big crossover where everybody's cracking up for a different reason.
I definitely noticed that, too. I think some of the jokes would fly under a child's radar, but the parents would pick it up immediately. But, the goofy characters and the whole adventure aspect really appeal to the children audience.
CS: Exactly. We're hoping that everybody can watch and laugh for different reasons. It's finding a way to try and communicate that to the audience so that they know to come in and check it out.
Well it definitely worked. There are a lot of different musical numbers in the movie. Why does music play such a strong role and what does it symbolize to children and parents watching the film?
CS: In the series we used a lot of music because we had Nathan Lane and thought it would be a crime not to. The neat thing about musicals, especially the old fashioned musical comedies that I think we're returning to with The Producers and Hairspray, are that there are some moments that are just too big to be spoken. You're too happy or too sad. Words won't do so you have to add notes to them. We already started out with a premise completely unrealistic so as long as we're unrealistic and we're having a really fun fantasy blast anyway, then why not? Especially with Nathan, Kelsey Grammer and it was really even hard for us to get Jerry Stiller singing. It all made us laugh.
Was there a difference between working with Kelsey on Cheers compared to working with him on Teacher's Pet?
CS: It was the exact same charade plus music. We love Kelsey and we wrote this part for him originally. We're just knocked out by him. He plays this grand huge anti-heroic character so that's what we were really thinking of when we wrote Dr. Krank. He's just so precise and so wild. I don't know how those two come together, but he has complete control. Magic happens. We just love him. It was great and just as much fun as ever.
I know each of these characters have little engines of their own. Which one is your personal favorite?
CS: Let me think. I have a very soft spot in my heart for Mr. Jolly. You know, he's such a scaredy cat and the fact that he won't let it stop him is just great.