Dan Schneider on Head Of The Class and creating some of Nickelodeon’s most memorable shows

Dan Schneider on Head Of The Class and creating some of Nickelodeon’s most memorable shows

Casual television viewers—especially young ones—might not know the name Dan Schneider, but they’ve probably seen one of his shows. After launching a career as a young actor in films like Better Off Dead and shows like Head Of The Class, Schneider stumbled into creating some of Nickelodeon’s most popular shows ever, from All That to iCarly and Victorious. He’s launched the careers of countless child stars including Kenan Thompson, Amanda Bynes, and Miranda Cosgrove, and spearheaded hundreds, if not thousands of hours of smart, funny entertainment for an entire generation of kids. On the eve of the iCarly series finale, The A.V. Club spoke to Schneider about how he got into the business, being a showrunner, and whether he keeps up with the kids from Drake & Josh

The A.V. Club: You grew up in Tennessee and that’s where you started acting, but it seems like you sort of just fell into it. How did that happen? 

Dan Schneider: I grew up as the funny guy in class, and that was pretty consistent through my childhood. I was never a great student. The thing I excelled at most in high school was that I would do plays. I moved to a new high school in Memphis my junior year. In my senior year, I won senior-class president. I basically did that by getting onstage and giving a speech that got a lot of laughs. Because of that, I was onstage a lot. I would get onstage in front of people and do little skits and do funny stuff. I realized I really loved performing. 

After high school, I kind of floundered a bit. At that time they were shooting a movie in Memphis. It was a big deal because it was the first time Hollywood had ever come to Memphis. My teacher in an acting class at Memphis State—now University of Memphis—said, “There’s a role you might be able to get. There’s a couple of speaking roles.” I went to this big casting call for the movie [Making The Grade]. There was a sea of teenagers. They were doing extra casting as well. It was this huge mob scene. I almost left, and this guy comes up to me and just sort of saw me and said, “Hey, are you here to audition for the film?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Come with me.” I went and read with him, and he turned out to be the producer. He didn’t even know I had an appointment. He liked my face, I guess. He hired me for that movie, and I was supposed to work for four days on it. It ended up being four weeks. Then he hooked me up with another film that was shooting in the Caribbean [Hot Resort]. At the time, I was kind of blowing off school. I had a job. I worked at a store that sold Apple computers. I was fixing Apple computers. After the two movies, I was like, “Wow. I’ve never even left Memphis, and I got two movies. Maybe I should go to L.A. and see what I can do.” So I got a manager and an agent, and that led to another movie or two and that led to a TV show called Head Of The Class. By the mid-’80s, I was an actor. I was never super-famous, but I was definitely on the map.

AVC: On your IMDB page, which is surely very accurate, it says that people still stop you on the streets and say, “Ricky from Better Off Dead!” Is that true?

DS: It is true. Here’s what’s true about it: I did Head Of The Class for five years. It was a pretty big hit on ABC. That’s what most people know me from. But people are like, “Oh yeah, he was Dennis on Head Of The Class. Who cares? Big deal.” [Laughs.] 

There’s an age group of people out there, though… I guess right now they’re probably 35 to 45. When they find out I was Ricky in Better Off Dead, they look at me like I’m The Beatles. It’s so funny. It was just this little movie I did in 1985. To this day, I hear about Better Off Dead at least every month. People freak out. Nobody gives a damn that I was in Head Of The Class, but when they know I was Ricky in Better Off Dead, they’re like “Holy crap, man! You were Ricky.” They go crazy.

AVC: You sort of fell into creating All That after you hosted the Kids’ Choice Awards, right?

DS: Yeah, the second Kids’ Choice Awards, which were in ’88, I think. I was a co-host. 

AVC: Who was your co-host?

DS: Tony Danza. He was the far more important host. I met this guy, Albie Hecht, an independent producer at the time who was producing the Kids’ Choice Awards. I had a relationship with him, and he landed at Nickelodeon as the head of development. So I ended up writing this pilot called All That, which was a kids sketch-comedy show. I thought it was just going to be a part-time job between acting jobs, because after Head Of The Class I did another series called Home Free, which you probably don’t remember. It was only on for one season. I played Matthew Perry’s best friend. That was right before he got Friends. That show went away. I was just kind of filling the time until the next pilot season when I wanted to get another TV show. Then they put All That on television, and suddenly I was writing and producing a TV show. And that led to Kenan & Kel. Then somewhere in there, I got to be a very busy guy writing and producing two TV shows at once. 

AVC: Did you always want to write or produce?

DS: Absolutely. I actually wrote an episode of Head Of The Class. As a kid—I say as a kid, but I mean 21 or 22—I knew that actors on TV shows come and go. Some of them last. Most of them don’t. Most of them just sort of fade off into the sunset after the show’s over. I was 21 and thinking, “When this Head Of The Class boat ride ends, I don’t want to fade off into the sunset. I want to keep working. I want to be involved in the entertainment business.” I felt like, “Don’t just be a passenger on the ship. Learn how to captain the ship. Learn how to drive. Learn how to write. Learn how to produce.” I paid attention to the directors on Head Of The Class and how things worked, and I wrote an episode. I just sort of wrote it on spec, but the producers liked it, and they bought it. That was my first taste of selling something that I wrote. 

It’s funny. Right when I moved to L.A., I started writing. I wrote some screenplay. I’m sure it’s terrible. But I wrote a screenplay by myself. When I first moved to L.A., I had no friends. I didn’t know anybody. I just sat in a little studio apartment, and I wrote a screenplay. 

I used to write sketches. I loved David Letterman in the ’80s. I used to write Top 10 lists for him, and I faxed them in anonymously. I’m sure they threw them away. 

So yeah, I’ve always wanted to write, and after I was doing All That and Kenan & Kel, I got the opportunity to do another TV show—I was still going on auditions. I realized that if I took that show, I was going to have to give up All That and Kenan & Kel. I really didn’t want to do [that]. I was just having too much fun, and I was really enjoying the action of being a writer and producer. I passed on the acting role, and that was really the turning point, I guess, in 1996, when I was like, “You know what? I’m going to put my acting career on the back burner, and I’m going to be a writer-producer.” Then I wrote the movie Good Burger.

AVC: How does your experience as a teen actor affect how you deal with the kids on your shows now? 

DS: It puts me in a very unique position, because I’ve seen it from both sides. It helps me because I know how actors think. I know what’s important to them. And I have a very clear perspective because I starred in two TV shows, and I guested on several. I know the emotions and the thoughts that actors have about what they’re doing. I understand them very, very clearly. The kids I work with—and not just the kids, all the actors, because I hire adults, too—all the actors I work with know I was an actor. To them, I’m in their club. They accept me as one of them because they know it’s been my face in front of the camera, and I’ve had to do exactly what they’re doing now. There’s a level of trust and respect that I think a producer that hasn’t done that wouldn’t get. They trust me. 

I often play the role of an acting coach. The actors will come to me and say, “Dan, I don’t feel like I’m making this funny. How can I make this funny? How should I say this?” They don’t do that with your average producer because your average producer may not know how to say it; they’ve never been a comedic actor before. 

It’s helpful to me because I can anticipate. I’ll be in the writers’ room, and I’ll say, “Yeah, we’re long. Our script is long, but I don’t want to cut this joke because we cut another joke from this scene for him yesterday. If we cut this one, we’re leaving him with no good jokes, and he’s going to be bummed.” I never want an actor to feel bad; I think like an actor. 

When I’m with the guys and girls in the writers’ room and we’re writing a scene, when we finish it, very often I’ll go, “Let’s read it out loud. Let’s perform it.” It’s up on the screen already, so we scroll back, and we perform it. I think I do that because I’m an actor. Yes, I’m a writer, but I’m writing words for someone to speak, not for someone to read. I’d write very differently if I was writing a book than if I’m writing dialogue. I know that because I’m an actor. I’ve had lines that were difficult to say, and I’ve had lines that were great and easy to say. I’m familiar with those rhythms. I want to write dialogue that if it were for me, if I were getting it, I’d want that material. 

AVC: One thing that Nickelodeon has done is given kids a lot of credit, both as viewers and as actors. Their programming, for the most part, isn’t just dumb shows where kids make fart sounds. 

DS: I love that you get that. It sounds like you get the difference between my shows and other shows in my genre. I can’t go around saying that because I don’t want to sound like an egomaniac, patting myself on the back, but I do think that within my genre, which I guess is kids/family TV, my shows stand in their own little niche. 

I’m never going to write fart jokes, because I feel like I have a responsibility to the audience to give them good stuff. I should be able to come up with something funnier than any third-grade boy could think of. I’ll say that in the writers’ room. I’ll say, “Would that get a laugh? Yes. Is it okay? Yes, but we’re not going to win a clever award for it. Let’s try to be cleverer. Let’s try to be more original. Let’s try do something that your average writers’ room wouldn’t come up with. Let’s be more creative.” 

Also, I never woke up one day and said, “I want to write TV for kids.” That was never a goal of mine. I sort of fell into it through my relationship with Albie. I grew up watching reruns of old shows. My dad would have me watch the shows that he liked. I watched I Love Lucy. I watched The Dick Van Dyke Show. I watched M*A*S*H and Mary Tyler Moore and Bob Newhart and Taxi and Cheers. In fact, I credit the Charles brothers [Glen and Les], who were the main forces behind Taxi and Cheers and a little bit of the original The Bob Newhart Show. To me, those guys were my heroes. And also Larry Gelbart, who did M*A*S*H, and Larry David, who did Seinfeld. Those are my heroes. That’s the kind of sitcom writing that I like. I like Friends. I like Seinfeld. I’m a student of sitcoms, of comedy television. I love it. The original Saturday Night Live is another big influence. I was watching that when I was 7, 8 years old. That’s the comedy I like. When I got into kids TV, I never was like, “I want to write a kids show.” I was like, “I want to write a show like M*A*S*H or Cheers or Friends. That’s what I love, but I have to make it suitable for kids.” 

AVC: Do you think about the success of your show in the long run, whether it will stand up to scrutiny 10 or 20 years down the road? 

DS: That’s exactly how I feel. Often I will say when we’re writing or producing something, and I want to do one more take, make it a little better, and people are looking at me like, “Wow, it’s late, Dan. We’ve already done six takes. Do we really need another one?” I’ll always say, “Guys. Our name is on this forever.” I take a lot of pride in it. 

Television audiences have fragmented so much because there’s so much product and there are so many channels and so many shows. No shows get the big audiences like they got 20 years ago, 30 years ago, 40 years ago. All the audiences are small. It used to be, for an episode of Cheers or M*A*S*H, practically the whole country was watching. Now, you’re a big hit show if 13 million people watch, which is a relatively small audience compared to what audiences used to be. 

What I love about kids TV is it’s really the last bastion of television where everybody watches. You can’t find a teenager who doesn’t know Drake & Josh. You can’t find someone in their 20s who hasn’t heard of All That and Kenan & Kel. And you certainly can’t find a kid today who hasn't heard of iCarly and Victorious. They all watch. I know when those kids grow up, in seven, eight, nine, 10 years when they’re in college, that’s going to be a common thing that they remember together. 

I try to make my shows smart. God knows I do a lot of goofy, physical, broad comedy, but so did Kramer on Seinfeld. On Friends, Joey and Chandler had a duck and chicken. Broad comedy works at all levels of television. Saturday Night Live has very broad comedy. So I do my share of broad, goofy comedy, but I also try to make it smart. 

And I do think about that. I think to myself, “I want iCarly to live on, and people who watch it when they’re 20 and 30 to still like it.” Sometimes I will look back at a show I liked as a little kid, and I’ll go, “Oh my God, that show was so stupid. What did I see in it?” I don’t want anybody to say that about one of my shows.

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AVC: Good Burger has a bit of cult status now. 

DS: I do hear that and I see it trend on Twitter all the time. I’ll see my shows trending. One night when Nickelodeon started airing The ’90s Are All That, I think eight of the top 10 trending topics were based on my shows. It was All That and Kenan & Kel and they would talk about Ishbu or Super Dude. I was like “Whoa, this has really made a bit of an iconic pop-culture impact on some people.” 

It’s interesting, because Better Off Dead was not a huge hit when it came out, but it has achieved this cult status. I have felt that Good Burger is achieving a very similar cult status. I resist saying that sometimes, because a lot of times I’ll see actors or writers or producers say about their film that was kind of crappy, “It’s a cult hit now.” No, it’s not. I hope that’s not just wishful thinking. I do feel that Good Burger does have a bit of a cult status, and that it’s one of those movies that people in their 20s now look at as one of their nostalgic movies they loved as a kid. That’s a huge honor. That’s amazing. Any movie can come out and do well for four or five weeks. That’s great. If it lives on and becomes embedded in people’s pop-culture minds, that’s the ultimate compliment. 

AVC: Do you keep up with people that you worked with? You tweeted a picture of Drake and Josh on Halloween. 

DS: I text with Drake and Josh all the time. I had dinner with Josh recently. I had lunch with Drake recently. I keep in touch with Kenan Thompson. He’s such a sweet, good guy. I asked him to be in this big iCarly-Victorious crossover a couple years ago. I called him to pitch him the idea and he cut me off, saying, “Dan, when and where? Whatever you want.” 

I don’t keep in touch with everybody. Sometimes people ask, “Oh, do you keep in touch with the whole cast?” You kind of look at it as, well, you’ve had a lot of jobs in life. Do you keep in touch with everybody you’ve worked with from every job? Of course not. You keep a few people, and others are acquaintances that you run into. I keep in touch with some, and others, not so much.

AVC: In a big blog post you wrote about the end of iCarly and Victorious, you said that almost all Nickelodeon live-action shows have a lifespan of about 60 episodes. Why is that?

DS: I can’t say with 100-percent certainty, but my perception is that once they get to 60 or 65, they can rerun them forever. They get a big enough rating on the reruns that it becomes not as important to produce new ones. 

Another reason I think is that there’s a premium on “new” in kids and family TV. What’s new and exciting today won’t be so new and exciting in two years. They’re always looking for something new to attract kids to the TV screen. 

Another thing is that I tend to work with young casts. They grow up, and they’re not the little kids they were when we started. 

We broke the 65-episode mold, obviously, with iCarly. They couldn’t walk away from that one because it was such a big hit. But most of the shows I’ve done have gone 60 to 65. That’s what Zoey 101 did. I think Kenan & Kel might have gone a little more than that. Drake & Josh, we only did 60. Zoey we did 65. The Amanda Show we only did 42, and that was a huge hit. They just don't do big orders very often. 

AVC: Zoey 101 was a single-camera show that didn’t have a laugh track. How important do you think having a laugh track is to a kids show?

DS: It has nothing to do with it being a kids show. I think that a multi-camera show, because they’re shot in front of a live audience, you hear the laughs. It’s why The Wonder Years doesn’t have a laugh track. Community doesn’t. Modern Family doesn’t. The Office doesn’t. But The Big Bang Theory does. Two And A Half Men does. If it’s the multi-camera show that gives you that filmed-in-front-of-a-live-audience feel, you need to hear the laughs. If it’s shot single-camera style like Zoey was, like Modern Family is, then a laugh track doesn’t feel right. In the ’60s, they used to laugh-track the single-camera shows, but if you do it today, it’s a little weird. We thought about adding a laugh track to Zoey 101, but I really didn’t want to. It’s just weird, and it’s very old-school to laugh a single-camera show.

AVC: Speaking of Modern Family, that’s a network show where kids are playing smart roles. Do you think that roles for kids have gotten smarter since you started?

DS: I don't know if I’m the best person to ask that question, because honestly, I don’t watch a lot of primetime TV. I don’t think I can comment too intelligently on that. 

AVC: Have you seen your competitors’ shows?

DS: To be completely honest with you, I haven’t. I’m almost embarrassed to tell you I’ve never seen an episode of Hannah Montana. I’ve never seen a full episode of Big Time Rush. I don’t know why I don’t watch my competitors’ shows. I think part of it is that I don’t want to be influenced by them. Maybe a bigger part is I don’t care. [Laughs.] I have other stuff to do. Part of me feels like this is my business, maybe I should be more familiar with what my competitors are doing, but I just don’t.

AVC: You filmed the finale of iCarly in June. What was filming that like? 

DS: It was a lot of fun, but it was a combination of wonderful and horrible. It was wonderful because it really is a truly happy set. We always had such a good time making iCarly. It’s just the nicest group of people. I’ve been really lucky with my casts. I’ve never had a cast that I didn’t like. I’ve never worked with really rotten people. I wouldn’t do it. If somebody was really rotten and awful, I’d get rid of them. And I think maybe I have a good feel for it. When I’m casting, I tend to cast people who are nice and fun to be with. When you’re casting a TV show, I kind of look at it like, “Would I want to go on a cross-country road trip with this person?” You have to spend so much time with them. I try not to cast icky people. So far I’ve pulled that off. 

We went on such a ride with iCarly, to greater success than we ever dreamed of. It changed all of our lives, especially the cast. iCarly was my sixth or seventh show with Nickelodeon, and probably my 10th sitcom. So I’d done it before, but it was the first big deal for all those kids and for Jerry Trainor. The kids grew up on it. Those girls and Nathan [Kress] and Noah [Munck], they went from 13 and 14 to 18 and 19. It’s this massive part of their lives.The last 10 days of shooting, we were sort of reveling in the fun and the success that we had. But it was also like you’re participating in your own funeral. You’re creating your own end. That was hard. There were a lot of tears on the set. 

Look, there are a lot of TV shows that are successful, and there are some that achieve that special level of success that even most successful TV shows don’t get to. I feel like iCarly had that. It will always have that. To see something like that fade into history, and you’re doing it—It’s not like we went away and found out we weren’t coming back. There we are shooting our own ending. I’m writing it, and they’re acting it. We’re sort of actively participating in our own end. So it was great, and it was really hard, too. It was really sad.

AVC: You’ve got two new shows that you’ve shot pilots for that are basically spin-offs of iCarly and Victorious. So you’re still working with some of the same people. Is that because you like those actors so much or is it because it helps the youth audience to have some sort of continuity in their shows? 

DS: The spinoffs—Sam & Cat and Gibby—first of all, you can’t deny the popularity of Jennette McCurdy and Ariana Grande. They’re insanely popular. The reaction of the audience to those actresses and their characters is through the roof. When the network does their testing, they pop extremely high. The audience loves them. 

I’ll talk about Sam & Cat first. I love buddy comedies. As a kid, my father made me watch reruns of The Odd Couple, which is really the original buddy comedy. And also as a little kid, I’d watch reruns of Laverne & Shirley. Then I created Kenan & Kel, which was a buddy comedy with Kenan Thompson and Kel Mitchell. I did Drake & Josh, buddy comedy. I love duos. I loved The Blues Brothers as a kid. I loved John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. I don’t know why. I love close friendships. I like really tight relationships like that. I like to write them. 

I realized that by happenstance, I had created these two characters on independent shows, Sam Puckett and Cat Valentine, who were both cute girls, the same age, and were, to use a clichéd term, polar opposites. They really are. It just sort of happened. Obviously, when I created Sam and Cat, it was four years apart. I never intended for them to be together. I was like, “Whoa. This could be a really cool thing,” because they’re such a perfect contrasting pair. They couldn’t be more antithetical, Sam and Cat. They’re hilariously funny, both of those girls and the characters. I was like, “God, this would be the best buddy sitcom ever.” I’ve never done a girl buddy sitcom. It seemed absolutely perfect. 

Plus, I think what’s really cool about this—and you’re the first person I’ve talked to about this—but I think this might be the first spinoff of its kind where your leads come from two different shows. We’ve seen lots of spinoffs where they’ll take a popular character from one show and make a spinoff, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen two popular shows, iCarly and Victorious, which are the top two live-action shows on Nickelodeon, converge into their own new show. That’s unique. That’s exciting. 

Yes, I love Jennette, and I love Ariana. They’re two of my favorite people. No bullshit. I love them. Both of them are so fun. If you hung out with them, you’d have such a good time. The idea of spending three years with those girls doing a funny, raucous, crazy, witty, bizarre buddy comedy seems really appealing to me. 

Noah Munck: There’s no denying the popularity of the Gibby character. Gibby was supposed to be a one-shot thing, but he turned into this major part of iCarly. People love him. Everywhere he goes, people scream “Gibby!” The top executives at Nickelodeon love Noah Munck. He’s done two TV movies for them in the last couple of months. We thought, “Hey, let’s try a Gibby spinoff,” so I did a pilot with him as well. 

Hopefully both will go. If not, hopefully one of them goes forward. We’re going to test them and see what’s what and suss it out. I’ll work with the network and pick what we do. I have a lot of confidence in both shows, and I think both of them could be huge hits with the audience.