Best known as one of the co-hosts of Discovery’s MythBusters, Adam Savage’s first television performance came courtesy of Children’s Television Workshop. He had a connection: His father, visual artist Whitney Lee Savage, contributed animated segments to Sesame Street and The Electric Company. In honor of Sesame Street’s 45th anniversary, The A.V. Club asked Savage to reflect on his father’s work for the show.
I’m going to tell you some stories about my dad. They won’t give you the full picture of the difficult, loving, amazing, terrifying, creative, and stultifying force my father could be, but then not much could. Parents are always mystifying to their children.
As far as Sesame Street goes, it was simply part of our house: We watched it (and the awesome Electric Company—with the young Morgan Freeman and Rita Moreno) every day. But it also put food on our table and a house over our heads. Literally.
In the early ’60s my father was a genuine Mad Man. He made his living doing large national ad campaigns for everyone: giant soda companies, international airlines, bug sprays, and everything in between. He worked with the best: Bob Blechman, Ivan Chermayeff, Milton Glaser, Ralph Bakshi, and countless others. Around the time I was born (in 1967, thank you), he pulled the rip cord and got completely out of the ad business—simply because it was killing him. Being an excellent illustrator, he’d done plenty of hand-drawn cell animation during his ad years, and once free, he turned that skill into a solid living to raise his family.
When Sesame Street started in 1969, the look and feel of the early shows relied heavily on animation, as produced by Emmy-winning TV producer Edith Zornow. I don’t know how or when my dad met Edith, but I do know that throughout the ’70s, he’d meet with her about once a year to pitch stuff. He’d show up with a dozen ideas for small 30-second animated spots, the interstitials that ran between the live-action segments of Sesame Street. Edith would invariably purchase two or three, sometimes more. He’d then go back to his studio behind our house in North Tarrytown, New York (now Sleepy Hollow), where over the next two or three months he’d draw, ink, paint, and film those spots. They provided income enough to pay our mortgage and expenses—we weren’t poor but we were far from well-off. That done, he’d do what he considered his real work: paint for the rest of the year.
One of the first spots I remember is about a construction worker named Harry. We find out that Harry loves eating his lunch high in the sky. We see Harry climbing ever higher until he’s atop the top beam of the building he’s working on. Then someone yells from the ground: “HARRY! YOU FORGOT YOUR LUNCH!”
I grew up with this spot representing “Dad’s work.” It exemplified my dad’s sweet and dark sense of humor, that all our fancy plans and ideas about ourselves are often for naught. I could tell you some jokes…
Another animation that is typical of my dad’s style is this guitarist pining for his love:
A hand (my dad loved the disembodied hand as a pointer—many of his hand-drawn maps for friends featured them) draws a scene while a guitarist plays. We see the hand drawing a guitar, and then a guitarist, and then a lovely perspective drawing of what looks like an Italianate corridor, with columns and details befitting such a corridor. Finally the hand draws a maiden looking lovingly at the guitarist and as he strokes his final cord, and she throws him a flower, which he catches in his teeth.
I remember seeing these occasionally on TV and was always very proud when I did. When I was a freshman in high school, we were watching a pre-recorded program in drama class and one of them came on. “This is one of my father’s spots!” I yelled. Tommy Bucci (part of an endless series of Bucci siblings to inhabit our high school) made endless fun of me for using such esoteric jargon as the word “spot” to refer to the animation. I didn’t know any other word for what it was, though.
In the late ’70s he pitched and was awarded a large job: a set of 10 animations wherein two children would wonder aloud to each other how something worked. They’d fantasize that there was a helicopter making the vacuum cleaner work, for instance, and then a nondescript furry creature known as the “it” would show up and explain exactly how the device in question worked. They had a great actress to play the little girl but were having trouble casting the boy. I was accompanying my dad to the city that day (a rare treat), and Edith, hearing my voice, suggested that I might be great for the job. My dad loved the idea and I was hired. We recorded the series of 10 spots in a single day, for which I was paid a brand-new copy of The Book Of Lists 2! I was ecstatic and spent my teen years reading that book cover to cover many times.
That was my first acting job.
I don’t mean to suggest that my folks kept the money I should have been paid. Far from it. In fact, as recently as a few years ago, I was still receiving checks from Children’s Television Workshop, though they’d gotten small: $6.25 here, $14.75 there. None have come in a while. I guess they don’t run the spots anymore.
I absorbed the mechanics of animation just by seeing the process unfold in my dad’s studio. Of course, I did my own stab at Claymation and eventually did an animated spot of my own for Swatch in 1988. But those simple animations are what I thought of as “Dad’s work” growing up. To me, they represent a creative brain allowed to run free. What more can one ask?