Matt Dearborn is co-creator and showrunner (with Tom Burkhard) of the comedy series Zeke & Luther, targeting young males ages 6-14. While Disney XD’s audience is minuscule compared to the networks’, insiders are saying that this show following the adventures of two goofy teenage guys obsessed with becoming world-class skateboarders is an Emmy contender for Outstanding Children’s Program. Dearborn, who also created the Emmy-nominated hit Even Stevens, talks to Deadline TV contributor Diane Haithman about his backdoor entry into TV writing, working for Disney, and how to think like a kid:
DEADLINE: What sets Zeke & Luther apart from other children’s TV at Emmy time?
MATT DEARBORN: Because we are the only show in the kids’ space that is executing such a high level of physical comedy. Two people talking to each other might play in primetime, but unless somebody’s going to pick up a banana and hit the two guys talking over the head with it, it doesn’t work for my audience. And I’m not just talking about an onslaught of spit takes, although our demographic never grows tired of that. In our episode submission “Zeke’s Last Ride,” we tell a simple story about how Zeke copes with a career-threatening injury, and how his best friend Luther drives him nuts trying to be his nursemaid. Along the way we send our leads flying off 30-foot ramps. We’re not a stage-bound sitcom, and our audience likes the difference. Maybe the academy will recognize that difference, too.
DEADLINE: This is the show’s final season. Why is a successful show going off the air?
DEARBORN: It’s pretty common for kids’ shows. The stars grow out of it. Hutch Dano and Adam Hicks are now over six feet tall.
DEADLINE: How did you get into the TV business?
DEARBORN: I grew up in Marin County, and I always had low expectations for myself. At my high school graduation they were asking us to fill out where we hoped to be in 10 years, and everybody wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer, but I wanted to be a doorman at a hotel. I was attracted to the simplicity and the commerce that surrounded being a doorman at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel: you wear a great uniform, you open the door for somebody, and they hand you a buck. But, when I was a kid, I had an obsession with standup comics — but secretly. I never told anyone. In the mid-1980s, I was driving prop trucks for a lot of Los Angeles commercial and music videos and worked my way up; I was an art director for half adozen music videos. I met Karl Schaefer, a USC film school grad, who hired me to drive a camera truck on a low-budget movie, and out of the blue he said, ‘You should be a writer.’ Then when he later got a show on CBS, he had me write some audition scenes when they were casting their pilot and he put me on staff. It was a very quick way to jump into the world of writing.
DEADLINE: How did you learn how to write TV scripts?
DEARBORN: While I was still driving trucks, I got Syd Field’s The Foundations of Screenwriting. As a craftsman, I understood that a screenplay would have a structure to it. One time I was driving a truck to Boise, and I sent my first script to The New Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1986. I was thinking what was the worst revenge you could exact on somebody, and I thought of a woman who tattoos a murder confession on a guy’s face. I called the secretary of the production company and she said: ‘We don’t take submissions.’ But I just begged her to read it, and she liked it enough to pass it on to her boss. But I still didn’t understand the realities of the budget, stuff like that. It didn’t occur to me why it wasn’t good to do a helicopter shot on the Paris skyline.
DEADLINE: What happened after that?
DEARBORN: I started working hour dramas, teen dramas — TV 101, Beverly Hills 90210, The Heights. Then, in 1995, I got asked to work on the Nickelodeon series The Secret World of Alex Mack. Then Even Stevens, and I am one of the 37 people who take credit for launching Shia LeBoeuf. He would have made it to the top anyway.
DEADLINE: You write for kids’ shows. Do you have kids?
DEARBORN: I was a single dad: I raised my daughter in Los Angeles from about second grade through high school. Now she’s got a kid of her own. But I also have a kid’s sensibility. It’s who I am — spilling stuff, falling.
DEADLINE: Does it help you write the shows?
DEARBORN: In Zeke & Luther we have no parents — you don’t see them, you don’t hear about them. We are trying to re-create a childhood that’s about being outside, and making your own rules, as opposed to a parent walking in and asking if your room is clean and your homework done. We don’t have any of that stuff. We don’t have a high school principal or teacher. Usually you need those parental fi gures to relay the stakes in a story. We let the boys fi nd the stakes themselves.
DEADLINE: Do you trust your instincts about what kids want to see, or do you research?
DEARBORN: We just figured it out. Disney is big on testing. And when you are watching those test audiences, every time the kid gets clotheslined by that real estate sign, they sit up and grin. You get into a two-page dialogue scene, and they’re fidgeting. Boys need to see things fall down, they need to see people get hurt (but not too hurt), they need goo, they need sort of raunchier humor. Girls have a little more patience in the broadest general sense. They like to listen to witty banter, and they like to hear about the relationships. That’s why our scenes are only a page at the most, and that’s why something hits the floor every scene.
DEADLINE: What’s it like doing a kids’ show for Disney?
DEARBORN: I would say they are very involved, they are very particular. But it’s their deal, you know? I’ve worked worse places, for sure. These executives that I’m working with, I find that they think like writers for the most part. When they have a story problem, they’re not wrong. They can usually sniff it out.
DEADLINE: Are you and Tom equal partners in running the show?
DEARBORN: He’s the funniest writer I’ve ever met. We have very similar sensibilities, just in terms of our absurdist view of childhood. The success of Zeke & Luther is equally shared between me and Tom. We are not a team; we are two guys who were teamed together for this show. I’ve run four other shows. If you keep doing a good job and you get old enough and you don’t move out of town, eventually they’ll ask you to run a show.
DEADLINE: What’s your favorite TV?
DEARBORN: I like Mad Men; and I like Lockup Raw, a reality show; and I like Family Guy; and I sample everything.