Since its launch a few weeks ago, Nickelodeon’s new animated series “Sanjay and Craig” has been in the news for a number of reasons — fortunately for the show, all of these reasons have been of the good kind.
The cartoon, which focuses on the adventures of a 12-year-old boy named Sanjay and his best friend, a talking snake named Craig, has been making quite a buzz in the world of television for both its selection of an Indian-American character as its lead and its excellent ratings to date.
To learn more about the show and its making, we chatted with Jim Dirschberger, who, along with Jay Howell and Andreas Trolf, created the show, and actor Maulik Pancholy (of “30 Rock” and “Weeds” fame), who voices the character of Sanjay.
The interviews, which were conducted separately, have been condensed and edited for The Aerogram.
What was your thought process behind getting an Indian-American character like Sanjay to headline the show? Given the controversy we saw with the recent Cheerios ad that featured a biracial family, did you think you were making a statement with your choice of characters for Sanjay and Craig, or was it just an artistic choice at the time? (Sanjay’s father, Vijay Patel, is Indian; his mother, Darlene, is from the Midwest)
Jim: I think it was mostly artistic — I don’t know that, overall, we were trying to say anything political with his parents or his heritage at all. I think, ultimately, at the end of the day, we wanted Sanjay to be a real kid. So when it came to making Sanjay who he is, it was really about making him feel real. He’s excitable, he’s adventurous, but he has his flaws. He’s unsure of himself sometimes, and that’s where Craig comes in. In your worst moments, you lean on your friends, and Craig is the guy who never says never, and is always there to back him up. So I think we really worked hard, and the network really pushed us, to focus us on that friendship.
And then, of course, having his heritage within the show is something that we kind of had to walk a line, where I don’t think it’s anything we want to point out, or make that define him. I think, as a kid in America, your heritage is always there in the background, but when you are 12 years old, I don’t know if that’s something you’re really aware of, or interested in, especially when you have your best friends and the woods to explore behind your house. So, I think it’s something that with his father and mother, we’re trying to show the different influences they have on his personality, which all parents have, and then ultimately how he applies that when he goes out to have adventures with Craig.
Maulik: You know, when I first auditioned for it, I was definitely intrigued especially because none of the creators themselves are Indian or Indian-American, and so I thought it was really cool that they had written this cartoon where the lead character was Indian-American. I was very excited by that. So, of course, yeah, I jumped at the chance of it, because it’s great to have as many representations of South Asians in the media as possible. I think we have been underrepresented in the past on television, and like you said, it’s the first [such] character to headline a cartoon. I don’t think the show is trying to make a political statement at all, but, of course, I think having a lead Indian-American character in itself sort of makes the political statement that it is not an issue.
Could you elaborate on that?
Maulik: Yeah… It’s hard to speak about animation because there haven’t — first of all, I am not as aware of the world, and I don’t know how many Indian characters there have been in animation and how they have been presented. But I know that, just in general, on television, I think there was a period of time when the characters that we would see on television that were Indian-American were defined by their ethnicity. They were Indian or Indian-American, and it was all about them having an accent, or their culture… And even I played characters, when I first started out, where my character was wearing a turban, and eating foods that the other people on the show thought were weird… [It was] all about defining these characters by their ethnicity.
Whereas I feel like what we’re doing with this cartoon is that he’s a super-relatable 12-year-old boy. He’s the ultimate kid. He’s into all things gross, he’s excited by stuff, he’s awkward, he’s innocent — he has all these universal qualities while still being specific to being this Indian-American kid. But we are kind of just talking about who he is as a kid, and not making it all about him being different, “the other,” or sort of [poking] fun at his racial identity.
Do you think Sanjay’s race or ethnicity will be explored in the show in the future? How do you see his character develop through the course of the show?
Jim: You know, it’s something we definitely talked about. Ultimately, it’s all about the friendship and having fun, and I think if there’s a way you could explore that in a way that complements the story and is also respectful to the heritage, I think, personally speaking, I would be open to it. It’s just a matter of, first and foremost, just thinking of Sanjay as a kid. And if his heritage can help us define him even more, then I say that it only betters the show and really the character to dig deeper. I can’t imagine that we would shy away from it, moving forward.
Maulik: I think we are still trying to figure out what the sort-of overarching journey of the character is, but I would say that there is this running theme, and we don’t touch on it in every episode, but it comes up over and over again, that it is totally great to just be able to be yourself. There are episodes where Craig tries to prove how amazing he is, how fearless he is, and at the end you find that he’s maybe just as scared as everybody else and Sanjay still likes him for who he is. The same goes for my character where I try to take on something that’s maybe too big for my britches, and Craig still wants to be my best friend even though, you know, I haven’t been able to do the thing I set out to do. And I feel that’s sort of this character’s journey in a way, it’s totally cool to be just who he is, and it’s totally cool to have this awesome best friend.
Jim, how did you get to Maulik as Sanjay and Chris Hardwick (of “Nerdist” and “Talking Dead” fame) as Craig?
Jim: Certainly, Maulik was the one we were familiar with for quite a long time, between 30 Rock, Weeds and even the stuff that he had done on “Phineas and Ferb.” So when he came in and read for it, not only does he kind of look like Sanjay — he looks like an adult Sanjay — but the mannerisms, the laughing… he’s kind of goofy, with a sense of humor, so, for us, it kind of felt like, okay, this is the guy. I have never been more happy with performances on any other project that I have ever worked on than I have been with Maulik’s. We found him early on in our casting process for our pilot, and it was a no-brainer to keep him on.
Craig was a lot harder. I feel like Craig has so many different variations on his personality, he can be kind of sneaky; he can kind of be really big. I think what Chris brings more than anyone else that we saw was a kind of a love to it all… It’s that middle ground of connecting all those extremes in a character that feels like he’s not just flipping a switch when he’s acting… And Chris was, I think, the one person that was able to just melt it all together and make it feel like a real person.
And, certainly, once you get them together, seeing their chemistry, I think any doubts that we had were totally erased. Watching those guys work together in the booth is great — I mean, it’s basically Sanjay and Craig. Chris is doing a lot of ad-lib, and he’s throwing cues out, and playing off of Maulik. So yeah, I feel like we have been very, very lucky in finding two great actors who are so willing to give us their all on every episode, but also to have such great chemistry between the two — we totally lucked out on that one.
Maulik, do you see bits of yourself in Sanjay?
Maulik: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I had a pretty active imagination as a kid, and I think Sanjay does too. In a lot of these episodes, they will be in this incredible dreamscape doing something like massive Kung Fu fighting, or a tropical jungle food fight, and then when you cut to it, it’s really just them in the backyard throwing stuff at each other, and you realize that it’s all been sort of in their imagination, and I can completely relate to that. I mean, I grew up in a pretty small town in the Midwest and I remember spending hours outside with my friends. I remember we lived in this house that had a hilly backyard that went into the woods, and we’d always be creating adventures in the woods, and daring each other to go back there, and solving mysteries back there, which didn’t exist! So I can definitely relate to that part of him.
And, you know, there’s like an awkwardness to him that I can relate to, that sort of preteen thing of not being quite sure what’s cool, but wanting to do all the stuff that is cool… And then he’s just like a really sweet kid, ultimately, he’s got this best friend that he would do anything for, and I certainly have had very good friends over the years, but even as a kid, there was always like the good buddy, you know, you’d keep their darkest secret. I can definitely relate to all of that.
And how was it working with Chris Hardwick?
Maulik: Chris is awesome. He’s so fun. He brings so much into that character; as you can probably tell from the episodes that have been aired. It’s always a surprise… What’s been great is we have gotten to do a couple of episodes where we have actually been in the room together, because a lot of the time, we are not able to be in the room together, so we just do it by ourselves. So we did several, actually, together, and it was just an awesome experience. We got to improvise; he’s really easy to get along with. I feel like we definitely had a connection; we’ve become friends in real life and I’m hoping that translates into what people see in the cartoon too, that this kid and his snake are actually best friends.
So, how has the reaction been to Sanjay and Craig? What feedback have you received from your own friends and family?
Jim: It’s been interesting. I am always curious to see what people think. Obviously I am a little cautious when I am reading comments, because you only remember the bad ones. Surprisingly, there hasn’t been too much debate. Some people feel like, yeah sure, he’s biracial, yes, he has Indian heritage, but, like, where is it; it’s not in the show. And other people, you know, I have heard, it’s like, God forbid that he acts like an American kid, or God forbid that he is just living the life that he was born and raised in.
If the show had taken place in India or something that was really authentic, I feel like then there’s no excuse for not dwelling or focusing on it. But I feel like that was never our intent, and, ultimately, you have to remember that this is a show where the target demographic is like six to 11-year-old kids, and Sanjay is in that age range that too. And I think kids are way more forgiving than adults. I don’t think I have seen any messages on the Nickelodeon boards that kids write in asking for, like, can you please explore his background… It’s all been about ‘Help Sanjay, because he’s really sweet’ or, ‘Craig’s really funny, I love it when they team up together!’
Maulik: I have two seven-year-old twin boy nephews, my cousin’s kids, and I got to speak to them the day after the premiere. And they were super excited, and they said that they love the show; their world revolves around the show. So that was probably the most ringing endorsement I got… I think the cartoon works incredibly well for both kids and adults, but kids are ultimately the target audience, and so talking to them on the phone the day after the premiere, hearing that they loved it made me feel really good about what we are doing.
Maulik, while most of your fans will be glad to see you even as an animated character, could you tell us where we’ll be able to see the “real” you next?
Maulik: I’m going to be doing a play in New York this summer, so that’s a chance to get to see me. I am reading scripts all the time, and I’m looking at projects, but I don’t have definite TV projects coming out just yet, but… very soon. Very soon.
Finally, Jim, if you had to give people a single reason for seeing Sanjay and Craig, what would it be?
Jim: Watch it for the characters, really. I like to think there’s a little bit of everybody in Sanjay that you can relate to — be it his background, his heritage, his family… But, ultimately, I hope people stick around because of the character and they stick around because of his friendship with Craig. And all those interesting things about his background and who he is and his family, we look forward to exploring them but ultimately, we hope that everyone can enjoy it and laugh along until we get there.
Aby Sam Thomas is a writer and journalist currently living in New York City. Talk to him on Twitter at @thisisaby.