If you’re a TV historian like me, you will remember Dan Schneider as the cynical, wise-cracking Dennis Blunden on 1986-91 sitcom Head of the Class. Originally spotted at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., by movie producer Gene Quintano and cast in the low-budget 1984 film Making the Grade, Schneider turned a respectable acting career into one of the most successful runs as a kids programming producer.
With an unprecedented track record on Nickelodeon—seven consecutive hit series—Schneider’s current sitcoms are iCarly and the recently introduced Victorious. He also created The WB’s What I Like About You. I had the chance to talk to the man who I now fondly refer to as the Jerry Bruckheimer of kids programming.
How do you go from actor to mega successful creator of kids-oriented programming? I was always aware that actors can come and go. Starring on a TV show was a great ride, but I didn’t just want to rely on others casting me to have a career. So, during Head of the Class, I took a stab at writing an episode. To my surprise, the executive producers bought the script, and it was produced. I remember the pride I felt seeing my name under “written by.”
Did you, at that point, decide you preferred writing over acting? No, I wouldn’t put it that way. I always loved acting—still do. I just didn’t want to put all my eggs in the acting basket. I knew Head of the Class wouldn’t last forever, and I had this fear I might end up as Gilligan or Arnold Jackson struggling to find acting work. But not long after Head of the Class ended, I was fortunate to be cast opposite Matthew Perry (pre-Friends) in a comedy called Home Free. Then my career took a weird twist when I was asked to write and produce a pilot for Nickelodeon. It was a kids sketch comedy show called All That. At the time, I considered it a side job—something fun to keep me busy until my next acting gig.
So at that point you had not given up on acting? Not at all. But All That became a hit, and next I found myself writing spin-off sitcom Kenan & Kel. So, I was working on two series at once, and I was loving the action and energy of writing and producing. I don’t think I ever made a conscious decision to give up acting, but in 1996 I auditioned for the lead in a sitcom and I got it. I had the contract in my hands. But I ultimately passed because I didn’t want to stop writing and producing All That and Kenan & Kel.
Talk to me about the writing process. Do you get involved in every episode? I have a relatively small staff of fantastic writers who I work with to come up with stories and outlines. But when it comes to writing the actual scripts, I usually do that alone, or with one or two of the writers.
Whenever I interview a TV personality, I always ask them if they track the ratings for their shows. Since we met via The Programming Insider, I know you do. Any show runner who tells you he doesn’t care about ratings is lying. It’s a direct gauge of how the audience is responding to your show. It would be like a football coach saying he doesn’t care about the score.
I know you’re a fan of classic TV theme songs. Why are they important, and what is your all-time favorite? The big networks have virtually abandoned TV theme songs. Granted, there are exceptions like The Big Bang Theory. A theme song is like the soul of a TV show. Imagine Cheers, Friends, All in the Family, M*A*S*H, Mary Tyler Moore or Happy Days without their classic openings. Luckily, Nickelodeon gets it.