Amazon's newest cartoon heroes 'Danger & Eggs' were born far from Disneyland
By NEAL JUSTIN | Star Tribune (Minneapolis) | Published: August 2, 2017
MINNEAPOLIS -- Bringing animation's most fragile worrywart to life took a team of Twin Cities artists, financial backing from a red-hot streaming service and the support of showbiz heavyweights. But right now, all the voice of Phillip the Egg needs is water. Buckets of it.
An employee at Pixel Farm studio in Minneapolis' North Loop obliges with a tray of comically undersized bottles.
"Can we get any tinier water?" parched actor Eric Knobel says from a sound booth. "Eighty-seven caps should do it."
Phillip's creator, Mike Owens, smiles from a nearby couch but refrains from indulging in one of his disarming falsetto giggles. There's too much work to do.
Their new cartoon series "Danger & Eggs" is streaming on Amazon Prime, but the team reunited in July to record material for an app in time for San Diego's Comic-Con, where comedian Chris Hardwick hosted a panel about the show -- evidence that ambitious animation can be hatched half a coast away from Disney.
The inaugural show from Minnesota company Puny Entertainment, "Danger & Eggs" is built around a preteen daredevil named D.D. Danger (voiced by "Saturday Night Live's" Aidy Bryant) and her shellshocked sidekick, Phillip. The series' frantic pace would leave the Road Runner panting for air.
"So much of what I watched as a kid was slow and sweet, but this doesn't condescend to kids," Bryant said by phone from New York. "It's got the pace of a normal comedy like '30 Rock,' where there's a joke every 10 or 15 seconds."
The character also appealed to Bryant because "this girl is not trying to be quiet or polite. The way she examines the world is bold."
The 13 episodes of the cartoon, which dropped simultaneously a month ago, are infused with a progressive spirit inspired by its Minnesota roots. One adventure, in which D.D. and Phillip disrupt an outdoor festival, is based on family-friendly Pride weekends in the Twin Cities area.
While Puny founder Shadi Petosky proudly calls the Twin Cities the creative home of "Danger," she moved to Los Angeles in 2013 to be closer to the action.
"People in Hollywood want to know that you're serious and you're dedicated to the craft. And if you're out of sight, you're out of mind," she said. "You've got to go to parties and shows, meet people you don't know, find out who's had a nervous breakdown. People don't necessarily stay in this business very long, and you have to constantly show your face to show that you're still working."
Having a fast pass on the networking circuit led Petosky to Hardwick, best known as post-show analyst for AMC's "The Walking Dead," host of Comedy Central's "@midnight" and a web innovator whose "Nerdist" podcast spawned a digital mini-empire. He bought half of Puny two years ago and used his showbiz connections to get celebrities such as "Weird Al" Yankovic to contribute to "Danger."
His and Petosky's offices are now within brainstorming distance of each other.
"Shadi has set the table so beautifully," Hardwick said. "It's hard to find people who can handle the business and creative side at the same time. Because Shadi can do that, the artists can be involved in all phases of development, kind of like the way old-school animation studios used to run."
She's had plenty of help, most notably from Phillip's creator Owens -- like herself, an outsider.
A fragile process
Owens was a go-to artist in Chicago before he and his wife moved to the Twin Cities in 2003 to be closer to her family.
He spent six years eking out a living -- at one point he was a school photographer whose main job was stopping kids from making funny faces -- before being introduced to Petosky, a Montana native who had worked in the graphic-novel world before launching Puny.
The boutique company quickly made a name for itself by creating the animated segments for the Nick Jr. show "Yo Gabba Gabba!" Petosky hired Owens as animation director -- and got Phillip the Egg as a bonus.
Owens had come up with the character shortly after moving into his sister-in-law's basement in Crystal.
"I've been riddled with anxiety since I was a kid," he said. "I'd be on a beach building sand castles and if the water would touch my feet, I'd scream like someone was murdering me. The most delicate, fragile thing I could think of was an egg. Anything could crush it at any moment."
Petosky knew the character was something special when she invited members of the Minneapolis improv troupe Splendid Things to share their reactions to several characters Puny was developing. They immediately gravitated to Phillip, particularly the troupe's co-founder, Eric Knobel.
With their encouragement -- and Knobel's voice work -- Puny created "Phillip the Safety Egg," a dark 2010 short in which a giant chicken tramples a city bus, and a senior citizen with a stop sign protruding from his abdomen complains about his nursing home being on fire. It was sent out to a couple of festivals without much success.
"The level of neurosis was not landing with people," Owens said. "Phillip needed a companion, someone to contrast him."
Enter D.D., a combination of Pippi Longstocking and Evel Knievel.
That addition, and the decision to soften the tone for kids, caught the interest of Amazon, which in 2015 funded a pilot episode for its fledgling streaming service. Positive feedback from viewers, who help decide which shows to develop, convinced the company to sign off on a full season last year, sending Owens and his 10-person team flying to the storyboards.
The artists and writers behind "Danger & Eggs" had only two things in common: a Twin Cities residence and zero experience in big-time animation. "That's almost unheard of," Petosky said.
The show was conceived in an office near First Avenue and laid down on storyboards in St. Paul's Lowertown before being handed off to animators in South Korea. While Petosky believes it's essential that she conduct business from the West Coast, she appreciates the value of keeping her creative team in the Midwest.
"They weren't tainted by how Hollywood traditionally does things, so they didn't pick up bad habits," she said.
Will 'Danger' take flight?
Puny isn't the only Minnesota player making waves in the animation world. Twin Cities Public Television is planning a science-and-math series based on the "Superhero School" books, a nearly $40 million project.
But don't start referring to the Twin Cities as Toontown just yet. The Puny team may end up moving because of a cut in Minnesota film incentives.
"Danger" took full advantage of the state's Snowbate program, which offers film producers generous reimbursements for dollars spent in Minnesota -- up to 25 percent. According to Minnesota Film and TV Board documents, Puny spent $324,000 in Minnesota making the pilot, and $1.48 million more on the series as of January. That would mean the company got a state reimbursement of as much as $451,000.
But Snowbate funding was sharply curtailed in the recent legislative session. While $10 million was available to filmmakers in the two-year period that ended June 30, state lawmakers provided only $1 million for the next biennium.
Unless advocates for local production can convince legislators to up the ante, it's unlikely the Puny team will unpack the boxes stacked in its St. Paul office. Petosky said she'll look at a location with better incentives, such as Atlanta. And all of the animation for TPT's "Superhero School," scheduled to debut in 2019, will be done in rebate-friendly Canada.
"Animation and commercial work could be a great backbone for building the infrastructure we don't currently have here," said Melodie Bahan, the Film Board's new executive director.
She noted that the Minneapolis College of Art and Design is training potential leaders in the field. "If we are growing the next generation of animators, I would certainly love for them to set up shop here. I think we can make a strong case to offer larger incentives for them to stay."
That, of course, includes the "Danger" squad. But first, the series has to be renewed.
Petosky is working on new deals, including a potential series for Netflix. Until then, "Danger" will focus on building its audience -- which includes Knobel's 5-year-old twins.
"The other night, they were zoned out watching when it was time for bed," said the voice of Phillip. "They were ignoring me, but they were listening to me at the same time. That was a surreal moment."