Ha! . . . Ha! . . . Ha!
Ha! . . . Ha! . . . Ha!
Ha! . . . Ha! . . . Ha!
It takes just a few loud, forced laughs from Dan Schneider to make you suspect that this man who has devoted his adult life to entertaining tweens may be as baffling and exotic a breed as tweens themselves. Schneider, 48, is a former teen actor who became, over the past 20 years, "the Norman Lear of children's television," as the New York Times dubbed him. The big toque that presides over Schneider's Bakery, as his production company is called, has masterminded the creation of shows for Nickelodeon that appealed to the girls-and-boys-sans-pubes 9-to-12 demo advertisers covet, a group of insatiable consumers who spend or bully their parents into spending an estimated $180 billion annually. The shaggy-haired Schneider, in a blue fleece pullover and a pair of blindingly white sneakers, is enthroned in front of a video screen on the Hollywood set of Sam & Cat, his latest hit show. A couple of yards away, on a garish Skittles-hued living-room set, every three seconds or so a young actor recites a joke, and Schneider emits another stilted Ha! . . . Ha! . . . Ha! Within a minute, this takes on the maddening droning quality of driving a car on a highway with deep, regular grooves. It is, he concedes, a mostly fake laugh conjured for the sake of his nascent performers, who, without the benefit of a live audience, do not pause long enough after jokes to accommodate a laugh track. "I've been doing it so long, it's like driving a stick shift," Schneider says. "I don't even think about it."
The ha ha ha's may be particularly loud today because Chachi's in the house. Scott Baio, the 53-year-old former Happy Days child star (who now has his own Nick at Nite show, See Dad Run), has landed a coveted guest spot. "We're kind of like the popular kid in school," says Sam & Cat's co–executive producer Warren Bell, describing the allure Schneider's shows hold—over the years, guest stars have included everyone from Jack Black to Ke$ha, Jane Lynch to Michelle Obama. (While guesting on iCarly, flotus informed Schneider that his show was must-see TV for the first family thanks to Sasha and Malia.) Amid the robo-hilarity, I ask why Baio, dressed like a cop, is joining Sam (street-smart, wisecracking blonde) and Cat (breathy, seemingly developmentally challenged redhead) in a rousing sing-along of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." Robin Weiner, the show's co–executive producer and the longtime den mother of Schneider's productions, explains: "Cat finds a magic ATM that spits out money when she hits the buttons that play 'Take Me Out to the Ball Game.'" Cat shows the ATM to Sam, and she withdraws and promptly blows $4,000 with her friend, only to be apprehended in a convenience store by a police officer—Baio. So Sam dumps a Slurpee down Baio's pants and gets arrested, then Baio "inadvertently eats monkey sleeping pills" and falls asleep in his cruiser, which is then commandeered by Sam, who, naturally, catches a criminal. "We're about to learn the reward for the perp is $5,000 and they only had to return the 4,000 they spent," Weiner says. "So they made $1,000. And learned nothing."
It's a plot that requires a herculean suspension of disbelief, or medical-grade weed, to seem coherent. But it's vintage Schneider, the stuff that launched a new breed of starlets from Amanda Bynes to Miranda Cosgrove to Ariana Grande—broad humor that seeks laughs from seemingly arbitrary places and never comes close to being preachy. For The Amanda Show—the series that assured it would be newsworthy nearly 14 years later when Bynes tweeted that she wanted the rapper Drake to "murder my vagina"—Schneider dreamed up a fake ad for Meatloaf Crunch, in which a man wearing a costume resembling a large pile of shit materializes in a kitchen, singing, "Whoop-dee-dee! Have a bowl of me!" Schneider's singular, warped sensibility resonates with the prepubescent masses—his string of successes made him kiddie TV's most prolific hit-maker in the late nineties and the aughts. Those, of course, were the years before smartphones became de rigueur for tweens, providing a home for all the activities that they now spend time doing—Minecraft, Snapchat, Instagram—instead of watching basic cable. These days, fragmentation, the dreaded loss of eyeballs to stuff other than TV, is imperiling the tween king and the celebrity-industrial complex's supply chain.
Schneider is early in a three-year contract with Nick that pays him in a manner befitting his long-standing status as a showrunner par excellence. But anyone who thinks Schneider is affecting a tween sensibility for cynical reasons need only see the Encino house that he shares with his wife of 11 years, Lisa Lillien, a former Nickelodeon exec who's built a multimedia diet empire called Hungry Girl. Lillien brought to the marriage a large trove of antique toys to go with the classic muscle cars Schneider used to collect. Schneider's mother took one look at the house, with its wall of lunch boxes and vintage Coke machines, and proclaimed, "It's like teenagers with money." The couple, who have no kids, make middle age sound like an endless episode of The Monkees. "We're listening to music at 1 or 2 in the morning, our house is full of toys, and we go goof around on bicycles and we get excited about the new candy store," Schneider says.
Despite the semi-fake laughs, Schneider really does get a kick out of the Slurpee-down-the-pants slapstick. He writes only what he finds personally funny. "We would never, ever write something that we didn't think was funny but thought, Well, kids will laugh at that," says Steve Molaro, who spent eight years writing for Schneider and is now showrunner for CBS's The Big Bang Theory. "If that is your attitude, you will not last long in a Dan Schneider writers' room." "Dan figured out certain key words and phrases that made him laugh," says Kenan Thompson, who starred on All That and Kenan & Kel before joining Saturday Night Live. "We used to make fun of him because he liked to use the words ham and cheese and ointment. He liked those words a whole lot." "And pants," adds Josh Peck, of Drake & Josh fame. "He thinks the word pants is really funny."
On set, a break is called, and Schneider is waved over by a Nickelodeon executive. "Hey," Schneider says to me afterward, "would you mind coming back tomorrow?" Cyma Zarghami, the network's president, is in from New York City and will be arriving any moment and will not be expecting press. Back in 2007, when he had three hit series on Nick—Drake & Josh, Zoey 101, and iCarly—Schneider probably wouldn't have been flustered by a surprise visit from the boss. At the height of iCarly's popularity, one special episode in 2009 brought in over 12 million viewers, more than what the Breaking Bad series finale drew.
But it's a different story today. By 2012, Nick, which had long reigned over the kids' networks, seemed in trouble. Viacom hit the panic button after it lost almost a third of its viewers in one year and the Disney Channel, a perennial also-ran in the kiddie-TV wars, beat Nick for the first time. To shore up ratings, the network had turned to SpongeBob SquarePants, a non-Schneider show; at one point, 40 percent of Nick's airtime was devoted to the cartoon invertebrate.
And then the network took a virtual crap on the head of its golden goose. Ratings were good for Schneider's show Victorious, set in a performing-arts high school and starring the singer Victoria Justice. Nick hoped it could capture some of the ratings that Disney was enjoying thanks to music-heavy fare like Hannah Montana and High School Musical. During the show's fourth season, in 2012, Schneider repeatedly asked executives whether it would be renewed: "I said, 'Look, I assume that Victorious is coming back. It's one of the highest-rated shows on the network. But if we're not, will you please let me know ahead of time so I can do a finale?'" Schneider never got an answer—until he got the worst answer imaginable: Victorious was done.
He is clearly still haunted by the fact that Victorious ended without a finale, so much so that the second episode of Sam & Cat concerned the untimely cancellation of the girls' favorite show, That's a Drag. Cat ends up marching down to the studio and jumping onto the windshield of an executive, who turns on his wipers to dislodge her as she cries, "You can't just wipe me away!"