Creator Marc Brown on Mr. Rogers, Memes, and 20 Years of Arthur
PBS’s long-running children’s show Arthur hits a big milestone this month. The animated series is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a brand new season that kicks off Monday, October 10. Based on author and illustrator Marc Brown’s beloved children’s books, Arthur has been able to reach fans of all ages throughout the years thanks to its relatable storylines and popular cast of characters. Ahead, Brown opens up about the show’s legacy, his relationship with the late Fred Rogers, and shares his thoughts on those pesky Arthur memes.
Did you ever imagine Arthur lasting this long?
I guess it was last year we became the longest-running children’s animated show in history, which when I think back to our early meetings in Montreal with the animators, I thought, “This is such an amazing thing that’s happening. I’ll be so lucky if maybe it lasts two years.” So this is beyond anything I could have imagined.
Between the books and the TV series, Arthur has reached nearly four decades of fans. Why do you believe the franchise has remained so popular over the years?
Because the characters are based on real people, people in my life and my childhood, I think that somehow has made them a little bit stronger and they’ve resonated in a deeper way with kids. I also think Arthur has done something that I don’t believe any other children’s animation shows have done, and that’s to allow kids to get to know these characters in very complex and deep ways. I made it very, very clear when we began the show that I didn’t want these shows to always be about Arthur. I kind of came to it more as an ensemble cast. I wanted everyone in Arthur’s world to have an equal weighting so that it became more like real life. The more the show went on and we had opportunities to tell more stories, the more we were able to deal with things in family lives that don’t necessary get talked about or put into this form of animation and television.
Did anyone in particular influence the way you approached bringing Arthur to TV?
It was a real important part of my life to be a good friend of Fred Rogers because he was such a terrific role model for how to use television and the media to be helpful to kids and families. I feel like he was instrumental in being probably the best role model I’ve had for what it is I’m apart of.
Do you have any favorite memories from your time with Mr. Rogers?
I remember the very first meeting we had in Pittsburgh. I was very nervous and I was caught in a terrible traffic jam driving to Logan. I missed the flight and everyone else from the show was on the flight and going to Pittsburgh. I got to the airport and ran up to the desk and I was almost whining to the poor woman behind the desk. I said, “I have to get to Pittsburgh fast. I have a meeting with Mr. Rogers.” It was as if the lighting in the room had changed and she said, “Mr. Rogers? You mean the Mr. Rogers?” I said, “Yes.” She said, “Well,” and then her fingers began to click madly over the keyboard. Before I knew it, I was on the next flight to Pittsburgh. I think she put me in first class.
Getting to Fred’s office, everyone was out to lunch and I was told to go down to the end of the hallway where his office was and to wait for them to return. I open the door and there was Fred sitting on the sofa. He said, “Oh Marc, I’ve been waiting for you.” It was as if all of this tension from the morning just melted away. He had this ability to kind of see inside people. He was just an amazing person.
Today’s digital world has given fans of all ages severals ways to interact with Arthur and pay homage to the series. What are your thoughts on how Arthur is being honored today and do you have any feelings about the whole meme controversy?
I find it amazing and wonderful that these young adults who grew up with Arthur and the characters still find them somehow relevant within their lives and their experience. They are trying to figure things out or are using them in ways to work through things perhaps in their own lives. I just returned from a weekend in Arizona. I was invited there by the library in Scottsdale for a family event. The whole day was families with children. They were hugging me. It’ wonderful to see these young parents now who grew up with my characters and are sharing them with their kids. I think it’s very unique for authors and illustrators to experience something like that with their work, that they’re still relevant after an entire generation.
So you don’t take any offense to the memes?
Things gets passed onto me from my granddaughters, from Buzzfeed and whatever. It’s a free world out there. I believe in freedom of speech. It doesn’t bother me.
Knowing that your work has impacted so many people’s lives, what’s made the whole experience worth it for you?
I set out after having a few other jobs, thinking about my dad when I was growing up as a child. He worked on the railroad and he really didn’t like his job at all and it was very obvious to me. Even as a child that made a big impression on me, and I thought to myself, “When I grow up, I want to do something that I love.” It took me a long time to make this job really work for me in way that I could take care of my family, but I love what I do. I tell children whenever I get the opportunity to speak with them that, “I feel so lucky to be doing what I do and I think of you as my boss.” They love hearing that, but it’s true. I’m working for them and I want to know what I’m doing right, how I can do things better, and I love hearing what they have to say. It’s taught me to be a good listener.
Season 20 of Arthur begins on PBS, Monday, October 10.
This interview has been edited and condensed.