Macomb’s Butch Hartman creates new Nickelodeon series

‘Bunsen is a Beast’ is based on Hartman’s school experiences in Roseville and Chesterfield Township

Stephanie Steinberg
The Detroit News

Mike Hartman has waited 49 years for a cartoon character to be named after him. He came close when his brother created Nickelodeon’s “The Fairly OddParents” — but no cigar.

“Timmy Turner was supposed to be named after me, but we actually got into a little family squabble, so he named him after my youngest brother,” says Hartman, jokingly adding, “so it’s about time to finally get one named after me.”

That character would be Mikey, the kid protagonist in the new Nickelodeon show “Bunsen is a Beast” debuting 5:30 p.m. Tuesday. Executive produced by Mike’s older brother Butch Hartman, who was born in Highland Park and raised in Roseville and Chesterfield Township, the animated series follows the adventures of Bunsen — the first beast to attend a human grade school — and his best friend, Mikey.

The fictional school, Muckledunk, is based on Butch Hartman’s experiences at Wellington Elementary in Roseville and Anchor Bay High in Chesterfield. In an interview from Nickelodeon’s Burbank, California, headquarters last week, Hartman, 52, says he was the kid who loved “Dungeons & Dragons” and “Star Wars.”

“Nobody was into what I was into, really. I wanted to make movies and things like that,” says Hartman, whose real name is Elmer Earl Hartman IV. “I definitely had to navigate through high school very carefully, and that’s kind of what this show is about — it’s about fitting in, it’s about being different and hoping people like you for who you are. And who could be more different than a beast?”

This is the fourth series Hartman has spearheaded since joining Nickelodeon in 1998. The others are “Danny Phantom,” “T.U.F.F. Puppy” and “The Fairly OddParents,” which launched in 2001 and is the network’s third longest-running animated series. He also wrote and directed episodes of Cartoon Network’s “Dexter’s Laboratory,” “Cow & Chicken” and “Johnny Bravo.”

His favorite? He says it’s “really hard” to pick.

“You work so much on these shows, and they all get very close to you,” he says. “If I had to pick, I’d probably say ‘The Fairly OddParents,’ only because I’ve worked on it for so long.”

Hartman traces his career beginnings to kindergarten, when his teacher, Mrs. Shelly, asked the class to draw a picture of her. When she saw Hartman’s, she started raving.

“I thought I was in trouble or something,” he recalls. “And it turned out, she thought it was really good and made a big fuss over it and put it on the board. I realized at a very young age that I could get attention from adults if I kept drawing things.”

And draw he did — at the sketch table his father, a General Motors employee, built for him or wherever inspiration struck.

“He was always drawing cartoons,” says Mike Hartman. “And I was always out playing football or baseball, and I would kind of laugh at him, like, ‘Hey, what are you doing, dude?’ I wanted to be a pro quarterback. And now all the sudden he’s in the Hall of Fame of Animation.”

Mike, a 49-year-old Waterford resident who works at Seventy 7 Productions in Royal Oak, says his brother is a “workhorse.”

Growing up, Butch Hartman dreamed of working for Disney. He hasn’t, but in high school he befriended Mount Clemens native Dan Jeup, whose credits now include Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” and Pixar’s “Toy Story 2.” They met through a mutual Chesterfield friend, Bob Scott, who went on to animate Pixar’s “Cars” and “The Incredibles.”

Before Hartman joined Jeup at the California Institute of the Arts, he’d mail him cartoons to critique.

“When I got his stuff — from what I remember — it was very cartoony style and might have some super hero stuff in there, too. He definitely had talent,” says Jeup, 53, in an interview from the Bay Area. “I told him what I told Bob: to learn about quick sketching and how to draw things realistically as well as cartoony, but he already had a built-in feel for it.”

Jeup — who’s working on a project he can’t disclose — hasn’t seen Hartman’s new series, but says he’s “done phenomenally” in the industry.

“He has his own sort of approach to animation that has worked extremely well for him in terms of the type of design and storytelling that he does,” Jeup says.

Hartman says his favorite part of creating any series is, in fact, the storytelling.

“We have nothing unless we have a story,” he says. “Even if the cartoon looks great, if the story is terrible, it doesn’t really matter ... I want to put as many jokes as I can in any story, so kids will have to come back and rewatch it to catch things they’ve missed.”

Adults appreciate the humor, too. Anchor Bay High principal Jack Stanton says his five children, ages 9-22, are fans of “The Fairly Oddparents,” as is he.

“It’s a riot,” he says. “As a parent, you always appreciate the shows that have a little bit of humor pointed at you, as well as plenty of humor pointed at your kids.”

Stanton wasn’t the principal when Hartman attended Anchor Bay, but says his success sets a great example for students.

“We’re certainly proud to have him represent our community,” Stanton says.

With two daughters of his own and his parents now deceased, Hartman doesn’t get back to Michigan much. But he still sneaks his hometown pride into shows. In the second “Bunsen is a Beast” episode, for example, Bunsen’s head gets separated from his body. His body then boards a bus headed for “Anchor Bay.”

When Hartman did return for a family reunion a few years ago, he hopped around town drawing cartoon characters in chalk. He left Cosmo from “The Fairly OddParents” at Chesterfield’s Swirly Top Dairy Bar. “I drove by it a year later, and it was still there,” his brother says.

Mike spills another secret: The Hartmans have a subtle cameo in “The Fairly OddParents” TV film “Channel Chasers” when Timmy jumps into a TV. “If you slow it down, there’s photos of family and friends in there,” he says.

While anybody named Mike used to get beat up in his brother’s shows, Mike says he has a good relationship with his brother and is honored to be a main character in “Bunsen is a Beast,” voiced by Jeremy Rowley (Bunsen) and Ben Giroux (Mikey).

For any kid in Michigan who dreams of being an animator, Hartman has one piece of advice: keep practicing.

“You’ve got to really work on your craft as much as possible,” he says. “Get as good as you can.”

Don’t be afraid to leave home, either, he adds.

“Today with computers, you can create your own animation industry wherever you are, but if you want to get out there and learn how to do things in a big way that will really challenge you,” he says, “you need to leave home and see what the industry is all about.”

But even if you move across the country, you won’t completely leave home behind.

As Hartman says, “There’s a Detroit reference I think in everything I do.”

‘Bunsen is a Beast’

Premieres 5:30 p.m. Tuesday

Regular time 10:30 a.m. Saturdays