In her heyday, Judy Garland often warbled about being born in a trunk. Linda Simensky, in tracing her road to senior vice president of original animation at The Cartoon Network, figures she might have been born in a toon.
"According to my mother, I was an animation fan at age 3," Simensky bubbled. "I don't think I was very discerning at the time, but I always liked Bugs Bunny, as well as the comics."
That kinship blossomed during her freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania, where she attended an animation festival featuring talent looking for a break. "That's when the art became a passion, and I decided to get one foot in the cartoon world and the other foot in the independent film community," she said.
Straddling that line has been Simensky's business at Cartoon Network, and the result has been a string of series that have given their creators — mostly drawn from the independent ranks — sometimes as much public attention as the characters they document. From Dexter's Laboratory
on, Cartoon has encouraged its producers to take different directions to entertain kids or adults. As a result, no two original shows — including The Powerpuff Girls, Johnny Bravo, Samurai Jack
and Courage the Cowardly Dog —
look the same.
What's more, Cartoon is willing to give creators a second chance when a show gets critical acclaim, but doesn't charm the audiences. Sheep in the Big City, which ran from 2000 to 2001, found critical support for its similarities to Rocky and His Friends
(Rocky and Bullwinkle), but didn't shepherd a big audience. But the show's production team stayed together to do Codename: Kids Next Door, the network's latest hit.
Cartoons are risky business
Simensky and Cartoon's fortune is predicated on finding talent and nurturing it through the pitfalls of making a distinctive series. "You take risks on shows others wouldn't take risks on. You try not to do the same thing over and over again," she said. "Sometimes the show works, sometimes it doesn't. But you want to keep a good environment that embraces the unusual from your talent."
"Cable is where it is today because the majority of people working in the field were willing to take risks and make the medium truly different from broadcast network TV," she added. "Viewers look to cable for unique shows. Even the more conservative cable networks are more daring than the broadcast networks. And I want to stay in cable because it's so much more daring."
Nickelodeon provided Simensky with her first cable experience in 1984, when she interned during her senior year of college. After graduating, she spent a year assisting in Showtime's programming department, then moved back to Nick as a scheduler. When the channel created its own original animation department, Simensky headed to duties there. After Doug, Rugrats
and Ren & Stimpy
premiered in 1991, she broadened her scope to supervising pilots, ultimately becoming supervising producer for the long-running Rocko's Modern Life.
When Cartoon Network hit the scene, Simensky found the idea of a 24-hour channel for the genre "a dream come true," and one she wanted to nurture. She joined the upstart as programming director. "It was time to move to the next thing, a workplace with a lot of potential. Nick was young, but Cartoon was younger, showcasing a desire to take chances and foster experimentation," she noted.
For her, Powerpuff Girls
stands out as her most notable career achievement. Girls Inc. recognized Simensky for her role in getting Powerpuff
on the air and, with creator Craig McCracken's team and touch, advancing positive role models for girls. "The show made it into the nation's vernacular and put us on the map as being a cultural force," Simensky said. "It's great to have hits and shows kids love, but it's nice to have a show that impacts people in a bigger way."
Simensky's work at Cartoon, along with her creation of Women In Animation's New York chapter and other projects, earned her the June Foray Award last year. Named after Rocky's voice-over star, the award goes to individuals making a significant, benevolent impact on toon life.
Toons on tap
As for Cartoon's life in 2003, Adult Swim's new nightly presence is a priority. So are the series or two derived from AOL Time Warner stable mates DC Comics and Warner Bros. And of course, more shows from the independent ranks.
"The thing that surprises me about my own abilities is that I can do a lot more work than I expect I can do. Somehow my work all gets done, maybe because I love the stuff," she said. "But the job is humbling. You're the den mom for a bunch of incredibly talented people who count on you. So you realize you're only as good as the creative teams you're working with."
She wants to see more women go into cable, as well as animation. There are plenty of female cartoon show producers and writers, but very few engaged in hands-on creation, drawing or directing.
"Focus on learning from the job you're going after, have excitement about learning new things and learning from great thinkers," Simensky advised. "Be open-minded. If you want a job in a niche cable channel, know about the niche as much as possible. Women have become a big part of cable network management, and as there are more networks, there are more options for women."
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