Emmy-winning writer and composer Billy Lopez has racked up an impressive resume of credits on a variety of pre-school shows, beginning in 2005 with a stint as script coordinator on Nick Jr’s The Wonder Pets! before he worked his way up to head writer on that show, and subsequently on 3rd & Bird!, Cloud Bread, and Peg + Cat.
With Welcome to the Wayne, Mr. Lopez launched the first digital series for Nickelodeon, introducing a trio of kids — Ansi Molina and siblings Saraline and Olly Timbers — investigating the Wayne, the weirdest apartment building on the planet. After a successful launch in 2014, the series was greenlit in 2015 for a 20-episode season that’s just about to premiere on TV. Assisting in the birthing of the series is executive producer Michael Pecoriello, who brought over 15 years of experience in kids media and a long history with Nickelodeon as VP of Editorial for Nick’s Creative Promotions Group and VP of Content Development for Nick’s Live Events Group. Before that, he was the supervising producer and head writer on Yu-Gi-Oh! and co-wrote and co-produced the Yu-Gi-Oh! The Movie feature film.
On the eve of the premiere of Welcome to the Wayne on Nickelodeon, we were able to talk with Billy Lopez and Michael Pecoriello via telephone about the series.
TOONZONE NEWS: I’m not sure I’ve ever seen or heard the full story of how Welcome to the Wayne got to Nickelodeon. You were the first to go from digital shorts to a full series.
BILLY LOPEZ: It was a really nice thing. I got a call from a good colleague of mine who was working for Nick Digital at the time, and she brought me in as part of an initiative to get pitches for short-form digital content from all sorts of writers and artists. I came in to the interview with maybe 15 or 20 very loose ideas. The idea for Welcome to the Wayne surfaced as everybody’s favorite, and we sort of built up the thing from there. Eventually we made 1 digital short, and based on the strength of that, we finished with another 5 digital shorts. As far as going from digital to the full-length, there was just a long development period following, and obviously we were hoping to get picked up for a full length series. We were lucky enough to get picked up and then we started exploring the different ways it would have to change in order to accommodate the new format.
MIKE PECORIELLO: And when I was brought in, the bromance began.
BILLY LOPEZ: That’s right! (Laughter)
TOONZONE NEWS: Mike, were you brought in during the original digital shorts or when it went to series?
MIKE PECORIELLO: I wasn’t on the original digital. I had worked for Nick for many years since the 90’s and was looking to do something new and exciting and knew about Welcome to the Wayne. After it got greenlit for series and they were looking to put a team together, I was brought in as sort of an interview process. This was in May 2015…a little over 2 years ago. So part of the process was obviously seeing how Billy and I worked together. And they put us in a room together without much direction and told us to see what we came out with.
BILLY LOPEZ: And then they had to go, “No, no! Stop fighting!”
MIKE PECORIELLO: The room was a mess! (Laughter) But it was pretty clear right away that we had really great creative chemistry, and our brains work really well together. By the end of that few hours of Billy spewing all these awesome ideas that he’s been thinking about for years and me throwing things back at him and writing things down and trying to organize it on the wall…by the end of that 2 hours, we had…
BILLY LOPEZ: Nothing!
MIKE PECORIELLO: NOTHING! Yeah, nothing! (Laughter)
TOONZONE NEWS: You had a lot of whiteboards with a lot of crazy nonsense on them.
MIKE PECORIELLO: Yeah, exactly! No, we actually did have the roadmap of what ultimately became season 1, and a lot of stuff that we worked on in those 2 hours stuck and became the framework for season 1.
BILLY LOPEZ: It was fun.
TOONZONE NEWS: What were the big changes or adjustments you needed make to go to those full 20 episodes?
BILLY LOPEZ: There ended up being a few things. For me, the big place where I put a lot of my mental energy — and I think a lot of us did — was deciding on the format. At one point in development of the full-length, it was going to be in 11-minute carts. Luckily, we all realized that that just wasn’t fitting the style of the storytelling we wanted to do, so we shifted to 22 minutes, and from there had to work our way into finding a loose template for telling the kind of stories that we wanted the 20 episodes to be composed of. They needed to be serialized but also to a degree standalone.
MIKE PECORIELLO: Yeah, and through that exploration of, “Is it 11? Is it 22? Is it highly serialized? Is it lightly serialized?” I think what we came out with was like the perfect balance of everything. We talked about this show having the pacing of an 11-minute series. It’s really fast paced, it’s a lot of comedy, it has that sort of SpongeBob, Loud House 11-minute pacing to it, but the story structure really is a three-act 22-minute story that’s able to really let the mystery and the lore of the show come through. The same thing with being able to tell a satisfying full story from beginning to end, where a kid can come in to episode 5 and if that’s the first one that they’ve seen, they won’t be confused and they won’t be lost. Hopefully they’ll just be intrigued to go back and watch the others. But I think the format we landed on allows us to do all those things.
TOONZONE NEWS: Nickelodeon provided me with some preview episodes, beyond the one that’s available now, and a LOT of stuff happens in an episode. They’re VERY dense. It almost feels like you’re watching an hour rather than a half-hour.
MIKE PECORIELLO: It’s an 11-minute, a 22-minute, AND an hour show all at once!
TOONZONE NEWS: Yeah, it’s like you’re getting the deluxe package deal. Nick should pay you more.
BILLY LOPEZ: We’ll use that in our marketing. “It’s 22-minutes but it feels like an hour!” (Laughter)
TOONZONE NEWS: “But in a GOOD way!” But you touched on something else I wanted to ask about, which is that shows today can assume that kids can play catch-up more easily than they could in the past. I know a lot of older cartoons would either avoid heavy continuity or those big season long arcs because they didn’t want new viewers to get lost. Did that trend figure into the way you made Welcome to the Wayne?
BILLY LOPEZ: Yeah, definitely to different degrees. For me, in regards to a full length series, I knew I wanted it to be very serialized if it would be allowed, but I actually was completely unaware of any current trends of whether kids liked serialization or not. There was a lot of discussion about it at Nickelodeon in general, which is partially why we came to this balanced format of having it both ways. But as far as it being an ascendant trend, I wasn’t even necessarily aware of that. Were you, Mike?
MIKE PECORIELLO: Yeah, I mean, I think there’s all these new ways to binge watch shows for all television in general, not just for kids, and more ways for TV to hook you in with a highly serialized arc. Kids are definitely binging shows as well, so it definitely has that appeal for kids. The hope is that they will get hooked into the mystery and play along and try to guess what’s happening. Kids also bounce around from show-to-show a lot, and what we also needed to do was still have the ability to be something where if they discover it later, that they can jump in at any time. That’s why having it be standalone and satisfying but also have the added benefit of the bigger mystery…it kind of works both ways. If you’re the type of kid that just wants to watch one episode every once in a while, you’ll find it fun, and if you’re the type of kid who wants to binge it and start from episode 1, and be in it for the big mystery, it’s got that too.
BILLY LOPEZ: It’s funny, because only recently did I look back at the real notes that I brought in, and the earliest one I can find, which I think is from the original pitch, is a different show. It’s still Welcome to the Wayne and it still has the Olly and Ansi characters, but I was originally pitching these kids after school in their crazy building, and it was going to be more of a magazine, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse kind of a show, where they’d play with their toys that were crazy, and they’d watch their favorite show so you’d have a cartoon within a cartoon, and they’d interact with their neighbors and their friends. They’d do all this so it was going to be more about “This building is really fun.” But as we talked about it, the idea of a mystery came up and that instantly took hold, so we weren’t on that initial idea for more than a day. I think the idea of the building and the setting with possibly limitless adventures stored within it was the appeal of that pitch and that’s where we got to where the show is now. From there, other than typical development stuff that any show will go through trying to find the characters and the voice and this and that, there haven’t been any huge dramatic changes.
TOONZONE NEWS: One character I wanted to ask about was Clara the librarian. I don’t know why, but I thought she was one of the coolest characters in the show.
MIKE PECORIELLO: It’s so funny that you should say that because that wasn’t anything we ever imagined was going to happen. When we put this in front of kids to see what they were responding to and not responding to — even really early on when we were putting animatics in front of kids as we were still making the show — we were so surprised at how many kids responded to Clara. For some of them it was the mystery of who she was, for some of them it was that they thought she was really cool and that she had these ninja skills, and some kids laughed hysterically because, “The grandma can flip around and jump on the ceiling!” But so many people all loved Clara and we were like, “Wow! Didn’t expect that!”
BILLY LOPEZ: I’m so glad that she resonated with you though. Totally.
TOONZONE NEWS: It might have been a combination of all those things. How can you not love your grandma ninja librarian character?
BILLY LOPEZ: She’s partially based on my second grade teacher, who is a very compelling and stern teacher. She had this steel in her eyes and her voice that she could get you to listen, but she was also a warm and lovely person. It was great to be able to put her in there a little bit.
TOONZONE NEWS: Are there other characters who are inspired by people in your life that you’re willing to talk about publicly?
BILLY LOPEZ: That’s a great phrase to append to the question. I will just say that there’s lots of bits and pieces of lots of people in here. As far as individual character traits, there’s definitely a few. I’m not necessarily willing to out anybody or anything like that, and the truth is after working on it for this long, I’ve kind of forgotten who went into whom. Mike is able to remind me every now and then: “Oh, you know, you were thinking about this person from high school.” And I think, “Oh, you’re right!” That’s where that came from initially. But I think with all the writing I’ve done, pretty much anybody I’m writing either is a voice in my own head or partially based on a voice I’ve heard in my life. There’s no escaping it, you know?
TOONZONE NEWS: You mentioned earlier that you’d worked out the basic beats of the first season. Did you end up having to make any major changes or adjustments once you moved into production?
MIKE PECORIELLO: Good question. I would say the way that we did this for season 1 and it seemed to work pretty well, is that we know where we’re starting, we have a pretty good idea where we’re ending, and we map out the major beats along the way, but we also keep it flexible. We have to tell these standalone stories and we don’t want to lock ourselves into things that prevent us from making satisfying standalone episodes. We keep it flexible enough so that it can develop and meander and move around as we go, just making sure that we hit the major things we want to hit along the way and we know what we’re building towards at the end. I think that’s how we made this work.
BILLY LOPEZ: Definitely. And there were lots of shifting things within that larger structure that stayed pretty much the same. Sometimes episode 14 became episode 15, you know, or finding the best possible arrangement of these puzzle pieces that we had come up with. Hopefully the most satisfying arrangement for the viewer. So even though you can have a road map, you’re not going to follow it precisely for very long, is what I’m saying. You’re still going to be making it up along the way.
MIKE PECORIELLO: And hopefully still get to where you had intended to go when you started.
BILLY LOPEZ: Exactly.
TOONZONE NEWS: Have you thought beyond the first season’s 20 episodes at all?
MIKE PECORIELLO: Well, Billy has about 12 seasons worth of world in his head (laughter), which…it’s not even a joke. The first time we met and talked about this world and where it was going, there were things that Billy would even say, “Oh, that’s probably like a season 10 kind of a thing.” It is so rich with ideas that it can go on for a very, very long time, and we’ve already started thinking about the next story we want to tell. We can’t say for sure what’s happening next, but we’re definitely starting to think about and work out the next part of this story, which — fingers crossed — the world will get to see.
MIKE PECORIELLO: We’re almost done. We’ve got 2 more episodes that are finishing up animation now and they still have to be mixed, but I think 18 of the 20 are just about done.
BILLY LOPEZ: It’s like another month or so of production left.
TOONZONE NEWS: So that’s been the 2 years to get from the series announcement to now.
MIKE PECORIELLO: Yeah, a little over two. It was like a couple of months of development, and then production kicked in just over a little two years ago.
BILLY LOPEZ: Wow.
TOONZONE NEWS: Is there anything that you want to make sure that fans take note of or are aware of before they start watching?
BILLY LOPEZ: We just want them to be aware that it’s really really good and really really funny, despite what they may feel after watching it (laughter). So they can keep that in mind and eventually just believe that.
MIKE PECORIELLO: But I would say that not only is it funny and awesome and they’re going to love it, but it’s the kind of show that you should watch over and over and over again because there is so much hidden in there. And it can be enjoyed on so many levels that they should watch the reruns, they should watch it online, and they should look really closely because it’s built to be viewed many times.
Toonzone News would like to thank Billy Lopez and Mike Pecoriello for talking with us, and the team at Nickelodeon PR for setting up the interview. Welcome to the Wayne premieres on Nickelodeon on July 24, 2017, at 5:30 PM (ET/PT). For more details, check out Welcome to the Wayne on Nick.com.