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'Schmigadoon!' Co-Creator Says Series Was Inspired By A 'Love Affair' With Musicals


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. One of my favorite things lately has been watching "Schmigadoon!", the series that is both a tribute to and a satire of musicals of the 1940s and early '50s, like "Oklahoma," "Carousel," "The Sound Of Music," "The Music Man," and, of course, "Brigadoon." My guest, Cinco Paul, wrote all the songs. He also co-created and co-wrote the series. Along with his writing partner, Ken Daurio, he wrote the animated films "Despicable Me," "The Secret Life Of Pets" and their Dr. Seuss adaptations "Horton Hears A Who!" and "The Lorax."

"Schmigadoon!" is streaming on Apple TV+. It stars Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key as a couple who try to repair their relationship by taking a hike in the woods. They get lost in the woods, cross over a bridge, and suddenly they're in a small town called Schmigadoon that looks like a stage or movie set from the early 20th century. The women are wearing prairie dresses with long petticoats. The men are dressed like they're in a barbershop quartet. It turns out in this town, life is a musical, and it's a musical set at the turn of the century. People sing their feelings and dance, too. This is initially charming for the Cecily Strong character, but Keegan-Michael Key's character hates musicals. Soon, they realize they're trapped in this musical, and like it or not, their conversations will be interrupted by townspeople breaking out into song.

In this scene, the couple has just entered Schmigadoon, and they are totally disoriented. Then the townspeople break out into song. See if you can recognize what inspired this song.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Schmigadoon, where the sun shines bright from July to June and the air's as sweet as a macaroon - Schmigadoon. Schmigadoon, where it's warm and safe as a new cocoon and our hearts all glow like a harvest moon - Schmigadoon. Schmigadoon, where the men are men and the cows are cows, and the farmers smile as they push their plows and the trees are tall, and we call it Schmigadoon. Our schoolmarm is Emma Tate. She helps our kids to punctuate.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (Singing, as character) Still unmarried at 28.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (Singing, as characters) In Schmigadoon. Farmer McDonough craved a son...

GROSS: Cinco Paul, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thank you so much for creating this series (laughter).

CINCO PAUL: Oh (laughter), thank you for having me.

GROSS: How did you come up with the idea of a musical about people trapped in a musical set in the early 20th century?

PAUL: Well, it's kind of crazy. I had the idea for this almost 25 years ago, and it was while I was watching the movie "An American Werewolf In London," of all things - one of my favorite movies. And it opens with, you know, two friends hiking through the wilderness, and they're hiking over the countryside. And I suddenly thought, wow, the opening to this is very much like the opening to "Brigadoon." And then I thought, what if these two modern guys, instead of stumbling on a town that has a werewolf, stumbled on a town that was in a musical? And that was the germ of the idea, but I didn't really know what to do with it, so it was one of those that I just filed away. But what really cracked it for me was, oh, instead of two friends, it should be a couple so that it is more of a romantic comedy and it can be more about what does love mean? What's true love really mean? I think that's why for 25 years nothing happened with it, because it was - it needed that addition to really crack it.

GROSS: So the Cecily Strong character loves musicals. The Keegan-Michael Key character hates musicals. Why did you want him to hate musicals?

PAUL: Well, I thought it was really important. I mean, first of all, it's really funny to have someone who hates musicals be stuck in a musical, but also for him to be the eyes and ears of the people, unlike me, who don't love musicals. And in many ways, that was Ken, and in many ways, it's my wife, you know, that...

GROSS: Oh, boy. You're trapped.


PAUL: I'll tell you, we - Ken and I, you know, played music all the time when we were writing. And whenever a musical theater song would somehow pop up in my mix, he would say skip.


PAUL: He was not a fan. He's become a little more of a fan. And, you know, I wouldn't say my wife hates musicals, but she does not, you know, embrace them in the way that I do. So it was really important for the show to have that perspective.

GROSS: One of the things in some musicals is - the love affairs in some musicals, I think, would be considered pretty age-inappropriate now (laughter). Like, for example, "The Sound Of Music," where, like, she's a young nun who's just left the convent, and she ends up, you know, falling in love with this kind of mean-spirited older man who, of course, becomes a much better human being as soon as he falls in love with her - this kind of, like, magical transformation. And "South Pacific" - there's a younger woman who ends up falling in love with an older man. I think you have a shout-out to that.

PAUL: Yes (laughter).

GROSS: And so is that one of the things you wanted to play with? And also, the idea that, like, love can totally transform a person into, you know - a kind of stern, rigid person into a much more loving, lovely person.

PAUL: You know, when we were in - early on, conceiving of the show and the journeys that our characters would take, I really wanted Cecily's character, Melissa, to be involved in what I think are the two big tropes in these old musicals. One is the bad boy, you know, which is the Billy Bigelow character. And then one is this - the older sort of father figure love interests, you know, that you see in "King And I" and "Sound Of Music" and "South Pacific." Like, clearly, it was a thing for Rodgers and Hammerstein. And it is - there is something weird about these old men, you know, sort of creating works of art in which there are these May-December romances. And so we played with that in two ways. Also, Keegan has, you know, this young farm girl pursuing him, played by Dove Cameron. And immediately, he's concerned about the age difference, especially because the actresses, you know, who play these roles were never actually teenagers (laughter). And so we play with that trope, as well.

GROSS: Some musicals have really corny scenes in them. And the kind of scene that always bores me is the picnic scene where it's like, this was a real nice clambake; I'm really glad we came. It's like, can we skip that? (Laughter) Can we skip that and get to the good stuff? And, you know, even, like, operas have, like, songs like that where there's, you know, like, a festival or, you know, a picnic or something. And, like, those are usually boring, too. And I never really understand the function that they serve. And you kind of have a song parodying that called "Corn Puddin'."

PAUL: Yes.

GROSS: And so the reason why they're singing about corn pudding is it's their first morning in town and they're sitting on the porch and about to have breakfast and they're asked if they want some corn pudding, and they don't even know what corn pudding is. And then the town just starts singing about how great corn pudding is. So I'd like you to talk a little bit about what you think of those moments in musicals where you have to sing about food or a picnic or a clambake.

PAUL: (Laughter) Yeah, I mean, "Corn Puddin'" came out of - initially, I was thinking, you know, what is the song that is most going to annoy Keegan's character?


PAUL: What would be the worst possible song to subject him to, you know? And it's just, oh, a song just about food and "Corn Puddin'" suddenly came to me as just that it's kind of the perfect representation of these sort of songs like "It's A Real Nice Clambake" (ph). Like, who cares? Like, you know?


PAUL: The songs really should move the story forward in some way. And I think that the worst example is "Shipoopi" from "Music Man," which is it brings everything to a grinding halt, and then this Marcellus character is just singing this nonsense song that has nothing to do with anything. And so that's what "Corn Puddin'" is. It's an ode to those songs. But the fun thing is that, ironically, in our show, it does move the story forward because this stupid song gets Keegan to say, OK, we're leaving. We're not going to spend another minute in this town.

GROSS: And the waitress delivering the corn pudding is the younger woman who's pursuing him.

PAUL: Yes.

GROSS: Why don't we hear "Corn Puddin'"? And we'll also hear the Cecily Strong character kind of join in in a verse, much to the Keegan-Michael Key character's annoyance.


CAST OF SCHMIGADOON!: (As characters, singing) My guy loves corn puddin'. I got the recipe. So if he wants my puddin', he'll have to marry me. Oh, he'll have to marry me. You put the corn in the puddin' and the puddin' in the bowl. You put the bowl in the belly 'cause it's good for the soul. You put the corn in the puddin' and the puddin' in the bowl. You put the bowl in the belly 'cause it's good for the soul.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing) Who wants corn puddin'?

CAST OF SCHMIGADOON!: (As characters, singing) We want corn puddin'.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing) Who wants corn puddin'?

CAST OF SCHMIGADOON!: (As characters, singing) We want corn puddin'.

CECILY STRONG: (As Melissa) I think they want us to take a verse.

KEEGAN-MICHAEL KEY: (As Josh) I'm not singing, and you're not singing.

STRONG: (As Melissa) Come on. Could be fun.

KEY: (As Josh) No. Do not.

STRONG: (As Melissa, singing) Never had corn puddin'.

KEY: (As Josh) Why?

STRONG: (As Melissa, singing) And it may be a waste, but if you've got some extry (ph)...

KEY: (As Josh) Extry (ph)?

STRONG: (As Melissa, singing) ...I sure would like a taste.

CAST OF SCHMIGADOON!: (As characters, singing) Oh, she sure would like a taste. Corn, corn, corn, corn, corn puddin'. Yum.

STRONG: (As Melissa) Yum. Oh, that was so weird. It was like as soon as I started singing, I knew what to say.

KEY: (As Josh) That's fantastic. Can we please go now?

STRONG: (As Melissa) What? Why?

KEY: (As Josh) Are you serious? The entire town and you just spent the last five minutes singing about corn pudding.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Did somebody say corn puddin'?

KEY: (As Josh) That's it. We're leaving.

STRONG: (As Melissa) OK, well, that one's on you.

CAST OF SCHMIGADOON!: (As characters, singing) Corn puddin', corn puddin', corn puddin', corn puddin', corn puddin', corn puddin'.

GROSS: The music is kind of like a hoedown.

PAUL: Yes.

GROSS: It just reminded me, too, that when I was in school, we had to learn some of that kind of dancing - you know, like, square dancing.

PAUL: Yeah, that was part of the curriculum somehow.

GROSS: Yeah. It's like, why are we learning this? We live in Brooklyn. Like, what are you thinking?

PAUL: (Laughter) I guess it was more appropriate for me growing up in Phoenix. I wonder, is square dancing still taught in some schools? I feel like when my kids were little, they were still teaching square dancing. There must be a lobby somewhere that is making sure that that's still taught in schools.

GROSS: (Laughter) I like that idea of the square dancing lobby.

PAUL: Yeah.

GROSS: OK. Let me reintroduce you here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Cinco Paul, and he co-created, co-wrote and then wrote all the songs for the satirical musical series "Schmigadoon!" which is now streaming on Apple TV+. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Cinco Paul. He co-created and co-wrote all the songs for the new series "Schmigadoon!" a loving satire of classic musicals from the '40s and early '50s, like "Oklahoma!" "Carousel," "The Music Man," "The Sound Of Music," "South Pacific" and "Brigadoon." He also co-wrote the animated films "Despicable Me," "The Secret Life Of Pets," "Horton Hears A Who!" and "The Lorax."

I want to get to another song. We all know that so many performers on Broadway historically have been gay, and it's only in recent years that they've been able to be out, and it's only recently that there are actually musicals about gay people who are out of the closet. So you have a few really funny references to, like, closeted gay people in musicals. One of the really funny songs - the mayor, who's played by Alan Cumming, is secretly gay, and it's a secret he's never disclosed to anybody. And he sings a song that kind of is a "Secret Love" kind of song that...

PAUL: Yes, where he inadvertently reveals to Cecily's character that he's gay.

GROSS: Because she has gaydar and no one in the town does.

PAUL: Yes, exactly.

GROSS: But the mayor's wife sings a song that's called "He's A Queer One, That Man O' Mine." She has no clue that he's gay, but she knows that, you know, he's different from the other men. And usually in those songs, that's like, he's wonderful. He's so different from other men. But in this one, it's kind of like, hmm, he's so different than other men.

I want you to talk about writing this 'cause this is an example of a song that I don't think closely adheres to another song. It's a kind of - there's references to other songs in it, including "You're A Queer One, Julie Jordan" from - that's from "Carousel," right?

PAUL: That's from "Carousel."

GROSS: Yeah. So - but talk about writing this and what you wanted to do with it.

PAUL: Yeah. I mean, to me, there is a trope in these musicals often. There's a song called "Something Wonderful" from "King And I" and another song from "Carousel" called "What's The Use Of Wond'rin'." And I guess there's also "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man Of Mine" (ph) - you know, these women who sing songs where, you know, he has maybe these flaws, but I still love him, you know? And so I wanted to play with that.

But this is a song where she has no clue that her husband is gay, and so she - but everything that is evidence that he's gay, she sees as a really positive quality. Like, he doesn't look at other women.


PAUL: You know, he's amazing, and he's so tender, and he loves cooking. And, you know, she talks about, like, other men are really harsh, and - but he's gentle, you know, like a lacy valentine (laughter). And for her, it's all these really positive qualities. But also, really, in many ways, the mayor's story is at the heart of the show 'cause he is one of these characters that, back in the day, could only be queer coded, you know? And - but because we have modern characters in "Schmigadoon!" now and Cecily's character really likes to get involved in people's lives, she helps push him to, you know, proclaim to the whole town who he really is. And Alan does such an amazing job with this character and really gives him depth and heart in a way that elevates it even beyond, you know, what I'd hoped he'd bring.

GROSS: Yeah, he's great in it. So this starts - this clip will start with Cecily Strong speaking. And I should say that the mayor's last name is Menlove.


GROSS: Another little clue. OK, so here's "He's A Queer One." And this is Ann Harada singing.


STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble) Mrs. Menlove, forgive me for asking, but how much do you really know about your husband?

ANN HARADA: (As Florence Menlove) That's a good question. He's a hard man to know, it seems - different. (Singing) Some men like to fight and curse. They smoke and drink and yell, leave you flat or, even worse, they stay and make life hell. But my man is gentle, as soft and sentimental as any lace adorned a valentine. He's a queer one, that man o' mine.

STRONG: (As Melissa) Oh, honey.

HARADA: (As Florence, singing) Some men stumble home at dark, want dinner and dessert. Other men have eyes that spark at every passing skirt. But my man loves cooking. I've never caught him looking at other gals more young, petite or fine. He's a queer one, that man o' mine.

STRONG: (As Melissa) This was literally me in high school.

HARADA: (As Florence, singing) Show me any other man more tender or expressive, I only wish that nightly he was slightly more aggressive.

STRONG: (As Melissa) There it is.

HARADA: (As Florence, singing) Sometimes it may seem like he is too good to be true, like there's a man that I can't see just aching to break through. I wish I could free him so I could finally see him the way he truly is and let him shine. He's a queer one, that mine o' mine.

GROSS: That's music from "Schmigadoon!" - the loving satire of '40s and early 1950s musicals. And my guest Cinco Paul co-created the series, co-wrote it and wrote all the songs.

That's really - it's a funny song, but it's also - it's a lovely song. It's a nice melody.

PAUL: Yeah. I mean, that was the intention. I never wanted the songs to be too jokey, if that makes sense. You know, I really wanted them - like, oh, that could genuinely have been a song sung in an undiscovered Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. And then it ends in a very - you know, Ann does an amazing job with the song. And it ends in a really sweet spot - right? - where she sort of wishes he could be who he really is. She suspects that he's not being his true self. She doesn't know what that actually means. But she really wishes the best for him and loves him.

GROSS: Well, let's take another break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Cinco Paul, and he co-wrote, co-created and wrote all the songs for the loving satire of musicals called "Schmigadoon!" that's now streaming on Apple TV+. And he also co-wrote the animated films "Despicable Me," "The Secret Life Of Pets," "Horton Hears A Who!" and "The Lorax." We'll be right back. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


KEY: (As Josh) Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. Please, no song. I'll do anything.

STRONG: (As Melissa) Guys, we're actually in the middle of something.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, vocalizing).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, singing) You can't plow a field without hitting some stones.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing) Every steak's bound to have some fat. You can't even fish without getting some bone, and you can't have love without having a lovers' spat.

KEY: (As Josh) Would you leave us alone for just a minute?

STRONG: (As Melissa) Seriously, please.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) First, she says something bound to get his gander. Then he says something mean to get her back. Then she complains that he don't understand her. And then he gives her a smack.

STRONG: (As Melissa) Oh. Oh, no, that's not OK - unless it's consensual.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) It's just a lovers' spat.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Let's get back to my interview with Cinco Paul. He co-created, co-wrote and wrote all the songs for the new series "Schmigadoon!", which is a loving satire of classic musicals from the 1940s and early '50s, like "Oklahoma!", "Carousel," "The Music Man," "The Sound Of Music," "South Pacific" and, of course, "Brigadoon." He also co-wrote the animated films "Despicable Me," "The Secret Life Of Pets," "Horton Hears A Who!" and "The Lorax."

How were you first exposed to musicals? Like, where did you grow up? Did you see music theater? Was this all through movies?

PAUL: I grew up in Phoenix, Ariz., so I didn't see a lot of shows live. But my mom really loved musicals. And she had cast recordings for - I specifically remember "Camelot" - you know, loving as a pretty young kid and listening to that. I was a weird kid, you know, singing "I Wonder What The King Is Doing Tonight" in my room...

GROSS: (Laughter).

PAUL: ...Memorizing (laughter) the lyrics. But I remember, you know, "Camelot" and "South Pacific" and "Guys And Dolls" and hearing those a lot. And so that's really - that's when my love affair with musicals began. But also, I remember seeing "Singin' In The Rain" for the first time as a kid and Donald O'Connor doing "Make Him Laugh (ph)." And I thought that was the greatest thing (laughter) I'd ever seen in my life. It was so funny. And I just loved it. So that's really where it began when I was a kid.

And then I think a real key moment was - I think I was 14 and was asked to play piano for my high school's musical. And it was "How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying." And that really changed everything because then suddenly, that became my tribe, you know - the theater kids. And they embraced me.

And, you know, I desperately wanted to be on stage. But probably because I didn't really belong there, they kept saying, no, but Cinco, we need you (laughter) on the piano. Please continue playing piano for us. But that's really where it deepened into something different. It became my community, you know?

GROSS: Did you want to continue in the musical community 'cause that's not the direction you went in until now?

PAUL: You know, in college, I always sort of - you know, I wanted to be on stage. And so in college, I tried out for several musicals and didn't get in. And I did end up playing piano (laughter) for a bunch of them. And so at some point, I realized, well, maybe that's not my thing.

And then I was really interested in being a pop musician. You know, I'd always written songs from a pretty early age. And so I think - there was maybe a sense that, well, musical theater isn't cool, and I want to be Elvis Costello, you know? And so that's what I focused - but people would continually tell me, oh, that sounds like something from a musical.

GROSS: (Laughter).

PAUL: And I was really offended. I'd say, like, what are you talking about? This is rock 'n' roll, you know? And so I think (laughter) life was telling me that that's where I belonged.

But - and then I - you know, life is just weird. You get - we make little choices, and it pulls you in different directions. And I got pulled into screenwriting and then ended up writing all these animated movies. And I sort of set that part of me aside for a while.

GROSS: Can you sing a few bars of one of your Elvis Costello-ish songs?

PAUL: (Laughter) Oh, my goodness. Let's see.

(Singing) Of man's last mistake and woman's first hurt to the final heartache, from a fall to flirt - I won't forgive and forget anymore.

Oh, my gosh. I haven't sung that song since I was, like, 19. That's a Cinco Paul classic called "Forgive And Forget."


GROSS: So you had a band?

PAUL: Yeah. You know, I had a band in high school. But it was kind of like me just forcing them to accompany me for (laughter) all my songs.

GROSS: (Laughter).

PAUL: So it wasn't a true band in the real sense. And then I just would do solo stuff, you know? I learned to play a bunch of instruments. And then I'd go into the recording studio and make albums. And really that was kind of my dream. You know, I wanted to be Elvis Costello, Randy Newman, Paul McCartney - you know, all my heroes.

And there was a point where I realized - I got married. And we were expecting our first child. And we were in North Carolina at the time. My wife was in med school. And the plan was always after med school, we'll go to LA. And I'll pursue my music career. But with impending fatherhood upon me, suddenly I started to really question like, what is that going to be? And is that the life I want?

So I got the idea to apply to film school. And I always felt very safe in academic settings. So I thought, I'll apply to film school. And if I get into USC or UCLA, that'll mean, you know, that maybe that's the direction my career should go. And I got into USC. And that kind of changed everything and got me on the screenwriting track as opposed to the pop-musician track.

GROSS: Now, we left something out of your music career, your early music career. You're a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints (ph), which most people, I think, know as the Mormon Church. Your mother was a part of the church. Your father was Catholic, but not practicing. And you got baptized, I think, after - right before or right after graduating from Yale.

PAUL: No, right - yeah, right before I headed off to college.

GROSS: OK. And there was a musical celebrating the 150th anniversary of the church. And I think you wrote the songs for that.

PAUL: I wrote everything. I wrote the book and the music and lyrics for that. It was about a modern girl and her great, great, great grandmother, who was a pioneer girl, who switch places.

GROSS: Gosh. That's almost a little bit like "Schmigadoon!", where the modern and the past are colliding.

PAUL: I know. I feel like maybe I've been writing the same thing over and over my whole career.


GROSS: So what was - was it a comedy? Or was it serious? Was it...

PAUL: Yeah. It was comedy, which was, you know, sort of very different. Usually, these productions are pretty serious, you know, and reverential and a funny look at, you know, this - it was two fish-out-of-water scenarios, right? They both switch places with each other. But, you know, it was only a couple performances. But it was really well-received.

And the biggest thing that happened in that was that's where I met my writing partner, Ken Daurio. He auditioned and was in the show. He, unlike me, is someone who belongs (laughter) on stage. And we became friends. We formed a band. And then at some point I said, let's write a script together. And that changed everything.

GROSS: But getting back to the musical that you did for the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, what was the reaction in the church to the musical?

PAUL: Everybody really likes it. It got a bunch of laughs because I think people just weren't used to seeing one of these productions and have it be, really, a comedy at its heart. And so they actually - like, seven years later, they revived it (laughter). So I've had a revival of a musical.

GROSS: (Laughter)

PAUL: And they did it again seven years later but haven't done it since then. It's just sort of been languishing.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you again. If you're just joining us, my guest is Cinco Paul. And he co-created, co-wrote and wrote all the songs for the new series "Schmigadoon!," which is a loving satire of classic musicals from the '40s and early '50s. It's streaming on Apple TV+. He also co-wrote the animated films "Despicable Me," "The Secret Life Of Pets," "Horton Hears A Who!" and "The Lorax." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Cinco Paul, who co-created, co-wrote and wrote all the songs for the new satirical musical series "Schmigadoon!". And he also co-wrote the animated films "Despicable Me," "The Secret Life Of Pets," "Horton Hears A Who!" and "The Lorax." So you and your writing partner, Ken Daurio, used to sing your pitches when you were pitching a film idea.

PAUL: (Laughter).

GROSS: So please, you must sing one of your pitches.

PAUL: Well, see; that - (laughter) I mean, we wouldn't sing the pitch, right? We wouldn't say, (singing) this is a story about a guy, you know? Who is, you know, in trouble with the law. No, that would be a nightmare (laughter). We would have been kicked out of everybody's office. But we would sing in our pitches, like, if there were a musical moment. And we would often put a musical moment in our stories. So it was a moment, you know, I guess you would call it non-diegetic, when people are singing as part of the story. So we would generally sing that.

GROSS: Can you give us an example?

PAUL: There was - we were pitching our take on a movie called "Car Wars" about two rival car dealers. And one becomes friends with the other. And so he would sing to him, (singing) you are so beautiful to me.


PAUL: And so it was kind of a shtick we'd do. So I would generally sing to Ken. And Ken would play the person being very uncomfortable with being sung to. And then I would sing the song to him. And we'd sort of play off the comedy of that, which I guess is, in many ways, a lot of the comedy that's in "Schmigadoon!". But it was fun because I would always push it further than we had ever done (laughter) in rehearsal during the actual pitch meeting. And we would play with each other in that way. There was a lot of improv, you know, in our pitches because we had a partner there. And so that's often how the musical part of it would play out.

GROSS: Let me ask you about "Despicable Me." And this is a character who's competing to be the worst villain in the world. And he's not that great of a villain, really.


GROSS: So he's going to try to steal the moon. And what he's done is, like, you know, he stole a replica of the Eiffel Tower and a replica...

PAUL: And the Statue of Liberty from Vegas.

GROSS: ...Of the Statue of Liberty. Yeah, a replica from Vegas, like a souvenir, basically. How did you come up with the idea for this?

PAUL: Well, the original idea came from a Spanish animator named Sergio Pablos, who had pitched Chris Meledandri the idea of a villain who adopted three little girls in order to pull off a heist. And so Chris then pitched that to me and Ken. And instantly, we fell in love with the idea. And it was really the broadest of concepts, I think, that Sergio would come up with. And so then it was up to us to flesh it out and, you know, come up with - because I don't think the moon was part of that story. And so that's where it started. But then, you know, it was our job to write the complete story and come up with all the characters.

GROSS: And you created the minions, which are these, like, animated henchmen. Would you describe what they look like for anyone who hasn't seen the film?

PAUL: (Laughter) If there are people out there who have not, you know, been exposed to minions, you know, more power to you.

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah, they kind of took over.

PAUL: They're like these little, yellow, pill-like creatures that have goggles on either their two or one single eyes. And they wear blue overalls. And really, I have to give up much of the credit for the minions to Pierre Coffin, who is the director. And he really came up with that design and the concept. Ken and I wrote that Gru had minions. But it was really Pierre who came up with the concept. And he does all the voices for the minions as well.

GROSS: Was there a whole lot of minions merch?

PAUL: It's interesting. When the first movie came out, we couldn't get anyone (laughter) to, you know, make toys or anything. They, like, tried everywhere. And no one was interested. And then suddenly, the movie came out and, you know, was a surprise hit. And the minions took off. And then suddenly, you know, everybody was knocking down their door. But initially - it's funny - we could - no one was interested. But now, they're everywhere, unfortunately. My apologies.


GROSS: Does that make more money than the movie even does?

PAUL: I don't know because, you know, we don't see any of that money in animation.

GROSS: You don't see the merch money?



PAUL: We don't get residuals from the movies in animation. It's kind of a pet peeve of mine. And it's - I feel like it's unfair and not right because it takes as much work to write an animated movie - it takes more, actually, than to write a live action movie. But you're not protected by the Writers Guild, so...

GROSS: Why is that? Why aren't you in the Writers Guild?

PAUL: It's a long story. But really, you know, when animation started out, they didn't have writers. And so it's never fallen under the auspices of the Writers Guild. There's people pushing for it and trying to make it happen, and I think in TV animation, they've gotten more power for animation writers. But it's one of those things that if the studio doesn't have to give it, they won't. And so you can imagine there's a lot of money that Ken and I could have gotten from these movies that we have not because we don't get residuals.

GROSS: Wow. That's just really shocking to me. I had no idea. Is that one of the reasons why you're kind of done for now with animation?

PAUL: Not really 'cause - I know it sounds super corny, but it really was never about the money for me, you know? But for me, it was just - you know, we were doing all these sequels, and I just was not interested in that and really wanted to stretch some other muscles, particularly the songwriting muscle. And so that's really why I decided to leave.

GROSS: What are some of the movies and some of the cartoons that you grew up with?

PAUL: The first cartoon I saw that really impacted me, I think, was "The Jungle Book." I loved that movie so much, and the songs in that are so good. And then I have to say the Marx Brothers have played a huge role in my life. I'm sure that's why I ended up writing movies. I saw my first Marx Brothers movie when I was 10 on TV, and I fell in love with the Marx Brothers and became obsessed. And that really led to my love of movies and reading about movies and then starting to make my own with our family's Super 8 camera, which we'd gotten for home movies, you know, on vacation. And suddenly, I used it just to make movies with all the neighborhood kids.

GROSS: You love movies, and you and your writing partner, Ken Daurio, have a podcast. Is it still going on, your podcast?

PAUL: Yeah, it's called "Make Him Watch It." And we make each other watch a movie we've never seen before.

GROSS: Then you have a couple episodes where you share your opinions of films of the '80s and films of the '90s. But I want to play the theme song from this because I think it's you and Ken actually singing the song?

PAUL: It is. I wrote the song (laughter).

GROSS: Oh, you wrote the song. And so in the spirit of turning your life into a musical (laughter), I just want to play the opening theme from your podcast, "Make Him Watch It."


KEN DAURIO AND CINCO PAUL: (Singing) Make him watch it. Make him watch it.

PAUL: (Singing) There's lots of movies Ken hasn't seen.

KEN DAURIO: (Singing) Some Cinco hasn't seen, too.

PAUL: (Singing) So now that there's COVID-19...

DAURIO AND PAUL: (Singing) Here's what we're going to do. We're going to make him watch it for a podcast. We can't wait to make him watch it - with Cinco and Ken.

GROSS: (Laughter) I really love that. It's so, like, vaudeville era. Did you...

PAUL: (Laughter) Yes.

GROSS: How were you introduced to music of that period?

PAUL: I mean, it probably came from my love of the Marx Brothers, you know? And, you know, their - a lot of their movies were kind of musicals, you know - "The Cocoanuts," "Animal Crackers." "Horse Feathers" has a lot of songs in it. So I think that led to my love of these 1920s songs - you know, the Tin Pan Alley stuff. And from the - I was a weird little kid, Terry, I have to say.


PAUL: Like, to be a 10- or 11-year-old kid obsessed with that sort of music was very odd. But I just - I loved it from an early age.

GROSS: Well, listen; congratulations on "Schmigadoon!" Please do a Season 2. And it's been great to talk with you.

PAUL: From your mouth to God's ears. Terry, I have to say, it is so meaningful to me that you like the show and that you responded to it like this. Thank you so much.

GROSS: Cinco Paul wrote all the songs for the satirical musical series "Schmigadoon!" - which he also co-created and co-wrote. It's streaming on Apple TV+. After we take a short break, Justin Chang will review the new film "CODA," about a teenage child of deaf parents co-starring Marlee Matlin as one of the parents. It won four awards at this year's virtual Sundance Film Festival. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONNY ROLLINS' "I'M AN OLD COWHAND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.