"It was like nothing we had ever seen before," said Jenna Boyd, senior vice president of animation development at Nickelodeon Animation. "We loved the way they kept the audience on their toes."
Nickelodeon ordered 20 episodes. Each episode contains two 11-minute story arcs.
To appeal to today's crop of boys ages 6 to 11, the ducks are fluent in mixed martial arts, throwing "booty kicks" with their bottom ends and "party punches" with their four-finger hands. And the ducks have little-kid problems: Buhdeuce throws a tantrum on his way to a haircut and he has trouble tying his shoes. SwaySway is there to help.
These are not cynical cartoon characters that might be found on Fox or Cartoon Network. Instead, the ducks are good citizens who get scared when they encounter furry, three-eyed monsters. To deliver their bread, the pair braves an encounter with leather-jacketed "Biker Ducks" that live in a sketchy part of town — the "Lower Yeast Side."
The inspiration, said Di Raffaele, was growing up in an Italian American family in the suburbs of New York, where bread was a staple of meals. "And we think gluten has been getting a bad rap lately," Di Raffaele said.
The pair met in Burbank more than two years ago, when both worked on the "Mad" TV show for Cartoon Network. Di Raffaele was an animator, and Borst was a writer. Di Raffaele shyly approached Borst one day in the coffee room and asked whether he did any writing outside of work.
"He looked approachable," the earnest Di Raffaele said. Di Raffaele had been doodling characters for years but felt he needed help in the storytelling department.
Borst, who had worked in Nickelodeon's promo department in New York before moving to Los Angeles to pursue his dream of becoming a TV writer, had found writing work, but it was tough breaking into TV in a big way. By early 2012, he had quit his job to move to San Francisco, where his girlfriend lived. He was writing a zombie novel and was "waiting for the phone to ring."
It was Di Raffaele who called, telling him to "forget the book" and instead collaborate on a cartoon to enter into the Midsummer Night Toons festival that summer in New York.
Because Borst, a 36-year-old New Jersey native, liked Di Raffaele's style of animation and the birds' big-brother, little-brother relationship, he agreed.
"At its core, the show is about two best friends," Borst said. His pal, Di Raffaele, 31, added: "They are in it together."
To voice the characters, Di Raffaele found Daymond on an open casting website. To audition for the parts, both actors went to Di Raffaele's small Studio City apartment, the Doodle Chamber. Di Raffaele then worked around the clock to draw the characters.
"I almost killed myself," he said. "Some nights I didn't sleep at all."
Borst and Di Raffaele (neither is married, and neither has kids) said they wanted to differentiate the show with a musical score (Di Raffaele drafted a friend, Tommy Sica, who used to play with him in a band, to develop the beat). And they wanted the show to be funny — and upbeat.
"The world is filled with a lot of craziness, and we wanted to breathe a more optimistic light into it," Di Raffaele said.
For two producers who toiled for years in near obscurity, the ducks' rallying cry might as well be theirs: "No matter the challenge, no matter what, we always deliver and we never give up."
After the rebound
Nickelodeon's 2011-12 ratings slump rattled the entire company. Nickelodeon channels, including Nicktoons, make up the largest and most profitable business for the parent company, Viacom.