When Mike Lazzo was 15, he came home from school every day, made popcorn and watched "Speed Racer." One afternoon, in the middle of some epic tussle between Speed and Racer X, his mother told him to mow the lawn. He said no. He had to finish watching the show.
"And she said, 'You know, son, these cartoons are not going to do you any good when you need to go out and find a job,' " Lazzo recalls.
How wrong she was. Lazzo, 36, is the vice president of programming--the top cat--at Ted Turner's 2-year-old Cartoon Network.
"Of course, I had no idea watching cartoons would pay off," he said. "I just loved them. To think that I get a paycheck for doing this is flabbergasting. I'd do it for a dollar a week."
He makes a lot more than that pondering such earthshaking Cartoon Network questions as what time of day is best for "Yogi Bear" and whether Dino of "The Flintstones" fame is a dog or a dinosaur. (Viewers decided dinosaur.)
"Mom still doesn't get it," Lazzo said. "She thinks it's silly I'm still playing with cartoons. I guess she'd rather I was a doctor or a lawyer. A fireman even."
As head programmer for the only TV network that runs nothing but cartoons, Lazzo spends much of his time developing new animated products to complement the Cartoon Network's library of oldies, consisting mostly of Hanna-Barbera cartoons acquired when Turner purchased the company in 1991.
So far the Cartoon Network--which is available in about 10 million homes nationwide, barely one-sixth of all houses with cable--has two pieces of original animation on the air, designed in part to make the channel more indispensable to viewers so that more cable operators will make room for it on their systems.
The first piece is Moxy, a renegade computer-generated dog who works at the network and operates his own pirate feed out of a broom closet, which is used mostly in between regular programming or to introduce a batch of themed cartoons. Voiced by comedian Bobcat Goldthwait, Moxy periodically interrupts the network's regular feed to present, for example, his favorite batch of "Huckleberry Hound" episodes.
The second original program, "Space Ghost Coast to Coast," came out of the hype that has surrounded the late-night talk-show scene the last two years. Lazzo and his staff were sitting around trying to figure out a creative way to use Space Ghost--that famous animated super-hero from the 1960s and one of Lazzo's all-time favorite cartoon characters--and concocted this scenario:
Sitting up on the ghost planet, having vanquished all of his archenemies, bored out of his cape, Space Ghost hears about the talk-show wars on Earth and decides he has to get into the battle. He builds his own set and hires a band and a director--all animated and all up in outer space somewhere. In each show he interviews famous earthlings, who appear in live form on a TV screen beside his desk, interspersing the usual dull talk-show questions with his own special inquiries: What are your superpowers? Do you have any secret identities? Who are your archenemies?
So far, guests have included diet guru Susan Powter, cast members from "Gilligan's Island," the Bee Gees and "Tonight Show" bandleader Branford Marsalis. Upcoming on the 15-minute show, which airs Fridays at 11 p.m., will be David Byrne and the band Sonic Youth. The network has produced six "Space Ghost" shows so far and is making 13 more.
But the big project over the next two years, Lazzo said, will be the creation and presentation of 48 original six-minute shorts. They've hired dozens of animators, many just out of art school and some, like Ralph Bakshi ("Fritz the Cat" and "Cool World"), with much experience and an edgy reputation. The cartoons will begin turning up in January.
"Animation started with these kinds of shorts back in the '30s and '40s with such wigged-out directors like Tex Avery, Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones. This is where characters like Bugs and Daffy came from," Lazzo said. "Hopefully out of these, we will develop some new Yogi Bears, and when something hits, we'll make more."
The bulk of the network's schedule, however, is dedicated to old cartoons such as "The Flintstones," "The Jetsons" and "The Smurfs." Lazzo said he has some 8,500 cartoons at his disposal from Hanna-Barbera as well as the old pre-1948 Warner Bros.-MGM cartoons with Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck and some old Popeye and Betty Boop episodes.
Although he would like to buy other types of animation, especially certain cutting-edge cartoons from Japan, he is for now limited to what Turner has in the closet.
"Ted has said, 'I bought you a library, now utilize it,' " said Lazzo, who worked his way up from the shipping department at Turner's WTBS in Atlanta. "I could spend lots of money picking up different cartoons that I want, and hopefully I will be able to do that at some point, but for now I have barely touched all the stuff I do have."
And he knows the plot of just about all of them--everything from Col. Bleep to Sylvester the Cat. Even cartoon fanatics would be hard-pressed to name a cartoon that has been on TV that Lazzo doesn't know about. He attributes his obsession to the fact that his family moved frequently when he was young.
"I was shy and each year when we'd move to a new town, I found it difficult to meet new friends. But I found it extremely easy to find my favorite cartoon show I'd watched in my previous locale," Lazzo said. "So as I grew up, my friends were the Jetsons and Huckleberry and my comic books. I just grew to love these things. They were my buddies, and as I got older it didn't go away. I still love to sit down and watch Jonny Quest."
And now he gets paid for it--more than enough to hire someone to cut his mother's lawn.