Going Batty: Alan Burnett talks about Batman: The Animated Series

Trevor Hogg chats with Alan Burnett about the landmark television show Batman: The Animated Series, which originally aired 20 years ago…

“I was a story editor the last two seasons of Super Friends [ABC, 1973 to 1986], when it was called Galactic Guardians or some such name,” recalls Emmy Award-winning Writer-Producer Alan Burnett (Batman: Year One). “We were trying to be a little more serious with the DC characters, but it was impossible, at least the first year I was on it. The network saw it as an 8 a.m. showing, meaning a show for really young kids. During that time, I wrote a Batman pilot for ABC Children’s Programming. Jean [MacCurdy] was a VP at H-B. [Hanna-Barbera], so she knew I was a Batman nut but I wasn’t available when they first started developing Batman at Warner Bros; that Batman pilot never happened, but the script was re-tooled into a Super-Friends episode, thanks in part to the Producer-Director of the series, Larry Latham [Smurfs], who backed idea.” When production for Batman: The Animated Series [Fox, 1992 to 1995] was halted because Producer-Creators Bruce Timm (Justice League: Doom) and Eric Radomski (Xiaolin Showdown) ran into serious creative conflict with the Story Editor, Executive Producer Jean MacCurdy sought out Burnett to save the day. “By the way, when I came on B:TAS, the original story editors also stayed on. We had a good working relationship.” The graduate of the University of Southern California in Film Production was more in tuned with the darker tone that Timm and Radomski wanted to achieve. “Jean got us together for a lunch, and we talked the same language about what we wanted to see in a Batman show – namely goons, guns and fist fights.”

“Paul was on the Batman bibles before I got there,” states Alan Burnett when discussing his relationship with Writer-Producer Paul Dini (Batman: The Brave and the Bold). “Two were written. One was really dark, and the follow-up was more kid-friendly, but still dark. I know he worked on the first, and probably the second. Tom Ruegger [Histeria!] was overseeing the development. There were other names on the bibles, too. But Paul was there from the beginning; he was on vacation when I first started at Warner Bros. and for some reason he wasn’t doing Batman. They gave me his office temporarily, which was a crazy mess with papers piled everywhere; that was my first introduction to Paul. Then he came back from vacation, we met, and I just knew there was a beautiful Batman sensibility there. He was sort of looking to leave Warner Bros. at the time, and I urged him to bring in some story ideas, because I needed to re-route the show. He said he had this notion about an origin on ‘Mr. Freeze,’ and a few days later I’m holding in my hands an outline for Heart of Ice. It was like striking gold. It was the mother lode. We’ve been close friends now for 20 years.

“The stories went through my office,” replies Alan Burnett when asked about the writing process for the 85 episodes. “I had several story editors, including Michael Reaves [Guardians of Luna], Marty Pasko [Roseanne], Sean Derek [Captain Planet and the Planeteers] and Paul. We had meetings with Bruce and Eric. It was more loose than structured. The stories would come from the editors, outside writers, Bruce and Eric, or from the comic books themselves, although there were very few comics that directly translated to the screen. The scripts varied, some were dark, some light; they could be mysteries, horror stories, gangster stories, [and] black comedies. Batman is a property that can incorporate a variety of genres. Paul wrote most of his scripts; he’d come in my office and say, ‘I’m thinking about doing a story with Harley and Ivy together,’ and I’d say, ‘Okay,’ and off he’d go.” There was particular restriction placed upon the writers for the program. “We had one rule: No aliens, ghosts, or humanitarian awards. We didn’t do pro-social shows. We didn’t want to teach. We had almost no cliffhangers before the commercials. We ended scenes before breaking away for the commercials. Every act started anew. It wasn’t by design. It was the way the stories worked and how they felt. We would hook you by plot twists and reversals, not by a knife to the throat.”

“When I started there was talk about writing another bible, which I loathe to do because I hate bibles,” remembers Alan Burnett. “Of course, they’re a necessity, but they’re also artificial. Batman is Batman. I got everyone in a room together for three or four days, producers, directors, writers – and we talked about what we loved from the comics and wanted to see from the series. Bruce, Eric, and I wanted darkness. We wanted to push that envelope and that’s how we started. We started molding it from there. The series grew organically.” The first major writing contribution by Burnett to the series was creating the story named after an iconic Gotham City villain. “First of all, I think Two-Face is high up there in the pantheon of great comic book villains. I’d put him on par with Joker and Luthor and Dr. Doom. It never made sense to me that the accident that scarred his face created his second personality. I always thought that he’d already have to have a second personality, and that the scars freed it to come out. I discussed multiple personalities with a psychiatrist friend while writing Two-Face, because I thought Harvey must have been an abused child to be so sick, and that would’ve been touchy in a kid’s show. Fortunately, it turns out that not all multiple personalities have such dramatic beginnings.” Timm praised the two-part episode in his introduction for Batman Animated for having “gobs of atmosphere.” As for his impressions of how the character has been treated on the big screen, Burnett remarks, “So far they’ve made two Batman movies with Two-Face, and in both he was the extra villain; I think he could hold a movie on his own – terrifyingly so. I loved the fact that Bruce’s Two-Face model was used for The Dark Knight [2008].”

Read My Lips, which features the Ventriloquist, was recently screened as part of a Batman: The Animated Series Retrospective held at UC Santa Barbara. “It’s one of my favorites,” enthuses Alan Burnett. “It’s so wondrously dark and rich; it looks like it was drawn on black velvet. It’s one of the best examples of the ‘dark deco’ look Bruce and Eric were after. I wrote the story and Michael Reaves, who was the story editor, got it to Joe Lansdale [Bubba Ho-Tep], the well-known horror novelist. Joe did beautiful things in that script. Joe loves to discover a story in dialogue, which is why his characters pop off a page. Michael, who’s a sci-fi and fantasy novelist in his own right, corralled a number of outstanding writers for B:TAS; he also edited more scripts than anyone else.” Another episode Burnett was responsible for was Mudslide. “I was fascinated with the idea of Clayface swallowing Batman and suffocating him, and that’s why I wrote the story. Steve Perry [Spider-Man Unlimited], another Michael Reaves colleague, wrote the script. Clayface’s girlfriend, Stella Bates, is named after my mom and the motel in Psycho [1960]. And no, I do not have mother issues.” A signature Batman adversary who uses his mind rather than muscles was problematic as the storylines risked being over complicated and convoluted. “The Riddler is very one note, and his methods tend toward verbal clues, so you’re always analyzing words and phrases, which can become deadly in cartoons. In Riddler’s Reform we went after slyer riddles – ones that were more visual and so subtle, not even Riddler was aware he was giving them.”

“I love Flash, and since time and speed are the flip sides of the same coin, the Clock King became a means of exploring speedster powers,” reveals Alan Burnett. “I had just finished reading Phil Dick’s Time out of Joint, so I’m sure that’s why I glommed onto that title. Of course, he got it from Shakespeare, so I don’t feel so bad. Time Out of Joint, by the way, is very strange reading experience. I still think about that book. The first half is all set-up and could not be more tedious, but just when you’re ready to call it quits, a chase starts and the story takes off like a bullet and doesn’t let up. Suddenly you’re in an alien world, even though you’re not. I’ve never quite read anything like it.” Burnett also had a hand in an infamous episode dealing with three wealthy and bored associates of Bruce Wayne who decide to become criminals. “If you want to see Bruce Timm roll his eyes, mention The Terrible Trio. I’ve never seen the Trio episode. I think I was shifted onto other projects when the footage was coming in – I don’t even remember going to the recording – but no one on staff had anything good to say about it. Even when we used the Trio again in The Batman series, no one was particularly excited about them. I guess there’s something inherently silly about guys putting on animal heads. All I can tell you is I had a fondness for them from my childhood, and like you say, they weren’t the usual suspects.”

Batman: The Animated Series was renamed The Adventures of Batman & Robin in its second season. “The network wanted him, and you can be sure the toy companies wanted him,” states Alan Burnett. “We didn’t have a problem using Robin. As comic book readers, we all had affection for him. We used him when we needed him and we left him out of stories when he wasn’t necessary. There was no particular quota of episodes we were asked to feature him. People say that kids identify with Robin, that he is the entry point into Batman’s world. I think this was truer for comics when they were being written for kids. My feeling is that our viewers identified with Batman without any assistance.” Robin’s Reckoning: Part 1, which explores the origin story for the famous sidekick of The Caped Crusader, was an awards breakthrough for the television program. “First of all, it’s a beautifully animated episode, really lovely. Randy Rogel [The 99] did a fine job on the script. We never got an Emmy for daytime, because, well… action shows are generally snubbed in daytime. But this was a Primetime Emmy. For 13 weeks Fox put us on Sunday evenings, and that’s why we won – that and the fact that The Simpsons [Fox, 1989 to Present] took themselves out of contention because they wanted to be in the sit-com category. If it weren’t for that, B:TAS would never have gotten an Emmy.”

When questioned about memorable episodes such as Almost Got ’im, Harley and Ivy, and Heart of Ice as well as the invention of a psychotic love interest for The Joker, Alan Burnett remarks, “Those episodes are all Paul’s, who’s as stellar a writer in action as he is in comedy, and Harley [Quinn] bridged them both. Paul is very versatile. He is writing a DVD for me right now, which I can’t talk about, but it’s great fun and about as far from Batman as you can get. There are a lot of episodes I’ve enjoyed, including Clayface’s intro and another Lansdale script, Perchance to Dream, which is largely a Bruce Wayne story. Mask of the Phantasm [1993] and the World’s Finest [1996] with Superman were also high points.” Contemplating on what makes Batman: The Animated Series standout within The Dark Knight canon, Burnett observes, “Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski made it unique. They gave it a look like no other series. Not just any other children’s series, but no other series period. And of course we were blessed with our composer Shirley Walker [Final Destination], not to mention a full orchestra, which is unheard of today in television animation. Our boss, Ms. MacCurdy did not spare the coin.” He adds, “I have worked with Bruce Timm on and off for 20 years, and he is the real deal – a true fanboy and a tremendous creator. I cannot imagine what Warner Bros. Animation would be without him; his influence is incalculable.”

Many thanks to Alan Burnett for taking the time for this interview.

For more on Batman: The Animated Series visit the official website.

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.

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