The (Almost) Return of COACH: My Night at the Pilot

It's been 18 years since I sat down in front of the television to say goodbye to Coach Hayden Fox, his wife Christine Armstrong, his daughter Kelly, his defensive coordinator Luther Van Dam, special teams coach Michael "Dauber" Dybinski, ladies' basketball coach Judy Watkins, athletic director Howard Burleigh, and of course Howard's nutty wife Shirley. By the series' end in 1997, the story had taken the characters from their comfy cabin and Minnesota State University campus to a new home in Florida where Hayden transitioned from coaching the Screaming Eagles to the NFL expansion team, Orlando Breakers. After 9 years of growing up with Coach, I watched the Bungalow 78 Productions logo fade out for the final time.

Cut to 2015, I find myself on the Universal backlot walking up James Stewart Avenue clutching a ticket in my left hand for the first taping of 13 new episodes of Coach. We were led by the employees of Audiences Unlimited to Stage 43; not only the same soundstage where the original series was filmed, but also where Craig T. Nelson lived as Zeek Braverman with his wife Camille (played wonderfully by Bonnie Bedelia) for 6 seasons of the NBC series Parenthood. That's 15 years that Nelson spent on one stage portraying two of my favorite characters in television history. Coach earned itself a gold plaque on the building next to one of its many entrances, dedicating the stage to the cast and crew who would now return for all new stories... or so we thought.
The Coach theme song played as we were being ushered in, every seat in the house occupied by audience members young and old - a girl sitting behind me asked her friend when she heard the warm-up guy talking about Coach's return to television, "This was a show before?" to which her friend replied, "I don't remember it." Why were they even here? Who cares why they're here, because the warm-up guy just introduced Barry Kemp; a name I've known for most of my life but never had a face to place it with. He wrote for the series Taxi, created Newhart, and now he was introducing the return of his most well-known creation... the room fell silent as Kemp waxed poetic about revisiting the cast of crazy characters he was about to introduce. I couldn't believe I was sitting in a studio audience listening to Barry Kemp say the words "... and playing Coach Hayden Fox tonight, please give a round of applause to Craig T. Nelson!"

There they were, the cast and crew of Coach on stage in front of me... well, a few of them, anyway. Nelson put his arm around Bill Fagerbakke and gave him a huge hug, you could see the excitement in his smile and the enthusiasm in his eyes. It was a moment that made me tear up.
The only returning cast members from the original series were Craig T. Nelson, Bill Fagerbakke and Pam Stone. Yes, Judy Watkins returns and she's married to Dauber. Amazing. There were rumors that Jerry Van Dyke would return as a guest star, but sadly he wasn't there for the first episode. The mumblings in the audience weren't about Luther's absence, though; they were about Christine's. Shelley Fabares was nowhere to be seen, and answers to the questions surrounding her absence were soon to be revealed as it was written into the first episode that her character had passed away. It was a heavy, gut-wrenching way to start the show, but some time had passed since her death so it wasn't a main focus. It was also not revealed how Christine died, just that she was gone. You may recall that Hayden and Christine adopted a baby boy, Timothy, towards the end of the original series, and this new storyline was going to focus equally on his character played by Andrew Ridings from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. The series would also feature the Wendy's girl, Morgan Smith Goodwin, as Tim's wife and Malcolm Barrett as the Fox's boss.

The opening scene took place in Hayden's Minnesota cabin. Incredible. I couldn't believe it. The set was flawlessly recreated; the paddle on the wall, the green lamp, the cartoon caricature of Hayden with the fox tail... it was all there. In an early scene, Hayden stumbling and grumbling his way from the couch to his desk where he was awoken from a nap, this time by a cellular device and not his vintage phone, felt a little bit like time travel. If you take the Universal Studios tram tour, you're shown a cabin that is sometimes referred to as Coach's home and sometimes referred to as the cabin from The Great Outdoors. Maybe it's both? That is the closest I ever thought I'd get to being on this set, but now here it was before me. The production design team really did a stellar job. This detailed recreation of Hayden's home was more impressive than anything I've seen in the Marvel movies.
*Side Note - The rich history of Universal City is endlessly fascinating - directly behind Hayden's cabin is Spielberg's War of the Worlds set, at the end of which you'll stumble upon the Bates Motel and mansion from Psycho, which is directly next to Whoville. Walking the backlot you'll find an office for Robert Zemeckis located near the Hill Valley set of Back to the Future, as well as the production facilities for Amblin which houses the office of Steven Spielberg, producer of Craig T. Nelson's 1982 classic horror film, Poltergeist. These backlot sets and soundstages are in constant use. Stage 43 was also home to NBC's Heroes, and if you look closely in the pilot of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. you'll be able to spot the Luncheonette from Parenthood.
What follows in this episode's storyline is the teaming of Hayden Fox with his son Tim in coaching the un-coachable students of Penn Institute of Science and Technology (P.I.S.T.), with Dauber returning to assist. There was a hilarious montage of the coaches training the players which set the stage for a season's-worth of getting this team in shape and, considering the students, it could have easily taken another 9 seasons before we saw any kind of victory. There was also a truly funny dinner scene where Hayden realizes that Dauber had taken a wife, Judy, and when she shows up, Fox's & Watkins' entertaining disdain for each other is still fully intact.

Had I realized this "pilot" would never see the light of day, I would have been taking notes and writing down some of the funniest bits of dialogue, all of which I have forgotten at this point. No cell phones were allowed inside the soundstage, though I did see quite a few popping up from the hidden compartments of surrounding purses, so maybe there are Instagram accounts out there somewhere with some good snapshots. Regardless, I wish that Universal would release the pilot online. It's bizarre that the series vanished with only one taping after announcing a 13-episode run.
Apparently NBC opted to film one episode at a time, and it was creative differences between the producers and the network which eventually led to the show's demise. It's a shame, especially considering Nelson was getting paid for 13 episodes whether or not they were produced. Why not finish the season or at least air the pilot and let the public decide whether or not it was something they wanted to see? Especially since the money was spent to film it and the footage is in the can, sitting alone and unwatched in the Universal archives. At this point it seems unlikely that we will ever see the footage and that you'll ever hear my laugh in the background of this episode. It was funny, it was nostalgic and it was something I never thought I'd see. It's rumored that the pilot felt "dated", but isn't that the point? It felt familiar while at the same time not requiring you to have seen the previous series, but it was all the better if you had. It did exactly what it should have done, all in one episode.

If you want the closest experience possible to the fun had by this cast on the set of the original series, find a copy of the Coach special on VHS. It features over 20 minutes of bloopers which were for some reason not ported over to the DVDs. It's worth dusting off your VCR for.
The closest I've come to the nostalgic feeling I got on the set of Coach was being on the set of Last Man Standing. When Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Richard Karn and Patricia Richardson showed up in guest roles, it was like being transported back in time to the set of another ABC sitcom classic, Home Improvement. In a world where reboots are happening all the time, it's shows like these that really deserve it. Last Man Standing is constantly on the bubble of cancellation, yet it's probably the most well-written and entertaining sitcom on television. The same would have likely been said for Coach, but sadly, Hayden Fox is no longer in the game.

I wonder what will be next for Stage 43...

"Wakko Yaks: A Conversation with Jess Harnell" by Javier Zayas

Probably best known to the 90's generation as the voice of Wakko Warner on Steven Spielberg's ANIMANIACS, Jess Harnell has lent his pipes to everything from TAZ-MANIA to 2 STUPID DOGS, from Michael Bay's TRANSFORMERS to Pixar's UP, from video games to theme park attractions like Splash Mountain, from AMERICA'S FUNNIEST HOME VIDEOS to even opening for bands like AC/DC and Aerosmith with his band Rock Sugar. But when he's not taking over the world as an alien in DARKWING DUCK or voicing multiple characters on THE POWERPUFF GIRLS, what is this rock star voice actor doing? And what led him into this "totally insaney" career? Fortunately for us, he was kind enough to share some of those stories...   

Javier Zayas: So you were born in Teaneck, New Jersey?

Jess Harnell: Actually it was Englewood Hospital, but right near Teaneck and that's where I lived so we'll stick with that. I lived there until I was about three or four then I moved to Philly because my dad became the musical director of The Mike Douglas Show in Philadelphia. Then I moved to L.A. when I was eleven, so I'm an official dude. I've been there for a while and it's been good to me.

JZ: What were some of you favorite voices to imitate as a kid?

JH: One of the first things I learned to do was all four of The Beatles. I gotta admit that I learned to do David Cassidy from The Partridge Family when I was a little boy because I noticed that all the girls liked him... I was a four-year-old singing "I Think I Love You." It worked because all the counselors at camp wanted to hug me, and that taught me a lesson I never forgot.
(Javi interviewing Jess at Orlando's 2015 MegaCon)
JZ: What cartoons inspired you when you were a kid?

JH: I love cartoons like everybody does, man. I love The Flintstones, Looney Tunes, and all that stuff... but I was really more of a fan of the classic sitcoms like The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family, and then later Mork & Mindy and Happy Days. I guess Robin Williams was like a cartoon character, so I'm sure he was a big influence. That guy was freaking amazing.

I do remember going to a voice-over session at Filmation. My dad knew the owner of the studio and he got me a tour. We walked through seeing these four actors recording Superfriends and I thought "wow, that seems like a cool job." They were changing their voices to play like nine characters! Even then I was doing impressions and voices, so it was kind of fortuitous to see that when I was a little boy, and now I do it every day. How cool is that? You know, full circle.

JZ: Fulle Circle!

JH: It's a tie-in right there. And that was completely unpaid, folks. 

JZ: Who do you consider to be legends in the field of voice acting? 

JH: It all starts and ends with Mel Blanc. He's the guy that kind of created this field. Then there's a guy named Frank Welker who is just so prolific and has worked on so many projects, and he is also the nicest guy in the world. To tell you the truth, I feel like every day I get to work with most of the legends in the business because I get to sit alongside Rob Paulsen and Tress MacNeille, Billy West, Jeff Glenn Bennett, and Kevin Michael Richardson and people who are so great at this stuff. They have done literally thousands of cartoons! Then I reflect on my own self and I think "wow, I've done thousands of these things. Holy smokes." Not that I consider myself legendary.

JZ: You are!

JH: Thank you. I consider myself blessed. Let's put it that way.

(Jess with fellow Animaniacs, Tress MacNeille and Rob Paulsen)
JZ: Growing up, how much do you think your father's musicality served as an influence for you?

JH: That was very helpful because my dad was a great composer and arranger. He actually did the music for The Incredible Hulk! My mom was a big band singer, and she's still great, but having music around the house just made me and my brothers want to pursue music in one way or another. My path was singing and it still is. I think that really taught me a lot about where to place your voice, where tones sit, and doing impressions. To this day it helps me with character voices because the first thing I do is say "ok, this is where he is." I look at it from a musical point of view.

JZ: What is your process for creating a new voice?

JH: You might read a few lines of a character description and just think you have a beat on what the guy might sound like, but then you see a picture of him and that changes everything. The character's height, shape, how they dress, even their hair... you go "oh, now I see, now I get it." You've got this Batman poster here and you might say "these are both villains that are taking over the world." You'd do a completely different voice for The Penguin because of his nose and cigarette holder. Then there's Mr.Freeze who's head is inside a helmet and he's got the glowing red eyes, it'll be a completely different mindset you establish for these characters and that's what it is. That's what's most helpful to me is getting a clear character description and a drawing.

JZ: What is an example of a character's voice that completely changed?

JH: The first big series I ever got was Animaniacs. They originally told me just to do The Beatles and I asked "which Beatle do you want?" and they said let's do John. I was just talking like John Lennon and we started reading it and finally they showed me a picture and he was this very small guy, so I made his voice much smaller, like John if he were on helium or something, and that's how that developed.
JZ: What was that audition like?

JH: It was crazy! The first thing was my initial audition where they just said the character's name is Wakko and he does whatever he wants. He's crazy and just bounces around like a ball of energy. I was already doing Roger Rabbit for Disney at that point, and I did it like a crazy, zany character like him. I went in for the callback they said "we like what you did, but let's try some other stuff." I kid you not, the first impression they wanted me to do was Elvis, so I was saying "hello, nurse!" That was weird, man. It just didn't make any sense to me. 

Characters constantly develop and turn into different things. When I did The Tick I read this character called the Sewer Urchin and he was supposed to be kind of mild mannered and timid, so I did a take like that and then I decided to do a take-two like Rain Man because I thought he is as timid and mild mannered as you're going to get. So I'm like "yeah, definitely gotta save the tick, yeah, definitely save the tick." That's what they loved and they went with that. So sometimes by being weird you create a whole new thing that nobody else thought of.

JZ: How many years now have you been in the industry?

JH: Well I started as a rock and roll singer, which I still do, and then that lead into being a studio singer in 1987. In 1991 the voice-over thing hit. I guested on Darkwing Duck (my first spot was playing an alien named Bleeb who wanted to take over the world), recorded for the Splash Mountain ride, and the Roger Rabbit stuff. Then in 1993 I got Animaniacs and I've been doing it ever since.
JZ: So with doing voice-over AND singing in Rock Sugar, how do you keep your voice in shape?

JH: Usually the best thing to do is just shut up. If I shut up for a couple of days I'll be ok. In this instance I can't do that, so I just rest and try not to push it too hard. Sometimes I have to shut down for like a week or something, but hopefully it won't be that bad.

JZ: I read that with Rock Sugar you've had the chance to work with AC/DC and Aerosmith, how was it working with them?

JH: Incredible! It's such a great feeling to have a guy who's poster you had on your wall when you were eighteen tell you that you're his favorite band. Like Vince Neil from Mötley Crüe, one of the first gigs we ever had was opening for him and when we walked off he goes, "you guys are like the best band I've ever heard in my life." It's like really really cool, and for those who don't know Rock Sugar check it out online because trust me you'll be glad you did. I'm not just saying that because I'm involved. Basically, we take all the greatest metal songs of the 80's by bands like Metallica and AC/DC and I sing the greatest pop songs of the 80's over the metal songs. I know that makes no sense, but the biggest song we have is "Don't Stop the Sandman" and it's a cross between "Enter Sandman" by Metallica and "Don't Stop Believin'" by Journey and you gotta hear it to believe it. We started as a goof and next thing you know we're playing in front of forty-thousand at a shot, so it's been really cool.

JZ: What do you like about the convention scene?

JH: I love meeting the people who like your work. That's by far the best part - the traveling is ok, the hotels are ok... but the people are great and they always make us feel so welcome and they make us feel very grateful.

JZ: Is it tough being on the road away from your friends and family?

JH: Yeah man, but it's not like it was back in the 80s when you get on a bus and live there for four months. Now even for these things I'm out for the weekend. When I play with Rock Sugar the longest we'll be gone is a week if we do Europe and then we're back, so it's really not that big a deal. It's great because like I said it's meeting people who appreciate your work. People come up say they waited in line two hours and they say "thank you so much", and I'm like "thank me? Dude, thank YOU!" I don't know if I'd wait two hours to meet Paul McCartney, much less a freaking cartoon, so I'm very very grateful that they take the time out of their busy schedules to come and say hello to us. It's awesome.
JZ: Is there anyone you've ever been star-struck by?

JH: I've met a lot of folks, man. The only person that I think I'd ever be star-struck by is Paul McCartney. I've met George Harrison and Ringo, which was pretty great. I just have so much respect for The Beatles and if I had met John I probably would have to be resuscitated because he was such a hero to me, and still is.

JZ: Do you have a favorite Beatles album?

JH: Oh my gosh all of them. It's different eras - the best early Beatles album for me is A Hard Day's Night. The best mid-level album is Revolver. My favorite later-period album is real close between Abbey Road and The Beatles. That's like saying "what's your favorite kind of donut?" They're all really good!

JZ: I actually went to a Paul McCartney concert back in October and it was a life-changing experience. 

JH: When you go to a McCartney concert you see grandparents holding their seven-year-old on their shoulders and they're both singing the same song. I announce Americas Funniest Home Videos, and I have for eighteen years - stuff like that makes me so proud because when you have something that crosses generations that grandparents can watch with their little ones, who can watch with their little ones, that's all you can ask for in life. So I'm no Paul McCartney, but I'm glad that I get to be something that families can enjoy.
JZ: I've gotta know, what was it like recording for Splash Mountain? 

JH: It was an unusual thing and I'll tell you why - Splash Mountain is based off Song of the South, which is the only Disney movie from that era that has not been released on DVD. It's because... let's just say, it's maybe not the most politically correct movie. It was made in a different era and so there are some hurdles to cross in terms of releasing it. So doing Splash Mountain was sort of a sensitive thing because you don't want to offend anybody's sensibilities. At the same time, you want to be true to these characters who were very over the top. The main thing I remember about voicing that stuff was I had never done a character voice-session ever in my life and all I could think of, even more than getting paid, was how cool it would be to go on a ride at Disneyland and hear my voice. I also thought it would really impress chicks, so I was excited about that.

When they gave me the money I thought "wow, there might be a job in this someplace." My favorite thing about it is whenever I go to the parks I turn into an eight-year-old again. When I hear myself on those rides I am so proud. 

I took my family to Disney World not too long ago and they got us VIP seating for the Main Street Electrical Parade - so we're sitting there above the street and I'm watching all these floats come down with this bird's-eye-view of a family who were so happy. They were being made happy by my friends who provide these character's voices and by these actors who are doing the great job of moving and gesturing and I kept thinking, rather selfishly, "I wish I had something in this parade!" Finally, off in the distance, I hear "Under the Sea" from The Little Mermaid which I did Sebastian for. It was the last thing in the parade, so here it comes down the street and this family starts singing along, and they're just beaming! Looking down at them I just thought "I love my job."

That sort of describes every day. You get people coming up to you saying "you're my childhood." That's beautiful because I can't believe anybody's parents would ever let me in their house. Second of all, I'm so happy to have been any part of anybody's happiness, even for a moment.
(Javi presenting Jess with personalized artwork by Stephen Wittmaak as a thank you gift)
JZ: Finally, we like to end all of our interviews with this question: what three words would you use to describe yourself?

JH: Fun. Kind. Interested.

Follow @JessHarnell and @RockSugarBand on Twitter! 
Like Rock Sugar on Facebook!

"The Family Circle: A Conversation with Claire Keane" by Jocelyne Barchet

Her grandfather, Bil Keane, created the legendary comic strip The Family Circus. Her father, Glen Keane, was named a Disney Legend in 2013 for his contribution through character animation on such films as Beauty & the BeastAladdin and The Little Mermaid. Now, Claire Keane is carrying on the family tradition, not only with her work at the Walt Disney Animation Studios as a Visual Development Artist, conceptualizing for wildly successful films like Tangled and Frozen, but also with her new visually stunning book "Once Upon a Cloud", in stores today! Her new book is described as "a story about finding unexpected inspiration and giving from the heart," exactly how you could summarize Claire's life story, which, by the way, she was kind enough to recently share with me... 

Jocelyne Barchet: Tell me about your early life and what it was like growing up in Southern California- Did you spend much time with your dad at the Disney Studios as a kid?

Claire Keane: I grew up drawing a lot at home. I spent my days drawing princesses. My dad was always very encouraging and supportive of my drawing. I would wait till he came home from work to show him my drawings and ask him to go over the problems I was having with them. He always showed me with one or two lines how to fix whatever was messed up in my drawing- usually an arm or a hand. He made it look so easy.

I went into the studio quite a bit with my dad. One of my earliest memories is kissing the nose of the Mickey-shaped mailbox they had on the main lot. I loved going into work with him. Everyone was always so kind to me. It was fun to see those faces again when I started working there as an adult. Everybody was just as I had remembered them.

JB: What was it like to move to France at the age of sixteen? Was that a difficult transition for you at that age or was it exciting?

: I was so excited to move to Paris. I went to the American School of Paris where everybody was so wonderful and accepting. It was a small school full of expat kids from one country or another who had all been the new person in school many times in their lives and were therefore very open. I made solid friendships there. It was truly a magical way of discovering Paris.
JB: Tell me about your time at art school in Paris- how do you feel the experience helped you develop as an artist? 

CK: I attended the Parsons Paris program the year I left high school. I wanted to be a fashion illustrator. At the end of the first year, looking back at what I was doing, I realized that it was the people under the clothes that interested me most and less the fashion itself. L'Ecole Superieure D'Arts Graphiques was recommended to me to be one of the best art schools in France, with an emphasis on traditional training and anatomy. It also turned out to be a very difficult school, accepting only one-third of the students to go on to the second year. Their teaching method was one of militant strictness. 

The school taught me discipline and through my own struggles with it, I learned my own strength and how much I could actually accomplish. They followed the Bauhaus philosophy of form following function. It was this philosophy that has been very influential over how I work. It is what has helped me through every design problem I've ever been faced with. For example, when working on Rapunzel's murals, I dove deep into the core of who she was before putting form to her paintings on the wall.

Most importantly though, it was at this school that I met my husband and father of my two children, Vincent Rogozyk.
JB: You've said you usually find inspiration in other artists, such as Matisse, Rembrandt, Klimt, Marie Laurencin, and Ronald Searle- What is it about their work that speaks to you? Also, who has caught your eye recently that you'd cite as inspiring?

CK: Matisse for his simplicity of line, color and composition. Rembrandt for the theatricality and mystery in his lighting. Klimt for his beautiful juxtaposition of patterns and human form- also I love all the gold he uses. Marie Laurencin has the ability to make her paintings feel whimsical and magical. Her women are full of grace and so serene and her shapes and colors are in perfect harmony. I love Ronald Searle also because of the storytelling he gets in his sketchy line. His illustrations are poignant and funny. These are also the reasons that I am crazy about Sempe's work.

Lately I have been so enthralled by the other illustrators that my agent Steve Malk represents (he has exquisite taste... 
if I may say so myself!) Among those illustrators, some of my favorites that come to mind are Jon Klassen, Christian Robinson and Carson Ellis. They have a sense of design that is so solid- I just wish I could have a little bit of what they have. Jon's work is always understated and witty, very much like who he is, and Christian's work is colorful and the shapes he chooses are in perfect harmony with the composition and colors he paints. Carson Ellis' illustrations are also understated but full of life and poignant details. She works like a graphic designer, designing her type for much of her work.

JB: What attracted you most to character development? Do you have a process for getting to know who a character really is?

: A character is always implicated in a story somehow. What is interesting to me is figuring out how that character lends itself to the story and why that story has been chosen for that particular character. In real life, we are put in situations that may or may not be what we want but what is fascinating to me is why, in the grand scheme of life, is this happening right now. In real life that question remains mostly unanswered, but in a movie or a book we can answer it and it is so satisfying.

I like to explore the moments that aren't necessarily in the story because it's in the moments when a character is just breathing or sleeping or getting ready for the day that I can personally connect with them- regardless of what type of person he/she is. Once I've gotten "acquainted" with a character through these moments, then I feel like I can try to depict him/her in one of the on-screen moments. Something I have found that helps a lot is just drawing the character in his/her room or kitchen. Just developing what kind of stuff that person would have around them, how they arrange things, their attitude in the most mundane moments of life. It's kind of like Method Acting for visual development.
JB: Looking back, what did you love most about working for Disney, and what did you find most challenging?

CK: I loved working alongside such great artists. Having a team of really good artist friends in the same building everyday. I also really loved collaborating on story with directors and story artists. For someone who is searching for the "why" behind their "what", working closely with the people writing the story I'm designing for is not only fun but it is essential to my work. I always wanted to be more involved than I was.

JB: What inspired the story of your new book, "Once Upon a Cloud"?

CK: I'd just had a baby who never wanted to sleep, so I had been thinking a lot about sleep and the role our dreams play in waking life. I began asking myself, "How could I show her all that is possible when we let ourselves dream?"

The idea for Once Upon A Cloud came to me during my time working on Tangled. I was asked to design Rapunzel's murals and it felt fitting that the paintings around her bed reflect her dreams. In these murals, I painted a few images of Rapunzel floating through a night sky. They called to me and I wanted to know more about where she was going in the sky and what she would end up doing. That’s when this idea of telling a story about a girl meeting the Sun, the Stars and the Moon was planted and I had an "a-ha" moment. However, I didn’t really know where this inspiration was leading to since it wasn't very relevant to the actual story of Tangled. I soon realized these were the beginning inspirations of a picture book.

From these seemingly unconnected inspirations came the desire to pass on this revelation, that all our questions can be answered when we just let go, enjoy the ride and let our dreams guide us.

JB: What was it like tackling your own original project like this, and how much did the creative experience differ from work you've done in the past?

: It was really rewarding creating my own story. I worked very closely with one of my editors, Nancy Concescu, who saw the potential in the story from the beginning. Based on our conversations, she was able to reach into my mind and pull out the best ideas and lay them out on the table for me. She was essential to me getting this project up and running.
JB: Did you pull any inspiration from your grandfather's work on The Family Circus while developing Once Upon a Cloud?

: It's funny that you ask that because, while the book itself does not quite reflect The Family Circus, it is dedicated to my granddad who passed away minutes before I got the news that Penguin wanted to make it- it was such an odd day of deep sorrow and boundless joy. My granddad was always a big supporter of mine and has been a great inspiration to me. I have felt his encouragement throughout this whole process.

JB: What advice would you give to aspiring artists who want to follow in your footsteps?

: Do what you love because that is how you will find what truly makes your life happy and fulfilled- even if the road getting there is bumpy and full of militant art school stuff... follow the path that makes you feel like you, because that is where great things start happening.

Follow Claire on Twitter: @ClaireOnACloud
Like Claire on Facebook
Buy "Once Upon a Cloud"

"Heart... also known as Balto" by Emily Alexander

I have a small, fluffy Maltipoo named Balto. Balto has a rough life (no pun intended... OK, it was a little intended). He is a man-dog disguised as a girly diva puppy. People are constantly saying “Aww, isn’t she adorable?” or “Look at her! How cute?!” And no matter how many times I say, “Why yes, HE is pretty wonderful,” people still insist he is a female... Well, he’s not. 

Balto is all boy. In fact, he thinks he is a lion. He has no idea he is actually a hybrid between two lap dogs (a Maltese and a Poodle.) He rolls around in mud and swims in ponds. He hates bath time and would rather chew my shoes to pieces than play with his stuffed animals. He guards the house when I go to work and protects me while I sleep. He can run circles around this neighborhood without growing tired. He is tenacious, spunky, and strong, despite his outer appearance.

I think the human heart is much like Balto. People often associate the heart with cheesy, lovey-dovey feelings we get when we are rather fond of someone – well, if that’s all we think it’s good for I think we are cheating the heart.

My favorite book series of all time is the Harry Potter (because it’s the best, duh). I always dreamed of what it would be like to put on the Sorting Hat. In a perfect world, I would place it on my head and after a few moments of contemplation the hat would boldly proclaim “Gryffindor!”

I didn’t want to be in Gryffindor because that’s the house Harry, Ron, and Hermione were in - I wanted to be in Gryffindor because of how the Sorting Hat describes it:

You might belong in Gryffindor,
Where dwell the brave at heart,
Their daring nerve and chivalry
Set Gryffindors apart.

"Brave at heart" — I fell in love with that phrase the first time I ever read it. I remember thinking, “I want to be brave at heart.” Not the flimsy, fragile heart that we associate with romance and fairy tales – I want to have the strong, sturdy heart that has no fear.

To have heart is to do what you have to do, despite being afraid or unsure. It is to take chances when you can’t see how the story ends - to trust your gut and know that things will be OK. To have heart is to continue onward when it would be easier to quit, to BE courageous even when you don’t feel that way - to fight and persevere. It is to press on.

No, the heart is not a fluffy white Maltipoo only good for cheesy jewelry commercials and unrealistic romantic comedies. It is a fierce lion ready to take on the world and anything that stands in its way. So be brave today – even if you don’t look like a girly puppy on the outside.

Be strong, be courageous, and take heart.

"Oversized Heart" by Lana McKissack

Last week I was in my car listening to a piece on NPR about those brilliant underprivileged high school kids who beat M.I.T. students in a robotics competition, and I started uncontrollably sobbing. WHAT. THE. HELL? I felt ridiculous, so I changed the station to one that was playing "All About That Bass" and sang along as I gleefully wiped the tears off of my face. As soon as the song was over, one of those "Helpful Honda" commercials came on. A woman was talking about how her entire family's bicycles had been stolen, and how she couldn't afford to replace them. She said that riding bikes together was the main way she could spend time with her kids since they didn't have a ton of money for extracurricular activities. So, the Helpful Honda Guy told her that Honda was going to replace all four bicycles. Two waterfalls cascaded from my eyes. I finally had to turn off the radio altogether because I just couldn't escape these absurd emotional outbursts. 

What was wrong with me? Why was I incapable of controlling my feelings during news reports and blatantly manipulative car commercials? Was I finally confronting my disappointment over my lack of scientific achievement in high school? Or was I feeling left out because I'd found out the hard way that it really is possible to forget how to ride a bicycle? While I do feel a little sad about both of these things, neither was enough to merit the full-blown breakdown I had just experienced in the Starbucks drive-through line. And then it hit me. There was no underlying issue. I wasn't suppressing any childhood traumas. I'm just sensitive. I always have been.

The thing about being a sensitive individual is that many people (myself included) see emotion as a weakness. Yeah, sure, it's been a handy trick to be able to cry on command in an acting class. People are always so impressed with my ability to connect so deeply with my emotions. But lately I've been feeling like a bit of a fraud. I mean, is it really that impressive to shed a tear or two when you're the type of person whose eyeballs explode while listening to a Honda ad? No, it's not. Because I feel EVERYTHING. I soak EVERYTHING in. And I have zero control over any of it. If I have lunch with a friend who is upset, I too get upset and feel terrible for the rest of the day. If I know that I hurt someone's feelings, I'll think about it FOREVER. Seriously. I still feel awful for getting in a fight with a boy named George Edward Marti in second grade and throwing his retainer in the gutter. He totally deserved it, but let's be honest. That shit is expensive. And his parents probably got really mad at him. And he probably got in a lot of trouble. And he's probably still traumatized about it to this day. And... well, you see what I'm dealing with.

I always hoped I'd grow out of my Excessive Sensitivity Disorder - hey, if Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is a thing, ESD gets to be too... although I think I might also have CFS, but that's a story for another day- so I've spent much of my adult life trying to desensitize myself. I figured if I watched Marley and Me enough times, it couldn't possibly upset me anymore. I was wrong.

And so I'm realizing that if trying to squash my emotions isn't working, maybe it's time to appreciate them. Yes, it's pretty embarrassing to cry in public at inopportune moments, but wouldn't it be infinitely worse to find yourself incapable of ever feeling anything? I think so. I suppose it's all just a matter of finding a balance and a healthy perspective. My hope is that one day I'll start seeing this oversized heart of mine less as a weakness, and more as a gift.

Now if you'll excuse me, The Fault In Our Stars is on TV, and those onions aren't going to chop themselves.

Follow Lana on Twitter: @LanaMcKissack