An Interview With Shane Houghton, Executive Producer and Creator of ‘Big City Greens’

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If you were to walk into our house before 6 am, you would find three sleepy kids sitting on the couch trying desperately to wake up before mum yells out “Breakfast!” On any given day, you would also find them watching Big City Greens on Disney+. Big City Greens is the cartoon masterpiece of brothers Chris and Shane Houghton. Influenced by their childhood in the small rural town of St. Johns, Michigan, the show depicts the wild and wacky adventures of Cricket Green, Tilly Green, and Bill Green as they adjust to life with Gramma Alice in the big city. The show is equal parts zany and comforting, as the love the family feels for each other and for their friends comes across no matter what they are doing. In more big-city news, Big City Greens just received a fourth season order from the Disney Channel, and a movie musical inspired by the series is in the works. Shane recently became a new dad and took some time to answer questions from this GeekMom and her geeklings.

Toby (12yo): Are any of the Big City Greens characters based on real people?

They are! All of the main characters are based on real people my brother, Chris, and I knew growing up. We pulled inspiration from family, friends, and neighbors. Most notably, Cricket is based on Chris! Chris was a very rambunctious and curious kid, and a lot of Cricket’s energy comes directly from Chris. Gramma is based on our real Gramma Alice; Tilly is an amalgamation of a few different girls we knew from 4H; and Bill is based on a few different farmers we knew, mixed with Chris’s father-in-law, who is also named Bill.

Toby: What is your favorite episode?

Oh wow, it’s hard to pick a favorite, I have so many! If I had to pick one today, I’m gonna go with “Green Christmas” from season two. I LOVE all the songs! There are so many Christmas classics out there, and it was a real challenge trying to make something that lived up to all our favorite Christmas specials. I like to think someone out there considers this episode a classic!

Toby: Is there anything you’ve wanted to add, but haven’t? Will you?

Haha, I don’t think so! We’ve written so many episodes that we always find a way to utilize a weird or goofy idea, no matter how strange it is! There is a really crazy idea I had that I’d like to get into the show, but it’s complicated. I don’t want to say too much yet because I think we might be able to pull it off in season four…

Toby: Did you come up with all the fake company names?

This is a great question! With a show that takes place in a city, there are LOTS of stores, brands, and advertisements that all have to be created for the show. Luckily, we have a whole crew of really funny people to help come up with all these fun names! Sometimes a name starts in the writers’ room, especially if a character talks about it, like Big Coffee, Overhaüls, or Skull-Slimmers. Sometimes the board artists will add in a funny brand or business name, like Splish Soda or Beef Up Energy Drink. Sometimes the background designers will add in names based on crew members—Amy Hudkins is a board artist, and her name was the inspiration for Hudkins Department Store. In this image (pictured above), there are three “brand” names that are actually crew member names! Michael Coughlin, Kassandra Heller, and Rebecca Schauer! Sometimes it’s even a collaboration like when our art director wanted a funny name for the spa that Bill and Gramma go to, and the writers came up with a whole list of names. We landed on: That Hits the Spa.

Tilly (6yo): My name is Tilly.

That is so cool! Your parents have great taste in names. I hope you wear purple dresses and love animals too!

Tilly: Which character is your voice?

I voice a lot of Big City randoms… I voice a person in almost every episode, usually yelling or getting their day ruined by the Greens. I do voice a few recurring characters, like Wholesome Greg (Chip Whistler’s employee) or a small pink man we lovingly refer to as Li’l Fella (pictured above). I also voice the chickens! Whenever we need a chicken to express an emotion, like in “Space Chicken” when the chicken strapped to the rocket is worried it’s going to get blasted into space, I made the chicken noises! The episode “Sellouts” has the most chicken noises I’ve done for one episode.

Tilly: Why did you make Cricket have a friend (Remy)?

Everyone needs a best bud! We wanted Cricket to be close with someone familiar with the city to help show Cricket around, but we also wanted Remy to be able to learn and grow from the things Cricket shows him. Remy can introduce Cricket to technology and things that cost a lot of money, but Cricket can show Remy the joys of climbing a tree or pranking your dad!

Tilly: Why did you make Vazquez have an enemy?

Vasquez is a tough guy, and it’s fun to see him get to be as tough as possible against a formidable foe. We just really liked the idea of a whole world of ninjas and bad guys lurking just below the surface in the world of Big City Greens, but no one really knows about them. We’re going to explore more about Vasquez and his enemy, Viper Fang, in season four!

Charlie (10yo): Where did you get the idea of the show from?

Ideas can come from anywhere and everywhere! Initially, Chris and I got our ideas for Big City Greens from our own lived experiences growing up in the country and then moving to a big city. Because we wanted the TV show to be more exciting than real life, we amped up and exaggerated events to make things bigger and funnier, but each episode has a nugget of truth about the people and their relationships. That’s what makes up the heart of the show. We have a full crew of writers and artists who pour their own life experiences into the show to help it feel funny, authentic, beautiful, gross, or any other feeling the show is trying to make the audience feel. Ideas come from life!

Charlie: Who is your favorite character?

Oh man, how can I choose?! Um… I’m going to say today, right now, I’m feeling like Bill is my favorite character. My wife and I recently had a baby, so I’m a new dad and can relate to Bill a lot. Bill loves his kids so much, but they can also be little stinkers! For my own sake, I’m just hoping my kid grows up to be more like Tilly than Cricket!

GeekMom Sarah: Has being a parent changed how you develop the stories and characters?

I only became a parent a few months ago, and, so far, I don’t think there’s much change to the way I approach stories, except that I’m sleepier. Although in a few years, I’m sure I’ll have all sorts of new experiences that will find their way into any stories I’m working on. How could they not?!

GM: What was your favorite cartoon as a kid?

This is a difficult question! Being a kid covers so much time, and there were so many influences over the years. I was really into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as a kid, but it may have been more about the toys than the show. Both Chris and I really loved reading newspaper comic strips. Calvin and Hobbes, Garfield, Peanuts, and The Far Side were major influences. So were family sitcoms, especially Family Matters and The Simpsons. To some degree, I’m sure all of the things I loved as a kid get swirled around in my brain and can’t help but influence what I’m working on today.

GM: I am addicted to the quarantine song! How did that come about?

When the pandemic hit, in those early days, everything was really scary and intense, especially for kids. Chris and I wanted to use the Big City Greens characters to provide some comfort, but doing something in the series would take too long. It can take up to a year from when an episode is written to when it actually airs. Not knowing how long the pandemic would last, we wanted to do something much quicker, which is where Gino Guzzardo and his Disney TVA Multiplatform Content Team came in! They can make short-form content on a much faster scale, and they were totally down for doing something related to the pandemic. The music of the song is actually from Zombies 2, called “Flesh and Bone,” and then the lyrics were changed to be more relevant to the Greens’ perspective of the pandemic by Dan Siegel. Last I checked, the video has over 22 million views on YouTube and is probably one of the most-seen pieces of Big City Greens content.

(GM: The Greens are back in Broken Karaoke with a Descendants 3 parody. Cricket, Tilly, Gramma, and Bill sing “Going Back Out,”  the sequel to “Stuck at Home!”)

GM: What did your family do to get through quarantine/shutdown?

We didn’t have a kid until a few months ago, so the majority of our pandemic was dealing with the pregnancy. I appreciated the working from home time because I could help out my wife as things got more and more difficult for her. When our baby was born, I took some time off from the show and am extremely grateful to my brother and co-showrunner, Chris, as well as Stephen Sandoval, Jonathon Wallach, Michael Coughlin, and the whole Big City Greens crew for keeping things rolling in my absence. I can only imagine how difficult the pandemic has been for parents of toddlers, tweens, teens, and everything else! Dealing with a newborn while working from home has been okay so far, but I’m sure as soon as my baby is more mobile, things will become more challenging. My hat’s off to all the parents out there making things work during such a challenging time!

GM: I love the way the family welcomes Gloria in as a member of the family? Is this kind of extended family something you’ve experienced or feel strongly about, where does that come from?

Sometimes it’s not always possible to travel back home for a holiday or big family event, and it’s absolutely heartbreaking. But the next best thing to actually making it to your home is being invited into someone else’s house. To be welcomed into another family, for me, elicits such gratitude and humility. I have definitely felt like Gloria, and there were times I wished I had a family like the Greens to accept me in. Gloria’s situation really is the next best thing to being with real family. Gloria has a really tough time in the show, especially in the beginning. At first, Gloria couldn’t stand the Greens, but over time, as she’s grown to accept them, her life has gotten better as a direct result of letting in the love and support of that family instead of trying to constantly go it alone.

GM: If you could have a real-life conversation with one of your characters, who would it be and why?

WOW. No one has ever asked me this before. I’d love to have a real-life conversation with Tilly because she has such a unique perspective on life, I feel like I would be surprised and delighted by anything she has to say. We’d probably discuss how to be more mindful, our love of cats, and find something nice to do for someone else. If I had a real-life conversation with Gramma, it’d probably just end in a sword fight.

Big City Greens can currently be watched on Disney Plus, DIRECTV, DisneyNOW, or purchased as a download on Apple iTunes, and Google Play Movies.

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