Jeffrey Katzenberg found his muses — some furry, some flashy — in a Las Vegas showroom.
Long enchanted by magicians Siegfried Fischbacher and Roy Horn and their exotic big cats, Katzenberg drew inspiration for the animated film “The Lion King” and for characters in “The Prince of Egypt.”
He drew on the duo’s act again when NBC asked him and DreamWorks SKG, the studio Katzenberg co-founded, to develop an animated prime-time series with the satirical edge of DreamWorks’ “Shrek.”
“‘Wow, this could be it,”’ Katzenberg recalled thinking during one of the dozen-plus “Siegfried & Roy” shows he attended over the years. “I then started to imagine about these lions and tigers: They have a job, they go to work every day, they try to raise a family.”
The result is “Father of the Pride,” only the second computer-generated series on prime-time network TV, after UPN’s recent “Game Over,” and certainly the most expensive: The per-episode cost is reportedly $2 million to $2.5 million.
The comedy, part of NBC’s fall schedule, makes comedic kibble out of Siegfried and Roy, their stage act and the notion that their animals lead routine domestic lives with a touch of Vegas kitsch.
In its tongue-in-cheek fashion, “Father of the Pride” keeps alive the popular “Siegfried & Roy” show that was ended by Horn’s brutal onstage mauling last October at The Mirage hotel-casino.
The magicians approveThe entertainers are “totally thrilled” and comfortable with the satire, said longtime manager Bernie Yuman, who with Horn and Fischbacher has a co-executive producer credit on “Father of the Pride.”
“I think it’s a way to continue their legacy,” Yuman said. “They’re not on stage now and they will not be again. ... What better way to begin Chapter 2 than to walk on stage through animation?”
“Father of the Pride” focuses on easygoing Larry the white lion, voiced by John Goodman; his lovely lioness mate Kate (Cheryl Hines of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”), their two offspring and Kate’s overbearing dad (Carl Reiner). The ebullient Siegfried and Roy are voiced by Julian Holloway and Dave Herman.
The show’s look is sophisticated computer-generated imagery in the style of the Oscar-winning “Shrek,” costly but made feasible for a TV budget by advances in technology. The tone is wittily adult and even risque in hopes of snaring the advertiser-coveted 18-to-49 crowd.
When Larry and Kate confront their teenage daughter after finding drugs — catnip! — in her room, she denies ownership and offers an angry retort: “Maybe it’s Siegfried and Roy’s. That would definitely explain the outfits.”
Jonathan Groff, a former head writer on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” and Jon Pollack, who worked on “Spin City” and “Just Shoot Me,” direct the dozen-member writing team.
In search of a new hit showThe project’s impetus is equal parts Katzenberg’s fascination with Siegfried and Roy’s showmanship and rare animals (“amazing, beautiful,” he rhapsodizes) and NBC’s preoccupation with finding a hit comedy.
Make that a new kind of hit comedy, said NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker.
“You can’t just have another situation comedy around a living room couch,” Zucker said. “It’s just so much harder for that to break through and attract attention. You have to offer something different, and I think that’s what this show does.”
It’s the sitcom reimagined, Katzenberg agreed.
“By telling a story through these characters, these lions — in effect, a fable — you get to do stuff that’s familiar but completely new.”
With viewers favoring reality shows and crime dramas over laughs, and with stalwarts like “Friends” signing off, comedies have fallen on hard times. But networks and studios won’t give up easily on the lucrative genre, which can be a money machine in syndication.
NBC and DreamWorks are oiling the “Father of the Pride” pump heavily, although both refused to confirm the series’ reported cost or how its split.
“It’s more and more difficult to be successful with comedies, and with an investment like this, whoa, glad I’m not making it,” said Stacey Lynn Koerner of Initiative Media, a media buying firm.
Willing to gamble
Animated comedies are a particularly risky venture. Most prime-time network entries — save a handful of Fox shows (“The Simpsons,” “King of the Hill”) — have flopped, Koerner noted.
Zucker is aware of the odds and what it takes to beat them.
“Television is about risk-taking these days, and playing it safe won’t get it done,” he said. “If you’re going to get involved in a risk, especially in animation, there’s nobody I’d rather be involved with than Jeffrey Katzenberg and DreamWorks.”
Katzenberg, whose DreamWorks co-produces the new drama “Vegas” and the upcoming reality boxing series “The Contender” for NBC, says his perspective changed after Horn’s attack and subsequent stroke.
The project, which was in limbo while Horn fought for his life, gained in importance after starting out as “a little bit of a lark” for the magicians, Katzenberg said.
“It means more to Roy than I think anybody can conceive. ... He wants to be able to go out and talk about the show. It’s given him something to work for and look forward to,” Katzenberg said.
However viewers receive the series, he said he’s already gotten the opinions that matter.
“I flew to Vegas a week or two ago and showed Siegfried and Roy the first episode,” Katzenberg said. “Sitting there in their home, watching this for the first time, trying to see it through their eyes, I held my breath for 21 minutes.”
“They loved it. They were amazing and generous and got a kick out of it. ... It’s every single bit as important to me as the show succeeding, if not more, that they be proud of it.”