LOS ANGELES – Publisher Bennett Cerf bet Theodore Giesel (aka Dr. Seuss) that he could not write a book with 50 words or less. Seuss was a man of few words, having used only 236 to write the classic “The Cat in the Hat.” He accepted the bet and wrote “Green Eggs and Ham” in 1960 using exactly 50 words.
Jared Stern faced a daunting challenge in trying to turn the 50 words into a TV series for Netflix. But the creator of the animated “Green Eggs and Ham” (along with executive producer Ellen DeGeneres) accomplished the task, and the series debuted Friday on the streaming service with Adam Devine providing the voice for Sam I Am.
“When I first started working on ‘Green Eggs and Ham,’ I called my grandmother, who helped raise me,” Stern says. “She said ‘Oh, when you were little, you loved that book, and you used to read it to me all the time.’ I loved that because it wasn’t that she read it to me but I read it to her. I learned to read reading this book.”
That Stern read the book as a child fit into the mission Seuss had taken with his writing. He thought most of the books aimed at children were dull and decided to use a more whimsical approach to make reading more entertaining for youngsters.
Stern adapted that approach, using an animation style similar to the illustrations in the original books and classic animated TV specials. In the series, Sam I Am rescues the rare Chickeraffe from the Glurfsburg Zoo, hides it and makes his way to Meepville to find a cold air balloon to take the Chickeraffe home.
The story has been expanded beyond what Seuss wrote, but Stern made sure themes such as being willing to try something before rejecting it and the importance of friendship are in the TV series.
One of the most important elements for Stern was making sure to get the best actors to be the voice talent. Because the animation has that basic look of a Seuss book, Stern knew it would be vital that the actors get across the emotions of a scene with their voices. Along with Devine, the cast includes Michael Douglas, Diane Keaton, Ilana Glazer, Eddie Izzard, Tracy Morgan, Daveed Diggs, Keegan-Michael Key, John Turturro, Jeffrey Wright and Jillian Bell.
Devine has starred in live-action projects from “Pitch Perfect” to “Modern Family,” but also has several credits as a voice actor with “Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero,” “Uncle Grandpa” and “The Lego Batman Movie.” The Iowa native has a reputation for improvising whenever possible, but he’s never been part of a project that has been based on such a finite number of words.
Devine finds his way of acting and Seuss’s writing style match up nicely. “I feel like he had an almost musical way of writing,” Devine says. “I think that good comedy feels musical. I feel like we take the same beats for sure.
“We got to do some improvising, and some scenes would call for that more than others. If it is just a scene where Guy – Michael Douglas’s character – and myself are just sitting and talking, I felt there was more room to play. And then sometimes it is an action sequence, and it would be weird if I improvised my way through it.”
In some cases, the actors would bring their own voices to the role while others had to find the right sound to fit the character. Because he brought a background of voice work, Devine didn’t need a lot of coaching to get through the recording sessions. Mainly, Stern’s directions were to make sure his voice was delivering the emotional moments.
“In Adam’s case, the voice is pretty close to him,” says Stern. “But Ilana Glazer is playing a little girl, so we needed to play with her voice so that she felt realistically young. She has done a lot of musical theater, and for her finding the pitch for the voice, she has a note that she hits.”
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