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The Secret Origin of the ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ Animated Series

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon
CBS

Before they took over the pop culture universe in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles made their debut in the pages of a black and white self-published comic book. Originally created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird as parodies of popular comic book characters of the age, Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello and Michelangelo developed a life beyond their original comic book incarnation. So much so that the common perception of the characters, as seen in every cartoon series and movie (including the new live action one from producer Michael Bay) has almost no grounding in Eastman and Laird’s work.

The Turtles’ transformation from cult comic book characters to mega-popular cartoon superheroes began in 1987 and was overseen by writer David Wise. If you’re a fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, chances are strong that Wise is the man you want to thank.

As a writer and story editor for the original animated series, Wise was present from the show’s inception to its conclusion, writing and overseeing the vast majority of the series. To listen to his version of events is to understand where the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles came from.

“Little” Rudy Zamora Falls Off His Chair

The story of how Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo and Donatello came into their own begins in 1987. David Wise had just written the grand finale of the original ‘Transformers’ animated series (which is a whole other epic tale) and he was ready for a break from the cartoon business.

“I had just spent two years doing ‘Transformers’ and ‘My Little Pony’ and ‘Defenders of the Earth’ and then more ‘Transformers,’” he says. “I was actually very burnt out on the idea of writing more cartoons right away.”

In fact, he was “sitting around his little house in Sherman Oaks, hoping for nothing to happen” when he got the phone call from “Little” Rudy Zamora.

Rudy Zamora Jr. was the son of “Big” Rudy Zamora, a big time animator who had worked for Disney and on the holiday classic ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’. He was animation royalty and immediately had Wise’s attention. “If you were into animation, you knew who Rudy Zamora was,” Wise says.

Zamora was calling from Murakami-Wolf-Swenson, the animation production company that would later become Fred Wolf Films. Although Wise didn’t know anyone there, he was familiar with Wolf’s work, especially his groundbreaking made-for-TV animated feature ‘The Point.’

The phone call was an offer: Zamora was producing a new animated series and they needed someone to write the opening five episode miniseries that would act as an extended pilot. When Wise asked what it was about, Zamora was embarrassed to give him an answer: “It’s about teenagers who are mutants…”

“And I’m like ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’?!” Wise says. “This was April of 1987. Nobody had heard of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles except us comic freaks. I swear I could hear him fall off his chair on the other end of the line.” Wise hadn’t just heard of them — he owned the first seven issues. He agreed to take the job on the spot.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic
The original splash page for ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ Issue #1

Even though he won the gig with his comic book geekdom, Wise admits that he wasn’t much of a fan of the source material. “I had the comics, but I didn’t think they were very good,” he says. “I liked the idea and the title and the fact that they were named after Renaissance artists. And the Japanese angle. But I knew this was going to take a lot of development.”

Still burnt out, Wise recruited his then-girlfriend and animation buff Patti Howeth to help him write the five scripts. Thinking they’d bat the script around and write it together, he sent off his initial story outline with both of their names on it. Ultimately, Wise cranked out his scripts solo, but he did it so quickly that he never sent in updated title pages. In the end, Howeth was given writing credit on the first episodes of the series.

“I’m always asked by fans who Patti Howeth is,” Wise cracks. “She’s the person who didn’t write the five part pilot!”

Later on, Wise would learn that he was not the first choice for the ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ job. Another respected animation writer was approached first, but he was just about to move onto sitcoms. Having enjoyed Wise’s work at Marvel productions, he recommended him to Fred Wolf and Rudy Zamora Jr.

That writer? Chuck Lorre, who would go onto create ‘Two and a Half Men’ and ‘The Big Bang Theory.’ But Lorre’s unexpected involvement in the series doesn’t end there.

“In the original opening credits, there are some spoken words that go ‘We’re the world’s most fearsome fighting team!’ and ‘We’re really hip,’” Wise says. “That’s Chuck Lorre speaking those lines. His geek cred runs strong!”

The Huey, Dewey and Louie Show

Thanks to the combined powers of Chuck Lorre and his comic book knowledge, Wise had landed the job. But he knew it was going to be a tough road ahead. “I knew it was going to be a lot of work because there’s very little story in the first seven comics,” he says. “There is even less characterization. And their origin makes no sense as far as I’m concerned!”

It also turned out that Eastman and Laird’s highly stylized art was going to prove difficult to translate to the realm of animation. “This led to the designers of the cartoon version of the characters tearing their hair out,” Wise says. “These guys won’t animate! There’s no accurate anatomy anywhere in these comic books! It was going to be a headache all around.”

And it’s not like Playmates, the toy company who had already done some development on the series, were bringing much to the table at the start. “I never really saw any character designs,” Wise says. “The one thing I remember them saying was ‘We’re going for a look that’s green on brick.’ For a writer trying to come up with a series premise with a world and characters, ‘green on brick’ was not a lot of help. That’s not something a writer needs to know.”

So when Wise eventually met with Fred Wolf himself, he was blunt: “You gotta’ problem here.” However, one problem ranked above the others.

“In the comics, you can’t tell one turtle from another,” Wise recalls saying to Wolf. “Even when they’re speaking they have no distinctive voices or characterizations.” Wolf already had that covered: they were going to give them color-coded masks and belts engraved with their initials. Wise was not satisfied.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon
The Turtles’ colored masks and belts

“You still have a problem,” he told Wolf. “it’s not just that it’s hard to tell them apart. If they aren’t distinctly different characters, then one or more of them are redundant!” Wolf, who had just finished working on ‘Duck Tales’ for Disney, countered that Huey , Dewey and Louie were all identical. Wise argued back that ‘Duck Tales’ was about Scrooge McDuck, not them. ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ had to be the Huey, Dewey and Louie show.

“I finally got him to agree with that after a minute of ranting,” Wise says with a laugh.

Teenage, Mutant, Ninja, and Turtle

As the show moved through development, Wise sat down to transform the black and white parodies from the original comic book into characters who could sustain an entire cartoon series. His conclusion was simple: each member of the team had to represent a part of the title. Teenage. Mutant. Ninja. Turtle.

“We needed the ninja guy,” Wise recalls. “We needed the martial arts master. That should be the guy with the Katana, the Japanese sword. That was Leonardo. That’s why Leonardo leads.”

As for the mutant part of the title, Wise was drawn to science fiction. “They needed a gadget guy,” he says. “A kind of nerdy guy who was not the best fighter in the world, but great with a soldering gun. I just randomly picked Donatello.”

"Cowabunga? That was me. The pizzas? That was me. All of the stuff that everyone loves about them? That was me. But everyone else got rich."

“Then we had the weird fact that they’re turtles,” Wise says. “You can’t do a show with this title and not have humor. The title is too goofy. Their names are just too out there.” Raphael became the audience conduit, the sarcastic wisecracker who knows who sees how silly all of this really is. “We needed somebody who sees the absurdity that these are four turtles who have been turned into humans running around the sewers and fighting evil.”

And finally, it was time to create the teenager. “These characters are young and still in a carefree state of life,’ Wise explains. “[Michelangelo] was the Sid Vicious of the Turtles. Sid Vicious couldn’t play or sing but he epitomized punk. Michelangelo epitomizes what the turtles are about.” The other big inspiration for the character? Spicoli from ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High.’

Wise explains that he followed the “rule of four” when developing the characters, comparing his quartet to various other famous groups. Raphael is Groucho, the wiseacre. Leonardo is Zeppo, the serious one. Donatello is the Chico of the group, the schemer who’s not as smart as he thinks he is. Michelangelo is Harpo, the creature of pure spirit.

If that comparison goes over your head, Wise has another version: Raphael is John, Donatello is George, Leonardo is Paul and Michelangelo is Ringo.

Most importantly, Wise emphasizes that each turtle represents a distinctive part of his personality. “I split [my personality] into four sections,” Wise says. “I took my geeky side, my sarcastic side, my fun-loving side and my serious side and put them into these four guys.”

Robot Violence

With the characters figured out, it was time to knock out the scripts.

For the main threat, Wise borrowed “the Shredder” and his Foot Clan, who appeared in a few issues of the original comic run. For the other main villain, the dimension-hopping alien warlord Krang, he borrowed bits and pieces from other comic characters and combined them with his own ideas.

But why bring a big sci-fi bad guy into the story when you already had a villain in Shredder? “We couldn’t really do Japanese-style fighting because it would get bloody,” Wise explains. “It’s a kids’ show. We couldn’t do bloody.” That meant replacing human opponents with robots and in order to explain why a street-level evil samurai would have an army of robots, they needed him to have an extra-terrestrial ally. “Because Krang has alien tech, that enabled us to make the foot soldiers robots,” Wise says. “In a kids’ show, you can wail on robots with swords and nunchucks with complete impunity because they’re robots! You’re not really hurting anyone. You’re just smashing up machinery.”

With the villains sorted out, Wise turned his attention to the Turtles’ allies. “I also knew that the Turtles couldn’t show their faces much above ground and were stuck in the sewers,” he says. “They would need a human compatriot in the city above.” Taking inspiration from Lois Lane, he created the character of plucky reporter April O’Neil to act as a “conduit of information,” the character who could tell the Turtles everything they needed to know about their latest adventure. When it came time to name her, Wise borrowed a name of a completely different character from the comic. And her signature hair and jumpsuit? Wise borrowed that from the character of Fujiko Mine, a thief who occasionally posed as a news reporter on the anime ‘Lupine III.’

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles April O'Neil
Fujiko Mine from ‘Lupine III’ and April O’Neil

And then came structure and tone. Wise devised a plan for each of the first five episodes to “peel a layer of onion off,” slowly introducing the characters and their world to viewers. Each episode would introduce something new, but stand alone, leading to a climactic confrontation with Krang. Finding the right tone proved tricky and Wise ultimately decided that the show needed to a straightforward action adventure show that wasn’t afraid to make fun of itself.

“The stories needed to be serious, for-real action adventure stories with real consequences and real problems and just enough grounding in reality,” he explains. “And the Turtles themselves, by the nature of their personalities, would make it funny.” When asked if he drew any inspiration from the comic, which was intended to be a parody, Wise deadpans “The thing about a parody is that it’s supposed to be funny.”

And that was that. “I sat down and wrote it and the original producer hated it,” he says. “So Fred fired him and it aired pretty much as written. The end. And then I did 114 more fucking episodes.”

The Garbage Catapult Will Never Work

After he wrapped his work on the initial batch of episodes, Wise finally embarked on his break from writing TV animation and the reins of the show were handed to executive story editor Jack Mendelsohn. However, Wise’s self-imposed exile didn’t last long and he was soon back on the show, writing scripts. If he could do it all over again, he says he never would have left.

“After I took time off from the show, it totally became too cute and funny,” he says. “You don’t play comedy on top of comedy. You don’t take a funny idea about a goofy villain who does a silly thing and then make fun of it. You play comedy on top of straight action.”

Like on ‘Transformers,’ Wise become the go-to guy for scripts. Since he helped build the show from the ground up, he found ways to capture the tricky tone of the Turtles’ world. When the show moved from syndication to CBS, he became showrunner himself and essentially took control of the entire series. “I was the whole show for many of those seasons on CBS,” he says. “I was basically story editing myself. There were no other writers.”

Although the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles toys were selling absurdly well, Wise recalls that Playmates rarely got too involved in the production of show. Every so often, they’d request a storyline dealing with a new character who was hitting shelves, but Wise said this actually helped with the scripts. “They’d say to do a story with the Rat King and we’d built a story around the character,” he says. “They did half of the work for us. We didn’t mind that kind of input at all.”

However, Wise recalls one toy that took things too far. When Playmates asked him to include a “garbage launching toilet catapult” in an episode, Wise flipped out. “It was the dumbest thing I had ever seen,” he says. His solution was simple and elegant enough: he put it in the show, but he made sure it never worked properly. Ever. “It would always go wrong and blow up in their faces,” he says with a laugh.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles catapult

You’re Welcome, Joss Whedon

As any consumer of popular culture certainly knows, the Turtles were hugely popular. “I had never been involved in anything that was as big as the turtles,” Wise says. “If you think Transformers were big, they were nothing compared to the turtles.”

But if you’re wondering if David Wise is currently bathing, Scrooge McDuck-style, in his pool of ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ money, the answer is no.

“It was a job,” he explains. “I saw no benefits from it. I had no licensing money. The more successful it was, the more scripts I had to write. For years, that covered my bills … It was nice to see it successful, but there was the discomfort of knowing that you’re the one guy who’s not getting rich. I should have created my own thing.”

Although Wise will never deny Eastman and Laird their success, he has complicated feelings toward the Turtles legacy. “[Eastman and laird] created them, but me and Playmates and Fred Wolf made them popular,” he says. “I put a lot of myself into that show. Cowabunga? That was me. The pizzas? That was me. All of the stuff that everyone loves about them? That was me. But everyone else got rich.”

There’s a sardonic humor to Wise that’s difficult to translate into print. He insists that he’s not bitter. He’s proud of his work and the impact it’s had on people. He just wishes that he was getting paid. However, one lingering sore point is the live-action 1990 movie. Well, more specifically, the film’s poster. “It shows [the Turtles] coming out of the sewers and it says ‘Hey dude, this is no cartoon.’ Well, dude, you wouldn’t be saying dude if I hadn’t started saying that in the cartoon. That really pissed me off.”

As for the new movie? Wise had had no involvement. But he did see the trailer, which features a scene where April (played by Megan Fox) faints when she first meets the title characters. “She does that in the first cartoon that I wrote,” Wise cracks.

When it comes to discussing the longevity of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Wise proceeds cautiously. “The Turtles are non-racial,” he explains. “They aren’t white, they aren’t Asian, they aren’t black. They’re for everybody.” He also says it’s their sense of humor. And the fact that they’re a family unit. “The rest is ‘I don’t know,’” he laughs. “Why is Batman still popular?”

At the end of all of this, Wise has one final thing to say and it’s not even really about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It’s about one of the most popular superhero movies ever made. We’ll just leave this here:

“The [original 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles'] five part miniseries ends with the Turtles having to battle an alien armada that is coming through a gigantic black hole dimensional portal being projected in the sky directly above New York City. This dimensional portal projector has created a giant opening in the sky, with a whole alien armada coming through it. That’s what the turtles are facing. The way to stop it is to shut down the machine that’s generating the portal. All I have to say is: you’re welcome Joss Whedon!”

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