Chris Viscardi, ’84: Telling Meaningful Children’s Stories
April 19, 2016 by Lisa McMahon, M.A.'09
Chris Viscardi, ’84, enjoyed an “idyllic childhood” growing up in Auburn, N.Y.: summers at the lake, snowy winters, surrounded by friends and family. He drew upon these experiences to co-create the Adventures of Pete and Pete, arguably one of the best children’s shows ever made, and an iconic property of Nickelodeon programming.
Today, he is senior vice president of franchise properties at Nickelodeon, where he oversees the creative strategies for reinventing the TV network’s library of shows and repurposing its three franchises: SpongeBob SquarePants, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Dora the Explorer. He’s also spearheading the activities celebrating 25 years of Nickelodeon animation.
His journey to one of the top executive positions at Nickelodeon was almost as carefree as his childhood.
Chris attended Niagara at a time when the communications and media production offerings were fairly new, which gave him the opportunity to create a variety of content and dabble with the various technologies available in the field. He went on to complete a graduate degree at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, and then moved to New York City, where he freelanced as a production assistant and worked in the operations department at MTV before landing his dream job with MTV’s on-air promotion group.
“That was the group that I really wanted to work in,” he says, “because they were making such cool content. They were doing commercials, they were traveling all over the place, shooting behind the scenes at concerts, creating animation, making live-action projects. And I loved music, so I was just so excited to be there.”
But he never got there. On his first day, he learned that his job had been given to someone else. He was encouraged to apply for a similar position at Nickelodeon, a suggestion he didn’t find appealing, at first.
“My first thoughts were ‘that’s a kid’s network! I’m supposed to be hanging around with rock stars and going to concerts, not doing kid stuff,’” he says. “As it turned out, it was a happy accident.”
Chris soon realized that he had an affinity for telling stories about being young and the kinds of family experiences and adventures that occur during childhood. And he’s been producing content for children and families ever since.
From 1987-1993, Chris worked in the on-air promo group, creating content for animation and live-action projects and commercials. It was here that he met his wife, Lisa, whom he married in 1993, the same year he and his writing partner, Will McRobb, created The Adventures of Pete and Pete, an award-winning TV series (that was just named the Greatest Show in the History of Television by Watch and Listen magazine) about the adventures of two brothers named Pete. Launched in 1989 as a series of one-minute shorts that aired between programs, the show soon gained a cult following and was expanded to full-length episodes that aired for three years. Pete and Pete was written for the “underdog kid,” Chris says, with a deliberate off-kilter sensibility, and featured guest stars such as Michael Stipe, Steve Buscemi, Iggy Pop, Chris Elliot, LL Cool J, and Janeane Garofalo. It was also a pioneer in integrating music, including that of indie rock group Polaris, which served as an in-house band for the show.
“It did really well, won some awards, and that gave us the opportunity to develop more shows and make more content for Nick, and eventually write some movies down the line. That was the start of me being a show creator, writer, and producer,” Chris says.
Chris and Will created a second series for Nickelodeon called KaBlam!, which aired from 1996–2000. During that same time, they wrote a movie for Pete and Pete, which “sat on a shelf” for several years until it was rediscovered, rewritten, and released as Snow Day.
The success of that movie led to other screenwriting opportunities over the years, including Alvin and the Chipmunks, The Tale of Despereaux, and Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging. Chris also worked on adult shows such as Necessary Roughness and Ed.
Earlier this year, as Chris was completing his third season as executive producer of Sanjay and Craig, he was tapped to become senior vice president of content development, a position he’s held since October. The job draws upon his extensive experience in animation, live action, movies, branding, and promotions, and offered him a new challenge at a time when he was ready to try something different.
"This job gives me the opportunity to play in all those different sandboxes, so I get to still oversee and be creatively involved in things that are happening in all those different formats, and that’s really exciting,” he says.
While this is a new experience for him, he notes that he will still rely on his childhood experiences to ensure the content produced by Nickelodeon is relevant to his young audience.
“One of the things I always tried to do is to make kid stuff that works on two levels. The first level is obviously for kids; I want it to be meaningful and funny and relatable to kids, but at the same time, I want there to be enough things in it that appeal to adults, too,” he explains. “And a lot of that comes down to just not talking down to kids. It’s telling stories that can be a little bit more sophisticated and sometimes telling stories that don’t always end with all the things tied up in a neat, clean, little bow, because life is not that way.
“That approach is a timeless approach,” he continues. “It doesn’t matter the generation that’s watching. For me, at least, if you’re doing both of those things for kids and adults, I think you’ll make something that will be a little more meaningful and not completely disposable once it’s over.”
The lasting appeal of Pete and Pete was evident at its 20th anniversary reunion show in 2013, where fans could meet and talk with the cast and creators. The reunion was so popular that several others were held in venues across the country.
“People are really passionate about it and still talk about,” Chris says. “It was really, really touching to have people say your show was the best thing about their childhood. It’s probably the best feeling you can have, being a show creator and writer, and producer, to be able to do something that’s very intimate and meaningful to you and something that you’re passionate about, and then it goes out there into the world and fans really start to like it, too.”