January 24, 2019

YeLAdim yaks with Disney’s Adam Bonnett

How cool would it be to pick what everyone else gets to watch on television?

Well that’s what Adam Bonnett, Disney Channel and Jetix senior vice president of original programming, gets to do — every day.

He helped bring shows like “Hannah Montana,” “That’s So Raven” and the “Suite Life of Zack and Cody” to television sets around the world. And he knows his stuff: Before working at Disney, Bonnett was director of current programming for Nickelodeon, and he helped created “Kids Choice Awards.”

YeLAdim was invited to Disney Channel headquarters in Burbank to talk with Adam about his job, the Jewish themes on the network and what goes into creating hit television shows.

YeLAdim: So what does the senior vice president of original programming do?
Adam Bonnett: It means I develop the series — animated and live action — that air on [Disney Channel and Jetix]. And I take pitches for new ideas. When I’m exited about something, I get the network excited about it and develop that script into something we want to shoot as a pilot. We shoot it and test it and show it to kids and get feedback on it.

Y: What’s the best part of your job?
AB: Seeing the excitement of a kid and how passionate they are. If I developed “Everybody Loves Raymond” or “According to Jim,” adults watch, but they don’t have the passion that kids have. They don’t look at these characters like they are friends.

Y: What’s the hardest part of your job?
AB: There’s not a lot of margin for error. We don’t come out with pilots the way networks do. The other challenge is staying ahead of the curve. Kids are changing. They are very sophisticated. There is a demand for pop culture and wanting to grow up, but still loving being a kid…. That’s why you have “Hannah” and “High School Musical.” We’re in production year-round.

Y: What were your favorite shows growing up?
AB: “Laverne and Shirley” — I identified with them being outsiders, because I felt that way as a kid. A lot of the Garry Marshall stuff, the broad physical humor in “Three’s Company.” That’s what I grew up with, and that’s the kind of humor I like to put into the series that I develop. I also grew up watching “Love Boat” and “Fantasy Island,” so you take a show like “Suite life” that takes place in a hotel.

Y: With its revolving door of guest stars.
AB: I see a lot of “Love Boat” and “Fantasy Island” in a show like that. You look at a show like “Hannah Montana,” and I remember thinking how inspirational it was to see a character like Ritchie Cunningham break the rules and be a little naughty because of The Fonz. I see a lot of that in our show –but it is Disney Channel friendly. I watched a lot of shows that were empowering to girls, like “Charlie’s Angels,” and I see a lot of that in shows like “Kim Possible” and “Hannah Montana.”

Y: Cory on “That’s So Raven” had a bar mitzvah — or what he called a “bro mitzvah” — last year, “Even/Stevens” had a Chanukah episode. How do you decide where to insert Jewish themes?
AB: We try to portray all different types of kids on our shows, whether they are Jewish or Christian or Muslim, which we did on the “Proud Family.” The honest answer is that writers and execs like to draw on personal experiences. And a lot of producers are Jewish. With Cory, the exec producers are Jewish; writing for an African American character, but they draw from their own experience. I haven’t spoken to him about it, but [likely] when he was a kid, he wanted a bar mitzvah mainly to make some money like every boy — they don’t get what the bar mitzvah is about till it’s over. Ron Stoppable [“Kim Possible”] had a bar mitzvah — we did one with Gordo on “Lizzie Maguire.” It was interesting with “Evens/Stevens,” we did a Chanukah episode, but it was a blended family. It comes from the writer’s personal experience — regardless of the character’s religion.

Y: And it’s great that London Tipton on “Suite Life” keeps bringing up all the presents she received for Chanukah.
AB: Again, Jewish writers. The wonderful thing about London’s family is that we never met them, and we kind of never know where this is all coming from. There’s another character on “Suite Life,” Barbara Brownstein, who is Cody’s girlfriend, but she’s Asian and her parents are Caucasian — which shows that Barbara is likely the adopted child of a Jewish family. The irony is that London uses Yiddish expressions, but goes to a Catholic school with Maddie Fitzpatrick [“High School Musical’s” Ashley Tilsdale]. It’s not about having a Jewish agenda — just showing all different types of kids.

Y: Are you surprised that girls have found a kinship with Maddie and London on “The Suite Life,” or was that always planned?
AB: It was always the plan. We wanted to create a dynamic where the girls were frenemies — friends and rivals — because we had never done that before. We didn’t see it with Raven and Chelsea [“That’s So Raven”] or with Lizzie and Miranda [“Lizzie Maguire”].

Y: What’s your first Disney memory?
AB: Probably “Mary Poppins.” I remember seeing animation and live action blended together. Then you look at something like “Lizzie” and you see the melding of live action and animation.

Y: What’s coming up this season on The Disney Channel?