Before I was a political cartoonist I was a toy inventor.
I worked for the Muppets for many years, designing Muppet toys for all the major toy companies, and the same people I worked with were also the people who reviewed new product submissions for the toy companies.
The Muppets were a crash course in the toy industry for me.
For a few years I was knocking out about 20 new toy presentations a year. Most of my concepts were cartoon and character based and I always had a bag full of new inventions to show to toy company executives whenever they came through Los Angeles. I was constantly pitching. Since my skillset is limited to drawing and writing, I used to pitch my ideas to other talented people with different skillsets, often to someone who would make prototypes for me. My garage is full of these old presentations and prototypes.
My Magic Genies was one of my favorites; I originally titled it Teenie Genies and partnered with brilliant Muppet artist, Marilee Canaga who made the most beautiful little doll prototypes, with wearable jewels decorating their lovely Genie bottles. More recently Marilee did the latex costume for The Tick on Amazon Prime and she’s been making Marvel superhero costumes for arena shows. Marilee can make anything –and make it look perfect and theatrical!
All of my toy presentations consisted of large presentation boards on foam-core (called “B-Sheets”), prototypes and a VHS video to leave with the toy company. We made the Genies in 1991 and I pitched them to all the major toy companies, who all liked them and kept them for review, sometimes for months. I pitched and re-pitched the Genies for four years.
Marilee made four gorgeous Genie dolls with matching bottles in special black velvet cases where they sparkled like jewels; I broke the dolls up into two sets of two so that I could circulate two presentations at once. It wasn’t unusual for me to re-pitch concepts that were turned down in those days. I would push the limits on re-pitching until I annoyed the toy company executives.
Finally in 1995, Hasbro called me asking me to bring the Genies back to them again, and Hasbro ended up licensing them, changing their name to My Magic Genies to go with Hasbro’s other “My …” toys, like My Little Pony.
Here’s a TV ad for our My Magic Genies that came out in the spring of 1996.
At Toy Fair in February 1996, Hasbro built a big Arabian tent and hired a bunch of beautiful, young girls dressed like our genies (but a little older, and shapelier, looking more like the I Dream of Jeannie TV genie). Hasbro’s live genies frolicked around like our genies would, charming the crusty old toy buyers.
Writing cartoon gags often involves putting two different concepts together; it is the same thing with toy inventing. Kids feel small and powerless in a world full of bigger people, so boys love toys that let them imagine being strong, and girls feel empowered by magic in toys. Girls also like nurture dolls (baby dolls they care for, Pound Puppies and Cabbage Patch Kids they adopt); and girls like aspiring to beauty as with Barbie dolls, hair-play and wearables. The Genies combine all of that seamlessly. I suppose the ultimate proof-of-concept is the success of Shimmer and Shine twenty four years later.
Hasbro asked me to design baby, magic animal, exotic pets for each of the genies. Although I designed four pets for four genies, oddly, Hasbro only came out with three of the pets. Hasbro added magical “elements” to the pets, for example, the baby dragon had a fortune telling die in its transparent belly – something I didn’t design. It looked to me like I was seeing what the little dragon ate for dinner.
During my four years of pitching the Genies I also pitched them as a show in Hollywood; I often did this with toy pitches and I optioned and did development deals on some of these, but they never turned into shows. I could see that I could spend my whole career pitching shows, and making a reasonable living with development deals, but never actually getting any shows produced. Pitching shows in Hollywood is very frustrating for little creative guys like me. Hasbro pitched the Genies to the Hollywood studios also.
The drawing below is a rough sketch I did for a big painting for Hasbro’s Hollywood TV pitches. I don’t know what happened to the painting, but the sketch survives, showing the four genies and their four magical, baby, exotic animal pets frolicking in the bottle city where the genies live, and having tea on their magic carpet.
The Teenie Genies/My Magic Genies didn’t amount to much because they never got a TV show, but a doll line with Hasbro is still a big score for a little toy inventor –and a big non-refundable, advance against royalties made me feel secure enough that I could try some different things in my career. I did a newspaper comic, something that notoriously pays poorly, but that cartoonists love to do. In 1995 the genies gave me the financial freedom to draw a panel titled, TRUE! for Tribune Media Services (see lots of TRUE! comics here).
One of the newspapers that ran TRUE! was the Midweek newspaper in Hawaii; they called me up and asked if I would like to be their local, Hawaii editorial cartoonist, and I said, “of-course!” I later moved to being a daily cartoonist for Gannett’s Honolulu Advertiser (they were absorbed by another paper and are now the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, which still runs my cartoons). I started my syndicate and became the cartoonist for Slate.com, then msnbc.com and here I am today, still drawing political cartoons. I wouldn’t be drawing political cartoons if not for the genies.
Every so often I hear from ladies who somehow tracked me down, who tell me how they loved My Magic Genies when they were little girls. That’s nice to hear. And I see the genies sometimes on eBay, sometimes for silly prices.
By the time I rounded out my toy inventing career, the toy industry had changed. When I started in 1986, Toys R Us carried 35,000 SKUs (different products) in their stores. By the time I quit in 1995, Toy R Us carried only 13,000 SKUs. Now Toys R Us is gone completely. I used to license lots of small, unadvertised toys. I hit singles and not home runs, but I could make a fair living hitting singles. I don’t think that is possible anymore. The toy industry is only about big licensed products from big Hollywood properties now, and the days of the small, independent toy inventors are sadly gone.
Whenever I did a new toy presentation, I would make a pitch video where I would show the B-sheets (presentation boards) and the prototypes. I would usually read through the copy on the B-sheets and make the best argument I could for the toy in one, unedited, five minute take, in my living room, in front of a big, clunky, noisy old video camera. I would make about a dozen copies and leave the VHS tapes with toy companies when they wanted to consider the pitch –and even when they didn’t, who knows, they might change their minds and take another look, like Hasbro did.
The old video below shows young, 35 year old me making the pitch for the Teenie Genies in 1991. I cringe to look at myself and this crummy tape now, but at the time I never worried about the tapes being crummy. The VHS video shows the nice, parchment B-sheets and Marilee’s lovely prototypes. The video also contains a Gilligans Island joke, which may have been funny 28 years ago, but probably wasn’t.