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Dan Signer talks about developing the Disney Channel's newest hit, "A.N.T. Farm"

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Dan Signer talks about developing the Disney Channel's newest hit, "A.N.T. Farm"

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You've heard of products that were made in China? Well, how about projects that were made for China. To be specific: China Anne McClain, the 13-year-old actress and singer.

"A.N.T. Farm" star China Anne McClain. Photo by
Bob D'Amico. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

China first came on the Disney Channel's radar thanks to her scene-stealing appearances on Tyler Perry's House of Payne. The Mouse thought that McClain had the making of a sitcom star. So they commissioned a pilot for this diminutive performer that didn't quite work. Which is why Disney then turned to Dan Signer.

"And who's Dan Signer?," you ask. Well, Dan has kind of a unique pedigree when it comes to situation comedy. Signer was born and raised in Toronto, Canada. Where - while he attended Forest Hill Collegiate Institute and then graduated from University College at the University of Toronto - Dan believes that his formative education, at least when it comes to comedy, came from those thousands of hours that he spent in front of the family TV set.

"I watched reruns of all of the classic sitcoms - I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Taxi - plus great sketch shows like SCTV. Plus lots and lots of cartoons," Signer remembered.

Copyright 2004 Shout Factory. All rights reserved

But when Dan finally got down to LA, there just weren't a lot of jobs available in the sitcom world. Which is how Signer wound up working in reality television instead.

"My first real job in show business was working on a reality special called 'When Good Pets Go Bad,' "Dan continued. "I then continued to work in low-paying production jobs on other reality specials, including one for Fox called 'Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?' "

It wasn't exactly the job that Dan had been dreaming of when he first began watching Dick Van Dyke reruns as a kid.  But at least Signer now had his foot in the door. Which is why - as he worked on those reality specials - Dan did everything that he could to learn about how TV was made in the modern age.

Copyright 2011 Fox Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved

"And the whole time that I was working that reality television gig, I was also writing sample sitcom scripts. Always looking for the next opportunity to further my career," Signer said. "Which - as it turned out - was also with Fox Television, working on situation comedies like "Stacked' and 'Quintuplets.' "

And then - from there - Disney eventually beckoned. Dan joined the writing staff of "The Suite Life with Zack & Cody" midway through its second season. And the producers of that Disney Channel show were so impressed with Signer's efforts that - when "The Suite Life on Deck" was spun off out of that show - Dan was asked to come along on that comedic cruise.

Which brings us back to "A.N.T. Farm." Which - as the creator and executive producer of this It's a Laugh Productions show - Signer was supposed to tailor around China Anne McClain's many talents.

China Anne McClain on the set of the new Disney Channel series, "A.N.T. Farm." Photo
by Bruce Birmelin. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"The girl had so much confidence. She can nail a joke. She can sing. She can play instruments. It's like China was some sort of child prodigy," Dan recalled. "And that's when it hit me: Why not build a show around a child prodigy? Someone who's got all of this natural talent & ability but is still challenged when she's sent off to high school at the age of 11?"

So while Ms. McClain was off working for the Disney Channel farm team (Translation: With the hope that viewers might take an early liking to this talented tween, It's a Laugh Productions had China play Tina, an angel-in-training on the Disney's Wizards of Waverly Place trilogy, Wizards vs. Angels), Signer threw himself into researching the world of child prodigies.

"And - as it turns out - there are all sorts of child prodigies. I learned about this one kid who was the grand master when it came to playing Guitar Hero. He actually took off time from school so that this kid could then compete professionally at this video game," Dan laughed.

Copyright Activision Publishing, Inc. All rights reserved

And once he learned that there were all sorts of child prodigies ... Well, that's how Signer decided to cast his "A.N.T. Farm" (FYI: The "A.N.T." in this title of this new Disney Channel series stands for "Advanced Natural Talents"). Looking for just the right pair of performers for China Anne to bounce off of.

"Sierra McCormick is - in a lot of ways - just like the character she plays, Olive Doyle. During her audition, the topic of tigers came up. And Sierra immediately began rattling off fact after fact after fact about those big cats," Dan stated. "And as I heard her continually talking about tigers, I thought 'That's just how Olive would sound.' Which is how Sierra got that part."

And when it came to casting Fletcher Quimby, Jake Short had just the right mix of coolness and nervous energy to make his character the sort of artist that boys would actually like.

(L to R) Jake Short, China Anne McClain and Sierra McCormick. Photo by Bruce Birmelin.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"And once I had my core three ... Well, the best part of setting a show in high school is new students come and go all the time, substitute teachers periodically appear. There are always ways that you can  introduce new elements which can then help keep your show fresh," Signer said. "But the real key to having a successful sitcom is to make sure that you cast just the right actors as your lead roles. And that's just what  did with China, Sierra and Jake."

And clearly the folks at the Disney Channel seem to agree. Given that - based on the strength of the first few "A.N.T. Farms" that Dan & his creative team produced - Mouse House executives quickly bumped up their first season order from 13 to 21 episodes.

"We've just finished up working on Episode 13 and are now about to get started on Episode 14," Signer said when we spoke on the phone last week. "And we've got some genuinely fun shows in the mix for Season One. Like an 'A.N.T. Farm' version of 'Ocean's Eleven.' Where each of these child prodigies uses their own unique talents & abilities to help pull off a caper at school."

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Which - you'll have to admit - is a definite departure from the types of stories that the Disney Channel used to tell on "Hannah Montana." Which is a deliberate choice on Dan's part.

"I think - early on - when the Disney Channel was first getting into sitcoms, you could take advantage of the fact that kids weren't really all that familiar with the form. It was that much easier to entertain them back then," Signer said. "But now - thanks to the success of shows like 'Hannah Montana' and 'Wizards of Waverly Place' -- today's kids are far more familiar with the sitcom formula. Which is why you now have to work that much harder to stay ahead of that audience. Put together plots that entertain and surprise them."

And when I say "them," I mean adults and children. According to Disney Channel internal surveys, a surprising number of families are now sitting down together to watch shows like "Good Luck Charlie" and "Shake It Up" (which, FYI, is now the No. 1 show - year-to-date - with tween girls).

(L to R) Bella Thorne and Zendaya on the set of the Disney
Channel hit, "Shake It Up." Photo by Randy Holmes.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"This is why I always make a point of never writing down to the audience. I figure that - if Mom & Dad are actually out there watching these shows with their kids - they can then explain some of the more obscure jokes and references to them . Which is why I always try to make the audience reach up a bit," Dan continued. "Besides, 'A.N.T. Farm" isn't a kid's show. It's a show about kids. Smart kids. Child prodigies. Which is why these kids are going to tell smarter, sharper jokes."

But that said, Signer still sees "A.N.T. Farm" with universal appeal. After all, who among us doesn't remember the initial terror associated with going to high school?

"I mean, everyone remembers what it was like when they were a freshman. When the seniors were all so huge and you couldn't find your way around the school. That's just the sort of feeling that I'm trying to tap into with 'A.N.T. Farm,' " Dan explained. "Only on our show, it's Chyna who's constantly pushing Olive & Fletcher. Trying to get them to leave the relative safety of the A.N.T. Farm class room. Get out and try & take advantage of every opportunity that comes their way in high school. Because - in spite of their age and their size - Chyna believes that Olive & Fletcher can genuinely accomplish anything."

Chyna (China Anne McClain) looks on as Olive (Sierra McCormick) tries out for Lexi
(Stefanie Scott)'s cheerleading squad. Photo by Danny Feld. Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Which - when you think about it - is a pretty great message for a TV show to put out there for kids. And given that last Friday's series premiere of "A.N.T Farm" was the No. 1 TV telecast with Kids 6-11 for the week of June 13th ... It would appear that a lot of people out there share this sentiment.

So if you'd like to see the sitcom that Dan Signer built around China Anne McClain, be sure and catch "A.N.T. Farm." Which airs on the Disney Channel on Friday nights from 8:30 - 9 p.m. ET / PT.

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  • let's be honest: kids playing prodigy characters in the show are not prodigies themselves.

    just look at main actress China: it says she plays "many instruments" and sings. Well! her guitar playing cannot be called playing and her singing ..... just listen. so there you have. There are many kids that are true prodigies with MANY instruments mastered.

    This new show is just another show from Disney with cast of characters to target specific consumer market/audience  (DO NOT FORGET DISNEY IS FOR PROFIT COMPANY) we have seen this in the past (LOVATO, GOMEZ).

    I am not against any of this shows or kids in them. JUST PLEASE DONT SPIN IT AS IF THEY ARE SOME KIND OF PRODIGIES.

  • Now wait just a minute.... isn't this the same cast as "Kickin' It", give or take a ninja or two??!!

  • I love the show and the kids.  I don't think Dan was trying to say that these kids are prodigies themselves.  However, I do think that the children are very talented actors.  I, like many parents, watch the show with the children and I find it entertaining.

  • kids on the show are outgoing and more mature than other kids of their age but I would not call them VERY talented (that's a stretch). It;s a typical show very tightly managed (fake laughs on the background, rolled up eyes etc.)  kids perform within very narrow boundaries set by director. Acting is on stage  in the live theater. Just look up all these talented actors into the adult acting world. None of them are there 'cause it requires a lot more that "Disney acting"

  • hi my name is destiny and if this is the only way to get a hold of you thn im doing it this way i am great at singing (says my family n friends) n i would love to get on your channel i dont want to get on your shows because i want money i want to follow my dreams and do what i do best n what i love for a career i respect your channel greatly and i am 13 years old i have had this dream since i found out that i can sing wich was about 5 years ago and i've been singing ever since !!! i <3 you guys

  • Come on DISNEY and Mr. Signer! Let's not beat up on the adorable African American character. Would this be allowed for Hanna? You know--kind of ridiculous right? Just think about it...is this what we want children seeing and symbolically embedding.  If you want to build on this new potential audience, treat the characters with respect...hire a black mom to review the scripts. Be more responsible...

  • Angela says: "..hire a black mom to review the scripts. Be more responsible..."

    It's comments like this that make me shake my head in wonder. Why does everything in kid's entertainment need to be approved by politically correct ultra-liberal types? Frankly, I think kids should turn off this mediocre Disney tweeny crap altogether and put on a Flintstones DVD instead. Maybe they'll develop a sense of humour by watching some fun TV cartoons from the glorious past.

  • Totally agree with Peter. Corporations like Disney create unnecessary frenzy among kids and parents (who are in most cases looking at this as some kind of opportunity for the whole clan so they lug poor kids from one audition like to the next instead of letting them play in the park).  Standard conveyor belt of "stars" : Cyrus,  hudgens, Lovato and now Gomez always comes to a screeching halt simply because "stars" are made up and once Disney pump  stops then "stars" are done as they cannot sustain their careers on their own. "Tween" shows are there just to push merchandise.

  • My friend tried out for the part of Olive, she didn't make it though. :(

  • I think the show is fantastic!  Way to go Disney and China. Hope there will be China dolls in stores for Christmas-would definitely buy them for my nieces

  • I cant believe the first comment - they are actors PLAYING prodigies. The kids in SPY KIDS weren't really spies either. I think the show is fresh and funny. Keep the sharp jokes coming, Dan!

  • i totally agree china is a very talented and confident but Disney channel shows have mostly tweens or teens that can sing why not do something different like models like a show abt a girl or something but shes a model alot of girls cant sing but some are really good models like me im a model for (IMTA) email me ([email protected]) i am very talented i win lots of contest and auditions in the acting and modeling skills......and i feel i should have a show on Disney its my dream

  • you should really target other skills like acting is fine but why not modeling and acting

  • Trudy, I am sorry to break this to you but: all "new" shows or very "talented" sitcom young stars are product of big marketing research machinery of Disney corp. The person they choose can be anybody as long as they fit certain marketing profile (disney was looking for rural girl they got Cirys, then they needed young Latin actor they got Gomez). This time they were looking for a different consumer market and they found SURPRISE : China!

    But it all has to do with revenues: dollars, cents. It could be China or Katie or Jen ........ it does not matter. those kids are dime a dozen and most of them will fall by the wayside once Disney pump is done (just check on prior Disney stars and where they are now) Always look for a profit sign to get a true picture.

  • It doesnt matter if you think its bad. It's just these peoples jobs. It could be hard. You dont know. Can you memorize all those lines? This isnt supposed to be offensive, Im just saying. Its fine to have different opinions. Go watch Flintstone if you want.

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