Interview: Odd Squad Creators Tim McKeon and Adam Peltzman

When our daughter introduced us to Odd Squad, a math-focused kids’ program that airs on PBS, I was skeptical. A lot of kids programing is tedious and boring, and this can especially be the case with shows that attempt to slip educational messages into their plots. In no time at all, my skepticism turned to admiration and love. The show, very clearly created by fans of The Adventures of Pete and Pete and the Zucker comedies of the 70s and 80s, is so sharp and well written that it—like Pixar films are famous for doing—lands equally with parents and children alike. Beyond that, show creators Tim McKeon and Adam Peltzman have honored their influences by making a show on par in wit, quality and hilarity. It just so happens to be targeted at small children. 

The two are currently working a second season of the show. I talked with them about their influences, comedic points of view, and what responsibilities they feel, if any, when developing a show targeted specifically to children. 

I was prepared to not like your show because kids shows can be—you know. But I fell in love with it almost immediately. My daughter and I have watched every episode available on Netflix a few times through. It is The Adventures of Pete and Pete good, and that’s definitely my favorite kids show of all time.

PELTZMAN: We appreciate hearing that. I think we made it going on instinct. What do we like? What would make ourselves laugh? It’s definitely validating that it has found an audience with kids and parents. Like you said, kids and parents are watching as a family and laughing and that’s extremely gratifying because we wanted to make something that made us laugh and set well within our sensibilities.

McKEON: It felt like that target was also just kind of sitting out there. We love Pete and Pete and The Naked Gun and Airplane and the old Zucker Brothers stuff. We love Monty Python. But right now, it doesn’t feel like there are that many silly/goofy shows. I think that area felt ripe and like it would make us stand out.

One thing you do well is integrating lessons seamlessly. My daughter loved Jake and the Neverland Pirates, which is good but the lessons feel like they fall outside of the tone and the pace of the story itself. Yours feel very smoothly integrated into the episode. 

PELTZMAN: We started with this saying that “Odd is the problem and math is the solution.” That sort of guides us. We never wanted it to be like the Math Squad or anything like “We do math!” It’s funny—the set designers approached us early on and asked valid questions about whether we wanted numbers integrated into their suits or into the set. But it’s almost like they just happen to do math every episode. I am really proud of the ways the climax and the math come together. There was an episode about a pie-nado and we have our girl hero literally saving the day with geometry.

And it naturally integrates into the arch of the story. There is an episode in which the kids are confronted with door codes and they know that any combination that adds to 11 works. And in actuality, figuring out the logic to a code involves math. It’s not a stretch. Codes follow some sort of logic and you’re just demystifying that logic. Our daughter watches the show religiously and appears to have no idea that she is learning about everything that’s being presented to her.

McKEON: That’s what we call sneaky math. The reason the show exists on the PBS end is to expose kids to math and to make it aspirational and to make it fun. The story needs to come first and the characters need to come first. The math has to come across organically—sneakily. If we bludgeoned them over the head with it, they’d probably stop watching.

PELTZMAN: But another thing that’s interesting is as much as we try to disguise the math and bake it into the stories, I don’t think the show could exist without it. If you took the math out of Odd Squad, it would not feel anchored. It kind of drives the story in a way and it helps us shape the plot. We have sat around and said, [mocking a mad scientist inflection] “We are going to make the mot interesting story about estimation the world has ever seen! I swear!”

All of the characters are very specific. They all appear to come from their own specific points of origin. Who are they based on?

McKEON: I think a lot start from archetypes. We started with Olive, who is the Dragnet, by the book person and her partner is the goofy, fly by the seat of his pants rookie. You know, you have an idea for a character, you write it and then you audition these kids and you have them in the roles and you start adjusting to their strengths and what they can do.

You had three-fifths of the Kids in the Hall [Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney and Scott Thompson] on the show. Was their appearance a matter of you honoring people you look up to?

McKEON: We were shooting with a production company in Toronto and we had found out that a bunch of the Kids in the Hall lived up there. They are such a big part of our sensibility. Theirs is exactly the sort of sensibility we aspire to. They’re so silly and so fun while also weird. We had that in our minds, and we also really love the movie Clue. It’s such a silly farce made up of a lot of running around. We tried to marry those two ideas and we were thrilled that they were up for doing it. I was on set when they filmed it. My only job was to stay out of the way and control my fan-boyness, which I hope I did.

A treat about being an adult that gets to watch intelligent and bright children’s programming is that you can enjoy it on multiple levels. I enjoy Kids in the Hall, of course, and Scott Thompson in particular because he can be a delightful deviant. Seeing him in a kids show is a joy.

When you consider that your audience is primarily children, what responsibility, if any, do you feel with regard to how and what you craft?

PELTZMAN: First and foremost, you want to make sure that you’re staying true to the storytelling. Beyond that, you want to make sure that you’re putting together good characters that are decent and respectful of each other. You want to make sure that the humor comes from a good place, not a mean-spirited one. Even though our characters are totally flawed and off the wall, there is an underlying kindness—though that feels too soft a word for what I mean. What do you think, Tim?

McKEON: I like to think we started as nice people, but working for PBS and the Fred Rogers Company in particular, we have adopted their moral compass. There are also things that develop organically. You’re just trying to make a funny show about math and make it action packed and fun, but then the more you think about it and the more it percolates, more comes to the surface.

Our idea at the beginning was that we wanted a kid run agency. Kids are in charge and there are no adults in the picture. Kids solve things themselves, and from a comedy perspective you get a workplace comedy. You get all these people interacting with each other and that’s where the comedy sits. At one point one of our producers said, “It’s interesting: because we never see the kids’ parents, it’s like all the kids are equal.” You don’t know anything about their financial backgrounds and we deliberately made it ethnically and gender diverse, so all kids are equal and all belong. It was in there always, I think, but it took someone else pointing it out for us to embrace that.

And we started off making them partners just to have them have somebody to talk to, but then it because evident that this could be an opportunity to show off teamwork. It’s about how partners support each other and about how to work as a team. Those things sort of grew organically.

We have also gone out of our way, with the encouragement of PBS, to make the show very girl focused. The leader of Odd Squad is a girl of color and we tried to put as many girls in leadership positions as possible. We want kids at home to see themselves reflected in those positions. I think on some other shows, girls are relegated to best friends, but it so easy to change that expectation.

Looking at Pete and Pete as a model—and this is something I can likely only identify in retrospect—I appreciate how that show gave me permission to be weird and to embrace it. Do you think about your role in doing the same with this show?

McKEON: On kids’ TV, being weird feels more possible. We love working for PBS but I think there is a little bit of a deal that’s made. It’s like, “Do the math—get it into the show—and then be as weird as you want to be.” They hardly ever pull us back.

It’s also fun for us to twist things in that way. I love Will Forte’s comedy, and the guys from Stella. You know, it starts funny, goes so far it isn’t funny anymore and then it returns. We had this one episode where admittedly we were working to make up some time because we’d come up a little short on length, but the character wakes up from a dream, sees something, and then wakes up again. He wakes up 5 times from the same dream. It goes on for so long and we kind of owned it. I feel like whenever things come up short, we then get a little weird. In another episode, we wrote a 40 second long song about a character’s love of potatoes and how he doesn’t like lemurs or Saturn, he likes potatoes.

PELTZMAN: I even think that very early on PBS was pushing us to find even more oddness in our characters and situations. It’s kind of amazing when the network is helping push you to where you really want to go. I don’t see it as an agenda. Whenever someone says something is weird, we’re thrilled because maybe it means it is something that hasn’t been on TV before.

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.