Marc Brown on the ending of Arthur and his favorite fan theories
From the minute Marc Brown meets you, he’s sizing you up. Just maybe not in the usual way.
“People remind me of animals,” said Brown, the 75-year-old creator of the illustrated character Arthur Read, the 8-year-old bespectacled aardvark who’s been helping kids navigate the world around since the book Arthur’s Nose came out in 1976 them around. “If the kid I’m talking to is reading a book and all the characters are animals, they don’t care what color their skin is. They are immediately attracted to the character they identify with and connect with.”
For more than 25 years, Brown and a team at WGBH, Boston’s PBS affiliate, have been producing the animated adaptation series Arthur, in which the aardvark, his friends, and a cast of animal guest stars tackle tough issues like bullying, divorce, and disability. The series, which has been praised by both children and parents for its candor in portraying challenging situations – as well as seven Emmy Awards and being named the longest-running children’s animated series on American television – will air its final new episodes this week. (All four air Monday afternoons and stream free on PBS Kids.)
“One of the reasons I love ‘Arthur’ is the imperfections in our characters,” said Carol Greenwald, who created the show with Brown and is now executive producer. “It’s important to show the kids that you can really screw it up and it’s not the end of the world. You can learn from your mistakes and come back a better person.”
Both Brown and Greenwald said the idea from the start was for the series not only to reflect issues relevant to children, but also to present a world in which they could see themselves. When they first started, Greenwald said, the WGBH team sent people with cameras to film neighborhoods around Boston to help the animators diversify the houses in Arthur’s world.
“Arthur lived in a beautiful little house with a picket fence,” she said, “but we wanted to diversify the world in a way that kids who lived in apartment buildings or in smaller, lower-income neighborhoods would feel like a part of that story.”
And Elwood City, Arthur’s fictional home, felt like home to many viewers not just in Boston but around the world. When one of the show’s writers revealed in July that production had wrapped — and when PBS later announced the series’ final episodes would air this winter — the reaction, at least on social media, was a collective clenched fist (a riff to a popular Arthur meme).
But for fans who have followed Arthur for more than 250 episodes, there is one consolation: the characters will live on in a new Arthur podcast, games, and digital shorts (reruns of “Arthur” will air on PBS Kids until further notice. ) And the final episode of the series will flash forward to give viewers a glimpse of what Arthur and his friends will become.
“There are definitely some surprises,” Greenwald said.
In a recent video call from his sunny West Village living room, Brown was outspoken, feisty and cheeky. His clothes and furnishings immaculate, his white hair neatly combed—it wasn’t hard to see where Arthur, who loved polo shirts and V-neck sweaters, was following his fashion trends. Brown, who is still the show’s executive producer, reflected on its longevity and why now was the right time to end it, and spoke about some of his new projects, including the long-maturing Arthur film that’s recently been gaining momentum Has . (He also clarified some fan theories.) These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Happy 25 years! Did you ever think you’d be having this conversation when the first episode premiered in October 1996?
Not in my wildest dreams. I thought it would take two years – if I was lucky.
Many writers help create a show and then resign. Why are you still so committed after 25 years?
I still have the same feeling I had when PBS came to me wanting to put Arthur on TV. I had previously invested 15 years in the characters and got a lot of letters from kids. It felt like a small family and I wanted the characters to stay true to my vision. And so, in that way, I was a guard in the corner.
So many of the stories are inspired by real-life experiences you had when your children — Tolon, Tucker, and Eliza — were little. Is it harder to come up with new ideas now that you’re an adult?
So many episodes have come from the experiences of our writing team – and it turns out they’re still helpful and relevant to kids! There are episodes, like the one about head lice, that get a lot of positive feedback every time we run them because it’s still an ongoing problem for a lot of kids.
So why break up now?
Technology has changed in the last 25 years and kids are now watching stories on their iPhones, listening to podcasts, playing games on their devices — they get information in so many other ways. We look for opportunities to try new things.
Did the reaction surprise you?
It was wonderful to see the response. I still get a lot of messages on my Instagram page, “Is Arthur really over?” I love seeing the reactions from these young adults who grew up with Arthur, the fact that these characters are still fresh in their minds. It’s great that he’s touched so many people so deeply that they want him to continue.
In the first book “Arthur’s noseArthur looked like a long-snouted aardvark, not a bespectacled mouse. What happened?
The second book, Arthur’s Eyes, came about when my son Tolon got glasses. He came home and said, “Dad, I thought all my friends were better looking.” You can’t make that up! So of course Arthur had glasses too. As the series progressed, I got to know him better and he became more loveable and human – and his nose got shorter. It wasn’t on purpose!
Have you ever encountered an aardvark?
[Laughs.] I haven’t had an encounter with aardvarks, although I believe there is one that lives in an apartment across the street.
The series is notable for its diverse characters, including those with blindness, dyslexia, autism, and dementia. How did you ensure that these representations were correct?
We work with a number of experts on each episode, like the one about Arthur’s grandfather, Dave, who struggled with Alzheimer’s and doesn’t remember Arthur’s name. These things are so important and so many families deal with them. We heard from a father who watched the show about autism and found out through the show that his son has autism and thanks us. The show helped parents understand their children. Matt Damon’s mom happens to be one of our wonderful contributors who has helped us with many episodes. So we got Matt Damon as a guest star. The poor guy didn’t know what hit him!
The show made headlines in 2019 when Mr. Ratburn, Arthur’s teacher, turned out to be gay. The episode also featured his marriage to a man. Did you have concerns about how people would react?
We want to represent the world around us. When we were about to marry Arthur’s teacher, we thought it might be an opportunity for him to marry a same-sex partner — and kudos to PBS for standing behind us and letting us do it, and in a way it was . t about his sexual orientation. It was about their teacher, who they love, found a partner who he loved and they were happy for him.
When the New York Times spoke to you in 1996 – shortly after the first episodes aired – you got 100,000 letters a year from kids. How much fan mail do you get these days?
I get letters asking for Francine’s phone number – well, Francine [a monkey character on the show] has no phone number! Years ago I was really stupid: In the book Arthur’s Thanksgiving, I wrote our home phone number on a little illustration of a bulletin board that said, “Call Arthur at 749-7978.” Every Thanksgiving, the phone started ringing ring and ring and ring. My wife Laurie had the best answer. You would hear a small voice say, “Hello? Is Arthur there?” And she would say, “No, he’s in the library.” We lived outside of Boston at the time; it went like this for a few years!
What’s next for you?
For three years I’ve been working on a new animated series for preschoolers called Hop. It’s a small frog, and one of its legs is slightly shorter than the other. It’s a show about the power of friendship, problem solving together and kindness.
And my dream of an Arthur feature film, which I decided would never come true, might actually come about in a way I could be proud of. When this idea was hatched 15 years ago, I was spending way too much time in Los Angeles talking to people that I didn’t think made much sense. But now I think I’ve found the right people.
Can we go for a quick lap? There are several fan theories that I would like you to confirm or disprove.
Let’s start with the most plausible: Arthur lives in Pennsylvania.
Well, I grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania. I went to elementary school at Lakewood Elementary School. I still see my third grade and all my friends, many of whom became characters in Arthur’s world. But I also lived in Massachusetts for many years and used a lot of elements from there – the theater in Arthur’s Valentine was the theater down the street where we were staying. When Carol and I were trying to name Arthur’s hometown, she suggested Elwood City, which is also in Pennsylvania, near where she lived as a child. That’s how it happened folks!
Arthur is getting married.
I won’t tell you! You need to tune in and find out.
Arthur takes place in a multiverse.
Arthur is a Reality series directed by Matt Damon.
I hadn’t heard that before. That is interesting.
The whole show is played by aliens.
Well, we did something similar a few years ago with Buster and his fascination with aliens, so…
That’s not a no?
I couldn’t be happier inspiring people’s imaginations. It’s good!