The Dad Who Created Jimmy Neutron
A behind-the-scenes look at the animated lives of Steve Oedekerk and his two young daughters.
Are comedy writers just kids who never grew up? Case in point: Steve Oedekerk, whose animated Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius hit theaters in 2001. At home with wife Tonie and daughters Zoe, 6, and Isabella, 2, Oedekerk wears the standard comedy-writer uniform of T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers ... with Jimmy Neutron-style springs on the heels. "Tonie hates these," he grins, bouncing toward the kitchen, where Tonie is giving Isabella lunch. "Oh, God, he's wearing the shoes!" cries Tonie, on cue, in mock horror.
It's hard to believe this former stand-up comic is 40. But Oedekerk's pranks have kept him on Hollywood's fast track since 1994, when he worked on Jim Carrey's Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. He later wrote and directed its sequel, When Nature Calls, and helped craft screenplays for The Nutty Professor and Patch Adams.
His sensibilities are evident in the writing studio he's built in the guest house outside his San Juan Capistrano, CA, home. With its giant cow sculptures, cymbal-clapping toy monkeys, pinball machines, and Ping-Pong table, it's easy to see why it's Zoe's and Isabella's favorite afternoon hangout. But it's the film-editing equipment and computers there that really let Oedekerk spend time with his family.
He and Tonie bought the property four years ago largely because of the guest house. "I'd been continually moving everything closer to home until eventually it was just at home," he says. "It's not like it's hurting my family if I spend a lot of time at work now. Animation serves family life really well, because so much can be done over the Internet."
Even without a daily commute, Oedekerk puts in a long work week. He creates "thumbmation" shorts, in which animated thumbs parody movies like Titanic and Star Wars, and he directed and stars in the upcoming martial-arts comedy Kung Pow: Enter the Fist. He also produced the animated IMAX film Santa vs. the Snowman, due in theaters November 2002, after being disappointed by 1997's large-format Nutcracker. "I was so excited to take the kids, because I love IMAX theaters, and man, it just blew," he remembers. "Every kids' movie that comes out, we take Zoe and Isabella to. That's why I go out of my way to make stuff that's fun for parents to watch. That's a big deal for me."
His home studio lets Oedekerk immerse himself in his work while living an hour and a half -- and an entire mindset -- away from Hollywood. "No one understands the entertainment industry here," he says, recalling how, when he was directing the second Ace Ventura, a neighbor asked, awestruck, if he ever got to actually see Jim Carrey.
The Oedekerk girls are just as innocent about their father's work -- Zoe still hasn't seen the PG-13-rated Nutty Professor or Ace films. "She knows I do movies, but it's still sort of a kid knowledge," Oedekerk says. "Like she'll see some random film and say, 'Did you do that one, Daddy?'" Isabella, for her part, loves Jimmy Neutron -- she jumps out of her seat when she sees ads for the character's spin-off series on Nickelodeon -- although she has no idea the boy genius is her dad's brainchild.
Oedekerk would be the first to admit that thinking like a kid is part of his job -- he even used Zoe's suggestion for Jimmy Neutron's favorite drink (burping soda). But he knows when to switch into Dad mode. "Clearly it's Fun Guy's house around here," he says. "But I'm also pretty strict, because I was a nightmare growing up. I don't really yell or act tough -- Zoe knows that if she messes up, she's got to go to her room for a while."
But Fun Guy still plays the classic kids' game of posing two imaginary, and appalling, choices. "Mine are really good -- they're hard to figure out," Oedekerk says. "I don't know if I'd rather have three Sumo wrestlers sit on me for an hour or be stung by 12 bees on the back of my neck."
But the game is more fun when Zoe plays too. "She just started doing it, and it's so wonderfully not honed yet," he says. "This is one of hers from two nights ago: 'Okay, would you rather feel really, really full or have a gorilla pound on your head for 100 years?' I go, 'I think I'd rather be really, really full.' And she goes, 'Yeah, me too!'"