How I Built This is an NPR (National Public Radio) podcast, hosted by Guy Raz, about innovators, entrepreneurs, and idealists, and the stories behind the movements they built.
On September 18, 2017, an episode interview about the Alvin and the Chipmunks franchise, entitled The Chipmunks: Ross Bagdasarian Jr. & Janice Karman, was released.
Years after his father created a hit singing group of anthropomorphic rodents called The Chipmunks, Ross Bagdasarian, Jr. made it his mission to revive his dad's beloved characters. Over the last 40 years, Ross Jr. and his wife Janice have built The Chipmunks into a billion dollar media franchise – run out of their home in Santa Barbara, California.
- What was your dad like?
- Did you think you'd be involved in the family business?
- What did your dad want you to do with your life?
- Where you already thinking about ways to revive The Chipmunks?
- How did you and Ross meet?
- So you start trying to pitch people on the concept of reviving The Chipmunks?
- Would you go to studios and production companies and they would just turn you down?
- How did you keep going at it when all these people are saying "No, no, no?"
- So what happened? What was the turning point?
- And then television follows? Television companies start to call you?
- How do we do this? How did your dad do the voices, the dialogue?
- When you started to do the voices for the characters, how did you record Alvin?
- So, how did television actually then end up happening?
- Did you have a concept of what the cartoon would look like?
- What was that first deal? Was it one season of Alvin and the Chipmunks that they committed to?
- But actually, from the perspective of the creators of these characters, like, these are competitors, right?
- How is it possible that NBC didn't say, "Hey, if you want a deal with us, we own the rights to this and all the licensing?"
- So, at what point did you guys sit down and say, "this is a business, like, let's think about how to make this into something really, really big?"
- And The Chipmunk Adventure did pretty well right?
- You basically leave NBC and cut a deal with Universal to bring the show back, so what was that about?
- So did Alvin and The Chipmunks basically drop off the map at that point?
- How much did you have to pay them to buy back their ownership?
- So did that affect your ability to call the shots in that negotiation?
- So is it three movies you’ve made with Fox now?
- Is your marriage just like serendipitous and it works?
- What do you think your dad would have made of Alvin and the Chipmunks today, what it's become?
- Do people ever call you Dave?
Ross: We are told by the record executive, "Ross, Janice, I want you guys to take The Chipmunks on the road. We want you to take them, these are the seven cities we want you to go to and make this album a hit in these seven cities. And if you do that, we will give you a big national promotion."
We hit the road. We in fact make the album a hit in each one of the seven cities. We come back to the record executive. The record executive tells Janice and me, "Well, we aren't actually going to do the national release and the big marketing." I said, "Wa-wait." I said, "You told us that if we-" He said, "If you don't have it in writing, you don't have it."
From NPR, it's How I Built This
, a show about innovators, entrepreneurs, and idealists, and the stories behind the movements they built.
I'm Guy Raz and on today's show, how a husband and wife team built a billion-dollar brand around three singing chipmunks.
If you were to build say a pantheon or a Mount Rushmore of Saturday morning cartoons of the 1980s, a statue to Alvin and the Chipmunks would be right there alongside The Smurfs, The Gummy Bears, Inspector Gadget. It was one of NBC's biggest hits. Three singing rodents! Alvin, Simon, Theodore, and their exasperated but kind manager/foster dad Dave Seville.
Media Excerpt: The Chipmunk Adventure
Now, all these voices: Theodore, Alvin, Simon, Dave. They were all voiced by two people: Ross Bagdasarian, Jr. and his wife Janice.
Janice: I'm Theodore.
Ross: And I'm Alvin and Simon and Dave.
Guy: Alright, gotcha, okay.
Janice: Do you want us to talk at half speed?
So, Ross and Janice didn't just voice the characters. They pretty much ran and run the company
that is Alvin and the Chipmunks. The movies
, the merch, the TV syndication, the live shows
- all of that's brought in billions, billions of dollars for studios and networks and arenas and even quite a bit for Ross and Janice. And that's in part because unlike most other creative people in Hollywood, Ross and Janice own
The Chipmunks, own
the intellectual property and so Chipmunks Inc. is pretty much a family business run out of Ross and Janice's house near Santa Barbara, California.
Now they didn't actually invent The Chipmunks. The actual inventor was Ross's dad, Ross Sr.
Media Excerpt: "Witch Doctor"
Guy: Back in 1958, Ross Sr. was a struggling songwriter who was looking for a break, and that break came when he figured out a way to change the pitch of his singing voice. The result: the "Witch Doctor" song.
So this song became a hit and Ross soon came up with this concept that it was sung by these anthropomorphic rodents he called The Chipmunks. And all of a sudden Ross's career took off! The Chipmunks became a radio show and then a cartoon on television. And for Ross Jr., he watched his dad become famous.
A 100%. It changed literally overnight. First with "Witch Doctor" which was like March 1958 and then of course The Chipmunks were that November/December '58 so we got a swimming pool. So I was, I was much more impressed that we had a swimming pool then that my dad was on The Ed Sullivan Show
doing the "Witch Doctor" or Dick Clark's American Bandstand
I remember he would always bring my brother and sister and I into his den and play, whether it was the "Witch Doctor" or "The Chipmunk Song
" or whatever, and we loved when Alvin started talking back to our dad. We just fell in love with, not just the song but the audacity of that little character 'cause we didn't really talk back to my dad that much so we thought Alvin really had a lot of spunk that we admired.
Guy: What, what was your dad like? Was he, was he, I'm thinking of the guy that sang and wrote the "Witch Doctor." Was he this impresario, was charismatic, was he silly? Or?
Ross: You know what, he was all of that guy. He was bigger than life. He was sorta the Armenian version of Zorba the Greek. So all five seven of him but you always thought, and everyone who meet him thought, that he was six five. He just carried himself that way but he was funny. He was incredibly creative. He loved music and really thought of himself as a musician. He loved song writing and started writing songs when he was 16 years old, driving a truck in the vineyards of Fresno. And his first was called "Nuts 2 U" so from nuts came little chipmunks.
Guy: Yeah, so when you were a kid Ross, did you think that you'd be involved in the family business?
Ross: A 100% no. You know, growing up I didn't even wanna go to the record sessions. My dad would say, "Hey, would you like to come and see how we do this?" And I go, "Yeah no pop I got a big Little League game here so I'm gonna not make it to that."
But growing up as I started to realize what kind of a career was I heading for, the only I was certain of, while my dad was still alive, was that I wasn't going to be involved with The Chipmunks or what my dad had done. Not because I didn't love what he had created but because they such big shoes to fill that I didn't wanna try and step into that.
Guy: Hmm. So I know Ross that I think you were 22 or 23 when your dad died. He was super young, like just his early 50s. What, what did he want you to do with your life?
Ross: Well, after my dad passed away and before he had passed away, he said, "I really wanna encourage you to go to law school." And I just hated that idea but when he passed away, all of a sudden you saw the kind of folks coming out of the woodwork that would try and take, whether it was music publishing from the family or wineries and vineyards that he had built up over the years and I realized that my dad wanted me to go to law school, obviously not to become a lawyer, but basically to have a kind of a mental martial arts protections because he always had said, "Look, there's creating what you do and there's continuing to own what you do." And those are tough things to do at both times unless you know how to protect yourself and contracts and so forth so after he passed away I immediately enrolled in law school.
So I graduated in, three years later in 75, passed the bar, wasn't going to practice law but wanted to know that with, the music publishing and the things I would hope to created later on, I wanted to know how to hold on them, as my dad had done.
Guy: Did you, I mean at that point, where you already thinking about ways to revive The Chipmunks?
After my dad had passed away, I would go up in his office and just listen to the songs that he had done, I watched the old TV shows he had done, The Alvin Show
, and I just thought I didn't want The Chipmunks to pass away as suddenly as my dad did. And I wanted to figure out some way to try and bring them back. So when I met Janice and she had love the characters growing and it was one of the shows her folks let her see. So I know had another believer with me and I said, "Janice, I just wanna see if we can do this for just a year to bring kinda a tribute to my dad.
" and then we'll go and do of course all the other things we were interested in doing.
Guy: Can I just go back for a second? I wanna ask Janice about where you were at at this point 'cause you were an actor in LA, right?
Guy: And so how did you, you and Ross, meet?
Janice: Well, we meet at a health food, vegetarian restaurant and I-
Guy: This is in LA?
Janice: In LA and I saw a friend of mine who was having dinner with Ross, who I didn't know, and I went up to her to say hello and was introduced to Ross and the following day I got a bouquet of flowers where I was working and the next day I got another bouquet and they were all signed by Ross, but I hadn't remembered his name so I didn't know who was sending me these flowers.
Ross: I make quite the impression as you can tell.
Guy: Yeah. You must have, yeah.
Janice: These flowers went on for several weeks and finally he called. He said, "Hi Janice. This is Ross." I said, "Ross! Thank you for the those flower, they're beautiful. Who are you?"
Ross: And then from that.
Janice: And then he asked me on a date and it took about three years for me to come around.
Guy: Wow, three years?
Janice: Right, and so he took me to his father's office at night and I'm going up the elevator and I'm thinking where are we going and I didn't tell anybody I was going out with this guy and what are we doing in this building? Then he put on the old chipmunks shows and I thought wow. This is interesting and then he told me he was the son of Ross Bagdasarian and I said, "Oh my god, that was one of the few cartoon shows I watched and loved them." So then he said, "You think they would be viable today?" I said, "I would think so."
Ross: And I had enlisted her on my impossible quest, my little donkeyhotey fighting these little windmills to get the chipmunks back.
Guy: So, you just like start trying to pitch people on this concept?
Ross: Yeah. Well first we went to CBS because they had run the old shows, The Alvin Show, so that seemed like a natural place to go. They said, "Listen, we loved what your dad did. We thought it was great, but we think history's moved on and it had its wonderful time and that's really over." So then we went to the music side of things and I don't know if they had just spoken to the people at CBS. But they said, "You know that was a wonderful characters and your dad had a great success but we think time has past and you guys should move on to something else. You're young and capable and off you go."
Guy: And did this just continue to happen, you would just go to studios and production companies and they would just turn you down?
Ross: This went on for years.
Janice: Everyone turned us down. For years.
Guy: So why did you stick with it? I mean at that point you're in your 20s, you've got a law degree, you got all these possibilities, you're married at this point. So how long did you keep going out and getting rejected? How was that period of time?
Janice: Well first of all those nos fueled Ross and actually fueled me as well.
Ross: And I would always say "Janice, write their names down. When we make this big, when we see them again we're gonna 'Oh, no you want it? Well we're not gonna give it to you.'"
Janice: And I, like a fool, would take out my little pad and look at their name tag "Could you spell your last name for me?"
Guy: But really, how did you keep going at it when all these people are saying "No, no, no?" I mean, didn't you feel rejected, didn't you just feel humiliated?
Ross: No, honestly I didn't. I just felt "Oh well, I am going to show them they're wrong. I know this is going to work. Janice believes in it. There's two of us for goodness sake." So no, I was just more and more set on however long this took.
Guy: Yeah, but I mean look, to be devil's advocate you could understand for a moment why a television executive at the time, somebody who's trying to find the next big thing, who's sorta incentivized to do it, would sort of look at your proposal and say "That's a throwback to the 50s. We're doing like really crazy things now." You could kinda understand that.
Janice: You know Ross taught me the power of tenacity. Guy, he persuade me for three years. Every single day.
Ross: Because I knew we were right. I knew this was the perfect person for me and not to equate Janice with The Chipmunks, but I honestly believe when you really believe in something so clearly, it's so clear for you as that was for me, I didn't care about what anyone else said. We were going to make this happen if it took a year or if it took three decades.
Guy: But why did you believe that it would work? Why? When all of these experts, I'm just curious. Ross, we obviously know what happened but when all of these people who are experts in television were saying, "Look, this is old. This is a tired franchise. Just enjoy life." Why did you think they were wrong?
Ross: Well, two things. Number one. What we came to realize is that there are actually no experts. Nobody really knows and so I was just willing to put my belief above what other people were telling us. Janice felt the same way, we thought they were good characters.
Yeah, I felt that in listening to "The Chipmunks Song" and the "Witch Doctor" and "Alvin for President
" that there was this relationship with Dave and this chipmunk that kept pushing his buttons. And I believed that relationship, and so did millions of other people and Dave and Alvin really endeared themselves to us and I thought if we could get that relationship in these shows, then it could happen again.
Guy: So what happened? What was the turning point?
The turning point was a disc jockey in Philadelphia at 3 o'clock in the morning played a Blondie song and sped it up and told his listeners that it was the latest song from this album Chipmunk Punk
. He was being completely facetious.
Guy: What was the Blondie song?
"Chipmunks" version of "Call Me"
And he just sped it up and said it was a Chipmunk version of "Call Me?"
Janice: Yeah, he was just probably bored, and his switchboard lit up, and all these people called wanting to know where they could get the album. And a record company back east found out about this and called us up and said, "Would you be interested in doing a Chipmunk -," we didn't even listen to the end of the sentence, we said "Yes!"
Guy: It was just some random, small - was it a small record company?
Janice: Yeah, small.
Guy: They said, "Would you do a Chipmunk Punk album?"
Janice: "Would you be interested in a Chipmunk Punk album?" But we were very up for it, and as it turns out it sold over a million albums overnight and then the people at CBS and NBC and ABC, they, well you know, all of a sudden they wanted to have lunch.
Guy: And was it relatively cheap to produce that record?
Ross: Very inexpensive. I don't like to say cheap, I would say inexpensive.
Guy: Wow, so you put that record out, it just sells like crazy, and then what? And then television follows? Television companies start to call you?
Well, right after that, as Janice mentioned, not only were the TV folks who we had gone to much more receptive and now interested, but it also gave us a chance to look at doing more music, because obviously it had sold so well, so we were approached to do not only a Christmas album, but also - and we thought "Okay what would be, you know, the furthest thing away from this album.
" 'cause we didn't want to do a repeat of that.
So, Urban Cowboy
had come out and we thought, you know what, let's go to Nashville and record Urban Chipmunk
. So we took songs from Kenny Rogers and the whole bunch of - "I Love a Rainy Night
," "Thank God I'm a Country Boy
," all of these different songs, but one of the things Janice wanted to do in that album was now create some dialogue, some stories.
Janice: Just some personality, and not just straight music.
Ross: Not just song, song, song, song.
Janice: So I said to Ross, "How do we do this? How did your dad do the voices, the dialogue?" and he said, "I have no idea."
Ross: I was playing Little League, what did I know?
Janice: So I went back to the house and I played his father's tapes and I saw that he talked at half speed. And so I went back and I said "Okay, this is what we do."
Guy: So you guys are recording this like you're speaking very clearly and slowly so then when you speed up the tape it sounds like The Chipmunks?
Ross: Yes. Right.
Janice: Well it sounds- It's the same speed that we speak, but it's at a higher pitch.
Guy: Just, like, a logistical question. When you started to do the voices for the characters, how did you – give me a sense, give me a little taste, obviously everyone listening knows you are Dave, Ross, but, like, how do you record Alvin? Like, give me a line of how you would record Alvin.
Ross: Well, I will do that, but I want to also say that Janice was just wonderful as Theodore right from the beginning and I was still so tied to what my dad had done which was very clear, and when my dad did Alvin, it was "Hello Dave, how are you doing today?," very stilted and it didn't feel real so Janice would say, "Ross you know what, do try to do an impersonation of your dad either as David Seville or as Alvin or Simon, you know. Loosen them up, make it a little bit more your own." And so now after all these years, I have obviously gotten better, so now Alvin is a little bit more fluid for me. And even though I have to talk more slowly, "Dave listen, okay, I know. You're going to continue to talk about blah, blah, blah, whatever."
Ross: And then-
Janice: And then, Guy, I would say "Ross, slower."
Ross: Right, right.
Ross: "Dave, Dave, I remember what you said the last time, so could I please just leave?"
Guy: So, how did television actually then end up happening? 'Cause it happened, I guess, in 1983 that The Chipmunks' cartoon comes back on TV.
Ross: Right, but before that, Guy, in 1981, Janice and I had been taking around a Christmas idea, a Christmas special, from probably around '78 or so after Chipmunk Punk comes out and does so well and then Urban Chipmunk, NBC said to us "Hey, um I know we told you that was a terrible idea and we didn't like The Chipmunks, but um, we now think with those two platinum albums, maybe that Christmas special is a good idea."
Guy: Wow. Did any executives that had previously rejected you, did you end up meeting with them and having- like, were they begging you to come back?
Ross: Yes, and I'm not going to give you names, but many of those people that were on our list.
Janice: Yeah, I did pull out my old list.
Guy: So when they approached you and said, "We want to do a Christmas special.," did you have a concept of what the cartoon would look like, how it'd be animated, and did you already have that laid out or did you have to kind of figure that out?
Janice: No, we had never written anything before and then when they said "So, who do you see writing it?" Ross said, "We're gonna write it." And I looked at him across the room, I glared at him like, "What are you saying?" And again, because out of necessity, we wrote it. And then no, we didn't have a look, we didn't have- the voices we still weren't experts at. And yeah.
Guy: How did you even know what to do? Obviously, you're both super smart and talented, but, I mean you're creating an animation studio overnight! You're standing up an animation studio, which by the way in 1983 was very expensive 'cause it's still hand-drawn stuff.
Ross: Right, exactly.
Janice: Well, Ross and I have done everything. Everything we've ventured into we've known nothing about. So, it's the-
Ross: We start from stupid.
Janice: We start from stupid. It's the hardest way and the best way to learn. And you just go step by step. Okay, we need to create characters. Okay, we need to know what this world looks like.
Ross: And we were really very fortunate because some of the great animators from Warner Brothers, including Chuck Jones, and Phil Monroe, and Virgil Ross and these guys who had done the greatest Bugs Bunny cartoons in the 40's and 50's were available and they weren't being used, and Janice and I hired all of them to make the Christmas special, A Chipmunk Christmas.
After that Christmas special on NBC, clearly it was a success because then NBC cut a deal with you. What was that first deal? Was it one season of Alvin and the Chipmunks
that they committed to?
Ross: Yeah, it was always that sort of wonderful first series deal. So it was, it could be as long as five years, but it was one year at a time, and we got very little money for it. Back in those days, it was like $210,000 for a half hour of shows. So there wasn't much-
Guy: And that was supposed to cover all your costs?
Ross: Oh, absolutely! And we were used to-
Janice: And we were putting our own money into it, always putting in our own money.
Ross: Oh yeah, we were used to going into our own pocket.
Guy: Okay, so the show launches in 1983, this was on Saturday mornings, of course.
Ross: That's right, and we were against Bugs Bunny on ABC and CBS, who didn't want us, we had gone to them first because they said, "Why do we need The Chipmunks? We've got Charlie Brown and Snoopy." And we said, "Well, you know, you could have two, you could have Snoopy and-" anyways, we turned out to be against poor Charlie Brown and Snoopy and the Chipmunk series was a giant hit right from the beginning.
So, I mean it's interesting because, you know, you think about, I mean just as a consumer right, you’re thinking about Mickey Mouse and Alvin and Bugs Bunny and the Peanuts gang, and they're all great, we love them all, we have these warm feelings about them. But actually, from the perspective of the creators of these characters, like, these are competitors, right?
Ross: Yeah, well they-
Janice: No, I guess. I never see them as competitors.
Guy: You didn't want to, like, just crush Mickey?
Janice: No. I didn't want to crush him. I wanted to put my arms around him and-
Guy: Alright, okay. Okay, fair enough.
Ross: We honestly always felt, it was like our conversation with CBS when they said, you know, "We've already got Snoopy and Charlie Brown." We always thought that good shows or good characters can coexist. We didn't feel like we needed to go to war with anybody, we just wanted to create something that was unique to us.
Janice: But Guy, to be honest, you know, if the executive says in a rude way, "Why do I need you?," yes, then we want to crush the executive, but we don't want to crush, you know, Snoopy, we want to crush the executive.
Guy: In just a moment, a deal gone bad that put The Chipmunks on life support and how Ross and Janice revived the franchise. I'm Guy Raz and you're listening to How I Built This from NPR.
Hey, welcome back to How I Built This
from NPR. I'm Guy Raz, so it's 1985 and Ross and Janice get through the first season of Alvin And The Chipmunks
for NBC and even though the show is reaching huge audiences, Ross and Janice aren't making a whole lot of money at this point. Remember, the deal they signed with NBC was for $200,000 for the whole season. But, what they did have was something much more valuable. The rights to The Chipmunks.
I mean, you guys own everything. You own the master recordings, you own the animations, you own the characters. How is it possible that NBC didn't say, "Hey, if you want a deal with us,
" you know, "we own the rights to this and all the licensing?
Ross: Well, you know, because my dad had, not only as you mentioned, set that up, he was the first songwriter who not only owned the publishing, but also the master recordings. And that's what, interestingly when we met Berry Gordy years later he said, "You know I learned a very valuable thing when I was writing songs. I decided to found Motown because I wanted to own the master recordings the way your dad did." My dad was really, not only really this great mix of creativity, but also really smart about business. So I knew, as my dad had mentioned, there was creating wonderful product, but there was holding on to the rights to that same thing.
Guy: Yeah, but I mean, NBS said, we will make this into a cartoon for you. And you guys had been pitching this for six years.
Guy: I mean, if NBC would have said to you, "But these are our terms," I mean, would you have just walked away?
Ross: We would have because what we said is, "We'll produce it, we'll make sure we get the financing together, we'll get a license fee from you, we brought in Kellogg's," so Kellogg's was our sponsor and Janice and I wrote the shows and then we produced it. And after the first season, they came to Janice and I and said, "Okay, we'd like to expand it, now we'd like you guys to do an hour, not a half an hour." And we just said, "We can't even make a half hour we're proud of and we can't work any longer unless you make more than seven days in the week, so we're gonna turn it down."
Janice: And she said, "Janice, nobody turns down more shows."
Ross: But we did.
Guy: So you're making these shows for NBC, you're obviously just not making any real money from the shows 'cause it's going towards production costs, but you are getting all this visibility, so, but you’re also running a business. So, at what point did you guys sit down and say, "You know what, this is a business, like, let's think about how to make this into something really, really big." What was it that you started to think about?
Janice: You know, Guy, we were just sitting at home all the time, so we didn't- you see the numbers, you see the ratings, but they don't really translate into people. You know, you can imagine, but you just don't get it.
Ross: Back in those days Guy, we were getting like 40% of the audience was watching it.
Janice: Like, 20 million a week or 15 to 20 million a week.
Janice: So finally, we got an invitation. We did a live show and it was at Madison Square Garden.
Guy: You just had people dress up in Chipmunk suits?
Janice: Yeah. We did the voices and designed the costumes and got a story together, and we didn't have time to tour it, but we go to Madison Square Garden and when we went to the box office, the guy said, "Oh, I didn't know you were coming, I sold your tickets." It was sold out and-
Guy: Oh, you had gone to see the show?
Janice: Yeah, to see the show. And I said, "But we are. We're. The. Chi-" anyway, he let us sit in the aisle and for the first time we saw fans, we saw kids waving Chipmunk banners and screaming and the place was filled and it was such a moment for us that we'll never forget. It was like, "Oh my gosh, there are- there are people, there are kids! They like the show, they like the characters!"
Guy: So, I mean, your business really became The Chipmunks. It was the television show on NBC, it was records, it was merchandising, live shows, and I guess like, syndication, right?
Ross: Yeah. And this is one of the funny business stories, and I found it interesting only because later on it turned out to be such a windfall that we did not know about, but they said, "Look, um, what's gonna happen is that CBS Viacom is gonna run your dad's old show, The Alvin Show, against us because now that you're bringing The Chipmunks back so successfully with the albums, and the Christmas special, and now the new series, you have to get Viacom to not do it on Saturday mornings and we want you to offer them the syndication rights for the new series if they'll just not run up against us." And so Janice and I, not knowing the value of syndication, went to Viacom CBS and said, "Okay, if you just won't run against our new shows on NBC, we'll give you the syndication rights to the new series." And they, very full of themselves, said, "Uh no, we're not going to do that deal." And then a couple years later, we sold those rights for $25 million.
Janice: We found out it was worth something.
Guy: Wow, and that was where the money was.
Ross: Which we did not know.
Janice: Yeah, which we were gonna give away.
Guy: And was that syndication, I mean, the syndication rights were yours, you didn't have to share that with NBC.
Ross: No, NBC didn't get a piece at all.
Guy: So, $25 million is a tremendous amount of money now, but in 1985, even more money. I mean, what did that mean? I mean, I think anybody listening would just assume that was it, you guys were set for life.
Yeah, well first of all it was very exciting and it was just a number. I was always, as a kid, even when I was watching The Price Is Right
as a six year old, I knew what the dishwasher would go for or the- and my mom would always say, "How do you know this? You've not bought dishwashers
", but I always had a sense for what the price of something was going to be. So I had just set that price and I didn't change it until we got it.
And Janice and I so wanted to make something that we were really proud of, not just something that was successful, 'cause the TV show was obviously tremendously successful, but we were never able to give it the kind of quality that we had hoped to do. So yes, you would think that we would be set, but because we always wanted to do something we'd also be proud of, we took most of that money and made an animated feature, The Chipmunk Adventure
, which came out in '87.
Guy: And that movie did pretty well, right?
Ross: It did well, but we didn't, at least in that initial time, we didn't get our money back in those days, 'cause unfortunately we had signed on with a distributor that was going to put 'X' number of dollars into marketing and distribution. They spent less than $900,000 marketing the movie and including the prints and advertising. So it did okay, but it did not remotely get us our money back until many DVD sales later.
Janice: Ross wrote a little article on that experience making the movie called The Agony and The Agony, as it was.
Ross: Hard to find a bright spot in that.
Here's what I'm curious about because the show airs on NBC and you are doing original new episodes until 1990 and then, I guess, it's in syndication. And then you guys decided to move on, you basically leave NBC and cut a deal with Universal
to bring the show back, so what was that about?
Ross: So, one of the things they wanted to do was create their own Mickey Mouse, and they had had Woody Woodpecker for years, but Woody didn't have the sort of resonance for generations the way Alvin did, and certainly didn't the way Mickey Mouse did. And they had seen that when we had gone head-to-head with Mickey Mouse, whether it was an album or a TV show, or what have you, that The Chipmunks not only held their own, but did very, very well and usually came out on top. So Universal loved that, "Gee, Alvin could be our Mickey Mouse." So the idea then was they were gonna create an animation unit for us and Janice and I were gonna run that, and we would of course not only do more Chipmunk stuff, but a lot of other things that we had showed them that we could do.
Ross: Yeah, no, we were gonna be in their theme parks, and that part actually did happen, but it was gonna be this whole smorgasbord of opportunity. And so for Janice and for me, it was like, "Oh my gosh, this sounds fantastic."
Guy: Yeah! Did you have to give up some of your ownership for that kind of deal?
Ross: Well, they bought a 25% share at that point in time and that, for the opportunity, for what felt like a really exciting opportunity to grow the business in a much larger way, felt like a great thing.
Guy: The money was going to help you scale.
Ross: Yeah, and they were gonna be, also, putting money into development and production of all of these different things. And then shortly after we signed that deal, all the folks who wanted to do that were gone.
Guy: What do you mean they were gone?
Ross: They all left. And so now you are-
Ross: Yeah, we wound up in a place that wasn't the same as we thought it was when we came in.
Guy: So what do you mean? Like, all the people who signed the deal with you at Universal were gone, but you still had this deal with Universal, I mean they would still have the commitments to make, I guess presumably, to make movies, and to do all kinds of stuff. So why wouldn't you just do it?
Ross: Yeah, well we certainly wanted to do it, but you'd have to ask them why they didn't wind up doing much of any of it.
Janice: You know, somebody new comes and they have a different vision.
Ross: Yeah, so those were not our happy years and we wound up leaving that.
Guy: Sorry, but what I don't understand is what happened? Did they stop answering your calls? Because you were presumably working on ideas and, just, were you pitching it and they were saying no? Or were they just ignoring you? What was the dynamic?
Ross: Yeah, no, it was a combination of, it started out very excited, and then as some of the folks who had brought us in would leave, it would be harder to get through to them. Then it would be no returned calls and yeah, it was like you felt very much like the orphan child that was brought in to be, you know, the favorite son and all of a sudden you aren't.
Guy: So did Alvin and the Chipmunks basically drop off the map at that point?
Ross: Pretty much. Yeah, pretty much. And so that's why we said to them, "Listen, we really- we want to do this, that, and the other, we've got a lot of opportunity, if not here at Universal, there's all kinds of interest outside. So we can do- folks in Japan want to put Chipmunk stores together, folks in Europe want us to make more series', so we'll just do all of those things."
Guy: And they said?
Ross: The said, "Uh no, no. We don't want to have too many cooks in the kitchen." And I said, "There's no cook in the kitchen! There's not a pot, not a pan, there's nobody. There's no cooks here."
Guy: So you guys were just hanging around pulling your hair out, trying to get things off the ground and nothing?
Ross: Yeah, it wasn't at all the kind of opportunity that we had hoped for and finally in 2001, end of 2001, we were able to go our separate way and-
Ross: Yeah, we had to. You know, you unfortunately, you have to protect your characters. And sometimes, you try-
Janice: When you've exhausted every other, you know because you don't want to go into this, I'm telling everybody, you don't want to go into this until you've exhausted all other options and you're up against the wall.
Ross: But once you're there, you just have to be committed to that, and we always were.
Janice: And we stand, we do, we really do stand very united on that front.
Guy: Yeah, but does it, I mean, it's gotta eat at you. It's like, it's gotta be something that you just can't get out of your head that must affect your sleep and just your thought process and it just must become all-consuming.
Janice: Yeah, and you don't understand why.
Ross: And what we have realized it that logic does not play much of a part in any of it.
Janice: That's right.
Ross: And that's the thing that's so strange to us, because it's like, "Okay, hold on a minute, you have no interest in this. We are dedicating our entire lives to it. We should be able to find a way to separate this out and go on our merry way.", and-
Janice: And I tend to try and put something in a different perspective. I say to Ross, "This is such a miserable experience, that let's get something out of it. Let's make, you know, this is sort of fascinating."
Ross: I didn't find it fascinating, personally, but Janice always does.
Janice: But I, no, I have to. I have to put it in a different category than "miserable." And so I think, "Okay, well, I'm gonna learn what this process is like and how do I make this as good as I can make it?"
Guy: That's a very healthy approach to lawsuits, I have to say, I am inspired, I'm inspired. I'm just wondering though, from what I've read it was only settled, really, in 2004. So from that 2000-2004 period, were you basically in, like, suspended limbo?
Ross: No, no, no, no because 2001 was really the end of it. The 2004 part was just, that's when the last payment we had to make to them was actually done.
Janice: To get our company back.
Guy: So when they-
Ross: So now it was about, Guy, how do we resurrect the franchise again, after it basically-
Guy: Fell off the map.
Janice: Yeah, went into hibernation.
Guy: How much did you have to pay them to buy back your ownership?
Ross: Two and a half million dollars for their-
Guy: So that's nothing, because they paid you guys a lot more.
Ross: Yeah, exactly.
Okay, so you guys get out of that deal and then you're free and I guess it was at this point that you signed this multi-movie deal with Fox
Guy: But by then, The Chipmunks had kind of been, like, off the radar for lots of years. So did that affect your ability to call the shots in that negotiation?
Ross: Well, you know, not totally, although, you know, you don't ever necessarily get the kind of deal that you want to have. But we were very clear that, you know, that we would, as we had always been, be involved in every aspect and-
Janice: And we say, you know, right from the start, "Listen, we are very proprietary. If you don't want to work with people like this, please don't because it will get-," you know?
Guy: Like, oh from the outside you'll say that?
Janice: From the outside, always.
Ross: Oh sure.
Guy: "This is what we're like and we can be a pain in your ass."
Ross & Janice: Yes.
Janice: Well, yeah. Yeah, no and I don't think we are. I think we're, like, very reasonable and protective of the characters. No I mean, if we were a pain the ass, I would say so, but I think we're protective of the characters.
Guy: So is it three movies you've made with Fox now?
Guy: And I noticed, I think it's in the first one where the villain is this record executive? That's like, chin beard, goatee?
Guy: David Cross. And is that, like, kind of an unsubtle representation of your own experiences in this industry?
Ross: Well I'll tell you, one of the stories, you know, with our music situation, was that in 1982, we are with a record company, and I won't go into specifics of who or, you know, we're gonna protect the guilty here.
Guy: Ah, feel free. Feel free to just spill your guts.
Ross: So, we're recording, and the album comes out and we are told by the record executive, "Ross, Janice, I want you guys to take The Chipmunks on the road. These are the seven cities we want you to go to, travel across the country to these seven cities, and make this album a hit in these seven cities, and if you do that we will give you a big national promotion." Great, okay. We hit the road, and I won't get into all of the crazy stuff that happens, but in any event, at the end of the tour, we in fact make the album a hit in each one of the seven cities. We come back to the record executive, so excited after a pretty bruising couple of weeks.
Janice: Was that all it was? A couple of weeks?
Yeah, felt like 12 years. In any event, we're all excited and want to now talk about the national plans that they're gonna do, and this is a quote, so it explains why David Cross as Ian
is that character. So the record executive tells Janice and me, "Well, we're not actually going to do the national release and the big marketing.
" I said, "Wa-wait.
" I said, "You told us that if we-
" He said, "If you don't have it in writing, you don't have it.
Ross: So that was a brutal lesson.
Janice: We've learned a lot of lessons over the four decades we've been doing this.
Ross: Full of lessons.
Guy: These movies that Fox made killed it, they did extremely well. I guess they generated almost a billion dollars.
Ross: Oh yeah. Well, over a billion.
Guy: Over a billion?
Ross: They're box office is about a billion 300 million, and if you include the DVD sales, it's over two billion in revenue.
Guy: Well, I'm one of those DVD buyers, so you can thank me. You can me a thank you card, right here on the air.
Ross: Well unfortunately, Fox will send you the thank you card, 'cause we get about two cents per DVD.
Guy: Exactly, you get about two, you get a tiny cut of that $1.3 billion. So inevitably, it's going to lead to some kind of clash. It seems like it's just the way these deals are set up, it's like if all of a sudden it goes well beyond anyone's expectations, they're delighted, but you guys get screwed.
Ross: Well the economics of it wouldn't have been the frustration for us, 'cause when we make a deal, we live by the deal, so that isn't the frustration for us. The frustration for us is wanting to tell a certain kind of story with, reflecting certain kinds of scenes and dialogue and so forth for the characters that we have spent four decades with. That's honestly where the issue would be, not how the economics break down.
I know that you guys filed a lawsuit against Fox
because of some of this frustration, and I know you can't talk about all the details of is 'cause it was settled, but I mean, once you have legal action against this company that, essentially, you work with and then you settle it, you still have to work with them after. I mean, there must be some bad blood, so how does that, how do you interact with folks at Fox? Is it, like, perfectly cordial and normal?
Ross: It is.
Janice: Yeah, everybody puts on their big boy shorts and gets to work.
Guy: You know, we have occasionally, on the show, interviewed husband and wife teams that have built amazing businesses, Kate and Andy Spade, Melissa and Doug, and you guys.
Ross: Sure, sure.
Guy: And I'm always really impressed when I talk to people who have been married for 37 years, who do incredible business, and you obviously, clearly, like, not only love each other, but you really respect each other's judgement and you've carved out different roles for yourselves, is it just like serendipitous and it works, or do you actually-?
Ross: No, there's actually a really simple approach that we have and this was right from the beginning because of our respect for one another. If Janice had a different point of view and she felt more strongly about it then I did, then I would defer to her. If, conversely, I had a stronger feeling about it than she did, she would defer to me. But right now because she's writing the shows, and directing them, and designing them, she really is the driving force of the show and I'm thrilled to play a part with Alvin and Simon and Dave.
Janice: He gets frustrated with me when I wake him up at tao in the morning and say, "Ross, Ross, I think you could do line 27 better, I think."
Ross: No not now!
Janice: But we do respect each other, we work really well together and I've thought about that too, about husbands and wives, and I think that it either works, and I could be wrong about this, but I think it either works or it doesn't work. If a couple is committed to, you know, going into therapy and really working on their communications, maybe two people that wouldn't normally be able to work together could work it out, but we just naturally work very, very well together.
Guy: I mean, you guys scaled this concept in a way that would probably be unimaginable to your dad. I mean obviously, he did well. He made lots of money off of Alvin and the Chipmunks and was able to build a great life for his family, but you guys took it to a stratospheric level, a completely different level really out of the ashes of this concept. I mean, what do you think he would have made of Alvin and the Chipmunks today, what it's become?
Ross: Well, first of all, he would be so proud. But also because my dad had a very limited attention span on things, I'm sure he would say, "What the hell are you guys doing 40 years later?"
Janice: But I also have to tell you this serendipitous story, we were, in the 80’s, we would have to drive down, we had finally moved down to Santa Barbara, and we would drive sown to LA to do pick-up lines because the show was going to be on two days later, and we'd do our "Woah. Oof, oof," and whatever else we had to fill in for the story, and we drove back, it was probably three o'clock in the morning, and I just, you know, automatically turn on the TV to just unwind and Ross said, "Oh my God, my dad, I just can't imagine," because the show wasn't coming out the way we wanted, and Ross said, "Oh my gosh, I can't imagine what my dad is thinking." And I said, "No, no, no. Your dad would be very proud at how hard we're working, how much we're trying." and on the television was his father on, what is it, Greatest Show On Earth?
Ross: Yeah, it's Cecil B. DeMille Greatest Show On Earth, and my dad is in the audience applauding.
Janice: And we look at the television and I couldn't believe it, and we started to cry. But that was serendipitous, I have to say.
Janice Karman and Ross Bagdasarian are the duo behind Alvin and the Chipmunks. By the way, The Chipmunks were actually named after executives of the original record label. Alvin Bennett
, Simon Waronker
, and Theodore Keep
were the chief executives of Liberty Records
Do people ever call you Dave?
Ross: You know what, sometimes they do. Or they'll say, "You know, you sound so much like that David Seville character, did anyone ever tell you that?"
Guy: And then, you gotta do it, right?
Ross: Okay well, and hopefully I'm not going to burn the mic here doing this but "ALVINNN!!!"