© 2023 Texas Public Radio
Real. Reliable. Texas Public Radio.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Cartoon Pyramid With Phil Johnston And Mo Willems

From left to right: Mo Willems, Jonathan Coulton, Ophira Eisenberg, Phil Johnston, Steve Sansweet and Art Chung.
Mike Katzif
From left to right: Mo Willems, Jonathan Coulton, Ophira Eisenberg, Phil Johnston, Steve Sansweet and Art Chung.

After working as a regional weatherman at a northern Midwest station for nine years, Phil Johnston concluded that he didn't know a single thing about the weather. Rather, his forecast read "film school." Johnston took a chance and pursued his passions by enrolling at University of Columbia's MFA film program. Today, you've seen his work in Cedar Rapids, Disney's Wreck-it Ralph and Zootopia, and in Sacha Baron Cohen's The Brothers Grimsby.

Not unlike many screenwriters, however, initially Johnston's scripts were never produced. A close relative of Johnston told him after his successful debut feature Cedar Rapids, starring Ed Helms, "How are you going to handle success when you've had so much failure?"

"My existential dilemma was over. The whole, 'If you're a writer but no one reads it and no one sees it, are you really a writer?' It's a challenge," Johnston tells Ophira Eisenberg on the Ask Me Another stage at the Castro Theater in San Francisco.

To research for his latest project, Disney's Zootopia, a film described as an "action, buddy comedy neo-noir adventure" that takes place in a world where humans never existed, Johnston asks, "Would my cat do that? That's how I judge everything!" His cat, by the way, has undergone feline gender reassignment surgery. "It's approximately the Blue Book value of a '98 Accord to get this done. Should anyone be curious!" Johnston tells Eisenberg.

Since Johnston writes dialogue for cartoon animals, we thought it only natural to pair him with children's book author and our good friend Mo Willems. Willems tells us why he enjoys drawing animals and about ending his acclaimed series Elephant and Piggie. We teamed Johnston and Willems to play a VIP game about what they know best — animated cartoon animals!


On being a weatherman

Apparently I was very good at lying, because I knew nothing about the weather. I majored in journalism, wanted to be a newspaper reporter and ended up getting a job at a small television station in Rochester. My third day on the job, the News Director said, "Our weather guy quit for the morning show, can you do weather?" Of course I can do weather, I can do anything.

On his early entrepreneurial days

I would buy Playboys and Penthouses from this 9th grader. I was in 7th grade. I would buy them for one dollar and sell them to other 7th graders for three dollars. Sometimes five dollars.... I bought Air Jordans with the 86 dollars I made. 1985.

Heard on Sketchfest 2016: Phil Johnston, Steve Sansweet and Mo Willems

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.