Batavia comedy writer captures Christmas in the suburbs, circa 1980s.
Christmas in the suburbs was magical for Kevin Jakubowski.
Growing up in Batavia in the 1980s, he received the gift of his dreams at age 9 -- the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System. It was such a profound moment in his life that, 25 years later, he wrote a book about it.
"8-Bit Christmas" is the first novel by Jakubowski, 34, a screenplay and TV writer for shows on Comedy Central and Nickelodeon.
The book, about a Nintendo-obsessed suburban kid in the '80s, already has received rave reviews for its nostalgia and comedy, some comparing it to "A Christmas Story."
"'8-Bit Christmas' is a love letter to growing up in suburban Chicago," Jakubowski said. "I wrote it with the hope that other people would connect with it and find it funny. So far that's exactly what's happening. I couldn't be happier."
We talked with Jakubowski about his love of Christmas, the '80s, and the new pilot he's writing for Nickelodeon, set in a town eerily similar to Batavia.
Q. What was Christmas like for you as a kid?
A. Not to sound cheesy, but Christmas in Batavia when I was growing up was pretty magical. It still is. One of the big reasons I wrote the book was because of my ridiculous obsession with Christmas. If Christmas were a sport, I'd be a George Wendt Super Fan. It started when I was a little kid. I was very fortunate to have a large extended family. We had some great traditions that we still celebrate today: a big dinner with the extended Jakubowski clan, followed by a trip up to Minnesota for a few days of pond hockey at my uncle's cabin. It's great. Cousins as far as the eye can see. It's my favorite time of the year. I mean, I still watch "Garfield's Christmas" on VHS with my sister every year -- with the bad '80s commercials and everything. I take Christmas very seriously.
Q. Compare Christmas in L.A. to Christmas in suburban Chicago.
A. Here's the best thing about Christmas in L.A.: Hollywood shuts down for almost three weeks. Nothing gets done here. Everyone packs up and heads back east. So it's easy to take an extended vacation. If I couldn't come back to the Midwest for Christmas, I'd probably lose my mind. Obviously, the weather in Chicago is a little different from L.A., but I can't imagine Christmas without the cold. People call me crazy, but I miss Chicago's weather.
Q. How'd you end up working as a comedy writer in Hollywood? What was your big break?
A. I've always wanted to write, specifically comedy. So that was always my goal. I started as a PA (production assistant) on "South Park," writing scripts in my spare time. I sold a couple features and was able to quit "South Park" and write full-time. That was 2006, and I've been writing for TV and film ever since. I cowrote a film called "Assassination of a High School President" that played Sundance and starred Bruce Willis. That was probably my big break. That led to a bunch of studio work and opened a lot of doors. The past three years, I've been writing almost exclusively in TV and really loving it.
Q. What is it about the era of Nintendo and baseball cards that makes people so nostalgic?
A. It's hard to explain to someone who wasn't a kid in the '80s or early '90s why Nintendo was such a big deal. Let me put it this way: Xbox and PlayStation are huge now, but did they ever have their own breakfast cereal? Nintendo had its own cereal! Nintendo Cereal. It was bigger than just a video game system. It was part of our pop culture. Baseball cards were the same way. They were so unique to that time. I think that's why we get so nostalgic about it.
Q. You loved Nintendo as a kid. Do you still play it?
A. I do. I still have my original Nintendo Entertainment System. Next to my wife, it's probably the most dependable thing in our place. I don't play it very often, but when I do, it's like coming home.
Q. After working on adult comedy projects, was it hard to transition to writing for the children's network, Nickelodeon?
A. There's a bit of a learning curve, but I don't actively try to change much. To me, the key is not to talk down to your audience. First and foremost, I want to make a show that I enjoy. Adults can enjoy kids' shows like "SpongeBob SquarePants" or "The Adventures of Pete & Pete" because they're so well-written and funny. That's the bar I try to set for myself. You have parameters, but a good story is a good story.
Q. What can you tell us about the shows you're now working on?
A. I wrote an episode of "Brickleberry" (for Comedy Central) earlier this year, and I'm writing two pilots for Nickelodeon right now. One animated, one live action. They're both set in the world of middle school. The animated one is called "Dickie Danger & The Cafeteria Kid" and it's set in a town called Boresville. It's loosely inspired by Batavia. I could tell you more about it but Nickelodeon would probably kill us both.
Q. What's the best and worst thing about being a writer in Hollywood?
A. The best thing about my job is that it's exactly what I want to do with my life. I get to wake up and write. I get to create, and if I'm lucky, connect with an audience. The hard part is that, financially speaking, it's often difficult. There's no security. It's not like a normal job where you clock in, work hard and get a paycheck that reflects that. There's no boss to check in with, no protocol, no sales sheet to follow. There's just a blank page. I have to literally make it all up as I go along. That can be scary sometimes.
Q. If you weren't a writer, what would you want to do for a living?
A. I'd love to teach one day. I've always had a great admiration and respect for teachers. If not a teacher, then I'd settle for professional street hockey player. They have those, right?
Q. Final thoughts on Christmas, or the suburbs?
A. Yes. If you love either, go buy my book. Go to Amazon or The Paper Merchant or Barnes & Noble in Geneva and buy it immediately. God and Santa compel you. And if you hate the book, I'm sure you can find my parents in Batavia and they'll give you your money back. They're good for it. Probably.
-- Jamie Sotonoff
• Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are always looking for people from the suburbs who are now working in showbiz. If you know of someone who would make an interesting profile, email them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.