Why the ‘Teen Titans Go!’ 200th Episode is Excellent Commentary on Industry Norms.

I’m going to be straightforward and admit that I’m not a fan of Cartoon Network’s series Teen Titans Go!. However my brother is. And since Cartoon Network seems vehement on running the show at all hours of the day (seriously, CN: don’t you have at least five other IP’s right now?) I’ve become very familiar with it. Not a day goes by where I don’t hear Robin screaming at his teammates, or Beast Boy and Cyborg having a jam session. The show is bright and fun, and often a bit too hyperactive for me to follow. It actually feels very similar to the anime Fooly Cooly or Excel Saga in that regard.

So as you can imagine when the 200th episode aired this weekend I was expecting more of the same: a party. A celebration. And while both of these aspects of the show were present, the overall tone of the episode was surprisingly dark and snarky.

Instead of watching the heroes celebrate we got a direct message from the animation team about the hardships of being a content creator: from growing up aspiring to be one, to holding a job in the business, to just mustering up the energy to continue doing the thing you love most. And they somehow managed to do all of this in one half-hour segment that had me laughing as much as my brother was.

And that is why we’re discussing the Teen Titans Go! 200th episode in today’s Fangirl Musings! We’re going to first analyze the three key segments that had the most obvious messages (to me), and then dip towards the more subtle deliveries at the end. With that said: LET’S GO!

Want to be a Content Creator? You’ll Get Flack for it.

The premise of the Teen Titans Go! 200th episode is simple: Jump City is disappearing because the animation crew hasn’t been working on the next episode. So the Teen Titans break the fourth wall and leap out of their fading world into Warner Bros. studios. There they meet the team in charge of creating their show, go through an existential crisis of realizing they’re not real, and then decide to hunt down Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelanic (the writers behind the series) to make things right before the Titans themselves cease to exist.

The first segment that really stood out to me was when the Titans travel to Michael’s childhood home and meet Michael’s father: Albert.

Now this segment can whiz past the viewer in a blur simply because it was written that way, and a lot of the focus is placed on the inspirational speech Albert gives about how fantasy can be made a reality (which is an overall theme for the episode). However, there is a much more telling nugget hidden within Albert’s rambling, and it’s when he admits that: “My son wanted to be a writer, and I told him to get a real job.”

Anyone who has even remotely toyed with the idea of pursuing content creation (be it writing, drawing, music, etc.) has heard that phrase at least once. Most of us hear it all our lives: get a real job! Look no further than whenever YouTube screws up and video creators voice their concerns: without fail there will always be a chorus in the comments saying exactly this.

However it isn’t just a stigma on the internet. I remember as far back as middle school (around age 12 for non-American readers) whenever we had to take those stupid aptitude tests to help us decide which career to work towards. Everyone around me who wanted to be a doctor, an accountant, or any “normal” career got solid guidelines in what they should focus on studying.

Whenever it was my turn and I stated that I wanted to write books, I was given that painful smile from my teachers and told “that’s nice, but you should have a back up plan. Just in case.”

So I never received guidance because no one wanted to give it to me. No one knew how, because we’re not taught to pursue “fun” jobs like writing. I eventually learned to re-word my want to write into wanting to go into journalism: THAT finally landed me at least some vague ideas of what it would require to get my writing noticed. Everything else I had to learn (and I’m STILL learning) on my own time.

Even Meg Cabot, the author behind The Princess Diaries states on her very own website giving advice to up and coming writers:

Don’t tell people you want to be a writer. Everyone will try to talk you out of choosing a job with so little security, so it is better just to keep it to yourself, and prove them all wrong later.

The only people in my entire life that sincerely believed I could get into writing as a career were my parents and one teacher. But I’m an anomoly: most artists don’t even have one person to cheer them on. Not even from their families, like Michael’s father admits. Why?

Well in general, despite how much the public demands for it, we as a society don’t hold jobs in the entertainment industry in high regard unless you’re a household name. To people who don’t create they’re fun jobs, and because they’re fun activities you’re not actually working the same way as that doctor or that accountant. Why should you get paid to do something fun while everyone else doesn’t? On top of this we have a deeply ingrained train of thought that if you even dare consider doing the arts for a living and make money off your work that you’re a sell out. You’re not a real artist.

Which is complete and utter bullshit.

But because this is how society has been trained to think when it comes to the arts it makes getting a job in any content creation industry damn near impossible. A fantasy, if you will. Which brings me back to Albert’s speech: that speech has two layers of meaning to it.

He’s not just reassuring the Titans that their existence is meaningful even if they’re imaginary. Albert is also stating that people like his son did what was deemed impossible: he got a job writing fiction. It took a lot of hard work and perseverance, but he made his fantasy into a reality. And now his father is incredibly proud of him for proving him wrong (the fact that he actually argues against his son appearing second in the credit roll is friggin’ adorable).

Voice Acting is Often a Thankless Job.

While the entire episode comments on how every aspect of producing the show is a labor of love, there is one particular segment that details the hardships of voice acting in detail. After the Titans meet Aaron and Michael they decide they can’t rely on the REAL people to save them, and so they try to create the episode themselves. Thus we’re taken through an abridged process behind making the show. This includes voicing the script.

This was one of my favorite parts because you can just tell that even though it was scripted, the voice actors behind Teen Titans Go! were having a blast getting to put the writers through the ringer. Constantly egging them to re-recite lines, to speak louder and louder, even to the point where in the cartoon Michael complains that his throat is bleeding and Aaron faints onto the floor. We laugh at this because it seems like such an extreme, but the reality is far more voice actors have gone through this sort of treatment than you think.

Back in 2016 there was a union strike against several video game publishers in the name of fair treatment for voice actors. This movement was called Performance Matters. The short of it was that many publishers were refusing to follow union guidelines in regards to payment and treatment of voice actors during recording sessions. There were a lot of people who couldn’t understand the uproar: they’re just talking, aren’t they? What’s so hard about that?

Honestly? Everything.

Over the years voice actors have told stories about all of the weird and abusive things they have had to go through in order to nail a performance. You have harmless tales such as Vic Mignogna’s doughnut story (link goes to YouTube!) to horrific scenarios like Quinton Flynn discussing how one director stuck a broom handle between his legs (again, YouTube!) and would move the broom upwards to get him to speak in a higher pitch.

When Performance Matters was at its height, voice acting legend Steve Blum even recorded a piece discussing things he had seen his colleagues go through before they got unionized protection. This included a few tales about how some actors needed surgery because some intense recording sessions utterly destroyed their vocal chords. Unfortunately I can’t link to that because the website’s gone now and I haven’t found anyone who preserved it yet.  Either way: the “my throat is bleeding” joke suddenly isn’t so funny anymore.

Even with my brief time on YouTube, there were nights where I was lightheaded after recording even just an hour or two of footage and fainting was a real possibility. And I was just talking and trying to be entertaining. These people have to do this for entire work days and be in character for all of it.

On top of all of this both fans and directors can be incredibly harsh. At one point in the scene we get this dialogue between Robin and Michael:

Robin: “Just a couple of notes: first your voices sound terrible. Can you make them sound less grating and more pleasant?”

Michael: “Uh…that’s how we talk.”

Robin: *laughs* “Oh…how unfortunate.”

Ouch. That was brutal.

And yet that line was delivered so naturally and with so much sass that you know for a fact these people have heard that before. But it is a sad truth: voice actors are judged for many things they can’t control. Yes you can learn to manipulate your voice, but at the end of the day you can’t magically change its base sound.

And fans can be even more brutal. I’m not innocent of this: I have been one of the hoards that have criticized casting choices because the voice didn’t fit what I thought a certain character should sound like. Even if the actor was an excellent one.

Voice actors can even receive death threats and harassment from super fans. Rena Strober (Azura from Fire Emblem Fates) received massive amounts of hate when Nintendo first previewed the English translation for Azura’s iconic song from Fates. Strober had to actually defend herself and state that the first preview was a rough recording before she knew anything about the game or the character. Since then the song was polished up and is now widely loved, as is Strober herself. But that doesn’t make up for the swath of hatred that came her way.

Yet despite these hardships voice actors continue doing what they do because they love their job. Just looking through the Teen Titans Go! tags on Twitter you can see the actors from the show proudly showing off that they got to voice themselves and have fun. And while there’s intense hatred tossed around fandoms, so is intense love. I’ve seen people of all ages cry at cons just because they got to say hello to a voice actor they admired. I’ve cried too because just about every voice actor I’ve met was incredibly sweet and sincere.

Voice actors are kind people that deserve the love fans send their way. And it’s that love that really propels them forward.

It’s Hard to Make Content. Even Bad Content.

A lot of people think that because writing/drawing/playing music/etc. is fun, it’s also easy. Because, again, you’re playing, you’re not actually working. The Titans themselves show that they think this way because throughout the episode they give the crew a hard time for not slaving away at the next episode. Multiple times our heroes call everyone else lazy, stupid, and even hacks. When they’re confronted about how difficult it would be to animate the script they wrote, Beast Boy goes on to say: “It’s a cartoon, not a science rocket.”

However after a montage showing how a cartoon is made (sort of) the Titans get to see the finished product of their creation. And it’s bad. Really bad. And they don’t take it very well when they’re told that the episode is unplayable. That’s when we get this little nugget of a quote:

Make believe only becomes real if you put your heart and soul into it.

As cliche as it sounds, that’s the truth. Yes, absolutely: anyone can learn how to create content. That’s half of the beauty behind it. But the difference between good content and bad content is a combination of effort, skill, and passion.

But what a lot of budding new artists have a difficult time learning is that even if you have all of the passion in the world and even if you give a project your everything, it’s not always going to come out well. Chances are you’ll produce far more stinkers than you will masterpieces. Skill only comes with time, even for those with more natural talent. So you could spend a year on your first animation project and it turn out just as bad as what we saw the Titans produce. You have to pour your heart and soul into those bad projects in order to learn and get better at art.

And that was a subtle key message in this scene. Even though the Titans admit that they could have worked harder on the episode, they still laughed. They still loved the show they made. They were proud of what they did, enough to be shocked when they were told it was bad.

That’s why criticism can be painful: most artists that love what they do even love their stinkers. Our creations are our babies. You’re basically telling us we have an ugly baby. But that criticism is necessary for artists to improve (and I mean REAL criticism, not “this sucks and you should stop [your activity of choice]” ).

Unfortunately the world is an incredibly judgmental place, and you often only have one chance to impress. Which was the final big message I caught when watching this scene a second time. After the Titans proclaim they learned their lesson they proudly state that they want to try and make the episode again. At this point in the show most cartoons (even more mature media) would let them and show viewers that you can bounce back.

Not in Teen Titans Go!

Instead the cast gets told “Nuh uh! You had your chance,” and are swiftly kicked out of Warner Bros. Even though the crew knows that the heroes are basically dying, they don’t have the time to entertain their efforts. They don’t have the skill required, so out onto the street they go!

That is depressingly accurate. It’s mentioned time and again throughout the show as a joke, but in reality companies view writers and artists as replaceable. If you’re not willing to work the insane hours or your skills don’t impress those in charge, then there are thousands of other hopefuls who are waiting to take your place. Even indies on the internet often get only one chance to land a follower or a patron, and if you screw that up you’re not getting that opportunity back.

The Subtle but Powerful Messages.

The script for this episode was so jam packed full with commentary that it would be impossible for me to write about it all without quoting 3/4 of it. In truth sometimes there was too much commentary. It often felt like we weren’t given room to breathe as line after line was slung in our faces in the hyperactive blur that’s signature of Teen Titans Go!.

But some of the most surprising comments were the ones that whizzed by: one liners that only lasted a second, images that flashed on screen, and even things that were left unsaid. For example when the Titans first meet the writers we get this little snippet:

Cyborg: “What could be better than making us?”

Aaron: “Well I could be spending time with my kids.”

There’s a couple of things to pull from that quote alone. Here we get to see Aaron teary eyed as he wishes his schedule was more flexible so he can be with his family. This combined with some imagery from the song “Get to Work!” at the end of the episode illustrates the constant presence of over time really brings home that animators and content creators in work really long hours. Far longer than a typical nine to five office job so that deadlines can be met. There’s also the more typical imagery of the animator chained to his desk and the skeletons littering the studio that shows just how much of their lives is trapped within that space. It’s a rapidly growing trend across various entertainment industries that’s in desperate need of a change.

But the more subtle message here is one that doesn’t get talked about much. Notice how Cyborg says: “what could be better than making us?” In other words: Aaron and Michael have a job doing the thing they’ve always wanted to do for a living. And the job’s fun, right? So why are they tired of it? Why do they sound like they’re sick of it?

Because content creators are people. Very rarely are we interested in only doing one thing nonstop. Even if we enjoy what we do, we still need to sleep, we still need to eat, and heaven forbid, we still need to do other activities to recharge ourselves. Like when I can’t write I’ll read or play video games. Maybe watch TV.

If I did nothing but write that would be a one way ticket to a burnout that would last far longer than whatever time I would have used to take a break. Asking a content creator why they’re not doing their thing 24/7 is like asking an accountant why they’re not balancing books 24/7. It’s just plain silly, but people still expect creators to do it because it’s fun.

Which actually segues into one of the most powerful messages of the show that wasn’t explicitly said or shown.

Towards the end of the cartoon the Teen Titans are sitting on the couch, waiting for their doom. The world is fading around them as they realized they failed. However right when it looks like everything’s over: everyone and everything begins to jump back to life. The Titans are thrilled and happily proclaim that the writers must have got back to work. We then shift to the ending song.

I wanted to bring this particular scene up because it felt odd to me at first. Almost rushed. Because normally in movies and TV shows there’s this big inspirational speech that encourages the people in question to do the thing they’re supposed to do. To remind them of how much they love it. Yet we don’t have that in the Teen Titans Go! 200th episode. Everything just pops back into place and continues like it always has.

But that’s actually how content creation works. Even when we do have people who support us and love us, we don’t get those big inspirational speeches. And most of the time we don’t even need them.

Throughout the episode Michael and Aaron sound tired and disgruntled, but they never once state that they hated what they do or that they were going to stop. They even go with the Titans’ attempt at writing an episode even though they proclaim they’re on a break. At the end of the day this is their job and this what they love doing. So they will get the work done and by the deadline, even if it means procrastinating or not completing things at the pace everyone else wants them to do it at.

Despite the Hardships It’s Work Worth Doing.

This cracked me up so much. Tumblr was perfect to poke fun at here.

Finally the most poignant point of the episode: it’s no secret that Teen Titans Go! has a following of haters. Just looking through the tags on Twitter and Tumblr are enough to tell anyone that. All creative works have haters. But that doesn’t change that haters can be utterly brutal.

Which gets a surprisingly tongue and cheek call out in the ending song. We get bombarded with images of people at the computer or on their phone disliking anything related the show. People that go out of their way to tell both the creators and fans that what they enjoy is trash.

Yet the song essentially states that those people don’t even matter to them, while giving a pretty strong proclamation that couldn’t sum up the life of a content creator any better even if they tried (note: I was working with closed captions so it might not be entirely accurate):

 

We work this hard for all the kids who love the show: TEEN TITANS GO!

And you know we’re gonna pump out 200 more.

If you had no clue, well now you know.

It doesn’t matter what content you make, or if you’re an indie creator or work for a studio. You are going to get haters. They might just be jealous you’re doing something for a living they never could. They might legitimately despise the things you make. Maybe they’re just taking their anger out on you.

But at the end of the day those people don’t matter. Because while it’s always possible to get haters, it’s also always possible to get fans. People who truly enjoy what you do. Who you make smile, cry, remember that life is worth traversing through because of something you made. These are the people who will happily cheer for you and give proper criticism that won’t tear you down because they want to see you grow, not stop creating.

I often see and hear that artists should just be happy getting to do the thing they love. And that’s true: there’s no point in creating content if we don’t enjoy the process or enjoy the end result.

However, art is a communal form of expression. A project is not finished until someone else sees your work and reacts to it. And when we get comments from people that tells us that we did a good job it can make our day. That means far more to us than a sketch book locked under our bed no one gets to see.

Because artists are never happy unless we can entertain someone else. That’s the point. And that’s why even in an industry that’s in desperate need of more humanitarian changes, artists like the team behind Teen Titans Go! are willing to put in the time and effort to bring enjoyment to the fans that do love their work.

So what did you think? Did you watch the 200th episode? Or will you now after reading this? As I’ve said there was so much scrunched in this episode that I definitely didn’t get to talk about everything that was in it, and I’m sure some of you had different opinions about what you saw.

In truth I was actually surprised Cartoon Network gave this episode the green light, which might have lent to how much was crammed into the time frame we got. So good on you capitalizing on the opportunity Teen Titans Go! team!

I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions in the comments below (or on Twitter if you’re not comfortable with Disqus! Hit up @DreadRabbit)!

As always thank you so much for reading! And I shall see you next time ( ´ ▽ ` )ノ