Cheryl Wagner’s “Big Comfy Couch” wins two Emmy Awards
I always brag to people that I know Cheryl Wagner, the creator of the hit children’s television series The Big Comfy Couch. That bragging cuts no mustard with the show’s core audience—four year olds—and Cheryl Wagner is glad it doesn’t.
“The characters on this show exist totally in their own universe. When children watch the show, they should be thinking about that universe and not who created it”.
For anyone who doesn’t have a television, The Big Comfy Couch is a sweet and funny and gentle show about the adventures of a clown named Loonette, her doll Molly and a host of other clown characters (including my favourite, Major Bedhead). It airs in Canada on Treehouse.
Wagner began her career in the seventies here on the Island as a clown and a puppeteer. She was an unlikely clown—too shy, she says, to come out after the show and take a bow, So it makes sense that she would take her love of children’s entertainment to a place where she was the creator and not the performer. The Big Comfy Couch also took her to Halifax and Toronto. Now, after 16 years and 100 episodes, she has come back to PEI.
And she is still a little shy about taking a bow.
By anyone’s measure, the show is a huge success. Wagner and her partners originally received an investment from Telefilm to make the show. That investment has been paid back in full, which is virtually unheard of. Children in Australia know Loonette and Molly—children in Brunei bop along with Major Bedhead. The Big Comfy Couch is seen on PBS affiliates all over the United States. The show just won two Emmy awards—for best children’s program and best set decoration.
There’s more. Two years ago, there was a Big Comfy Couch float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in New York City. The TV show has spun off into a live show that has played to packed houses all across the country.
So is Cheryl Wagner on easy street? “No”, she says. “Everyone thinks I’ve gotten rich of this but, to tell you the truth, I’m kind of looking for a job.”
Nor, really, is the great success of the show celebrated in any meaningful way. Though people talk about Canadian’s contribution to TV comedy, the real success has been in children’s programming. “It’s exportable,” says Wagner. “There are no references that tie children’s shows to a specific country. So kids around the world are watching Canadian TV.”
Which would seem to be a recipe for wealth and acclaim, until you understand a bit about television. US channels pay exactly nothing to broadcast The Big Comfy Couch. The thinking is that the money is in the merchandise. Children will see Loonette on TV and beg their parents for a Loonette doll. (This all started with Barney, by the way, in case you needed another reason to hate him).
Except that there won’t be any Loonette dolls unless a distributor (who’ll get a cut) can convince a large number of stations to carry the program. Then a manufacturer (who’ll get a cut) might be persuaded to make and sell Loonette dolls to stores (who’ll take a cut). Then, if any money accrues to Big Comfy Couch, it will first go to the investors, who put up the money to make the shows in the first place.
So Cheryl Wagner says she has to be satisfied with being rich in other ways. “I have been so lucky to work with incredible creative people, who are completely dedicated to this show,” she says. The recognition she wants is not for herself, she says, but for the people who have supported and enhanced her dream.
As well as being the creative force behind a hit TV show, Wagner is also a major Blue Jays fan. I suggest a way to publicize her show: she should convince TD Bank to let her sit in one of the big, comfy green couches the company provides at the stadium during home games. She laughs at the idea but says she wouldn’t go—she’d send Loonette.
Still too shy to take a bow.