John Frink, Joel H. Cohen, and Rob LaZebnik had been meeting regularly at the Starbucks on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles to work on a movie, before heading to their day jobs as writers for The Simpsons. "Most of our time working there is just Rob ordering because it takes a long time," joked Cohen when I spoke with the trio on the phone this week. But spending all that time at Starbucks eventually inspired them to create and pitch an animated series about, well, their local Starbucks. They reached out to Starbucks executives who they found on LinkedIn using the WiFi at Starbucks, and, fortunately, it worked.
The result of their collaboration with the coffee chain is a new animated series from Starbucks called 1st & Main. The seven-episode series debuts on December 16 and will chronicle the lives of customers and employees at a fictional Starbucks. Characters include Diego, a barista cat with a man bun; Julie, the store's manager who is also a bear; a married porcupine couple; and an octopus whose bottom half is kept wet in a fish bowl. According to a press release from Starbucks, "Each episode runs approximately 90 seconds, about the length of time it takes to place a Starbucks order." (So maybe LaZebnik takes significantly longer to order his chai latte?)
"In a way, Starbucks is like Cheers, the bar, where it’s a gathering place," Cohen said. "They use the term ‘third place,’ and it’s a good term because it is this place where not only people meet for social reasons but for business reasons or just to hang out on their own and work or whatever."
And though the writers were clear that they weren’t looking around their local Starbucks saying, “This guy could be a bear. This one could be an octopus," they definitely drew inspiration from their surroundings. "I think animals are a great template to have some freedom," Cohen said. "They look cute, they’re very approachable, you get some jokes out of the physicality." He continued, "It lifts any expectations you have of any specific type of human, and then we can kind of have a bigger canvas to work with."
"You can tell more about the human condition by looking at animals," Frink added. "It’s fun, and people are less damaged when we examine a bear that might be the manager of the Starbucks versus a real manager." Though he joked, "Animators and people who write for animation always run into the question, ‘Why should this be animated?’ And we tried it with real animals, but they just were not working. You would put peanut butter in their mouths. You couldn’t get them to talk or form the words."
Being able to set the stories in a real Starbucks only adds to the authenticity they hope to create, despite the absurdity of the characters. "Everything down from the signage to the drinks. I think it’ll just feel like you are actually in a Starbucks," LaZebnik said. "And that, to us, was cool too, because there was a real authenticity to the setting, and yet, then we fill it with all these animals."
"We hope it resonates with people, we’ve seen ourselves and try to make it as observational as we can about little things. Even if they’re not things about Starbucks, just human interaction, and hopefully it connects with viewers and they can have a quick little laugh while they’re enjoying their coffee," Cohen said. "Or not."