Disney Channel’s latest animated show, Hamster and Gretel, takes us to a world of superheroes. Gretel, a young girl, and her pet hamster (aptly named Hamster) received superpowers from a mysterious alien ship and now, her overprotective older brother, Kevin, has to figure out how to support his sister as they navigate superhero life. The show has all the signature elements of animated hit series: there are action sequences, jokes, songs, hilarious super villains, and endearing characters. After all, it was created by animation veteran Dan Povenmire, creator of shows like Phineas and Ferb and Milo Murphy’s Law.
However, at the end of the day, when these heroes go home, they return to a seemingly normal family, who are unaware of their superhero antics. As they ease back into normal life as a child and teenager respectively, they are surrounded by many items that are recognizable to Venezuelan audiences. There are pictures of El Ávila, ceramics like the ones you would buy in El Hatillo, artwork inspired by the kinetic style of Jesús Soto, and even decorations like the ones you would buy in Quíbor. The reason for this? Hamster, Gretel, and her brother Kevin are part of a Venezuelan-American family. Their father, Dave, is American and their mom, Carolina, is Venezuelan. Together they symbolize an important step in Venezuelan representation in animated media.
The show’s co-producer and head writer is Venezuelan-American writer and comedian Joanna Hausmann. She’s well known for her hilarious YouTube channel and her work with Flama, and her podcast Hyphenated with Cuban-American comedian Jenny Lorenzo. (We also know her as one of nuestro Angelo Colina’s comedy mentors). As you can see, this isn’t her first writing rodeo. However, it’s her first time overseeing the writing of a TV series. Days before the release of Hamster and Gretel on August 12th, I reached out to her and talked about her experiences in the writers’ room and the process of bringing Disney’s first Venezuelan-American family to life.
Joanna’s excitement about the project is contagious. She says it’s a challenge to lead “a team of six very talented writers, most of them with a lot more experience than me” and help to create a much more complex world than that of the sketches she’s more familiar with. Since it’s an animated show, every detail needed to be considered, from the limits of Gretel’s powers to the way phones look. Hausmann says: “I was petrified at the beginning, to be honest with you, and then I realized that one of the most important jobs of the head writer is knowing the talents of your writers, and I got really lucky that I have writers that are incredibly astute in the comedy space.”
The result of these efforts was a dynamic team where each writer brought their own superpower. Some specialized in writing action, others in creating humor, or building the world. “Together we create a really great brain,” Hausmann says. This is evident in the elevated sense of humor of Hamster and Gretel. It’s a children’s show, so there are plenty of gags and slapstick comedy, but these are accompanied by a sophisticated satire of the superhero genre and a healthy dose of absurdity. Joanna further adds: “We wanted the comedy to be of a level that, no matter your age, it would leave you impressed.”
One of her favorite parts of the whole process was creating the character’s apartment. Venezuelan viewers will recognize many of the paintings and decorations and might even have a few hanging in their walls. In fact, the show’s art director Dorothea Gerassimova based some of them on Joanna’s own house. “All of these things may go unnoticed by an American, but for us, when we see them, they make us say ‘this is an authentic world.’”
This is part of what makes the show so special. Despite all of the bombastic elements of a superhero cartoon world, it still feels like a real place. “The stories in our world are based on an authentic reality that is based on who we are.”
Because of the show’s commitment to authenticity and reality, Venezuelan culture is present in more than just background details. Instead, it’s woven through multi-faceted characters. There’s never an instance where the family members are reduced to cultural stereotypes. They seem like real people because, in part, they are based on real people. For instance, Kevin and Gretel’s grandmother is Cuban and is inspired by Joanna’s grandmother, who’s also from Cuba. Carolina, Gretel and Kevin’s mom, shares a lot of elements with two Venezuelan women: Clarissa McPeck Rincón, the wife of the show’s creator Dan Povenmire, and economist Ana Julia Jatar, Joanna’s mother. Hausmann says “that is because that’s how I know how to write moms. My mom is Venezuelan. She is one of the funniest people I’ve met in my entire life and I wanted to represent her creatively.”
These very realistic characters solidify the idea that, at its core, the show is about the life of a loving and caring family where the children secretly learn to adapt to their role of the superhero-sibling duo. Their humanity allows for their Venezuelanness to appear in a way that is different from what audiences might be expecting. Venezuelan culture is present all throughout the show. Yet, much like in real life, it doesn’t always emerge explicitly. Nevertheless, it’s intrinsic to the characters’ interactions and motivations. I mentioned to Joanna that it seemed that Venezuelan culture served as the filter that allowed the story to happen. She emphatically agreed: “Yes, the culture is not the point. The show is about kids fighting supervillains while trying to survive living a normal life, but they are inevitably Venezuelan-American. They are what they are and no one questions it. No one is like ‘oh, your mom has an accent?’ No one questions ‘Why is your house that way? Why does your mom cook that way? Why do you use these words?’ It’s just the reality. It just is.” Instead of acting like a plot point that emerges from time to time, Venezuelan culture frames every aspect of the story.
Venezuelan culture was what brought Joanna and Dan Povenmire together. Hausmann mentioned that for a while, she was trying to merge into the mold of what seemed successful for an actor or writer, but this was difficult for her because she didn’t fit the Latino stereotypes. So, she chose to go in the opposite direction. Rather than blending in, she chose to use her Venezuelanness to stand out and threaded her Venezuelan-American experience through all her comedy. This caught the attention of Povenmire. He loved her videos because he hadn’t seen any content in English that spoke to the reality of living in a Venezuelan-American family like his own. So, he reached out to Joanna, via YouTube, and in time, they forged a close friendship that led Povenmire to ask her to be his head writer when he started to develop Hamster and Gretel. “Since Venezuelan culture brought us together, we had to incorporate it into this world,” Joanna explains.
The story of Hamster and Gretel is a reminder that within each of our individual experiences, no matter how singular they might seem, we can find something that resonates with the rest of the world and that might bring surprises. “I feel really grateful to Dan for believing in me and I’m very thankful that we connected over something that makes me feel so proud, which is my identity. If it wasn’t for my Venezuelanness, I would never have been working with an American called Dan Povenmire from Mobile, Alabama. It shows you that being authentic to yourself will ultimately bring you wonderful opportunities because what lies very deep at the bottom of your heart is something that, at the end of the day, is very universal,” Haussman says.
Hamster and Gretel premieres on August 12th on Disney Channel and August 17th on Disney+.
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