After Jeffrey Katzenberg left Disney in 1994, he approached Steven Spielberg and music executive David Geffen about forming a studio that would work in both live-action and animation. This would be the first time in decades a studio would do so due to the risk and expense involved in such a venture. Spielberg and Geffen agreed on the conditions that the studio would only make nine films a year, they could work for other studios, and they would be able to get home in time for dinner. That October saw the formation of DreamWorks SKG, with financing from the three partners and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
In 1998, DreamWorks began production of their first animated series: Toonsylvania, also known as Steven Spielberg Presents Toonsylvania. The series was developed by Chris Otsuki and Eek! The Cat co-creator Bill Kopp. Like Spielberg’s earlier collaborations with Warner Bros. Animation, the series was a compilation of segments related only by the fact that they were comedic spoofs of the horror genre that often parodied pop culture and contained musical numbers. Unlike those shows, the series was centered on a smaller group of characters.
The first segment usually focused on a parody of Frankenstein, starring Dr. Vic Frankenstein (David Warner), your typical mad scientist; his assistant, Igor (Wayne Knight), who deemed himself the true brains of the outfit and always set out to prove it (with disastrous results); and Phil (Brad Garrett), the dim-witted monster they created. Together, they lived and worked in a castle on top of a high mountain overlooking the TransFernando Valley. After their misadventures in science, a brief segment would follow where Igor and Phil sat down to watch the rest of the show’s segments on television. In a running gag, something would always go wrong after Igor clicked the remote to turn the television on.
The next segment was typically the sitcom-styled “Night of the Living Fred”, which focused on a family of zombies called the Deadmans. Dedgar (Matt Frewer), Stiffany (Valery Pappas), Fred (Billy West) and Ashley (Kath Soucie) went about their daily lives as only creepily-grinning, decomposing members of society could. This segment was created and written or co-written by cartoonist Mike Peters with creative consultation by Lee Mendelson, and resembled Peters’ art styling. Occasionally, this segment would be replaced by a parody of a B-list horror movie.
This would be followed by another short segment starring Igor called “Igor’s Science Minute.” He would either explain or sing about a scientific topic, typically with disastrous or explosive results. The final segment was “Melissa Screetch’s Morbid Morals”. It was set up by Igor catching Phil doing something bad, and then relating to him a story about Melissa to teach him a lesson. Melissa (Nancy Cartwright) was a horrible, bratty girl who drove the other characters in her stories nuts and often didn’t heed the warnings of adults (usually her mother, voiced by Pappas). Usually, she’d suffer the consequences for her actions. “Science Minute” and “Morbid Morals” were largely written by Otsuki, who created the latter.
Toonsylvania debuted on FOX on February 7, 1998. It aired as part of Fox Kids’ “The No Yell Motel” programming block, which featured interstitials starring puppets working inside a creepy motel, alongside Goosebumps and Eerie, Indiana: The Other Dimension. The series’ theme was composed by Julie Bernstein, Steven Bernstein and Paul Rugg, while Michael Tavera, John Paul Given, Christopher Klatman and Thom Sharp did the rest of the music. Writers for the series included Kopp, Tracy Peters, Martin Olson, Keith Baxter, Karl Toerge, Vinny Montello and Steve Ochs. The characters were designed by Otsuki, Julian Chaney and Eric I. Robles, with animation done by Fil-Cartoons, Inc.
After the first season, Kopp left the show along with producer and series director Jeff DeGrandis when they became frustrated with DreamWorks’ “too many cooks” approach to production. Rugg was promoted to showrunner and the format was drastically changed for the second season. The Frankenstein segments were reworked to be more of a sitcom where they would interact with new characters; particularly next door neighbor Seth Tuber (Jonathan Harris), who was based on Psycho’s Norman Bates complete with an “immobile” mother (Rugg). Melissa’s segment was changed to “The Melissa Screetch Show”, which featured Melissa imagining herself the host of a show that would end up with those that disappointed her meeting an ironic fate. The B-movie parodies and several segments with the Deadmans also continued with Jess Harnell assuming the Dedgar role, but the “Science Minute” segments were jettisoned. New characters were mostly played by Rugg, who improvised many of their lines.
Fox Kids underwent a bit of restructuring in mid-1998 to accommodate the showing of more Saban Entertainment programs on the coveted Saturday morning broadcasts (Saban had merged with and taken over Fox Kids in 1998). Toonsylvania, along with Goosebumps, was moved to Monday afternoons where the last two episodes of the first season and all the second season aired. Unfortunately, that time tended to yield low viewership and the ratings took a rapid decline, justifying its ultimate cancellation.
Action figures and playsets were developed by Pangea Corporation and released through Toy Island. Burger King also included toys based on the show in their kids’ meals. RFX Interactive, Light & Shadow Production and Ubisoft published a video game for the show in 2000 for the Game Boy Color. DreamWorks Video released a single VHS of the show in 1999 containing a selection of season one segments (although they used the season two intro). The entire show only saw release for a limited time on Netflix’s Latin American feed in 2014 and 2015.