The drabbest, beigest mini-mall in Burbank — possibly in the world — stands just off the corner of Glenoaks and Lincoln. It has a tiny jewelry store, a dog-grooming shop, and a doleful elevator that creaks its way up to the second floor, where I approach an equally bland-looking glass-fronted office, the sort of place you might visit to have documents notarized. Inside, I find a dark-haired, 28-year-old woman simply dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved red top sitting on a leather sofa. There is nothing in her reserved demeanor that hints at the teeming anarchic visions roaring through her head. She may be imagining a clown-like outer-space farmer who feeds his weirdo herd of pets from a giant cosmic jelly cube fertilized with souls. Or perhaps she’s spinning the secrets of Wallace, an enormous, crying baby space fish. Or maybe she’s just thinking about snacks.
We’re in the California outpost of Frederator Studios, producers of some of television’s most vivid, groundbreaking cartoons — The Powerpuff Girls, Dexter’s Laboratory, Adventure Time — and I’m meeting Natasha Allegri, the company’s latest star. She is the creator of Bee and PuppyCat, a wildly popular animated web series about an outwardly unremarkable young woman whose haughty supernatural pet helps her to land odd (and I mean odd) jobs through an intergalactic temp agency. Deeply influenced by Japanese anime (in particular, the big-eyed, magical-girl Sailor Moon series), Bee and PuppyCat combines that Japanophile cuteness with a sophisticated deadpan surrealism. Allegri’s humor has roots in the faux-naif style of such BBC favorites as The Mighty Boosh and Look Around You, as well as in the stand-up comedy of Steven Wright and Emo Philips: a tradition illustrating, above all, the utter unexpectedness of ordinary things.
So passionate are Bee and PuppyCat’s fans that a Kickstarter campaign raised $872,133 on the strength of a single episode, making Allegri the most successful nonestablished filmmaker in the site’s history. The first of ten segments produced with those funds was posted online in November, where it quickly racked up more than 1.7 million views on Cartoon Hangover, a YouTube channel operated by Frederator.
Despite her fantastical outer-space temp gigs, Bee’s real appeal is in her struggle with everyday troubles: paying the bills, looking for work, the stray digestive difficulty. Her socks don’t always match, and sometimes there’s a disaster in the kitchen. Those banalities contrast with the brilliance and spectacle of her inner life — somewhat akin to the impression made by the artist herself. Allegri struggles with shyness; when she does speak, it is in a sweet cadence that makes her sound a little like one of the Japanese characters she loves. “My speaking skills were really awkward,” she confesses, referring to the days before she began attending fan conventions, “and the idea of meeting someone new was terrifying.”
Allegri grew up in Florida and Arizona, the daughter of an Okinawan mother and a Bolivian father. She devoured manga, anime, and Garfield comics from childhood, and majored in visual communications at the University of Arizona in hopes of becoming a comics artist. But her big break came a different way. In high school, she’d posted her comics on a LiveJournal blog, where Pendleton Ward, then an animation student at the California Institute of the Arts, chanced upon them. A few years later, Ward sold his hit series, Adventure Time, to Cartoon Network. He invited Allegri to try out for a job on the show; she dropped out of school, over her father’s objections, and moved West. She arrived in Burbank unable to drive and with nowhere to live. “I was young and stupid and brave,” she has said.
The panic and uncertainty generated by that move gave rise to Bee and PuppyCat. Bee, Allegri says, came from “my fear of having no job and not knowing what I was going to do with my life.” She was invited to pitch to Frederator after working on Adventure Time for its first two seasons; the studio offered to develop a pilot of Bee and PuppyCat.
Allegri takes me down the hall to her bare-bones shared office. From here, she supervises the art and writing that undergird the complex business of creating each six-minute episode of her cartoon, a nine-month process requiring the work of dozens of people — among them, storyboard artists and revisionists; designers of characters, props, and backgrounds; sound designers and recording engineers; composers and voice talent — all in addition to the animators, who work by hand at South Korea’s Dong Woo Animation.
Allegri’s delicate honesty and humor in her depiction of the hapless, semi-employed, and lovable Bee have already inspired a lively Tumblr community, and cosplay aficionados attend fan conventions dressed as the show’s characters. Show-themed T-shirts, comic books, bags, and plush dolls are also selling briskly — and not just to girls. According to YouTube, the audience for Bee and PuppyCat is split equally between men and women; its fans range between 13 and 34 years old, with the bulk in the desirable 18 to 24 demographic.
It’s conceivable, then, that Bee and PuppyCat can be a commercial success without going the broadcast television route. Given its semi-adult female protagonist and subject matter, the show might be an unlikely candidate for that traditional approach anyway. Conventional wisdom in the American cartoon business has been that boys — and young men — won’t watch programs with female leads. Shows like Bee and PuppyCat prove that, at least on the internet, that’s no longer true.
Allegri is entirely unselfconscious about her penchant for frankly girly things such as Sailor Moon and the Hello Kitty character Purin (a beret-wearing dog who Allegri describes as “always surrounded by desserts, which is, like, my dream”). She doesn’t appear to worry much about whether her audience is male or female, and she seems almost oblivious to gender fault lines. When a controversy over Bee’s weight erupted (one YouTube commenter suggested she might find romance if she were thinner), fans rushed to the character’s defense, but Allegri initially stayed mum. (She eventually tweeted, “And what are you gonna do about it,” to which one follower replied, “More intense snacking.”) For the most part, though, her fans, both male and female, appear to share her taste. That delights Allegri more than anything. “People who like my show are very nice,” she says, melodious as a Sailor Scout. “They are very pretty, and they are very sweet to me.”