I was on my home from a visit to my parents' in Virginia when the radio began to flood us with news about a shooting that happened in a theater down the street from my home in Aurora, Colorado.
It is now over half of a year since that horrible day and the Century theater has reopened to the public.
In the days and weeks that followed, I (as were many) was left to wonder how such a thing could take place. What could drive a human being to commit such an inhuman act?
Such was a question I could not answer. I couldn't even begin to make sense of the situation. Instead, I began to focus on the good of humanity. A quote surfaced shortly after the tragedy at Newtown which was extremely beneficial for a countless number of people when dealing with tragedy. It was from Fred Rogers, and he said,
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers - so many caring people in this world.”
Instead of focusing on the evil that humanity was capable of, I decided to go on a journey to find a group of people who truly were “the caring people in this world” that Mr. Rogers had described. What I found was quite unexpected but I find myself extremely thankful that such a group dedicated to the principles of love and tolerance is out there regardless of what may be said of them.
Enter the bronies.
Never in my life could I have predicted that I'd be sitting down to write an article on any incarnation of My Little Pony, let alone multiple articles.
“I don't think anybody could,” a fan of the show named Dustykat Rhoades told me. “I grew up in the 70's and 80's, and the 80's version of the ponies was just horrible. There's no way you could have predicted it would come back this strong but Lauren Faust got her hands on it and coming out of Dexter's Labratory and Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends and Power Puff Girls, all shows which I loved – once I found out that she was the one behind it, I thought yeah, it's going to be good.”
Perhaps calling Dusty a fan is an understatement. He hosts 'Stay Brony My Friends', where he's interviewed many of the people involved with the show. I had talked with some of the people involved with making the show, but I had yet to actually talk with one of the adult followers known as bronies and pegasisters.
I asked him how he was introduced to it. “We were playing AD&D here at a roomate's house,” he said. “One evening after playing they said come on we need to watch a show, and I said 'what show is this?' and they said 'My Little Pony' and I thought, of course, are you crazy? And they said no, it's a good show don't worry about it. I've known these gentlemen for 20 years and they knew what I like and I knew what they like. We had been in a lot of fandoms.”
“We sat down and watched the first half of the first season by the time I was too tired to watch anymore,” he continued. “So we were up until 4 or 5 in the morning watching it. It was pretty cool.”
I was curious if people had treated him differently since he had started watching the show. “Not really,” he said. “Most of my friends know I'm a little weird anyway. I've been in the comic book, animation and all that stuff my entire life. You wouldn't think that I'd be like this 45-year-old biker dude who's into Disney and Pixar and science fiction and comic books and animation and all this other stuff anyway so, it was just another extension of something that I like.”
I asked how bronies treated one another. “Most people generally interact with each other well especially at a convention,” he said. “Everybody is happy to be there, happy to see the voice actors, happy to be able to buy those little trinkets they haven't been able to find anywhere else. Singing, dancing, just an all over feeling of joy being with people that get it instead of people that don't.”
I've always been a huge Trekkie all of my life having been to five Star Trek conventions in the past, so what he said next hit home for me. “It's sort of like a Trekkie at a Star Trek convention,” he said. “They can wear their ears and their costumes and their uniforms and can speak Klingon to other people and can have a conversation. They're with like-minded souls. It's the same thing, where you end up getting very happy to be able to discuss the finer reasons why Twilight Sparkle is better than Rainbow Dash, or whatever you want to talk about.”
Finally, I asked Dusty about a very delicate subject that had received much chatter and controversy within the community as of late. It was revealed that one of the main characters in the show, the bookworm unicorn known as Twilight Sparkle, would be transformed into an alicorn princess during the season's finale, a role in par with her superior, Princess Celestia.
Alicorngate, courtesy of The Hub
I was not sure how to approach the subject or even if I should. As a Trekkie, it would be like my reaction to the idea of the first 'Next Generation' movie having James Kirk and Jean Luc Picard meet and greet while the Enterprise-D was destroyed. I'm glad I did as his answer seemed very level-headed.
“I believe in M. A. Larson,” he said, referring to a writer of the show. “If Hasbro has made the on-high that we need to make Twilight Sparkle and alicorn to sell toys, they will make it work because they've done it time and time again - that when Hasbro comes and says we need to sell a toy, they make it work and they make it awesome. I have complete faith in DHX and the writers.”
In researching for this article and reaching out to other members of the community, I seem to find the same pattern of thought. There may be some reservations to the idea but for the most part I have seen many people posting a picture of a button which reads, 'I BELIEVE IN M A LARSON'.
I asked one of the cast members, Peter New, about the controversy. “I really only know what I have read about on Twitter,” he said. I can’t really speak about it. It’s a thing, obviously that the writers have decided to go and do and I have learned in my long and varied career that one must put one’s faith in the writer. That’s what I do and that’s what I would recommend. In terms of what is happening, how it’s happening, any of the questions people seem to be having about it I really don’t have any answers. It’s a question for the writers.”
“I actually believe in Megan McArthey a little bit more than I believe in M. A. Larson because M. A. Larson is, thus far, a figment,” he joked concerning another writer for the show. “Megan McArthey I have met and seen with my own eyes so she has proven herself to me whereas M. A. Larson I think might be a robot. ”
Peter provides the voice of several characters in the show including the large farmhand brother of one of the main characters (Applejack), a red stallion named Big Macintosh (or Big Mac for short).
THE ART OF THE VOICE
Peter told me some of the details which goes into being a voice for the show.
“It’s an interesting quandary being a voice actor,” he said, “because the assumption of course is that you know everything about what’s going on but the reality is that you know very little. We record these episodes months in advance usually and of course when we record them we don’t have a picture, we just have lines of text. So people will want to know things about what’s happening in the picture which we will have no clue about and it’s ever surprising when you actually finally do see a show what happened. You think well that joke makes sense to me now, now that I see what’s happening. I know I saw it written down but I couldn’t picture it. People will ask you about, ‘was the fact that the character was red anything to do with the voice that you came up with?’ Well no I didn’t know the character was red. I had no idea. I just saw Horse number one. Magnum is another example. That was just Rarity’s father and the fanbase named the character Magnum and I quite liked that for a name for that character, I think it’s very funny. I played Dr. Stable in the Daring Do episode and again, it’s not called Dr. Stable, it’s just called Doctor.
Peter told me about the development of the voices and how much of the time the cast is left in the dark when it comes to the show's development. “A lot of the time, too, you’ll just get thrown these voices on the fly,” he said. “I’ll be standing there because I played something else in the episode perhaps and they’ll just say, 'ok Peter can you read this doctor character?’ and I’ll say, ‘uh ok uh, something official like this?’ and they’ll say ‘push it a little this way or little bit that way’ and then you go and that’s it, and that’s how you come up with the character voice. It’s very quick a lot of the time. You forget entirely about it because months go by and then all of a sudden people are interested in asking you things about a character that you don’t even remember playing because it happens so quickly and there were only a few lines. Then I find myself on whichever of the fansites seems to have the most information so that I can sound like I know what I’m talking about when people ask me the questions.
“Basically any fansite that I’ve ever been to, from Equestria Daily to DerpyHooves News to whatever else - usually it’s one or the other that has the insight first that I need.”
“The fans know before I know usually,” he laughed.
I asked him about his thoughts concerning being one of the only men involved in the show. “In Pony I have been the only man in the room sometimes when we record these things but I don’t find any issue with that at all,” he said. “I respect the performers that I work with, male or female, and there’s a tremendous amount of talent coming out of everybody that I work with in general. So I’m able to learn every time I walk in that room. To me, discovery is the central tenant of the artist process and if you’re not learning and challenging yourself and discovering something then you’re done as an artist. So I find that gender doesn’t really play into it for me at all. Ashley Ball is a tremendous talent, she’s fantastic to watch. Andrea Libman is a tremendous talent, she’s fantastic to watch. Etc. I can’t really point at anybody that I work with on either of these shows that I wouldn’t say that same thing about. ”
FROM PONIES TO A PET SHOP
I had noticed that much of the talent from My Little Pony also had gone into making another show called 'Littlest Pet Shop', a show which airs on the same network (The Hub). I was curious if there was a reasoning behind that. “I don’t think there’s anything particular behind that,” Peter said. “I think there’s a very small but very talented pool of voice actors in Vancouver and I think Hasbro was happy with the work the studio was doing on Pony and decided to trust them with Pet Shop as well. So that in and of itself is going to bring in a number of the same people in terms of the animators and what not. Then in terms of voice casting I think – again I’m speculating here – if I were casting, let’s put it that way, I would be of two minds about it and I would say on one hand I trust these actors that I’ve worked with on the one show to come to this other show and do fine work, but on the other hand I don’t want to overuse a particular voice because I worry that even talented voice actors carry a similar timber in their pitch that they carry from character to character and, if you’re adapt at it, you can usually hear something in my voice that’s in Big Macintosh that’s also in Rarity’s father and also in Sunil and also in whatever else I’ve done in that show. So I think there’s, on the one hand, faith in the performer so you want to use the performer but then on the other hand there’s a little bit of skepticism that you’re worried about.
“That all said,” he continued, “there was an audition process and those of us that are on both shows just happened to be lucky enough to pass in both of those cases. It’s not that any of us were asked to come over from one show to the other, so far as I know. I think everybody was auditioned and read for parts and satisfied the producers concerns is my guess. In other words, the faith in the performance over-met the worry that it would be over-used. I’m not sure there was any conscious casting in terms of if we use this actor then we can try and bring one fanbase over to the other fanbase. Obviously there was some hope I think in that if they used some of our names in a press release before the premier that they might cross- contaminate the fanbase there but I think that came after. I think the principle concern that any good producer has is making a good project. ”
FAME AND OBSCURITY
I wondered, if people generally did not treat Dusty differently because of his admiration for ponies, did people treat Peter differently on a professional level?
“Not particularly, no,” he said. “What’s interesting is whenever I go to one of these conventions, for instance, it’s like being famous for a weekend. As soon as you walk in a door of one of those places you are famous and it’s fantastic and strange and humbling and wonderful, but as soon as I get home nobody knows who I am anymore except for people that know me. I tend not to get stopped on the street for this and I tend not to get recognized obviously because I’m not a face.
“I get recognized more for TV commercials that I’ve done than I get recognized for My Little Pony,” he said. “It’s very rare that I’ve been recognized for My Little Pony. So it really is this kind of fractured experience in a way. I feel very much like a celebrity whenever I’m talking to or in the midst of this tremendous community and then very much anonymous when I get home. I think that’s sort of a fantastic difference. If the question is ‘has it changed the way people treat you’, very much yes but only in specific circumstances.
“I love it, don’t get me wrong,” he continued. “I do love it, I think it’s fantastic, but it’s certainly an interesting ride. I can hardly believe it’s happening to me frankly. It’s very strange. Not that it’s happening or not what’s happening – you’re sort of operating in your own life and doing your own thing and you pull on this one thread and get one part and it leads to this notoriety and everything happens normally. Then, all of a sudden you’re standing on a stage in front of four thousand people just outside of New York and people are cheering at you and everything that has lead up to that moment is one small natural next step, and yet once you get there it’s huge and remarkable. It’s my first real experience with that and somehow I guess I always imagined that it would be different and it isn’t. It seems like a very normal natural thing and yet it seems like a very strange and unique thing all at once. It’s a marvel and it’s very much a difficult thing to get one’s head around, but it’s lovely. I wouldn’t trade it. ”
On the subject of famous anonymity, I could not help but bring up something that I had seen a few days ago. I was pulling through a McDonald's drive through when I spotted on the back of the SUV that I was behind a decal of a side character that I had written about before in my previous articles, the snobbish (but now reformed) show-magician pony named Trixie. I had just decided to do this article a day or so before seeing that, and I had to ask my wife (who was in the car with me) if what I was seeing was really there.
“It is absolutely fascinating to me,” Peter said when I told him this, “because again, like you I would have thought well, Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie and the main six are the ones that are going to get the most attention and they do get the most attention, but it really does surprise me how much attention side characters get and even side characters on the order of Vinyl Scratch. I didn’t even recognize it because I was so surprise to see it but there was a guy who was cosplaying as Magnum, Rarity’s father that I played.” Peter told me that he thinks this was at a convention in New Jersey. “I thought that was astonishing that he would take the time to put that particular character together as opposed to Big Macintosh, or as opposed to one of the Wonderbolts or a royal guard or whatever. He chose Rarity’s dad and I was supremely flattered by that. ”
Tom Selleck cosplaying as Magnum
“If there’s a character in the show anywhere,” he said, “even if he doesn’t speak or she only has one line, someone is probably cosplaying as that character somewhere and is really devoted to that particular character. Every character has a fan which is remarkable. It’s remarkable. ”
THE MEN WHO STARE AT PONIES
I could not help but touch on something that happened at one of the Pony conventions that I had written about before. Having had family and friends that had served in the military (and some that are still in service), I greatly appreciated where a crowd cheered for a reservist who came to the convention in uniform.
“There’s much that happens in this community which is very refreshing,” Peter said. “I went out for drinks in Seattle with a couple of guys, one of them was Dusty, and I had this realization at one point that there’s no other thing that would have brought those four people together. One of the guys there works at NASA, and helped put Curiosity on Mars.”
“You’re sitting there going, how did I end up having beers with these four people who otherwise, outside of the fandom, would have no reason to talk to one another whatsoever? I think that’s remarkable and that kind of experience happens all the time, and the number of people that tell me about the tremendous ways that the show has impacted their lives is supremely humbling, how much it has actually, legitimately helped people deal with their circumstances and cope with problems that they couldn’t deal with before the show came along. My very small part in that is humbling. All these things touch me and make the show, the thing that Lauren (Faust) created remarkable. I feel very lucky to be a part of it
“I think there’s a tendency for the uninitiated to think that there’s something very weird going on,” Peter said concerning the fandom, “and indeed when I first heard about bronies, obviously you think, that’s curious. Why would a group of grown men be interested in a show for little girls? It’s a paradox in our society. But as soon as you do any kind of scratching at the surface you realize that this is a group of people who, very much like Trekkies I find, are interested in a community and they’re interested in overcoming differences to work together to solve a problem, to broaden their horizons. I think that is a truly wonderful thing. So I’ve been very moved by the My Little Pony fan community. ”
After having written the previous articles and becoming so involved in the community, many of the fans have reached out to me and I've even become friends with some of them. When I asked one of those people who I had made friends with how the show affected him, he said, “It, well, simplified a lot for me. Being able to watch such a happy show every weekend really relieved a lot of stress, made me a lot more easy going.”
A YEARNING FOR INNOCENCE
Before my trip to Virginia and about a month before the tragedy in Aurora, I had watched the first episode of My Little Pony. It was a two-part episode. Like Dusty, I was already a big fan of the other shows that the same people who had worked on My Little Pony had been involved with. Someone had told me about it already, but when I heard that one of the episodes featured Star Trek alumni John De Lancie, I knew I had to give it a try. After all, the very first Trekkie convention I had ever been to had hosted John De Lancie, so in some strange degree I was already invested in it.
It wasn't until that long drive home when I started to think about the huge following that the show had received. I had a lot of time to think during those long hours of driving across the United States to get from the east coast to the Midwest and I had to find something to fill my mind with other than the events that were unfolding back in Colorado. I found myself contemplating on how a show for little girls could gain such a momentum among fully grown adults.
I wondered what it was that drove some people towards evil, while others yearn for something more pure.
“I think the show offers an alternative,” Peter said. “I think Star Trek did the same thing ultimately. It doesn’t have to be one way or the other. We can look for answers in the middle. How one does that is to really look at the opposites. I think a lot of the time people don’t really look at the opposites. They see the evil and then they sort of rail against it or they run away into the innocent and they disappear into the pure. I feel like one could assume that’s what’s happening with Friendship is Magic but I don’t think it is because I think the lessons in it are too strong, much like with Star Trek. So I think while initially you might feel like I just want to just shut my eyes and close my ears to the real world and visit this place where it’s always lovely.
“The thing is it isn’t always lovely. They do have to fight for what they believe in. I think that works as an excellent metaphor for those kinds of experiences and I think it does offer new ways to approach arguments. My hope for the show and to the fandom is that it does create a change in the way that our western society approaches and copes with these kinds of issues because it can seem very polarized when you listen to the news. It can seem like there’s only this way and there’s only that way and the people that believe in this way don’t believe in that way and the people that believe in that way don’t believe in this way. The middle ground is usually acceptable for everyone but nobody talks about it. Nobody talks about actually sitting down for beers with the four people that you never would have met and realizing that of course you have a common ground because we’re all human and we all just want a better world for our children. We all just want to get along and have a lovely time. It’s easy to get bogged down and I think the show kind of reminds us that we don’t have to. I’m a big fan of the alternative answer. I’m a big fan of saying well, ok well there is this and there is that, but what else? There’s this, AND there's that, not or.”
My pony friend that I mentioned before also enjoys watching a very well known show that airs on AMC called 'Breaking Bad'. I asked him how he went from watching something like that to watching My Little Pony. “I am so commonly watching shows with a darker and violent tone,” he said, “that shows as innocent as MLP really even it out for me. I don't remember how exactly I started watching, because it has been over a year now but I'm sure it just balanced everything out so well is why it instantly became interesting to me.”
ON WRITING AND COMEDY
Peter has been involved in many fronts of show business, from writing to producing to stage and screen. I asked if he had any plants to return to the writing field. “I do have plans to return,” he said. “I’ve written a few feature length screenplays that I’m not very good at trying to sell. ”
Peter laughed then continued, “I’ve been thinking lately about getting back on that train. It gets a bit frustrating at that level for me. You write a thing and then you’re proud of it and then there’s a whole lot of work that you have to do to get it off your desk and on to somebody else’s desk. You have to get it on two hundred desks and get two hundred pairs of eyes to read it before one goes, “Oh yeah, you know what? I do want to make this movie with you!” and that’s a lot of phone calls to make and a lot hustle that I really want someone else to do and of course there is no one else to do it. So things end up in my drawer but I have been thinking a lot lately about getting back on that train and trying to get that going. ”
I asked Peter if there was anything that he preferred doing. “No is the very short answer,” he said. “To me it’s all part of the same job. For me, I’m like a conduit that sits at the center of this paradigm - I’m at the sort of middle of this line I guess where I want to express myself through this kind of performance type creativity. That usually manifests as acting in some way. It usually manifests as saying the words that have been written for me and produced for me. To me it’s sort of just extending the lens backwards. It’s like I’m sort of standing in the middle and if I want to do writing or producing that’s kind of behind me, and if I want to act that’s sort of all out in front of me. It’s all kind of on the same line. If I want to say certain things that no one else is writing well then I have to write them. In all, I will make this anecdotal – it all comes out of my training doing sketch comedy years ago, where there’s really only one rule in comedy which is that if they laugh it’s funny and that’s it. If they don’t laugh there’s something wrong. I always view in comedy creation that there really are only a couple of things that can go wrong. One is if you’re standing up on the stage and they’re not laughing at a joke that you’re absolutely convinced is hilarious, then you’re doing something wrong as an actor and you’re not presenting that joke to them in the most hilarious way. However if you’re standing on the stage and you know that you’re presenting it to them in the most hilarious way it’s just that they’re not on board with the idea, then that problem is with the writing. In either case you’re going back to the drawing board – you’re going back to the rehearsal room or the writing table, one way or the other and trying to recreate either the context in the writing so that the audience understands where you are when you get to that perfect piece of performance or you recreate how you approach the writing as an actor. So you’re constantly manipulating these two sort of twins of the creative process. So for me it’s always been that connected, it’s always been that sense of well, if I write it like this then I can say it like that, and I’d like to say it like this but it isn’t written like that. I often find that my hands are a bit more tied when I’m performing someone else’s words because I feel less inclined to change them because they’re not my words. And then producing is just sort of the necessary evil that comes along with that. As I said about the scripts, there’s no one else that’s going to do the hustle for you.
“So, if you really believe in a thing and you want to make it happen, and a few times that’s just fallen to me and there’s no one else to do it, you sort of find yourself at this momentum thinking well, it’s either all going to come crashing down at my feet or I can pick it up and get walking. ”
I asked him about a project that he had put up on the website 'Fanbuilt' called 'Tapeworm and Hovercraft'. “A friend of mine and I use to laugh about the idea of making this cartoon called Hovercraft and Tapeworm, about a hovercraft and a tapeworm who were an unlikely set of friends. For whatever reason it was such an absurd combination it just made us laugh. So, with Lee Tockar’s excellent idea at Fanbuilt I just thought, well why not throw it on Fanbuilt and see what comes back and see if people respond to it? And so far I’ve got a number of people who’ve put character designs out, a lot of people who are interested in voicing characters should that opportunity ever present itself – it’s sort of the last step of course.
“Then there’s a couple of emails that say things like, ‘The world is not ready for the inside of your mind, Mr. New’,” he laughed, “which I’ve heard before. Actually I hear that sung quite a bit in my life but I just keep pushing through anyway. ”
A MESSAGE FOR THE BRONIES
As we began to wrap up our conversation, I made mention of the beneficial aspects of My Little Pony, but that some people thought of the idea of grown men watching it rather silly.
“My response to that is, if my friends were saying to me well listen, why do you like that show? Don’t you think it’s a bit silly? Well I would say yeah, it is. So?”
“Life can be silly,” I said.
“Life is usually very silly,” he laughed. “It’s pretty ridiculous. Why judge it? What is your problem with it that you who haven’t seen it need to judge it? That I think is a big question. Are you so concerned with being tough or concerned with being whatever? I think it’s marvelous – the gender expectations are being shifted by this thing. It’s a huge impact that this show is having on our society right now and I think it’s remarkable and wonderful. It’s almost entirely positive.
Later he said, “I don’t think gender roles need to be defined in the same way that they use to be. I think equality makes far more sense. It certainly makes far more sense in our era. So I think well, why not simply react to what you like?”
“I like to take the view that, something the scientist Carl Sagan said, we as conscious creatures are the universe’s way of knowing itself. I think that’s quite a marvelous notion because it opens us up to do different and conflicting notions and yet it’s all a way of discovering. We’re just the universe, we’re just trying to figure it out, trying to figure out what we are and where we are. We are all part of a one, and I think that’s a powerful idea. We’re not just one with each other as people but we are one with everything. We just are one with everything. We don’t need to seek it. It is the base from which we launch. ”
Perhaps some find the idea of watching a show about ponies is strange because, in some sense, we fear breaking away from the traditions that has defined us as a society. “Why not pursue what is interesting instead of being handicapped by notions being passed on to you from your father’s father’s fathers?” Peter asked.
I have met many fantastic people on this journey and have made many new friends. For that I feel very blessed. The basic principles of being kind – forgiveness, love and tolerance – is strong within this community, so who am I (or anyone else for that manner) to say that being a fan of a show that reflects those same morals is wrong or strange? In the world that we live in, I certainly hope that the people I interact with will be more like bronies and less inclined to go Breaking Bad.
As my new friend Dusty would say, Stay brony my friends.