An Oral History of ‘Camp Candy,’ John Candy’s Saturday Morning Cartoon
By itself, the trifecta of Uncle Buck, Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Home Alone made John Candy an indelible presence in the childhood of any self-respecting ‘80s or ‘90s kid. But for three seasons at least, he also starred in another adolescent staple of the era — a Saturday morning cartoon.
Camp Candy lasted 40 episodes, and centered on a cartoon version of Candy — voiced, of course, by Candy himself — who played a clumsy, amiable everyman, much like he did in many of his films. Camp counselor Candy taught a group of youngsters a variety of camping skills, while also sharing a message of conservation.
It’s probably more accurate to call Camp Candy a “lost curiosity” as opposed to a true “classic,” but it’s Candy canon nonetheless. It also embodied so much of what made Candy such a beloved pop-culture totem — a radiating kindness and gentleness that gave his humor as much warmth as it did laughter. To help properly recount Candy’s Saturday morning side hustle, we turned to the show’s co-creators as well as Candy’s son Chris, who, although he was just five at the time, lent his voice to the series, too, keeping things very much in the family.
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Joel Andryc, Camp Candy co-creator and writer: Camp Candy was kind of my baby. I was young in my career back then, and it was the first show that I created. I was working on a lot of game shows and reality shows at the time for producer Haim Saban, and eventually we began working on shows for kids on Saturday mornings. That was when I came up with the idea of doing a show based around a novelty song I grew up with called “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh” by Allan Sherman.
I wrote a whole treatment with my partner Ellen Levy, and it outlined what the show was. In the description of the camp counselor, it said, “A loveable, bumbling camp counselor (think of John Candy).” Saban had a good relationship with NBC, and we pitched it to Phyllis Tucker Vinson Jackson, their vice president of children’s and family programs. She liked the idea, but she wasn’t sure if the song resonated with kids at the time.
She, though, liked the idea of John Candy and said, “If you can get John Candy to do a voice, I’ll order the show.” We said okay, got a hold of John Candy’s agent at CAA and eventually we got him. I don’t precisely know why he was interested, but so often when celebrities have kids, they want to do something that speaks to them. And at the time, he had a son who was four or five years old and a daughter who was seven or eight.
Chris Candy, John Candy’s son: I was five years old when the show came on, and I even got to voice a character for a few episodes. I can’t speak to exactly why he took it on, but I believe he went to camp as a kid. There was also this part of him that was a proud Canadian, and I think this show spoke to the outdoorsy part of him. I know that I was very excited about the show because Saturday morning cartoons were huge at the time, and I was very happy that my dad was going to be a part of one.
Andryc: When this show began, Saban wasn’t doing animation yet; so we partnered with DIC and they put one of their guys on it, Phil Harnage, and we got an order for 13 episodes.
Phil Harnage, Camp Candy co-creator and writer: I was the staff writer at DIC and worked on basically every show they did. I helped to create and develop Camp Candy, and I wrote the show bible. It was a good little show, and the camp setting really suited John Candy’s persona as the bumbling nice guy.
I was only in one meeting with him, but I was really impressed with the fact that he wanted to do more than just entertain with this show — he wanted to educate as well. In a script I wrote, we ended up putting in some things about endangered species and respecting the environment.
Andryc: I first met John Candy after we were already in production when he came to record some of his voiceover work. He was a very accessible guy. I remember him wanting to go all out with the show, sometimes more than he needed to. For example, in the third season, when NBC got out of Saturday morning cartoons and we switched to a first-run syndicated show, we had John Candy in live action appear with environmentally friendly messages.
He loved the idea, and he treated it like we were shooting a feature film. He had us come up to his ranch in Toronto with his whole crew, but all we really needed was him in his backyard for a couple of hours. I get it, though — it was his image and his brand, so he wanted it to be perfect. That attitude did help bring some great talent to the show. He brought on Harry Nilsson to do the opening song, and he got amazing people from Second City TV to appear, like Eugene Levy and Dave Thomas.
Candy: It was very important to my dad to keep that Second City scene alive and that carried over to Camp Candy and a bunch of other projects. Around this time, he was working on movies like Who’s Harry Crumb? and Only the Lonely, and he would record the voice-overs for Camp Candy from his office on the westside of Los Angeles, called Frostbacks. There was a recording studio there, and I remember getting in trouble once for turning down all the dials in the editing booth.
My earliest memories of Camp Candy was the promo swag from it, like Camp Candy lunchboxes and Marvel comic books and other stuff that just showed up in the office.
Andryc: When Camp Candy premiered in 1989, the ratings did well. For the first two seasons we were consistently number one in our time slot, and we were on target to do a third season with NBC. But then NBC decided to shift strategies for Saturdays with live action, ordering shows like Saved By the Bell. So we didn’t get a third season, and we took the show into first-run syndication for Season Three with a company called World Vision, which brought us to 40 episodes. This meant there were enough episodes to run the show in syndication Monday through Friday, but that also meant they didn’t need more after that.
We had a good run though, and I was proud of it. We won a Humanitas Award for an episode we did about a girl with leukemia. There was also some discussion about doing a live-action movie, which would have been fantastic. But unfortunately, John passed away before we were able to really get those discussions off the ground.
Candy: My dad passed when I was so young that, as I’ve gotten older, it’s been a bit of detective work to get to know him a bit better. It’s kind of amazing, my dad had this great track record of being really cool with people. He was a good-hearted, down-to-earth person who took care of everyone else. He just could have taken care of himself a bit more.