Interview: Maulik Pancholy On Best Friends, Talking Snakes In 'Sanjay and Craig'

Sanjay and Craig 2

It is crucial to know a few things about the new Nickelodeon cartoon series “Sanjay and Craig.” It is about a boy with a pet snake. It talks … and sometimes puts on a wig and human clothes when the radically awesome duo embark on occasionally gross-out adventures like witnessing a butt transplant or having a barf off. And they are in the best friends hall of fame. There is no best friends hall of fame (they made it up!).

Premiering Saturday May 25 at 10:30 a.m. EDT/PDT -- with an awesome earwormy theme song, referenced above -- the show stars the voices of Maulik Pancholy (“Weeds,” “30 Rock,” “Phineas and Ferb”) as Sanjay and Chris Hardwick (he of The Nerdist empire) as Craig, along with an impressive cast of voices such as Linda Cardellini (“Freaks and Geeks,” “Mad Men”), Matt Jones (“Breaking Bad”) and Tony Hale (“Arrested Development”). It springs forth from the minds of Andreas Trolf, Jay Howell and Jim Dirschberger, and is executive produced by the guys behind “The Adventures of Pete & Pete,” Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi. The show is an oddball ’toon with characters who have an active fantasy life and are lovable weirdos.

“Sanjay and Craig” is a clever show as much meant for “I don’t want to grow up” adults (of both the The Ramones and Toys “R” Us variety) as for kids. It calls back to the Nick golden days of “Ren and Stimpy,” but feels at home in a modern and happily bizarre comedy universe of “Bob’s Burgers” and “Community.”

As for the human element of the dude-snake friendship, Pancholy is the overenthusiastic 12-year-old Sanjay. Audiences are used to him as Jonathan, the obsessively dedicated assistant to Jack Donaghy; as the pot dealer with a puppy crush on “Weeds”; or as the grades-driven overachiever Baljeet on the Disney Channel’s long-running animated series “Phineas and Ferb.” But for Sanjay, Pancholy is able to play in a new sandbox as a kid with no end of curiosity or excitement, and who expresses both by lots of shouting.

Pancholy joined us to chat about “Sanjay and Craig,” how he feels about snakes and what it is like to join the ranks of Saturday morning cartoons.

Maulik Pancholy

MTV Geek: First off, the theme song for “Sanjay and Craig” has been stuck in my head for a couple days…

Maulik Pancholy: That’s kind of the point. I find myself singing “there is no best friends hall of fame/ They made it up!” phrase over and over again. It is definitely in my head so hopefully it will stick in other people’s heads when they hear it.

Geek: Have you ever had a pet snake, one that talks or otherwise?

Pancholy: I never have. I wish I had; it’s kind of fun to have one now on the show.

Geek: Snakes are a popular phobia, but are you ok with them?

Pancholy: I grew up in Florida, so every now and then we’d have a garter snake in the lawn. But I’m not super okay with them. Now that I’ve done this cartoon, maybe I’ll reconsider when I see a snake out on the road. I definitely have my sense of phobia around them, for sure. In Florida you know they’re there but they aren’t the most welcomed neighbors, but Craig is a very special snake, I’d say.

Geek: Were you a kid who had imaginary friends or would give a voice to your pets?

Pancholy: I didn’t grow up with pets; I do have a dog now but I don’t put my voice into him, but I like the idea of that. I do talk to him but he doesn’t really talk back to me. But I was the kind of kid who did fantasy adventure stuff in the same way Sanjay and Craig do. There’s an episode where they’re having a food fight but it turns into a tropical jungle food fight, and they’re throwing watermelons at each other. They might be in a tree but then they’re swinging from vines. I was a kid who did that kind of stuff. I remember living in a pretty small neighborhood where you could play in the streets and run around like crazy. My friends and I would ride our bikes around, but instead of just riding our bikes, we were solving crimes and going out in the woods to see what lay out there. So I have that sense of Sanjay, but I didn’t have a pet so I was lonely that way.

Geek: Is Sanjay a lonely kid?

Pancholy: I don’t think so. He’s got Craig and they’re best buds who will never give up on each other. Every now and then we’ll have an episode where they have to test their friendship but they always come back to each other. He’s also got other neighborhood kids, like Megan and Hector. I don’t think he’s super lonely but he’s in this world where he thrives on building on his imagination.

Geek: What kinds of cartoons did you like as a kid, were you a Nickelodeon kid?

Pancholy: I watched a ton of cartoons growing up but I don’t remember specifically what networks they were on, I’ll be honest. But I did like cartoons as a kid. I remember waking up on Saturday mornings and it was a treat we didn’t have to go to school. We could run into the living room, and we weren’t allowed unlimited cartoon watching, but were allowed cartoon watching on Saturday. So it is very fun to be in that Saturday morning cartoon slot, and hopefully fulfilling that for kids in the way I got that enjoyment out of them. I watched the classics like “Scooby-Doo,” “The Jetsons,” “The Flinstones,” super hero stuff and “He-Man.”

Sanjay and Craig

Geek: Did you record “Sanjay and Craig” as a radio-style ensemble or in isolation?

Pancholy: We’ve done a little bit of both. When we did the pilot, we had almost the entire cast there, which was super fun. Some of us knew each other a little from before, but we got a chance to get to the character and know who everyone is. But we’ve done most of the recording individually. In terms of me, I split my time between L.A. and New York but spend most my time in New York, and I end up doing a lot of it on my own. Chris [Hardwick] and I have done a number of episodes together. I was out in L.A. for a couple months so we did a bunch together, but 50 percent of the time it’s me on my own.

Geek: Since you and Chris play best friends, is it better when you’re recording together?

Pancholy: As an actor, it is extremely satisfying to do it with him. We’ve got this pretty awesome energy that works really well together, and to be able to feed off that in the same room makes the recording process easier. These characters are very heightened; they get easily excited about things and yell their heads off about stuff.  So, to have another person to play off of, screaming in your face – and you scream back at them – is really helpful. But one of the nice things is that now that I’ve done a bunch of them on my own, I do have a sense of who Chris is, and I know the voice and energy better. So it is not super hard to do it without him. But in the beginning it was definitely useful to have him there as we found that relationship.

Geek: What was the dynamic you were going for with that relationship?

Pancholy: They are the ultimate best friends. To bring you back to that theme song, they think of themselves as heroes of their own story. They do everything together and are completely inseparable, but there’s an added element of that – aside from Megan and Hector – no one knows Craig can talk and do all the amazing things he does. So they have a special friendship with a secretive side to it. It is Sanjay’s own best friend, and no one else will ever have that relationship with Craig.

Geek: What makes the humor in the show work for adults as well as kids?

Pancholy: Every now and then there’s a little innuendo that flies over the heads of kids, but there’s also a sense of comedic timing. There’s an intelligence to the jokes, although we have totally gross humor. There’s an episode called “Unbarfable,” where they’re trying to see what the grossest thing is to make their friend, who has never barfed before, have a good vomit. There’s stuff like that that’s baseline humor but also some really intelligent humor and quirky characters.

Geek: As a fan of Jonathan on “30 Rock,” who struck me as quiet but smoldering, it was interesting to see you shouting …

Pancholy: Yeah! They scream a lot. They’re easily excited about stuff and everything’s way over the top. The stuff that’s horrifying is [shouting] “Super Horrifying!” There was an adjustment. I went to a voice teacher I had in drama school and worked with her a little bit because, after the first couple episodes, I was blowing my voice out. It is definitely taxing on the voice but now that we’ve gotten into the characters, the screams are grounded and it has gotten easier on the voice. And my voice has just gotten stronger.  In terms of the acting, there’s a reach into finding a character who sees something before him and instantly shrieks about it because he’s so excited. That’s different than most adult characters I’ve played on television.

Geek: Finally, since you don’t have a pet snake but have a dog, if you found out your dog could speak, would you freak out or are you already somewhat prepared for this?

Pancholy: I’m praying for it! It would be so awesome to come home and have my dog say something to me. I have a feeling he wouldn’t say much more than “feed me, feed me, take me out, take me out, when do we sleep?” But I think I would initially freak out. I wouldn’t have a psychological meltdown but I would have a cosmic, mindblowing experience. And then, a lot like Sanjay, I'd come to thrive on having this dog that (hopefully) could only speak to me. I wouldn’t want to share him with the rest of the world.