BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — It was the biggest night of the year for children’s entertainment, and some of Nickelodeon’s top stars from across generations had gathered to honor Dan Schneider, the man who made them famous.
“You not only changed all of our lives — you changed kids’ TV,” said Victoria Justice, the star of “Victorious,” as Schneider prepared to accept Nickelodeon’s first and only Lifetime Achievement Award.
Schneider was at the peak of his powers as he took the stage at that 2014 Kids’ Choice Awards, surrounded by a throng of teenage stars. He had enjoyed an unparalleled run as a Nickelodeon writer and showrunner, helping define the network for two decades with hits like “All That,” “The Amanda Show,” “Drake & Josh,” “Zoey 101,” “Victorious,” and, perhaps his most iconic show, “iCarly.”
His rapid-fire Twitter account quieted. He only rarely made public appearances. And although the announcement that was made when he parted ways with Nickelodeon suggested he would pursue “other opportunities and projects,” for years there were no indications that Schneider, a hit maker who had helped define comedy for Millennials and Gen Z, had any new shows on the way.
This month, when Nickelodeon Studios released its reboot of “iCarly” for the Paramount+ streaming platform, it did so without Schneider, a decision that rekindled the mystery of why a figure at the height of his industry would vanish from the airwaves.
But now interviews with former co-workers, friends and television executives paint a much fuller picture of his departure, his strengths and his weaknesses. They revealed that although Schneider was a hitmaker with an ear for the teen and tween vernacular and humor, he could be difficult to work with. It turns out that, before the announcement about his separation, ViacomCBS, the parent company of Nickelodeon, had investigated Schneider and found that, alongside the many co-workers who praised his attention to detail and work ethic, many people he worked with viewed him as verbally abusive.
Schneider, in his first major interview since the split with Nickelodeon, declined to comment on the investigation. But he defended his leadership style, denied he left on bad terms and described his departure as a natural confluence of events after an “exhausting” period in which he delivered as many as 50 episodes of shows each year.
“I took a break to take care of a lot of stuff that I’d let go by the wayside for decades,” Schneider said, noting that he lost more than 100 pounds during his time off. “Whatever I do next, I want it to outdo what I’ve done in the past.”
The Viacom review came amid internet chatter that trafficked in innuendo about the appropriateness of Schneider’s presence in the world of children’s entertainment.
Online denizens posted compilations that stitched together scenes from Schneider’s shows, videos he has taken on set and pictures of him with child actors, to raise questions about his behavior with the young people he worked with. Shots in the shows of bare feet were presented as evidence of a fetish. Other scenes were dissected and discussed as scripted moments of wink-wink sexual innuendo, acted out by a teenage cast.
Schneider said he was well aware of the postings, which he described as “ridiculous.” He said it was sad that social media companies can freely push forward “any lie.” Kids find feet goofy and funny, he said, and there was no effort to sexualize his young stars.
“The comedy,” he said, “was totally innocent.”
But the internet noise had garnered the attention of Schneider’s bosses by 2018, when the #MeToo movement had arrived.
ViacomCBS interviewed dozens of employees, according to four people with knowledge of the review who said they were not authorized to discuss it. The review found no evidence of sexual misconduct by Schneider, the people said, but it did find he could be verbally abusive to people he worked with.
Some former colleagues, in recent interviews, said they found him a controlling, difficult showrunner, prone to tantrums and angry emails — a man with a delicate ego who made some staff members feel as though they were always walking on eggshells. Several said they felt uncomfortable when he frequently asked an employee from the costume department for shoulder and neck massages, or texted child actors outside of work hours.
Schneider said he never acted inappropriately with people with whom he worked. “I couldn’t, and I wouldn’t have the long-term friendships and continued loyalty from so many reputable people if I’d mistreated my actors of any age, especially minors,” he said.
And he said that if people perceived him as “difficult,” it was because he has “high standards.”
“I’m very willing to defend creative things that I believe in,” he said.
To understand the void left when Schneider departed Nickelodeon, one has to consider the heights to which he helped propel the network. Schneider and the network grew up together, some of his former colleagues said, building a space for children and family programming from essentially nothing into the highest-rated network on basic cable TV.
Schneider’s body of work for Nickelodeon tended to be fast-paced, gag-filled laugh-track sitcoms that punctuated plot lines about friendship and adolescent exploits with jokes that were goofy and outlandish enough to get laughs out of tweens. From the dancing lobsters in “The Amanda Show” to the spaghetti tacos of “iCarly,” Schneider’s shows helped shape Nickelodeon’s comedy kingdom into a world where kids appeared to have the power to make their wildest thoughts into reality.
“There’s a certain musical cadence to sitcom acting,” said Yvette Nicole Brown, who played Helen on “Drake & Josh.” “Dan just hears the music.”
Comedy had long been a tool for Schneider, now 57, who grew up in Memphis, surrounded by what he described as a warm and funny family. By age 7, Schneider said that he was the most overweight student in his class and saw comedy as a road to acceptance.
“I wouldn’t be thought of as the fattest kid in the class if they thought I was the funniest kid in the class,” he said.
Academics were not Schneider’s strong suit. His preferred teachers growing up were TV writers like Susan Harris, Larry Gelbart and Carl Reiner, and he studied their work intently. After returning home from a brief stint in Boston and taking a job repairing Apple computers, he managed to land a part in a movie, “Making the Grade,” that did its casting in Memphis.
He was later cast in the ’80s sitcom “Head of the Class” along with Brian Robbins, who is now the president of kids and family entertainment for ViacomCBS. By the late 1980s, Schneider had been recruited to co-host the second ever Kids’ Choice Awards with Robbins and had developed a friendship with Albie Hecht, who, at the time, was involved in comedy development at Nickelodeon. Schneider and Robbins would end up working together in the 1990s on “All That” — an “S.N.L.”-style sketch comedy show for kids that Robbins cocreated. “All That” originally ran for 10 seasons and, over the years, featured actors like Kenan Thompson, Kel Mitchell, Amanda Bynes and Jamie Lynn Spears.
Tracy Katsky, a former Nickelodeon executive who worked with Schneider during the height of “iCarly’s” popularity years later, said he was a rare adult who fully understood how to write for kids. He refused to rely on wordplay, she said, because he knew that segments of his audience would not understand it.
Schneider himself said he would often ask his young actors directly whether they thought a joke in the script was funny.
“The network knew, no matter how much they wanted the show to be a hit, they knew I wanted it more,” he said.
Many of Schneider’s allies said he reminds them in some ways of a big kid — one who respects his young viewers as his equals and who was uniquely (and profitably) able to tap into what they would find funny. He is a fan of “Star Trek,” and has a penchant for timepieces and vintage lunchboxes. He is obsessed with his pets, and even had his pet rabbit Cookie ferried from Los Angeles to San Diego so that the rabbit could receive medical care from a particular veterinarian.
Schneider’s blog and YouTube channel from when he was Nickelodeon’s star showrunner captured the way he would interact with teenage actors and young fans of the show — like he was of their generation. He posted a video of him spooking the “iCarly” actress Miranda Cosgrove as she walked into a room, as well as one of Justice as he cajoles her into eating a sardine; on his blog, he would share “fun facts” about his episodes and solicit comments from fans (while routinely reminding them to “be nice” to one another in the forum).
But some people who worked on Schneider’s shows, and asked for anonymity because they said they feared reprisal from him, said they viewed his chumminess with his young actors as awkward and odd for a powerful, middle-aged showrunner. Several recalled that he often spent time during the work day interacting with young fans online and, after work, texting child actors about silly matters of teenage internet life.
Was it research? A desire to be popular? Former crew members recalled that Justice’s character had a locker on the set of “Victorious” decorated with photos of young men, alongside the words “dudealicious” and “who’s hot?” One of the photos was a headshot of a young Dan Schneider.
Schneider said the locker decoration was likely added by someone in the art department and that it was never his goal as a showrunner to be popular or recognized. As for interacting with fans online, he said that he did so “only in very public ways” that were fully transparent to his colleagues. Among the teenage actors on his shows, he added, texting was often the preferred mode of communication.
“I never interacted with actors in any way, texting or otherwise, that should make anyone uncomfortable,” he said.
Former crew members also said Schneider seemed to imagine himself as the king of Nick on Sunset, the network’s former soundstage. He had a private bathroom next to the one most other staff members used. Three former colleagues recalled occasions when staff members pushed him from one room to another in a roller chair so that he could keep working en route.
Other former colleagues described him as a workaholic, prone to yelling, who expected associates to work 16- or 20-hour days alongside him and writers to work on weekends at his home.
“I will always be grateful to Dan for taking a chance on me as a rash young writer fresh out of college, and for all I learned over the next six years,” said Arthur Gradstein, who worked as a writer and producer with Schneider across four shows. “Much of my experience with him was a blast: He could be generous and validating, and it was exciting to be around his talent and passion for creating entertainment.”
“But he was also unreasonably demanding, controlling, belittling and vindictive,” Gradstein continued, “with a wilful disregard for boundaries or workplace appropriateness.”
Some of Schneider’s former colleagues lamented that Hollywood has long been a tough place to work — an ecosystem where a successful, creative showrunner like Schneider could wield vast power and sometimes get a pass for managing in unproductive ways. The difference, they said, was that Schneider brought his style to bear on children’s television.
But several of Schneider’s former colleagues, including Brown and Katsky, said they never saw him lose his cool. They credited him with a zealous attention to detail and said his refusal to compromise or settle was what made his shows so popular. While some producers might use a simple cellphone prop, for example, Schneider asked his production team to design a “PearPhone,” a parody of Apple devices that were then used in some of Schneider’s shows.
“I know some people, they’ll say, ‘He’s tough,’” said Lauren Levine, a former Nickelodeon executive who worked closely with Schneider on the TV movie “Merry Christmas, Drake & Josh.” “To me it was never tough for tough sake. He has a vision that he wants to make happen.”
“It was never ego in my experience,” she added. “It was always what serves the show.”
Schneider disputed the accounts that depicted him as an entitled or harsh boss. He said the bathrooms in or near his office were used by others, the work hours were standard for the industry and that if he had ever been pushed around in a chair, “it would have only been as a joke.”
If his emails sounded “frustrated or impatient,” he said, it was likely because he was early on in his career as a producer and was trying to make his shows a success.
“Over the years, I’ve grown and matured as a producer and leader,” he said. “I’m sure I’m better and more gentle at communicating today.”
These days, after his three-year hiatus, Schneider seems set on returning to television and reintroducing his brand of comedy to new audiences. During a three-hour interview at the Beverly Hills Hotel, he discussed the state of children’s television and his plan to bring forward an “ambitious and very different” pilot that he has written and sold to another network.
The new show is aimed at “more of an adult audience,” he said, and he should know by the end of July whether it has been greenlit. He is working simultaneously on other projects in development, including one pilot meant for kids and their families.
He said he bears no ill will toward Nickelodeon, and says he wishes everyone involved with the “iCarly” revival “the best.”
But even as he looked to the future, Schneider, in the interview, considered his legacy, a period of time when his name was “all over” the credits of the many hit shows.
“I don’t want to be an old man some day,” he said, “and look it up and see some episode of one of the shows I did and go, ‘ugh,’ and be disappointed in myself.”
Brooks Barnes, John Koblin and Emily Steel contributed reporting. Alain Delaquérière contributed research.