It’s the busiest time of the year at the Southern branch office of the North Pole but even Elf on the Shelf co-creator Chanda Bell took time out to watch that very naughty Saturday Night Live sketch last weekend, starring Aquaman actor Jason Momoa as one of her iconic snitches for Santa.
“When Saturday Night Live feels that Elf on the Shelf is so ingrained in our culture that they do an entire sketch based on it and people get it, that’s a moment when you sit down for a second and say, ‘Wow, we did it!’” Bell says laughing.
Created in 2005 by Bell, her twin sister Christa Pitts, and their mother Carol Aebersold, and based on the Marietta family’s longstanding tradition involving an elf named Fisbee, Elf on the Shelf has grown into a global phenomenon, now employing 80 full-time Santa helpers on the two floors of their company HQ near Cumberland Mall.
This includes the nine animators who are now creating original content for the company, the latest offering, Elf Pets: Santa’s St. Bernards Save Christmas, airing on Cartoon Network, TBS, TNT and debuting on DVD this holiday season. This being from the creators of Elf on the Shelf, there’s also an accompanying story book and adorable plush toy that kids can adopt and name by interacting with the company’s website and mobile apps.
Among the new employees bringing writer-director Bell’s visions of the North Pole to life: former Turner Broadcasting director and vice-president Amy Lovett and Scout Elf Productions art director Joe Peery, who’s perhaps best known for his work on Archer and the Re/Visioned: Tomb Raider animated series.
“Amy had exactly the kind of background and expertise we needed and Joe, who’s been working in Atlanta since the 1980s, does these amazing storyboards,” explains Bell. “I’m really a storyteller at heart but together, we form a power team.”
Peery also worked on the 2011 inaugural animated TV special An Elf’s Story: The Elf on the Shelf. But like the evolution of Pixar’s successful Toy Story franchise, the animation in Santa’s St. Bernards Save Christmas looks richer and feels more immersive.
The story of Santa’s St. Bernards was inspired by a trip Bell, along with her sister and mother, made to the top of the Swiss Alps shortly after the death of her father. Bell was inspired by a Saint Bernard dog rescuer named Barry (honored in the St. Bernard Dog Museum) who worked beside local priests to find people lost in the area’s severe snowstorms in the 1800s.
Says Bell: “I began thinking, ‘Could these warm, caring, loving St. Bernards have a link to St. Nicholas?’ That’s when I knew I had the story.”
Still, the book and the animated special’s message of encouraging children to engage in acts of kindness feels more relevant than ever this holiday season, if Tuesday’s Oval Office bipartisan shouting match in Washington is any indication of how some adults are role modeling these days.
“When we came up with this story three years ago, we had no idea this story would resonate as much as it is,” concedes Bell. “But kids get it. They know what kind of a time it is right now, and that if the characters they love can make a difference, so can they.”
For Bell, who grew up watching How The Grinch Stole Christmas and A Charlie Brown Christmas, the creative bar is high. Her goal for the new animation department arm of Creatively Classic Activities and Books (CCA & B, LLC) is to offer a new North Pole animated special annually (a new cartoon and accompanying plush toy and book are already in the North Pole pipeline for Christmas 2019). “I want our animated specials to be loved and last as long as the Grinch and Charlie Brown have been for me,” says Bell. “The North Pole is the Greek mythology of our time. We want to tell all of Santa’s stories. Some people might say that what we put out isn’t flashy or fast-paced, but it’s not meant to be. It’s meant to be family entertainment, full of heart, goodwill, and cheer.”
And even if that hilariously tawdry SNL sketch was decidedly a bit off-brand for the family behind Elf on the Shelf, one message was clear to Chanda Bell. “Thirteen years ago, we maxed out a credit card and were selling Elf on a Shelf out of the backs of our cars,” Bell remembers. “Now, it’s on Saturday Night Live. It feels like we’ve arrived!”