You might call My Cat From Hell (Saturdays, 8 p.m.) Animal Planet’s answer to Dog Whisperer. The show stars Jackson Galaxy (yes, that’s right), a pierced, tattooed, self-described cat behaviorist who helps couples tame their nightmare felines. These cats pee on furniture, yowl through the night, beat up fellow pets and draw blood from their owners’ skin. Armed with a guitar case full of cat toys, Galaxy swoops in to assess the problem, give owners homework and achieve a solution.
When it premiered in 2011, the show became something of a punchline for late-night talk show hosts, who half-mocked, half-marveled at this man who communed with cats and called himself a musician by night, cat behaviorist by day. Four seasons later, something is clearly working. The number of episodes goes up each season, and in April the show aired its most-watched episode ever, "Penny Hates Puck."
So what’s the formula for success on a cat-training show? We talked to Animal Planet President Marjorie Kaplan and executive producer JD Roth, whose Eyeworks USA produces the show, for insights on producing a successful animal series and compelling reality TV in general.
Sometimes an idea sounds great on paper but not-so-great to marketing departments. While there’s a time and a place for prudence, Kaplan also believes in "appropriate risk-taking." Case in point: the show’s catchy title. "You’re pretty crazy in this world—where you need to generate ad revenue—to put the word hell in the show title," she says. "It was smart from a ratings perspective but that’s a risky decision." If there’s any lingering doubt about the payoff, just think about all the channel-surfers who’ve probably paused at Animal Planet based solely on the show’s title.
Roth likes to kick off each episode with scenes of cats at their craziest—scratching, biting, hissing, you name it. He cites Hoarders as another show that opens with good hooks: "You tune in and that first [moment] of watching them walk into their house with all that stuff—you’re like oh my god, how is that possible?" Transfixed by the horror of it all, viewers can’t help but stay tuned for a resolution.
The first thing Roth and Kaplan will tell you is that My Cat From Hell isn’t just a show about demon cats—it’s about the emotional upheaval these cats cause in average American households. Cats may be the hook, but it’s high-stakes human drama that keeps audiences coming back. "A cat can break up a marriage, it can end relationships, it has siblings fighting with each other," Roth says. In some cases, it’s also a matter of life or death for the cat. "If Jackson cannot solve this problem, that cat’s going to maybe go to a kill shelter," Kaplan says.
When Roth first met Jackson Galaxy, he was caught off guard. "You didn’t know whether he was going to take care of your cat or rob your house, and I thought that was pretty interesting," Roth says, alluding to Jackson’s look. Just like Walter White is not your typical drug kingpin and Dexter is not your typical serial killer, Galaxy is not your typical cat person—and bucking stereotypes grabs a viewer’s attention. "Here’s this guy who is this complete opposite of what you’d expect, and opposites have always worked for me."
Audiences are always on the lookout for change and growth in a TV character, whether it’s Don Draper or a hellish cat. Says Roth, "You show the problem, you show how to fix it, and then you try to get the coverage for how the cat has changed and how the relationship for the owners has changed." Stories about transformation are not only satisfying — they also offer life lessons. "I think people want to learn," says Roth, who also produces Extreme Weight Loss and The Biggest Loser. "They want takeaway information. Sometimes you think maybe I can use that information on my other animal, or even on my kid."
If a story doesn’t turn out the way you expected, embrace the outcome—because audiences can tell when you’re fudging. If a cat doesn’t improve or a contestant doesn’t lose enough weight, that doesn’t mean the episode is a failure. In fact, sometimes the characters in a story need to fail in order to make the triumphs more meaningful. "I always try to run towards the story that we’re given and be honest about it," Roth says. "I think the audiences always repay you by recognizing the honesty in the show and then they watch it."
There are many formulas for creative success. Your job is to find the formula that suits you best—because creativity is that much easier if you’re working on a project that’s a natural extension of you. For Roth, that means producing shows that help transform people’s lives. "You look at a show like Jersey Shore," he explains. "I can’t watch it. I respect what it’s done and how popular it is, and I know SallyAnn [Salsano] who created that show—and that show is her! She’s a Jersey girl and she’s loud and can make anyone smile. That is the show she should be making. And these shows are me. Helping people and helping people change their lives is the only thing I’m good at. Since I was a kid I was the one in the neighborhood everyone went to to try and fix their problems. So if I wasn’t doing television shows about it, I would still be helping people fix their problems. And that’s unique to me."
What are you reading in the newspaper? What piques your interest on the way to work? Don’t let those daily moments of curiosity pass you by—follow up on them. That’s how Roth found Jackson Galaxy. He read about Galaxy in his local newspaper and, curious to know what a cat behaviorist does, he arranged a meeting. He instantly knew he had the makings of a TV show.
Never rest on your laurels, even if your project is a hit. "We kind of think of shows as always in development," says Kaplan. "So even when they’re in production they’re in development." Her goal is to make each season better than the last one, whether it’s by doing consumer research or trying out new locations for the show. Kaplan says their cat-and-couple casting has gotten sharper each season—with a better eye for TV-worthy drama.
After nearly four seasons, Kaplan says they’ve developed a keener sense for what types of stories appeal to fans. "We’ve looked and said these kinds of stories are the most successful kinds of stories: These kinds of relationship problems being caused by a problematic cat. Or when there’s a cat and a dog in the house, hm, that’s kind of interesting." Animal Planet recently announced a new show called My Tiny Terrier—and it was partly inspired by the success of My Cat From Hell episodes that featured tiny dogs. "It’s about looking and seeing and saying what can we pull forward?"