UP FROM THE DEPTHS! Martha Humphreys on Writing for Hanna-Barbera’s Animated ‘Godzilla’!

Photo © Martha Humphreys.

Martha Humphreys is a film and television producer and scriptwriter with more than 30 credits to her name. Some of her best-known work includes the TV programs The Bionic Woman, Jason of Star Command, and Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. She also wrote for Hanna-Barbera’s Godzilla (1978-79), which is a familiar topic to readers of this website. These days, Ms. Humphreys makes her living as a writing coach who can help anyone who needs to type as part of his or her daily work. In May 2021, Ms. Humphreys answered Brett Homenick’s questions about her career and contributions to Hanna-Barbera’s Godzilla.

Brett Homenick: What can you tell us about your childhood? Where did you grow up, and what hobbies did you have?

Martha Humphreys: An only child who moved 21 times before marrying a career naval aviator 56 years ago. I spent many hours with my nose in a book, often a comic book — Superman, etc. My father [Walter Scott Driskill] coached football, U[niversity] of Wyoming, U of Oklahoma, U of Maryland, and the Baltimore Colts — so much of my youth was spent on a football bench and in locker rooms. Loved animals, horseback riding, team and individual sports. My Southern mother advised me never to win when playing a boy, or I wouldn’t be popular with the boys. As if…

BH: When did you discover an interest in writing?

MH: At age 10, my ambition was to write a novel about a house and the generations who lived there. My father put the end to that when he told me I had been scooped — The House of the Seven Gables. Since I watched a lot of TV, my ambition shifted to media programming. I’ve always wanted an Oscar for scriptwriting, but I “settled” for an Emmy from a Fat Albert episode, “Sweet Sorrow.”

BH: How did you develop your writing skills?

MH: I wrote my first print commercial for Revlon’s Fire & Ice lipstick at age 16 when we lived in New York City. I wrote other ad copy for [the] Warwick & Legler ad agency and was paid with a French Poodle, a very nice stereo set, tickets to Broadway shows, and all the 45s I wanted. From then on, it’s been trial and error, write, write, write, read, read, read, write some more.

BH: What led to your joining the entertainment industry?

MH: Circumstance. Tom and I were married 56 years ago the day he graduated from the Naval Academy in Annapolis. I had graduated from GW [George Washington University] the week before, and it was off to Paris, France, on his Fulbright Scholarship. My French was painful, so back to reading, reading, and more reading before writing letters to friends at home. Those letters made them laugh, and they encouraged more correspondence. I wrote some short stories for little literary magazines and articles for newspapers [and] commercial magazines during Tom’s service in Vietnam and later California. I went to adult writing courses and papered my guest bathroom with rejection slips.

Tom’s career took him to the Pacific Missile Test Center at Point Mugu, CA. We bought a home in Thousand Oaks, CA. Our neighbors across the street, and dear friends, were Jack and Roz Kirby — yes, that Jack Kirby!

Jack pointed out I could make more money for the same amount of effort I was putting into pitching articles/stories to print publishing in show biz. He asked me to write his autobiography, but he passed before we got past his service in World War II. His genius lives on in his legacy to all animation. And I’m so pleased his daughter and our former babysitter, Lisa, sued — and won — Marvel for Jack’s fair share of the credit and profits!

I continued taking courses, next in scriptwriting at the Sherwood Oaks Experimental College [now known as Sherwood Oaks Film School] in Hollywood. It was founded by brothers, one of whom had made his mark in the film business, and both wanted to provide an affordable graduate education in the film/television business for those who couldn’t afford the time or money to attend USC or AFI.

The cover of the 47-page “Cyborg Whale” script co-written by Martha Humphreys. Photo © Martha Humphreys.

Ron’s classes and seminars were taught by professionals, those who “do.” My mentors, Helen and Al Levitt, blacklisted, award-winning writers, provided excellent advice and entrée into the biz. Helen pointed out that, because I was a woman and not taken seriously — this was the ‘70s — she suggested I team up with a painfully shy classmate, Ted Pedersen, who attended the same classes I did. He was a gifted cartoonist and sci-fi enthusiast. Ted suggested we attend pitch meetings at Filmation Studios for a series they were developing, Space Academy, [a] live-action Saturday morning space adventure. Ted had the visuals and plot points for sci-fi adventures; I had the dialogue and performed well selling the episode log lines to the story editors/producers.

That gig led to several Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids for me. [This was] Bill Cosby’s first venture into television in 1977. “Sweet Sorrow” won the Emmy that year. The first time I met Bill for a story conference on his live-action dialogue at the commercial breaks, he asked me for coffee. He thought I was there to bring him coffee. I replied, “Thanks. I’ll have a cup of high test, nothing in it.” By the way, he was always a perfect gentleman when we worked together — he invited Tom and I to join him for tennis. No one was more shocked than I was when a researcher from Inside Edition called to see if I could confirm any of the nasty rumors that had been circulating for some time.

BH: How did you get hired to write for the Godzilla cartoon series?

MH: I had several gigs writing for daytime dramas, as well as working with Ted in animation, when something we had done caught the eye of producers of animation, and we were invited to pitch stories. Ted handled the action sequences, and I contributed the “human” side of the character interactions.

BH: At the time you worked on the show, how familiar were you with Godzilla?

MH: I am a compulsive researcher, so I knew this was a typical “action” animation — long on action, short on character, theme, morals, and brilliant dialogue. In other words, it was a job.

BH: Which episodes did you write or contribute to?

MH: The script I found in my attic was “[The] Cyborg Whale,” but I remember writing the German submarine [episode], “Ghost Ship,” and, according to IMDb, I had my sticky fingers on most of them. Probably because I was the only woman writing animation at the time, and they needed my “sensitivity” with the character relationships.

BH: Generally speaking, how long would it take to write an episode? How many drafts would there be?

MH: Even though I was a member of the WGAW [Writers Guild of America West] at the time, animation wasn’t covered by the Guild’s rules, which stated, after the pitch was accepted — i.e., we get paid — we produce a treatment, essentially, a short story highlighting the plot points. When that’s accepted with their notes, we go to first draft script, accepted with notes, then second draft script, accepted with notes, then a polish. Each level meant payment. An animation script was longer than live action because it included all the camera angles, directions, and establishing scenes in detail. That’s the part I love about animation — the writer is also the director, i.e., calling the “shots.” From pitch to screening usually took months — much of the drawing took place overseas — Eastern Europe in those days.

BH: Do you remember what kind of rules or restrictions there were for writing for the series, especially for the character of Godzilla? How much freedom did you have to write?

MH: The target audience as children on Saturday morning. Originally, the character Godzilla was a product of the fear of radiation’s aftermath during 1950s Japan, created by a Japanese director/filmmaker to address the anxiety associated with our atomic bomb’s aftermath. This prehistoric beast, considered a giant hibakusha — one affected by radiation from atomic blasts — he served as a reminder of the transformative and destructive power of radiation. Hardly the subject matter for children. Enter Hanna-Barbera, who appreciated the visuals of this monster as a cartoon, but could not use his destructive powers in that context. So the show became monster of the week to be defeated by Godzilla, with the interference of his distant relative Godzooky — the clumsy, inept junior version. As in all series, there were rules.

BH: How did you approach the characters, both the humans and the monsters?

MH: For Saturday morning animation, the word “monster” doesn’t apply — scary doesn’t apply, either. Godzilla really didn’t have a role, and Godzooky’s role was comic relief, and, because of his age and size, the audience could identify with him, as they too were at a clumsy age. I have children and could draw on that experience for his actions, dialogue, reactions, etc.

Inside the “Cyborg Whale” script. Photo © Martha Humphreys.

BH: Why did the series end after the second season?

MH: The usual reason: ROI [return on investment], no advertisers because the audience went elsewhere.

BH: Which was your favorite episode of Godzilla?

MH: “The Ghost Ship,” because the premise interested me — frozen in time, the submariners thought they had won World War [I].

BH: Did you have a favorite enemy monster?

MH: A giant snake, as I’m afraid of worms, even. That would have to be one I created. Pitched the story, as almost everyone I know fears snakes, but the producers felt that was “too scary” for their audience. Today, it wouldn’t be a problem, especially with the SFX technology.

BH: Overall, how would you describe the experience of writing for this cartoon series?

MH: Bluntly, I loved it, as the writer has total creative control of the product. Plot, character, dialogue, and, most important, direction. What appears on the screen is the result of the writer’s storyboard. I read somewhere that Steven Spielberg uses storyboards prior to filming a single shot in 35mm. No, we didn’t get paid what live action paid, no residuals for our work, nor the respect accorded the live action writer, but I appreciated being in charge of the final output.

BH: I understand you have a funny memory about visiting Japan after you worked on the series. Could you tell it?

MH: During a tour of Japan, my husband and I took our guide, Mayumi, out to dinner at a sushi bar frequented by businessmen in Kyoto. She remarked to the men seated at the bar that I had written Godzilla for an American animation television company, and their reaction was priceless. Bowing, “ahhing,” laughter, and rounds of sake for everyone to celebrate the international understanding of one of their cultural icons.

Another animation experience occurred in Italy at a small hotel in a village just to the east of the French border. When our family went to breakfast, our sons pointed at the television where Godzilla was on TV with Italian subtitles — it happened to be one of our scripts the boys remembered from home in SoCal. I had to admit it was disconcerting to listen to my words in Italian from a Japanese monster character.

BH: Do you have any closing comments for readers of this interview?

MH: Thanks to technological advances, the monsters’ visuals are limitless. However, the ability to scare people remains limited by the distance from reality the image represents. Previously, water and snow were taboo settings because we lacked the ability to create realistic images behind the characters. Still, the subtlety in human facial expressions cannot be duplicated in animation, and therefore the drama loses impact regardless of the talents of the director. I’m grateful for the work I did as the only woman writing animation during the twentieth century.

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