The creator of Danger & Eggs pulls from childhood phobias for the Emmy-winning show.
No Humpty Dumpty cracks, please: Phillip the Egg, the animated creation of Mike Owens ’97, wouldn’t be caught dead lingering sleepily on the edge of a high wall. Neurotic Phillip is decidedly proactive in his safety stance in Danger & Eggs, an Amazon Prime hit that picked up a Daytime Emmy in 2018 for outstanding directing.
Pulled from the creative well of Owens’ childhood, Phillip took shape in 2003 in an animated short that began more adult than its present-day program for kids six to 11. That journey, about 15 years in total, now finds the 45-year-old Owens leading a team of directors into a third season of Danger & Eggs from his home in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
A self-described “Saturday morning kid,” Owens grew up in the Appalachian Mountains of western Pennsylvania watching the likes of Bugs Bunny and Tom and Jerry. Curious about the cartoons’ creative mechanics, he checked out library books exclusively about animation and magic.
The cartoons provided an escape. “I was a very fearful kid,” Owens says. “Afraid of water, wind, dirt, bugs, just everything. My mom was an emergency room nurse, so I heard a lot about the worst things possible that could happen in the world. But she also taught me about dressing a wound, being prepared, and the importance of staying calm in emergency situations.”
Phillip came spinning out of that fear. The offspring of Becky, a Godzilla-sized chicken who trampled everything in her path, Phillip spends his days preaching safety tips to atone for his mother’s destruction. “Phillip was the most fragile character I could think of,” says Owens, pointing to the small crack in his head covered by a band-aid, but generally unseen under his bicycle helmet.
“The heart of Phillip’s design and personality holds true to the original idea, but the show evolved over time,” says Owens, who first created the character as a freelancer and developed him with other artists at Puny Entertainment in Minnesota.
Part of the evolution included collaboration with Splendid Things, a Minneapolis-based improv group. The short was pitched as a show to Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, and elsewhere. One development executive suggested that Owens and co-creator Shadi Petosky develop a sidekick. They came up with D.D. Danger, Phillip’s fearless buddy (somewhat based on Owens’ adventurous sisters). Voiced (coincidentally) by Columbia alumna Aidy Bryant ’09, D.D. is more friend than foil to Phillip. Both accept and support each other in episodes that are (as the theme song says) “kind of hard to explain.”
The path to winning an Emmy took longer than the group’s long walk from their perched seats in a Hollywood balcony. In the early 1990s, Owens discovered Columbia College Chicago’s animation program after starting as a film major at Penn State University. He followed one sister, then studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, who effectively cleared the way to the big city.
At Columbia, Owens learned from working professionals who made his animation dreams seem possible. In fact, his biggest break may have been his first—an internship leading to a full-time position at StarToons in Homewood, Illinois, where he worked on Animaniacs. In more than two professional decades, he’s put his animated talents to work for Amazon, Nickelodeon, Disney, Cartoon Network, Comedy Central, Warner Brothers, Ambush Entertainment, General Mills, IFC, and Yo Gabba Gabba.
Owens further tested his comfort zone by accepting a teaching position in India. “StarToons started an overseas production studio called Heart Animation,” he says. “I volunteered to help set up the curriculum and taught about 300 students.”
The experience of teaching abroad, for a young man who had never even been to Canada, changed everything. “It was a huge culture shock in the greatest possible way,” he says. “I still talk to a lot of those students, some of whom have gone on to win Oscars.”
The Emmy opens doors to pitch new projects. Owens, who also collaborates with his sound designer wife Wendie Owens ’93, has a few ideas he’s currently juggling. And that can be a scary prospect for any creative person. But he has a lot in common with his creation, Phillip: He’s facing those fears head on, however cautiously.
Knowing the world is bigger than your hometown, Owens—and his show— encourage everyone to explore. “Going to Chicago was terrifying for me,” he says. “Going to India was terrifying. I just gradually worked my concentric circles farther away from home.”