When he conceived of Arthur all those years ago while putting his young son to bed, Marc Brown never imagined that the oddball character – a bespectacled aardvark — would become such a big deal.
Brown had just lost a job he really loved –teaching art at Garland Junior College in Boston – and he was in no mood to tell a funny bedtime story, but his son insisted.
“That’s where my life turned,” Brown says. “Sometimes the things that are most painful can be the most rewarding.”
Rewarding indeed. “Arthur,” the series of children’s books Brown writes and illustrates, has sold millions of copies, and the public television series it spawned kicks off its 20th year Monday, making it TV’s longest-running children’s animated series. Produced by WGBH, “Arthur” is broadcast in over 80 countries and tallies 7 million viewers a month. Not bad.
But Brown, who lived for several years in Hingham and now splits his time between Manhattan and Martha’s Vineyard, doesn’t take success for granted. He and a team of writers still try to find smart, timely story lines for Arthur, Binky, Buster, Francine, and the series’ other anthropomorphic creatures. (In a nod to the popular “Serial” podcast, a new episode of the “Arthur” TV show is called “Cereal” and has Buster launching a podcast to uncover the truth about a missing cereal box.)
“Arthur” has by now become something of a cultural institution, which can be both good and bad. Chance the Rapper has recorded a soulful version of the “Arthur” opening theme, which Brown adores. (“It is so beautiful, so dreamy,” he says.) But there has also been a proliferation in recent months of crude, sexually suggestive memes with images taken from ‘‘Arthur.” A WGBH spokesperson recently commented on the trend, saying the network is “disappointed” that some of the memes are “outside of good taste.’’
But Brown takes a different view.
“My granddaughter makes me aware of things on social media,” says the 70-year-old author. “I have to take it as a compliment. People grew up with these characters and they’re working out some of their issues with these characters. I believe in free speech. Everyone is allowed to say what they think.”
What an “Arthur” thing to say.