Almost 20 years ago, my parents and I were in one of our regular battles about what I was allowed to watch on TV. We had just moved to a new country (England), long before Netflix and Hulu or even the internet had really taken off, so the only way for a kid to figure out what shows they liked was to hope they found one while flipping through the channels. My parents and I were doing just that when I insisted they go back to the channel with the talking cat.
The talking cat was named Salem, and he belonged to the ABC show (and later, CW show) Sabrina the Teenage Witch. It was an adaptation of the Archie comic and starred Melissa Joan Hart as Sabrina Spellman, a 16-year-old half-witch, half-mortal who had to juggle high school and her powers to repeatedly disastrous and kooky consequences. She was often aided by the family cat Salem, who was actually an evil warlock sentenced to spend 100 years as a cat for trying to take over the world. You know, that classic story.
For the next four years, I would watch two episodes of the sitcom every day when they aired after school. When the show dropped in its entirety on Hulu while I was in college, I watched them all again. I love that show! And oh boy, do I love that talking black cat.
I love that cat so much that my first question when I heard Riverdale creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa was adapting the Sabrina comic for Netflix was Will Salem be in the reboot? When Aguirre-Sacasa tweeted a photo of Salem for the first time, I actually cried. After watching the first few episodes of Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina (on Netflix 26th October), however, I must stress that this is not the Salem fans of Sabrina The Teenage Witch will remember. He’s a familiar, a demon, and he’s not voiced by Nick Bakay, the original voice of Salem and one of the masterminds behind his enduring appeal (this new Salem doesn’t talk at all).
Bakay is not involved in the Netflix show. Instead, it stars a brand-new cast of young faces, like Kiernan Shipka as Sabrina and Ross Lynch as her boyfriend Harvey Kinkle. Still, to this day, Bakay’s Salem pops up in the form of memes and funny screengrabs. What makes him so memeable is that he’s rarely played by an actual cat. For the most part, Salem is an animatronic puppet that goes to only minor pains to look like a real feline. For .5 seconds an episode, a real cat is used to show Salem running or jumping, but the Salem fans most likely remember is actually one of five puppets seated it its signature spot on the Spellman kitchen counter, wearing various costumes and making offhand sardonic and ridiculous comments.
Sabrina the Teenage Witch may have ended in 2003, but Salem lives on, and I wanted to know what Bakay thought about Sabrina Spellman returning to the screen. In a conversation that my 8 year-old self would absolutely scream to hear about, he and I discussed what made the original Sabrina the Teenage Witch so special, his hopes for the Netflix adaptation, and if the sitcom will ever get its much-deserved reboot.
Refinery29: How did you become the voice of Salem?
Nick Bakay: “The series did not do a traditional pilot. They had done a movie version of it for Showtime. Other than Melissa, it was very different and certainly not a multi-cam sitcom. I got hired to write on it first. I had done a lot of voice acting, and at that very time I was also the voice of Norbert on the cartoon The Angry Beavers,. They sold the pilot off of a pitch tape of scenes from the Showtime version, but they were gonna completely redo it, rewrite, recast. I was already in there working on it, and they were looking for voices. They had me read for it, and I got it. It was an inside job.”
The cat was animatronic, but were you on set? How often were you hanging out with the rest of the cast?
“You know, we didn’t do that show in front of a live audience because of all the special effects, so we would do three pretty long shoot days on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. Whenever the cat was in a scene I would check out of the writers room and go down and do the voice live on stage. There was a crew of puppeteers, and Thom Fountain was the name of the head puppeteer who also worked the mouth. He and I got a very great rhythm going. It was really a collaboration to get that cat in a scene. I would be off set with a boom mic over me just doing the scene live with the actors. So I interacted a lot.”
In some scenes Salem was a real cat, and in some scenes he was a puppet, and there were many versions of the puppet. How many Salems were there?
“I know that there were two completely different animatronic puppet-building operations that did versions of the cat at different phases. There was the laying on the bed one, the sitting up on the kitchen counter one. I bet there were five or six at least, and they weren’t cheap, even though they were never very convincing.
“I think it was season 1, ABC was not a big fan of the puppet, so you see more live cat. There was a lot of the cat sitting at the table with everyone and not saying much, and then they would have the live cat jump off the table for the blow of the scene, and it would always look like the joke was coming out of the cat’s ass. Then that kind of relaxed, and the popularity of the character became evident, and then, of course, it was live and animatronic but there were certainly no limitations. But there was a testing-it-out phase early on.”
Were any of Salem’s lines improved, and do you have a favourite Salem-ism?
“Oh gosh, there were improvised ones just because I was down there. There are tons of blooper reels from that show. You know, I’m so far removed from when we were doing the show. I wish I could give you a favourite. There were tons of them, and they’re kind of lost in my memory now. There are a lot of memes and a lot of Salem’s greatest hits compilation tapes. They’re all pretty good.”
How aware are you of Salem’s continued popularity?
Nick Bakay: “I’m not a super heavy Twitter participant or Facebook, but I get a ton of feedback. We were reunited at the Stan Lee Comic Con, I think it was last year, and that was really something because a huge crowd turned out. Honestly it’s weird. That show owned a generation, I think particularly of girls. I still get great feedback from it. It’s really been fascinating.”
Are you surprised that people still talk about him? Why do you think he’s endured?
“I am surprised because you can never bank on something having longevity, especially with how disposable pop culture is. But if you think about it, this is back when there were not quite so many channels. Also, like I said, I felt like every girl of a certain age in America was watching that show. I feel like there’s just a generation that the cat means a lot to. I’ve often joked I could run for president because the subliminal sound of my voice would get me a lot of votes.”
At this point, why not have Salem run for president?
“Yeah, I couldn’t do worse. But it’s really wonderful, and frankly I also think it’s a great character. The circumstances of this power-mad witch who’s reduced to a house pet and his dreams being crushed and his frustrations...The puppet can say anything. We had so many things working in our favour. Who wouldn’t want a cat hanging around in their bedroom whom we can confide in? There’s so much that’s great about the whole cocktail of that character.”
What were your thoughts when you heard Netflix was making a new version of Sabrina? How did you think Salem would appear in it?
“From the earliest that I heard of it, I knew it was a dark reimagining. When I heard that, I knew I [wasn’t going to be] involved. I get it. I haven’t watched Riverdale, but if they pulled this thing off with Archie, I’m sure they can pull it off with the premise of Sabrina, perhaps even better.
“Nobody loves to see something come along and sort of stomp on your legacy, [but] on the other hand it seems like it’s going to be so innately different that I think there’s room for both. We obviously still exist in our little universe, this sweet TGIF show. We really worked hard to make a show that you could watch with your kids and never be made uncomfortable. It’s just such a different agenda. I certainly wish them well. I will be intrigued to watch it. But you’re breaking the news to me that the cat doesn’t talk.”
This new version is dark and much more about the typical folklore of witches. There’s definitely room for both.
“I’m really happy to hear that because I think that it would be difficult. I think that cat’s voice and personality in our show, which was so snide... I don’t know how that would have fit into it. I think it’s probably a really good move. I think the talking cat was so much a part of the funny Sabrina that it might have been a little weird to try and reinterpret and have it voiced by, I have no idea, Leonardo DiCaprio, or somebody.”
They have the Salem the cat character, and then there’s Sabrina’s cousin Ambrose, who kind of takes on a similar personality, although obviously he’s not a cat. He’s been sentenced to house arrest with her aunts.
“Like the bad influence and the snideness...I think for the genre they’re building these seem like they’re pretty good choices, I have to say. How is the girl from Mad Men as Sabrina?”
She’s very good! I was actually really skeptical of this reboot at first...but then they cast Kiernan Shipka and I was on board. What have you been up to since Sabrina? Have you voiced any more talking cats?
“After the fourth season of Sabrina I moved on to being a producer on King Of Queens, so then I would just go in and loop the cat for the last three seasons, which I think are the CW seasons. But my bread and butter has always been writing shows, so I did a bunch of years on King Of Queens, I wrote the Paul Blart Mall Cop movies with Kevin James and then I bounced around some other shows. In recent years I wrote on Two And A Half Men, and I’ve been executive producer of the CBS show Mom for...we’re in our sixth season, and I’ve been here from day one. That’s the big stuff. I did also consult on a new Netflix show called The Kominsky Method. I’ve had a really busy plate as a writer.”
Would you be interested in a reboot of Sabrina the Teenage Witch (the sitcom)? Have you ever talked about getting the cast together again?
“Having talked and hung out all day at the convention with everyone [in 2017], I have no doubt that everyone would love to do it again. Personally, it was one of my favourite experiences, and I know I’m not alone in that. Every time the topic comes up, what I’m not clear on is who owns it now. I know that Paula Hart was the driving force behind our version of it, and frankly I don’t know the business, the politics of it. You look at the way Fuller House has scored and tell me Sabrina wouldn’t be that level. I just know it. It’s kind of the perfect reboot, but something tells me it’s not that simple.”
Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina lands on Netflix 26th October.
Interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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