The March 23 debut of Doc McStuffins will mark the evolution of Disney Jr. from a programming block into a standalone, 24-hour network, having narrowed the ratings gap with rival Nickelodeon for viewers 2 to 11. It also marks the culmination of a four-year process wherein TV writer and producer Chris Nee conceived and produced a show about a young girl who plays doctor, talking to and healing her ailing toys—a twist on Disney’s Toy Story franchise. That process led Nee to Ireland, where she teamed up with Oscar-nominated animators at Brown Bag Films and applied her experiences in children’s TV (Bill Cosby’s Little Bill, Blue’s Clues) and reality TV (Deadliest Catch, The Real Roseanne Show) to create a sophisticated, CG-animated series that doesn’t talk down to kids.
Here, Nee tells Co.Create about the beliefs that drove her will to innovate in the preschool entertainment arena, which resulted in Doc McStuffins.
Preschoolers Can Handle Surprisingly Complex Storytelling
"The idea in preschool programming has been—and I know this because I’ve written for a lot of these shows—this idea that everything needs to be simplified to a point that every kid is going to get it on the first viewing," explains Nee. "You often hear this refrain, that you can only have one idea per episode, or one emotion per episode. And kids love those." They’re called interactive shows, which halt the storytelling to speak directly to the viewer and ask a question. "We know kids respond to that, those shows are great. There is a huge place for that programming, but I think [programming only interactive shows] shortchanges kids."
Nee knows from personal experience that preschoolers can handle more. "I see my 5-year-old go from a little foot-stomping temper tantrum to saying the sweetest thing you’ve ever heard, to hysterical laughter—usually at a poop joke at this age—and back, in a period of five minutes. Kids this age are wonderfully complicated. I don’t sit down and say, I’m writing for 2- to 7-year-olds right now. I try to create a strong world, with strong characters who you are going to believe, but who also have real flaws. I think the flaws allow you to also let them have their heart on their sleeve and not feel too sweet, and saccharine."
Everything You Need To Know About Characters You Can Learn From Sesame Street
Early in her career, she traveled the world for Sesame International, helping to shape versions of Sesame Street in Finland, Mexico, Jordan, and Israel. "Sesame Street’s characters were so defined you could do a personality test off of them. What characters do you like? Well, I’m a Grover and a Prairie Dawn…which is a really weird combination, and it says everything about me. That’s who I am, and that’s who I love. And the fact that they had characters like Prairie Dawn…that’s part of what brings you back to that world."
"I wanted Doc McStuffins to be Cheers for preschoolers," says Nee, who created a world in which Doc’s toys are a group of friends with well-defined personalities, like the hypochondriac snowman. "He always thinks something’s wrong with him. He always thinks he’s melting, and they have to remind him he’s stuffed. He always thinks he’s lost his legs, and they have to remind him he doesn’t have legs. Ultimately storytelling is storytelling, and I don’t see that it’s fundamentally different for preschoolers than for adults. I mean, obviously for preschool we’re not doing Game of Thrones. That has a particularly complicated backstory."
You Don’t Have to Be Able to Draw to Make an Animated Children’s Series
"There are storyboard-driven shows and script-driven shows," says Nee, who grew up loving script-driven ones, like Recess and Pinky and the Brain. "There are shows I cannot work on, because you have to be able to draw. You have to be part of the storyboard process. But on those other ones, a lot of the writers don’t really draw. There are a few who really can’t draw more than a stick figure, and I’m one of them. I literally can’t communicate at all in drawing, which is one of the hard things about the show being [animated] in Ireland. My way of communicating with animators is physical. I act out what I’m thinking. I show the facial expression. You know, when you bite into something that’s really sour and you make that face. And they go, oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, and they draw it."
And You Don’t Have to Be a Man (Though For a While It Felt That Way)
"I was never deterred by (the lack of drawing skills)," she says. "The fact that you didn’t see women writing for a long time, that deterred me. When I was young and loved animation, I used to look at the screen and look at the names of the writers, and never see women, ever. And I really did think to myself, Oh, I guess that’s not really the world for me. When I first started writing for animation, there was a woman named Sue Rose, and she was the first person to actually have done a Disney show, called Pepper Ann." Nee found that to be truly inspiring. "At the very beginning I thought, I owe it to the other girls out there who want to be in writing and animation, or dealing in animation, to try to change my name, because most people think I’m an Asian man. I was doing nothing to help anyone. Well, I was helping young Asian men know that they could write in animation. There are like two credits where I changed my name to Christine Nee, which is my real name. But then I would watch the credits, and it just didn’t feel like me."
Don’t Underestimate the Creative Power of a Good Hot Shower
"This show came about because I’m a mom. It’s funny, for so many years I would have said to you, 'It doesn’t matter, I don’t need to have kids to write for kids.' And that’s true. But this show was just a cosmic moment of I had a child who had asthma, and he was spending a ton of time having to go to the doctors, and having to get shots, and having to have nebulizers. [We had] one scary night when he really couldn’t breathe…taking an ambulance to the hospital…. [Afterwards I had] a classic shower moment. I went into the shower, I was thinking about my kid and thinking about what I wished I could do to make the amount of time he was having to spend in these scary situations better. What could I do as a mom to make that better? And the show just completely came into focus in that 10-minute period of time. I had the name of the show. I had the name of the main character. I knew all of the characters. I knew what I wanted to do. I went downstairs, I wrote it up in a couple of hours, and not much changed from that. I mean, obviously, you start collaborating with people and they all bring all of these wonderful little things. But if you really look at the show, it hasn’t changed."
That impulse, to help kids understand what’s happening at the doctor’s office, still drives Nee. "They go to the doctor—just when they’re healthy—a dozen times or more in the first year. So it’s that idea of trying to take that world and demystify it. [Recently, my son] went for his checkup, and it was the first time that the doctor was doing a complete checkup with him. We were just sitting to the side, and the doctor’s just talking to him. She said, 'Okay, now we’re going to do your blood pressure,' and I saw him sort of flinch. I looked at him and I said, 'You know what that is, right?' He thought about it for a second, and then he went, 'Oh, yeah. I saw Doc use that on my show.' He calls it his show. And then he just totally relaxed, and I thought, that’s what I’m hoping…that moment."
Guest Voices Can Help Entertain the Parents—and Are Good for Marketing and Corporate Synergy
In the first episode of Doc McStuffins, there’s at least one familiar voice—Jack the Jack in the Box is the voice of Ty Burrell, who plays Phil Dunphy on Modern Family, which, no coincidence, is on Disney-owned ABC. "We have guest characters almost every week, and early on we made our list of who we’d love to find. And Ty immediately jumped out for that role. And then of course it was, Okay, it’s ABC, and we can ask him. He was very excited to do it, actually."
Having a name like Burrell’s is all about getting attention in the press. "Yes," says Nee. "It’s about marketing. The amount of press that we’ll get when we roll out helps. And I also think some of the characters bring a certain level of excitement for the parents."
Another ABC family member, Broadway musical theater veteran (Dreamgirls) and Grey’s Anatomy cast member Loretta Devine is a regular on Doc McStuffins. But, Nee explains, the corporate connection had nothing to do with this one. "I swear to God, she auditioned for this role. I was just listening to 25 auditions…and this voice came on. I’m, 'My God, is that Loretta Devine auditioning for Hallie Hippo, the nurse?'" The choice to cast Devine reshaped the role. "That character was supposed to be a fumbling, bumbling mess—she was good when she needed to be, but she often never answered the phone. And now she’s the most confident person in the show. You do not want to mess with Hallie Hippo or Loretta Devine."