“Doc McStuffins” Creator Chris Nee on The Future of Children’s Programming
There are few people on the planet who are in a better position to talk about what’s working, and what still needs work, in children’s programming than Doc McStuffins creator Chris Nee. Like so many great ideas, Nee came up with Doc McStuffins, a series about a six-year-old girl who is a doctor to her stuffed animals and toys, while in the shower. Yet the impetus for the beloved series was her own life and her son’s struggles with asthma. Finding ways of processing the real world through the shows she creates or shepherds can at least partially explain her success. “One of the things that I really have come to totally understand is I’m someone who’s deeply bothered by things that are happening in the world at any given time, and I really work out the stuff that keeps me up at night by my work during the day,” Nee says.
This ethos has shaped Nee’s career and has led to her becoming a Peabody, Humanitas, NAACP, and Emmy Award-winner. Now she’s in the midst of a multiyear deal with Netflix, where she’s found new collaborators, including President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, for her new show Ada Twist, Scientist, and the upcoming series We The People.
We spoke to Nee about her career, inclusivity in preschool programming, her creative process, and more. Our interview coincided with a special edition of the Motion Picture Association’s “Film School Friday,” which explored how diverse storytelling impacts childhood development, which you can watch here.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Broadly speaking, how do you feel about where things are trending with inclusion in preschool programming?
I think we’re moving in the right direction. I think one of the things that always really shocked me is that we were not out leading this charge. I want to say 10 or 15 years ago when the Geena Davis Institute first really looked at the numbers, which at the time was just making sure that there were women presented in lead roles, I remember reading through all the prime time numbers and thinking, ‘Well, we’re going to do way better in kids TV.’ Then I got down to kids TV and we were actually worse. I think it was a real moment of reckoning for me. I started really approaching my work with a deeper understanding that I couldn’t rest on the sense that people who were in kids’ TV were doing it any better than anybody else. You had to become insanely proactive.
So when you recognized this deficit, what was it like initially when you tried to change that reality? What was the resistance level like?
I’m not sure I started out consciously knowing I was trying to change anything. What I did know was I’d grown up feeling very othered as a queer kid. I came out in 1987, Elton John wasn’t out yet, Ellen was nowhere near out, so it was a really intense space to find yourself in. So that’s the lens with which I understood what it was like to not see yourself on screen. I started at Sesame Street, and one of the early shows I wrote on was called Little Bill, and I was very aware of the impact of that show. I was also aware that my understanding, at the time, was that it couldn’t support products, meaning they couldn’t have a toy line. The lack of a toy line meant the show really didn’t go as long as it probably could have, and there weren’t going to be a ton of other shows with black families in the lead that were coming out. I was learning about the economic impact of that, so all of those pieces came together by the time Doc McStuffins came around, which was 13-years ago.
As a side note, you seem to have a knack for titles.
It’s funny because Doc McStuffins is the rare time that I had the name in the initial idea. I came up with it in the shower. I knew exactly what it was going to sound like, I knew who the characters were, and I knew what the world was by the time I got out of the shower. As anyone who works in this business knows, names never stick. In fact, it was questioned at one point, they were like ‘What does it mean?’ and I was like, ‘It doesn’t mean anything until we make it mean something.’ I mean, SpongeBob SquarePants doesn’t mean anything. So I got lucky on that one.
You did it again with your new show, Ada Twist, Scientist—you can’t even say that without singing it.
Exactly. And wait until you hear the theme song, it’s really going to be stuck in your head.
Can you walk me through your creative process?
First and foremost, I’m a writer who’s looking to make things fun, I’m character-driven, I’m comedy-driven, and I’m music-driven. But, I also like to have a point of view that feels like I’m doing something that matters. So with Doc McStuffins, that came from my son, who has asthma, was quite young at the time and he was sick a lot, he was at the hospital a couple of times, and I was just trying to make his life a little bit better. That’s often the thing I’m trying to do.
How about with your series Vampirina, about a young vampire who moves from Transylvania to Pennsylvania and becomes the new kid in town?
Vampirina for me came from this moment where we seemed to be turning on the idea that immigrants weren’t an important part of the fabric of our country. The idea that this is really an immigrant story, and one of the decisions we made was having the family have accents because I read a study that we were no longer presenting characters with accents in a positive portrayal, they were almost always bad guys. As we move into projects I’m working on now, it’s really always something that’s bugging me by night that I’m trying to fix through my work during the day.
Speaking of those projects, you’ve got Spirit Rangers and Antiracist Baby coming out, and you’re making no bones about the fact that you’re doing more than just talking about inclusion…
I really want to change the world, but I don’t know that I can. The work itself is funny and fun, but I’m always working something else out in it. There was a moment for me where I was thinking a lot about this work and we’re very focused on getting rid of unconscious bias, I started to say to myself, ‘That bar is not high enough.’ What I like to call it is being a conscious advocate. I not only have to question everyone I’m putting together on a project and what’s being presented, but I need to take some real leaps, and every place I can turn a corner and do things differently, I have to do it.
Could you ever have imagined you’d be able to make this type of programming even five years ago?
[Laughs] No. What Netflix was able to do was come in and say, ‘First of all, we really believe in you, and second, we hear what you keep saying.’ Which was that I want to keep creating myself, because I’m first and foremost a writer and creator, but I was so interested and focused on the idea of lifting up unsung voices. I deeply love mentoring talented people who are at the beginning of their careers, often because they haven’t had the opportunity. Putting all those things together meant I could find some amazing creators who were from communities that were not necessarily having their voices heard. Spirit Rangers was the perfect example. Karissa Valencia, the creator and executive producer of that show, was my coordinator years ago. She’s a Native woman whose part of the Chumash Tribe in Santa Barbara, and so I went to her and asked if she had a story she wanted to tell that’s from her perspective. She pitched the perfect show.
And now she’s running the show herself?
What was important to me was that I didn’t then take on that show and have her own as the story editor, I was like, ‘Look, the only way I’m doing this is you’re going to be the executive producer and the showrunner. I’m going to stand beside you. To the network I’m the guarantor, so to speak, and then I’m going to teach you how to get through a season of making a show because it’s a really steep learning curve. Creatively speaking, you’re in charge.’ They put together an all Native writer’s room, all Native cast, Native composers, Native artists, the show looks amazing, and I can’t tell you how often I read scripts from that show and I just think, ‘Nobody else can tell this story.’ Nobody else could or should have the boldness to tell this story. They have a great episode about someone not keeping their promise, but when the Spirit Rangers team does it, it’s about breaking a treaty. That’s amazing.
How do you create the structure for people to succeed?
My company is set up with a teaching function to it. All of my showrunners meet once a week and it’s sort of like doing rounds. Because I have seven projects going at the same time, I can say to a new showrunner, ‘Look, your next step is going to be mixing, but this other show is already mixing so you’re going to start coming to the mix of this show.’ My advice to people is you have to open up doors that are closed because we love to seem like we’re doing really magic stuff behind those doors, but of course, once you get inside the magic fancy doors you realize most people are full of bullsh*t. I think showing people who are not used to being in those spaces, especially women of color who aren’t used to those spaces, let them into those rooms so when it’s their turn, it’s not the first time they’ve been in a mix, or in a record, or in a product meeting.
You also collaborate with big stars, and I’m wondering if that’s also a very smart way to get people to say yes to your projects?
Oh, I don’t know, like the Obamas? I’m always thinking about that stuff, I’ve been very lucky to collaborate with the Obamas a couple of times over, and working with someone like Kenya Barris and Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, they open doors and protect projects, but more than anything, I learn from all of those people. Getting to work with people who think so deeply about those issues is a great way to stay humble about the work that I still have to do.
Let’s plug your upcoming projects, of which you’ve got a lot…
The two things that are coming out right now is Ridley Jones, which is an original series that I wrote and created and has a really strong female lead character, and the first non-binary recurring lead character on a pre-school show. The other big one is on July 4, we’re bringing out a show called We The People, which is ten animated shorts that are all about civics. We did this with Brandi Carlisle, Lin-Manuel Miranda, H.E.R., Janelle Monáe, and ten amazing directors. And my co-producers were President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and Kenya Barris. For the last two years I got to work during the day and know we were creating a piece about the importance and freedom to assemble, or the balance of power, or Fed versus State, and it allowed me to sleep better at night.
Featured image: Chris Nee and an image from RIDLEY JONES (L to R) DAVID ERRIGO JR. as DUDLEY, EZRA MENAS as FRED; TYLER SHAMY as DANTE; IARA NEMIROVSKY as RIDLEY JONES; ASHLYN MADDEN as ISMAT; and LARAINE NEWMAN as PEACHES in episode 101 of RIDLEY JONES Cr. COURTESY OF NETFLIX © 2021