'Doc McStuffins' Creator Chris Nee: From 'Deadliest Catch' to Disney Junior

·Deputy Editor, Yahoo Entertainment
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If you have a small child, are related to a small child, or have simply walked through the toy aisles wishing you still were a small child, odds are you’ve seen Doc McStuffins, the six-year-old girl who can talk to toys, dolls, and stuffed animals when she’s wearing her magical stethoscope and “diagnose” their ailments. Among the patients in Season 3 of her wildly popular, eponymous Disney Junior series, which kicked off July 2, are her stuffed dragon Stuffy, who slips and falls at the pool; a beautiful Flamenco dancer named Flora, who’s afraid to leave her display box; and a tiny tin airplane pilot named Bess, a toy created in the likeness of the famous African-American pilot Bessie Coleman (voiced by Tony Award winner Audra McDonald), who has rusty joints.

The series was created by executive producer Chris Nee, who grew up helping out at her mother’s independent toy stores, began her career in television as an associate producer at Sesame Street International and writing for the Sesame Workshop, and saw how scared her son, Theo, was to go to the doctor after he developed severe asthma. 

The show has now won a Peabody Award and inspired both the creation of the Artemis Medical Society, a group of women physicians of color, and the Twitter hashtag #ThankYouDocMcStuffins.

Yahoo TV sat down with Nee to discuss her career (which also involves working on Discovery’s Deadliest Catch and helping to find the late great Capt. Phil Harris), what it’s like to have your show screened at the White House, and what we should do if the little girl in our life says she wants to be “a princess… or a doctor.”

Take us back to your start in TV.
Sesame Street was a perfect place to start because I saw that there was a way to write for kids where you were doing something that was really magical when it’s done well, that people carry with them for the rest of their lives, and that you’re also making yourself laugh.

There were years in my career where the sort of younger end of what preschool television was had gotten to a place where it was very preachy to me and the fun had kind of come out of it, and people weren’t writing fully engaged. They were teaching lessons in some way that had overtaken storytelling. Storytelling is important. That’s how we learn about ourselves in our world. 

I landed back at Disney Junior at exactly the right time where they seemed to be looking for the same thing I was, which was strong characters who can have flaws, great storytelling. I had just been at the point where I was like, “Maybe I can’t write on the younger side anymore. Maybe I’ve got to stay up,” because I had always written for all the different age groups. In the younger world, the bass and the treble were somehow gone in the mix, and I feel like it’s totally back in a really great way. 

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How does a writer for children’s shows end up working on Deadliest Catch?
I had always been going back and forth between writing for kids, which at the time was mainly working a lot of freelance jobs, and then producing documentary reality-style stuff. It kind of brought together the two sides of my personality and my strengths. I originally started working with RJ Cutler and did a moment in Burnett Land, and then I was like, “I actually don’t think that’s quite for me,” and so I was sort of pulling myself out of it, and someone called me and said, “Could you be on a plane for Alaska on Wednesday?” It was, like, a Monday. It was the first season. [Narrator] Mike Rowe was supposed to be on camera, and I was producing everything on the ground and writing his material. It turned out Mike didn’t go on camera, and for some reason, they kept us for the entire time in Dutch Harbor. Basically, we would be there for like two weeks with the crew, then they would take off out into the ocean and Mike and I sat on the island, in these crazy dive bars, hanging out.

I was still doing freelance work on kids’ TV shows at the time that I was doing that, so we would sit in this bar, have the greatest seafood in the world for two cents, have a couple of beers, and then I’d be like, “I got to go back to my room.” I was writing a Backyardigans special. I would be like, “That’s my weird life.”

Do you hear people say, “I bet I could write a children’s show” a lot? And what is your response?
Well, my response is different than my reaction. I try to be kind about it. My answer is always, “Look, if you have a great idea, go learn the craft, do the work, move to Los Angeles or New York, submit your work. Because it’s kids, doesn’t make there be a shortcut.” Maybe one of those people does have a great story, but it is no less a craft than anything else, and it’s no less a specialty, and having a child certainly does not mean that you know how to write for children. It may, and if you feel strongly, it’s the same advice you would give to anyone who says, “I have a screenplay”: “Great. Write it. Do the work. Then write your second one, then write your third one. Learn the craft and do all the steps that everyone else, who has a career, takes to get to that place.” Thank you for asking that question. No one’s ever asked that. 

What has the #ThankYouDocMcStuffins meant to you?
You know, especially with animation for kids, you work in a cave, and you will have put years of your life into something before it ever makes it onto the air. You’re honestly just hoping that anyone notices, and that by the time it gets there, it’s a show that you’re proud of and has all the pieces. It was the right team, everything was coming out the right way, but none of that ever means the show’s actually going to find its audience. This was a show where, from beginning to end, people just kind of stood up and looked. 

I got to go to my 25-year high school reunion or, I think, even my 20-year, and be like, “Yeah. I work for Sesame Street.” I had the coolest job, but that’s different than having a job that is fulfilling and that you’re putting good stuff into the world. That’s a great way to go to work every day. I laugh like crazy, I do what I love, and I know that I’m putting good stuff out into the world and that people are reacting. It moves me beyond words, except apparently, I have plenty of words to say. [Laughs.] Things like the hashtag, being invited to the White House to screen an episode, the Artemis Society that’s come out of this, it’s incredible.

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What does attending a screening at the White House entail?
Taking as many pictures as you can, making your kid go to the bathroom because we were allowed to go to the bathroom in the White House. He was like, “I don’t have to go.” I was like, “Go. We get to say you’ve gone to the bathroom in the White House.” He was like, “But I don’t — ” “Go.” I actually was sort of surprised that the toilet paper didn’t have like an emblem on it. I would guess that they used to have it and then people just stole it all the time. No. It was, basically, a normal bathroom.

We were screening for military families, so that alone was very moving. It was an episode that we had cared a great deal about, that I had wanted to write for a long time. It took a long time to figure out how to tell that story properly in our world, and then to have the First Lady say, “We want to do a screening,” and her introduce it — that was incredible. I don’t often bring my family with me for this stuff, but my family came, and I was able to have my son see me get up in front of a group of people with her. That’s pretty cool.

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What issue or storyline has taken the most massaging to get it tonally right for your show. Was that episode it?
I think that actually may have been it. First of all, what’s your analogy for going off to war in a battle zone? We were able to figure out it’s an army toy who’s going to take the bullet, so to speak, and go on a camping trip with a bunch of boys. Then we have another toy who comes in and describes the horrors of what had happened last year, what the boys had done. They need a volunteer to go, and [this toy] steps up and goes. The other piece that was the key — that took a long time to figure out — is that it wasn’t his story. It was the story of his best friend toy who stayed behind and what it was like waiting for him, because that’s really the story of the kids who are watching. Our age group who are watching are the ones who are staying at home and watching their parents go off and battle. In our normal structure, it would’ve been Army Al’s story but it wasn’t really. It was Bronty’s story because it was about the waiting.

I wanted to get your take on something else: I have a 6-year-old niece who loves Frozen and Doc McStuffins. When I ask her what she wants to be when she grows up, the first thing she says is "a princess,” and then she adds, “or a doctor.” I’d like that order reversed, but I’m not sure if I should say something or just ride it out — she’s six. Do you have any advice?
Well, I don’t think that there are very many job openings for “princess,” so that may or may not work itself out. I think a lot of the princess properties now at least are working towards giving what are really lessons about being a good person and how to behave in the world. But ultimately, she will find out there’s no master’s program for that, so hopefully doctor will be second. I think it’s going to be really interesting in 20 years to see what really does happen, and whether there’s a graduating class that you can sort of point to Doc McStuffins and say they were all these kids who were inspired by that. I mean, I hope so, because really my whole goal with the show was that when I get old, I would like to be taken very good care of in the hospitals. [Laughs.] I do have a medical tag that says that I created Doc McStuffins. I’m no dummy. I have an entertainment worker’s health insurance. I would like some good attention.

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It was Disney that suggested, in your first pitch meeting, that Doc, her doctor mother, and her stay-at-home dad be African-American. The show gets well-deserved attention for the diversity that it brings to TV. 
I worked on Little Bill with Dr. Cosby, and that show was one of my favorite writing experiences. It was so much about what a real family felt like and they were, obviously, African-American. It was interesting, because I remember there being some attention on that show as far as it was reaching, what it needed to reach. I always remembered that as a special show, but then it was a gap from that all the way to Doc in terms of lead characters. I don’t really know how it ends up going that long.

I’m thrilled that Doc is here, and I think it is going to pave the way. I think that the unqualified success that Doc has been, it’ll be the unconscious decisions that are made to make sure that you’re putting all that diversity in. I think people are just really aware of it right now, and I think we’re going to keep seeing more and more families. I don’t think anyone thought the show was going to be as big as it is, and the fact that it is helps future generations.

The show’s merchandising is also doing well. What’s your reaction when you see people like Mark Ruffalo tweeting about the need for more Black Widow toys?
First of all, I love that he did that, and I do think we have to make sure that we’re facilitating the hopes and dreams of all kids. This is a moment where I feel like people are really paying attention — paying attention is different than actually taking the actions and fixing the problem — but people are really aware of women on screen, and what the roles are that they have, and I do feel like that’s a place where right now the world of kids’ TV is out ahead of that. That’s a good thing. When Doc first went on the air, of course there was always this sort of thing of, like, “It’s a boy property” or “girl property,” and we were right down the middle. We have a show that kind of plays both ways in a really nice way, which is great.

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You also feel passionately about getting more women involved in animation.
Look, when I was coming up and realized that I really loved animation, and that it was my secret dream to write for it, I started watching the credits and didn’t see a lot of women there. I almost didn’t move to L.A. because I was sort of like, “Well, it seems to be a boy’s club.”

There was one woman’s name who kept coming up in shows that I loved, and it was Sue Rose, and she was doing Pepper Ann at Disney, and then went on to Angela Anaconda, and she hired me for my first show in L.A. I had been at Sesame Street in New York prior to that, and worked in and around New York, but when I moved out there, she hired me, and I went through a period where I was very aware that you look at my first name, and you don’t know if I’m male or female because it’s Chris. I changed my credit, for a little while, to Christine, and then I just felt like I was in trouble all the time because that’s what my family called me when I was in trouble. I did change it back, and I sort of regret it.

I think it’s hugely important to have the diversity of voices. I think that’s how we’re going to make sure that girls aren’t always the nagging sister, and the nay-sayer, and that they are fully capable of being the heart and soul, and the funny, and the clumsy, and have the flaws that great characters have. I think you have to have women in there doing it, and I think that you got to make sure that those shows are making it through on the air.

Final question: What did you do to celebrate when you first heard Doc McStuffins won a Peabody?
I had been telling [the staff] for a very long time that I would rent a motorboat at the appropriate time. I’m an ocean person, so I take my kid out and we rent these speedboats. Sometimes people don’t like to come with us because we just have a blast. So we found out that we had won the Peabody and we couldn’t tell anyone. It turns out you find out like a week before [it’s announced]. So I was like, “This is the day.” 

We went out to have lunch, and we went to the ocean. I could see that it was extremely windy out. I could see that, but it was the day, so I tromped everyone down, however they happened to be dressed that day, and of course, there were some nice clothes that are not that nice anymore and a purse that doesn’t exist anymore. So there were a bunch of people who are definitely not ocean people nor boat people, and I put them in this speed boat, and I took them out, and it was… I would say in years, and years, and years, I have not been out in an ocean that rough. I had to keep going. It was the kind of thing where you couldn’t even stop because you had to have momentum. It was where you want to be like, “I just want you all to know that I am not afraid. Like, just know that I know we’re OK.”

That’s a day they will never forget.
They are never going to forget. And I have to say, there were a few pictures on Facebook, and someone or another was like, “Is Chris Nee the kind of person that just, like, rents a boat?” And they were like, “Yeah.”

New episodes of Doc McStuffins air Thursdays at 9 a.m. on Disney Junior.