When the folks behind Disney Junior’s reboot of “Muppet Babies” were asked to build the new show, they wanted not only to introduce a new generation to the wonders that are the Muppets, but to tell meaningful stories that beyond what many shows for preschoolers feature.
“When Disney talked to me about the show, I said ‘What are you looking for? A show about numbers or “Today’s color is blue?” EP Tom Warburton explained. “They said they didn’t want that. They wanted entertainment with a good moral center that was funny and that would be enjoyed by both preschoolers and their parents.”
They are on the right track. An episode of the show has been nominated for a prestigious Humanitas Prize, a recognition that honors writers “whose work inspires compassion, hope and understanding in the human family.”
The episode, “You Say Potato, I Say Best Friend,” written by Laura Sreebny, is nominated in the Children’s Teleplay category along with the “Winter Formal, Part 2” episode of “Alexa & Katie, written by Matthew Carlson; the “Surf and/or Turf” episode of “My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic,” written by Brian Hohlfeld; and “Z-O-M-B-I-E-S,” an adaptation of “Zombies & Cheerleaders,” written by David Light and Joseph Raso. Humanitas Prizes will be handed out at an event on Feb. 8 at the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles.
Episodes like “You Say Potato, I Say Best Friend” are just what the “Muppet Babies” team is aiming for.
“We’re trying to tell stories that have this heart to them,” Warburton says. “That episode about Gonzo becoming best friends with a potato is really about inclusion. It demonstrates that not all kids can play the same way. At first, the rest of the Muppet Babies think, ‘Well, you can’t be friends with a potato,’ and eventually they come around and they find a way.”
The team shows all its stories to kids to see how they’ll react to the storylines. “When we showed early story ideas about it to kids, not one of them said, ‘You can’t be friends with a potato,'” Warburton says. “Every one of them, was like, ‘Oh yeah, I’d totally be friends with a potato.’ At that age, they don’t have any prejudices or anything.”
“For me, this episode was really special because this was sort of our litmus test for the rest of the show,” explains Matt Danner, co-producer, supervising animator, and the voice of Kermit in “Muppet Babies.” “Tom told us, ‘OK, we’re gonna do this story where Gonzo becomes friends with a potato; let’s see how it goes.” I thought this is basically going to decide what our fates are for the rest of this.”
“You Say Potato, I Say Best Friend” was in the third episode of the series. The show has been picked up for a second season set to begin this summer, and the potato itself has made subsequent appearances.
The episode’s impact not only on children, but their parents is particularly touching for Warburton. “To see parents saying, ‘I just cried at an episode of “Muppet Babies,”‘ that’s a dream come true. As a writer, as a director, as a creator, as anyone who works on the show, to be able to pull that emotion out of people is fantastic.”
Now Warburton has another goal. “I’m not going to rest until I see actual potatoes with stickers of Gonzo on them in supermarkets. I’m seeing oranges with Donald Duck on them, so a guy can dream.”