The Center for Disease Control has designated May as Asthma Awareness Month; May 1 was World Asthma Day, organized by the Global Initiative for Asthma (GINA) in collaboration with health care groups and asthma educators to raise awareness about asthma and improve asthma care throughout the world. Asthma played a role in the creation of Disney Junior’s Doc McStuffins series; Chris Nee created the show as a result of her son’s treatment for the respiratory disease that affects 26 million Americans.
I spoke to Nee about her career and her series, which debuted in March of this year.
Prior to creating Doc McStuffins, Nee had two simultaneous careers in television: she was a writer for children’s programming such as Little Bill, Wonder Pets, The Backyardigans and Olivia, while at the same time serving as producer of the Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch. “It’s stranger to other people than it is to me,” she told me, explaining that “telling a story is the same for kids or adults.”
After spending three years working as an associate producer for Sesame Street‘s international division, spending time in Mexico, Finland, Israel and Jordan working on the local productions, Nee moved into writing for Sesame Street Workshop. From there she began writing for other children’s entertainment, eventually collecting an Emmy award for her work on Little Bill, the series based on children’s books by Bill Cosby. Nee later branched out into reality programming and documentary work, which resulted in her getting a call from the Discovery Channel.
“I’d been doing a decent amount of reality documentary work; I got a call on Monday, ‘can you be on a plane on Wednesday?’ I spent two months in the Bering Strait, producing Deadliest Catch, while writing the Wonder Pets Christmas special for Nickelodeon.”
When Nee’s son Theo was about two years old, he was diagnosed with asthma and had to make regular visits to doctors’ offices and hospitals, an experience he found frightening. His anxiety about these visits led her to create Doc McStuffins; “I realized there was nothing on the air that could help to address the scary aspect of going to the doctor.”
Doc McStuffins is a six-year-old girl who runs a clinic for toys in her backyard; she has a magic stethoscope, and when she puts it on, toys around her come to life; she can talk to them, diagnose their illnesses and treat them, showing the children in the audience that doctors are there to help them get well. The show has an excellent voice cast including Robbie Rist (cousin Oliver on the Brady Bunch) as Stuffy, a stuffed dragon; Lorette Devine (Gray’s Anatomy) as Hallie the Hippo, Doc’s nurse; and Lara Jill Miller as Lambie, a stuffed lamb toy. Animaniacs cast members Rob Paulsen (Yakko) and Jess Harnell (Wakko) are reunited, with Paulsen appearing as Sir Kirby, a knight toy who first appears with a bad case of “icky-filthy-sticky disease” and Harnell taking on the role of Chilly, a hypochondriac snowman. Camryn Manheim recently appeared in a recurring role as Rescue Ronda, a toy helicopter.
Nee assures me that although the show is aimed at preschoolers, parents will not be driven from the room by irritating music; instead, each episode features an original song written by Kay Hanley of the ’90s group Letters to Cleo. Nee describes it as “girl pop, great music.” One recent episode featured Lisa Loeb in a guest-starring role as a toy microphone, for which she also sang a song.
In addition to the primary goal of demystifying the doctor’s office, another part of the show focuses on, as Nee says, “how important it is for girls to see themselves as doctors and achievers.” Doc (real name “Dottie”) is one of those kids who knows from a very early age exactly what it is she wants to do; she wants to be a doctor like her mother, a pediatrician. She has her own white lab coat, and everyone including her parents calls her Doc.
I asked her if she had gotten any interference or “notes” from Disney, if there were any battles she had to fight in order to keep the show true to her vision, since it seems to be a common story that “the suits” often try to alter or remove certain elements for various reasons. Instead, she tells me, “I found the right studio at the right time with the right people. I kept waiting for the moment when they would tell me I couldn’t do this or had to do that, but it never came. Everyone sort of fell in love with these characters. I got lucky. We were with a studio that wanted to make the same show I wanted to make.”
What’s going to surprise people about Doc McStuffins? “The sense of humor. Parents will be surprised by how amusing it is.”
Under the consultancy of the Hollywood Health & Society division of the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center, Doc McStuffins highlights the importance of taking care of oneself and others, while showcasing the hallmarks of great Disney storytelling – fantasy and wish fulfillment. Doc McStuffins airs daily during Disney Channel’s Disney Junior programming block for kids age 2-7 and on the new 24-hour Disney Junior channel.