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Mo Willems HBO Max Special Interview

Chances are, if you have a kid, you know Mo Willems. Maybe if you don’t have a kid, you know him too, as the celebrated, award-winning author and illustrator has released well over 50 books, worked on shows ranging from Codename: Kids Next Door to a series you may have heard of called Sesame Street. He also created Lunchtime Doodles, a YouTube show made in conjunction with the Kennedy Center that was a sensation as one of the first series meant to help families not go insane, right at the beginning of quarantine.

And now, he’s officially coming to your TV screen with Mo Willems and The Storytime All-Stars Present: Don’t Let The Pigeon Do Storytime!, an hour-long special filmed live at the Kennedy Center way back in 2019. Featuring Anthony Anderson, Yvette Nicole Brown, Rachel Dratch, Cameron Esposito, Tony Hale, Greta Lee, Tom Lennon, Natalie Morales and Oscar Nunez, the special aims to not just appeal to Willems’ faithful young fanbase, but adults, as well. Or as Willems puts it to Decider, “The majority of my audience is grown-ups. They’re the ones who bring the kids.”

Directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, the special isn’t just a filmed stage show: it includes original animations, sound effects, and little asides to the audience at home. It’s also the first of many planned specials and series from the mind of Mo, as part of his newly established Mo Willems Workshop. As part of a two-year deal with HBO Max, Willems will create more Storytime specials, as well as an animated special based on his book “Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed.”

To find out more about what went into making the special, why he ended his Lunchtime Doodles, and a few burning questions from my children, read on.

Decider: There’s a continuity here between the HBO Max special, and your Lunchtime Doodles, which debuted — if not the first, it was one of the first quarantine shows that launched out of the gate, and exploded. Were you expecting that sort of response? And also, why end it so relatively soon?

Mo Willems: I think from concept to airing, such as it were, it was less than 70 hours. I ended up doing a lot of traveling, and I actually canceled a show with Jazz Doodle Jam. Because I assumed that it was safe, and it wasn’t.

On the flight home, I realized I was confused and terrified. Most of my work is very egocentric in that: I feel if I’m confused, probably other people are. So let me do something. That’s sort of where the idea came from. We made 15 of them. Every day, it was me, my kid, and my wife trying to come up with something and poke around the studio. I was very heartened by the fact that people were watching and listening — and that mattered. More importantly, that they were creating.

But it was a taxing experience. It wasn’t a show: we didn’t develop anything, I didn’t have a crew or anything like that. I knew that — I like endings. “Knuffle Bunny” is a trilogy. I like endings. I think that it’s nice. And so I knew that I wanted to end it with a graduation ceremony. I knew that I really wanted it to be something positive. I was beat. [Laughs] That was basically it, I was beat. Even for the people that were watching, but more for myself, I didn’t want to make something that wasn’t strong. I didn’t want to be on Episode 750, “How to Paint Your Nails.”

Not to focus on that continuity more, but from from my perspective as a viewer, the HBO Max special seems to be a natural extension of the Lunchtime Doodles. Because it’s like, “Oh, okay. Then they decided to do this big live stage show.” But of course, it came first. It was filmed last year. From your perspective, what’s it like releasing this special now? But still six-ish months into the pandemic, with most people still in lockdown and potentially making that association?

Yeah. It’s an interesting thing. I feel like a lot of my philosophy — certainly about performing and performing books — has grown over time. So [the] special is a result of eight years of doing stuff at the San Francisco Sketchfest, writing things like that. It all had been honed to a certain point.

My hope always is: I talk about anything that I make as being in three acts. The first act is you decide to go. You read the article, you’re going to write a fabulous article and somebody says, “Oh, I’m going to check out HBO.” That’s the first act. Or you buy the ticket, and you get in the car and go to the theater. The second act is the show: that’s all I have control over. You write it, you get a good cast, you get a director, you make it. The third act is when it sparks. When you leave the theater, when you turn off the TV, do you start reading those stories differently? Do you start drawing with your family? Do you start making up new stories? That, to me, is the exciting thing.

I have, for years, been focused on that third act, which I had no control over. Everything that I make is a spark — hopes to be a spark — to some form of creation by the audience. So that they’re not just consuming and going, “Yeah, that was delicious.” It’s the consuming and regurgitating something super special of their own. And so that was the explicit idea of this special. This special is not a special for kids, it’s for grown-ups. That’s why celebrities are in it. Because if they see Anthony Anderson, or Rachel Dratch, or Tony Hale being silly, maybe they get to be silly at bedtime.

Kids are fine. Kids are going to be silly no matter what. I’m not worried about the kids. The whole sort of ethos of that is: I want to spark the grown-ups to get [involved]. Right? Lunch Doodles is the same thing. You’re there on your own. You could spend 20 minutes with me. But I’m more interested about when you log off, what do you do with it? Do you play Super Bounce [Editor’s Note: Super Bounce is the game Willems introduced on Lunch Doodles] on the driveway with your family for a whole day? Wow, that’s awesome! So I don’t think I could have done Lunch Doodles if we had not shot and cut the special.

Mo Willems and The Storytime All-Stars Present: Don't Let The Pigeon Do Storytime!
Photo: HBO Max

How did the cast come together? Did you make requests of friends? Of the Kennedy Center? Were there people who asked about it? It’s such an eclectic, but fun mix of comedians and other folks.

I was determined that the cast should be a mix of people that I had known for 30 years, or for 30 hours. And I got that. So, some of the people were dear friends. Some of the people I had known for a while. Some had done the comedy specials at the San Francisco Sketchfest And some were new to me. But we really coalesced as a family fairly quickly.

What I wanted to cast was the idea of, like, “Oh, there’s the mom and the dad. And there’s the grandparent. And there’s the auntie. And there’s the babysitter.” I wanted to give permission [for] kids to see that everyone in their lives can be silly. Or, “That person reminds me of my teacher.” I love how present everyone was.

The performers, every performer who had come in was a good friend of somebody else in the cast. Everybody had a couple connections. And it was convivial. You’re in the Kennedy Center! It’s super fancy! There are thousands of kids screaming — how can that not be fun?

I’m also curious about the choices of books. You certainly have classics like “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus.” But when you were approaching putting that list together, was there a worry that someone was going to have the, “Play Stairway!” type of mentality?

Fortunately, kids don’t have lighters anymore, so we didn’t have to worry about that. [Laughs] I mean look, we ended with “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus.” I don’t think that, for the first special, [we could] not end with that story. But I wanted to have a balance. I think “Waiting is Not Easy” is such a sweet, tender moment. And the idea of Rachel Dratch pretending to eat a kilt — how are you not going to do that, once it gets into your head?

Similar to that, I guess what I was expecting when I sat down to watch it was: “Oh, okay. There’ll be readings of the books.” But obviously it’s much more acted out… You added material, fleshed them out. How did you make those choices? How did you revisit these older books, and then add the material to them? For example, “Knuffle Bunny” seems much more faithful than, say, “Leonardo the Terrible Monster.”

I think some of that came from just having done it before in San Francisco. I don’t really tour as much anymore, but the last couple tours that I did, we were filling theaters of that size with me reading the books. Little bits of improv, they get stuck in between the teeth of the story, as it were. I think, for me, here’s the great thing: it is a comedy concert, fancy storytime, book reading special. So no one has done it before, right? Right? By definition, this is one of the classic versions of the genre. Right? And I think the big breakthrough, for me, when I watch it, the two things are: one, we got this animator who I’ve worked with for 20 years to animate over the performers. It feels so seamless, but natural. And as we were cutting, we discovered — you know who the star of the show is? It’s the kids reacting. It’s that little kid pretending to eat the sandwich like Rachel Dratch. That’s where the gold is.

Mo Willems and The Storytime All-Stars Present: Don't Let The Pigeon Do Storytime!
Photo: Tracey Salazar

To that end, this is the first of presumably many specials, series, etc., through your deal with HBO Max. How do you capture that feeling? How do you keep that core ethos, that mission that you’ve been talking about — but expand it into other types of series, versus just the live performance?

That’s a great question. Those are the things that we’re sort of muddling through now. I have always been less afraid of failing than I have been of not trying. So, yeah. I haven’t made television in almost 20 years. 15 years? So I’ve stored up a lot of thoughts. Television has changed a lot. I joke, but when I was a kid, I never imagined that I would be part of a streaming service. That was not one of my dreams. So I’m hoping that we’re going to do lots of innovative stuff. The point is to find fun partners to collaborate with, and to be very involved. In this point in my life, I can smell what isn’t me. And I just don’t do that.

Now that you’ve got this mini studio-type thing going with the Mo Willems Workshop, do you see, at any point, your work expanding beyond the younger age group? Jim Henson, of course, comes to mind, who created more complex worlds once he had those options. Dark Crystal or Labyrinth, creations that were still accessible to a younger audience, but stretched what he could do in some way. Do you have some interest in that? Or are you comfortable and happy with where you are right now?

I am interested in doing all kinds of things. I don’t think I think in those terms. Because when you say I’m doing something for younger audiences, you saw the special. So I’m already doing stuff for grown-ups. The majority of my audience is grown-ups. They’re the ones who bring the kids. So I don’t see myself as just doing things for kids, I do things for human beings.

I am doing a little bit more art. I’m doing a project of nine giant abstractions based on Beethoven’s symphonies, which we will give prints of to the audience while the National Symphony Orchestra performs them. The idea is to meditate on these abstractions about Beethoven. That’s a little bit more highfalutin than a book about a pigeon who wants to eat a hot dog. Right? So I think that the ways that I’m interested in stretching are — they’re not Hensonian.

Mo Willems and The Storytime All-Stars Present: Don't Let The Pigeon Do Storytime!
Photo: Tracey Salazar

Gotcha. If you have another couple of minutes, I actually have some questions from my kids that they wanted to ask you.

Sure! Let’s hear it.

Penny is 10 and Milo is 6, the first question is from Penny: why can’t the pigeon drive the bus?

Insurance premiums.

Milo followed it up with: can elephant and piggie drive the bus?

Ooh! Milo, you are a lateral thinker. You will do very well in tomorrow’s economy.

Penny had a question specifically about the special. Why did you decide to go with the story in the special that would be about your head popping off?

[Laughs] Um, I would counter that with a counter-question. Which is: did you laugh?

I think she did.

Well then: mic-drop.

Milo asked — it took me awhile to understand this question, to be honest, but then I finally figured it out — he asked: does the big rock show up in any other book other than “I Will Surprise My Friend?”

Oh, that is a good question. The big rock, so far, has not. But Milo, I’m sure that there is a story that you could create about the big rock and [what] it experienced before it met Elephant and Piggie. The big rock origin story!

This is one I swear I did not write, this is from Penny: are you working on any new books? And has been being in quarantine, in any way, affected your creative ideas?

Ah, those are very good questions. I am working on another book. And it is affected by not only quarantine, but what is going on in this world in terms of social justice and equity. It may not seem like it’s going to be about all of that stuff, but it is going to be a call to action for you to create. Because I believe that creation is not just self-expression, it is self-discovery.

Excellent. And the last one, also from Penny: do you know any good jokes?

Yes.

This interview has been edited for content and length.

Stream Mo Willems and The Storytime All-Stars Present: Don’t Let The Pigeon Do Storytime! on HBO Max

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