Chris Nee, writer, executive producer and creator of Disney Junior's Doc McStuffins, Los Angeles
Spouse: Lisa Udelson, documentary filmmaker and film editor
Son: Theo, 8
Did you always know you wanted to work in television, and children’s television specifically?
I started in New York City, and I worked for Sesame Street. It was an incredibly cool first job. I knew I wanted to be in TV, and that set me off down the road of kids’ television. I loved animation and found the world of writing for kids to be an incredibly rewarding place to work. I produced for them internationally, and towards the end of my time there I declared, "I want to be a writer." They were amazing and really helped me. I moved to Nickelodeon and wrote for Blue’s Clues and The Backyardigans. From there, I somehow put together a 15-year career.
Were a lot of women writing at that time?
Actually, no. When I realized that animation was what I wanted and I was thinking about moving to Los Angeles, I'd watch the credits of shows and look for how many women were in the writers’ room; there weren’t that many. There were a few, and they were amazing people—Sue Rose being one of them, who was doing a show at Disney called Pepper Ann. She ended up hiring me for some of my first work in L.A.
Are there specific challenges in writing for kids?
I think the biggest challenge for most people is that a lot of writers see the boxes and feel like they’re inside a set of rules because they’re writing for children. The greatest of the kids’ writers don’t see those boxes. I think I'm able to access some of the feelings I had when I was a kid more easily than most. I love writing for kids, and getting to say things that are meaningful for me.
You’ve also worked on the adult side, producing shows like Deadliest Catch—which seems like the exact opposite of a kids’ show—and 30 Days. Was it hard to shift gears?
I was in Alaska, and I used to do Deadliest Catch during the day and then at night write scripts for animated shows in my hotel room. It was hard, but I don’t see as much of a barrier between the two worlds as other people do. I’m still trying to hit all the same levels of emotion that I do when I’m writing for adults.
How was Doc McStuffins born? Did the idea really come to you in the shower?
It did! The show was created for my son. He was 2 and has asthma, and during the process of his getting diagnosed, we spent a lot of time in the doctor’s office. Nobody had done a show that demystified doctors for kids. As soon as I realized that, I thought, There’s a great opportunity there. I was in the shower—a 20-minute shower—and by the end of it, I knew everything. I knew the name, and names never stick on kids' shows. I knew the clinic was there, I knew who the characters were, I kind of knew what some of the episodes would be. It was just one of those kismet moments.
Was it always conceived of as an African American family?
No. I pitched it without artwork. The first phone call when they were buying the show, Nancy Kanter [EVP of original programming and general manager at Disney Junior] said, ‘We’ve been looking for a property to bring more diversity to the channel, how would you feel about that for this show?’ and I said I would feel great about it. That was really it—it was not a big conversation. By the time we went in to do the first designs of the show, the family was African American. Then you don’t really think about it that much. You write great characters, and a great family, and it all comes together.
And was the father always a stay-at-home dad?
I had to kind of check myself on that. Because of Doc’s age, we had to have a parent home most of the time, and we had to have them check in and say that they’re there. In the beginning, we had Mom be the one to always be around. It was in the writers’ room that we sat there and finally asked, ‘Mom’s a doctor, why is she home all the time?’ We really had to re-adjust ourselves and say she’s not the one who’s home. She’s working. Dad needs to be home. Once we did that, it felt really natural and right. I get Tweets all the time from stay-at-home dads who are really grateful for that image.
Are there any episodes you find particularly memorable?
I had really wanted to do an episode honoring the families of the troops who are going off and serving our country. It took a long time to figure out how to tell that story properly. The episode we did is about a toy that steps up and agrees to go on a little boy’s camping trip, which they’re all afraid to go on because they end up in mud puddles and all of those things. And they train him and send him off and welcome him home as a hero. But in the process of him being gone, his best friend is really worried about him. It’s about the process of waiting. Emotionally, I was really proud of that.
We put that episode out in the world, and the White House contacted us and asked if they could screen it at the White House for service members. Last Veteran’s Day, they brought together active military families, and Michelle Obama introduced it. It was incredible.
What’s your typical day like?
My son is up. He’s a morning person—oh my God, I don’t know how that happened. He’s up at 6:30 a.m., and I get myself out of bed around 7 and help get him ready for school. I take a run in the morning, and then I’m either in the office or on the phone with Ireland at 9, because we produce the show with an Irish company. I’m basically home for dinner every day I’m not traveling. I just decided early on in the process thatI don’t want to spend my career bringing joy to millions of kids and then have my kid never see me. I really felt that if we managed our time well in the writers’ room, that we can do our work during the day and it doesn’t have to be something that trails out into meetings at night. Sometimes I go back to work at home on the couch late at night, but I’m home for dinner every night, and I put him to bed.
What do you like to do with your family in your downtime?
We’re in the ocean a lot. We’re bad surfers at this point.