At the 20th annual Gemini awards in Toronto this weekend, the country’s television executives will no doubt confer on how to capture younger audiences.
They may want to ask Daniel Cook, a spunky eight-year-old whose show, This is Daniel Cook, is up for three of the awards.
Airing on Treehouse and TVO, and now Playhouse Disney in the US, the show is up for best pre-school program and best direction and performance in a children’s series. It follows Cook as he learns about different jobs- for example, how to make truffles, construct a sidewalk, fly a plane or break a board in two with a Tae Kwon Do chop. All the cameras are close to the ground, keeping everything from Daniel’s perspective.
Created, written and directed by Sinking Ship Productions’ J.J. Johnson, a 25-year-old graduate of Ryerson University’s Radio and Television Arts program, the show has a remarkably catchy theme song- which is nice and short- and because Daniel is simply acting himself, the series has an honest feel, making it substantially easier on the adult brain, than, say, Teletubbies or Barney and Friends.
“I was thinking what I would like a kids’ show to be,” Johnson says, “and I was always afraid of puppets and couldn’t afford animation, so I thought of just having this one kid host it. I was sure that in the industry of preschool television there must be a show hosted by a pre-schooler, but no one had really picked up on that simplicity.
“We scrambled together a pilot, sent it out, and TVO called the next day. They said, ‘We love this idea- who are you?’”
In an interview with Daniel after school, he reveals he’s aware of what a Gemini Award is, and says quietly, “I’m very excited- I never thought I’d get nominated for one.”
When asked what it’s like having his own TV show, he seems to have prepared a rather grown-up answer.
“It’s really fun having my own show ‘cause I get to meet a whole bunch of people,” he says, “and go to a whole bunch of places, and I really like the people who help me do the show ‘case they’re really nice.”
Yet after this soundbite, Daniel responds like most kids his age- that is, in one-word replies that almost always consist of either “Yeah”; “Not really”; “Probably”; or “Both.” He’s definitely not your typical publicist-moulded child star, but he’s not meant to be.
A lot of the humour in This is Daniel Cook comes from Daniel’s physical reactions to things. For example, when he learns to make truffles, his hands get covered in dripping chocolate, and when he goes to shake the pot of nuts, he stops for a second, looks at his hands, seems to be contemplating rinsing them off, but then just proceeds to just lick them at a remarkably rapid pace. It’s a most natural and endearing reaction that both kids and adults will see humour in.
“What’s great is, with Daniel,” says Johnson, “there are no formalities. He doesn’t even realize that the people he talks to on the show are often celebrities, so he’ll call them by their first names. In one episode, he called the (Toronto) mayor ‘David’ and asked him why kids can’t vote, and why he can’t make a law that we eat dessert before dinner.”
Johnson, who first met Daniel when he was just 5 and enjoyed a lively conversation about Transformers and Optimus Prime with him, says it was important that Daniel not be a professional actor, but a real kid.
For the show to work, Daniel has to have enough control to guide the show and do things in which he’s genuinely interested.
“We really didn’t come in with any preconceived ideas,” Johnson says. “The reason it doesn’t feel staged is because it’s not. In post-production, we’ll see that he answers some things wrong or he stumbles a bit, but that’s fine. We don’t want to be too clean, we want to say, ‘It’s okay for your poem to be silly, and your art doesn’t have to look exacltly like what Mr. Dressup draws.’”
Daniel is certainly the model of acceptance. In fact, he probably won’t be too bothered if he doesn’t win a Gemini- after all, at the beginning of the show, he wanted to be a paleontologist, and he’ll still want to be one when the show ends. It won’t matter whether there’s a statuette on his shelf or not.
For Johnson’s part, he says he hasn’t even thought about acceptance speeches or what he’ll wear on the red carpet yet.
“Honestly, just having a show is comfort enough,” he says. It would be great if Daniel won because he deserves it, but, for me, it’s not just an honour to be nominated, it’s shocking to be nominated.”