What is Love?
What is Money?
What is Reading?
What is Cheese?
Those are some of the critical, life-affirming topics explored by Forky (Tony Hale) in the Disney Plus streaming series Forky Asks a Question. Pixar Animation Studios vet Bob Peterson jumped at the opportunity to explore further adventures and “light” topics with Toy Story 4‘s breakout character Forky. Peterson’s decades-spanning career with Pixar saw him bring to life several beloved characters including Up‘s Dug, Finding Nemo and Finding Dory‘s Mr. Ray, and Monster’s Inc.’s Roz among many others. He also received two Academy Award nominations for co-writing Up and Finding Nemo.
Now, Peterson and his team’s work on Forky Asks a Question brings Pixar its first Emmy nomination in the Outstanding Short Form Animated Program category.
Here, Peterson talks to Awards Daily about creating “What is Love?,” Forky‘s Emmy-contending episode. He talks about the incredible opportunity to work with some legendary comics on the project, and how he derived the topics Forky explores in the 10-episode arc. Finally, he gives us insight into his experience as a Pixar veteran.
Awards Daily: You’ve worked with Pixar for decades and worked on the original Toy Story. Now, you’re bringing Pixar into the streaming world with Forky Asks a Question. As you look back, how would you describe that journey?
Bob Peterson: Well, I think it’s just a new facet. Before I worked on Toy Story, I was working when Pixar did shorts for commercials, and I worked in their shorts division and then moved to Toy Story. Then into story and writing for 20-plus years. I’ve been with Pixar now for 26 years. So, I’ve been on a number of long feature campaigns — Up and Finding Nemo and Monsters Inc. [Forky] is a new thing, and it’s actually really interesting because working on shorts reminds me of how much I appreciated the short form when I was a kid with Bugs Bunny. That really affected me. You’re not working on something for a long time. You’re finding maybe a bit more silliness and humor in a topic, and it’s okay to emphasize that. So I’m enjoying it, and I hope to continue doing that for a little while anyway.
AD: Of course. During that career, I know you’ve spoken publicly about working on The Good Dinosaur for a period, and I want to say that I think it’s really admirable to stay with a brand and to refashion yourself after that experience. So I really commend you for that. What did you take from that experience to influence your work on other projects?
BP: After that, I went on as a writer with Finding Dory and a number of other features. I consulted a little bit on Coco, and so I was all over the map. It’s pretty common in animation to have fresh horses come in, whether it’s a replacement or it’s an addition to the team. You lose a little bit of perspective as you go, and it’s always good to have fresh eyes. I can’t think of working anywhere else. This is a company that I grew up with from the Toy Story days and have many great friends there. I tried to look at it as just a shift over to a new era. The Good Dinosaur was going well, but the second act just wasn’t progressing as fast as we could. We ran out of time. Then, they decided to tell the story in a different way. It was hard.
When you hit these speed bumps, which everyone does in every career, you either let it crush you or you learn from it. I think I’m smarter afterwards. I put more credence in balancing home and work which I wasn’t doing before as much. I’m just a smarter person, and I really grew up in the Disney tradition – was very influenced and inspired by Disney and Pixar. We’re part of Disney, and so I wanted to keep going and see what else I could do for this company. The good thing is I’m still me, and I can still do the things I did in Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo. I went forward with other projects, and Forky worked out. Now, I’m on something new, which is a blast.
AD: I should have started with saying congratulations on Emmy nomination for Forky. I know that’s incredibly rewarding.
BP: Well, thank you. You know, it struck me today, it’s so interesting that Pixar won its first Emmy nomination with a short where the talent found their way in television. You have Carol Burnett. I grew up in The Carol Burnett Show. I grew up on Mary Tyler Moore. I grew up with Betty White and Carl Reiner with all the Steve Martin movies and Get Smart. That was great comedic TV. For me, it’s so cool that Pixar’s first television Emmy is us working with these TV legends. It’s fun. It’s the first time we’ve gone into streaming, and it’s our first chance at winning an Emmy. So even just getting nominated is great.
AD: I want to dive into the process around “What is Love?” which is the episode for which you’re nominated. But first, I want to get a little bit of a backstory. How did the idea to have Forky come out of Toy Story 4 and now explain humanity effectively on the streaming series?
BP: That was me. I was working on other shows and saw Toy Story 4 screenings. I caught wind of Forky. It’s Tony Hale, who I love from Arrested Development. I thought that’s somebody that we could continue and have fun with. I just pondered what we could do, and I love the fact that Forky is so nascent, so new to the to the world. Yet, he has this strange wisdom at times or knows vocabulary that other people don’t know. I thought, personally, that would be interesting to just ask simple questions in almost an educational show sort of way. What are the things? What’s that? What’s this thing? I could have taken it super educational, but I decided to play off Forky’s child-like attention span. He kind of takes a left-hand turn in most of these. Why not make this just a show about what is the world?
The thing that I I kind of sparked on was pairing him with characters from Toy Story 4 and earlier Toy Story movies that don’t get as much uninterrupted screen time. I started thinking about who I wanted to pair Forky with, and then that gave me an idea of what questions to ask. I love Rex, Wallace Shawn as the voice. I love that dinosaur, and so I wanted him to pair with Forky. The two of them I knew would just be silly in different ways together, and then I thought what about time. This is a dinosaur that wishes he could have seen the real dinosaurs, and so that came out as far as time.
When I caught wind that Josh Cooley, the director of Toy Story 4, got to work with these comedic legends — Betty, Carol, Carl and Mel — I just wanted to hide myself away in a trunk and open it up just so I could be there. Then, I thought I’m putting them in [Forky] because I’ll get to work with them. I started thinking about their different personalities and how each could come across. Maybe these guys, since they’re seniors, they’re wise about the ways of the world. Why not go with love? So that organically turned into this over-the-top soap opera.
AD: Working with those legendary actors, what did you take away from the experience?
BP: First of all, it’s like, what the heck am I sitting here telling them anything? Then, I was able to just appreciate their different styles. They all have an amazing work ethic from the 50s and 60s. They buckled down. They get in, they learn the material, and then they go. Part of that go is being silly, but they get at it. I didn’t really have much time with any of them, maybe an hour here or there total. I was amazed at their ability to quickly learn what they needed to do.
I was also amazed by the fact that three of them are in their mid-to-late 90s. After all these years, that comedy is not going away. For me, it’s a career high. I just I feel very lucky. I loved how they approach comedy, and I loved how they made it their own. Each of their personalities comes out, especially Carl Reiner. Now that he’s passed, I’m so lucky to have been involved with him and all four of these folks. It’s precious cargo. You want them to really sing in something. It was just a career experience for me, and one that I’ll never forget.
AD: That’s amazing, and it’s the cherry on top of the sundae to have this be the episode for which you’re Emmy nominated clearly.
BP: Yeah, for sure, and the other part of this is Tony Hale. Tony Hale never fails to make me laugh. I interviewed him in front of Pixar, and he’s just such a lovely person. Buster Bluth is just one of the damn funniest funniest characters put on the TV screen. So, he was no slouch. The bummer is that none of these people got to work together on this. I got to work with them, but none of them came into the same room. I’m always amazed how we can stitch together something that seems like people have been together, but they haven’t. Yeah, it was amazing.
AD: When you’re looking at the topics that Forky would review on each of these 10 episodes, were they all derived organically from looking at the character with which you wanted pair him?
BP: Yes, that’s exactly it. Looking at the side characters led me to thinking that, for example, Bonnie Hunt’s character Dolly is the leader of the room, so I thought it would be funny to do one on leadership with her. I reserved one that made no sense, which is “What is Cheese?” with Jeff Garland’s Buttercup, the unicorn. That’s just pure farce, pure weirdness. It’s starts with “What is Cheese?” Then we go through the universe learning a speed-teach version of everything there is, and then Forky still wants to know about cheese. That one just really didn’t have much basis in anything other than silliness.
AD: So, I know you probably can’t answer this, but I’ll ask it anyway. What are you working on next?
BP: Well, I’m still working in streaming. What I generally say when people ask is it just hasn’t been announced yet, but it’s something close to my heart. We’re really enjoying what we’re doing, so I’m sure it’ll be announced soon.
AD: Isn’t that usually the case with Pixar? That’s one of the things I always hear about Pixar: they’re always working on things that are close to their hearts.
BP: Definitely, but this project is really close to my heart. They’ll never compete with this. [Laughs] I think it’s true. I think we have characters that you can rally behind and are fun to work with. I was the voice of Roz, and just Roz herself was such a curmudgeon that she ended up being fun. I think we tend to craft characters that animators can sink their teeth into and create good work with.
AD: And great stories too.
BP: Yeah, that too. [Laughs] It’s a long process, but it’s very rewarding. At this point for me, it’s who you’re working with more than what you’re working on. I’m working with such wonderful people. That’s what makes me happy, and it’s icing on the cake to do these great projects as well.
AD: That’s fantastic. Bob, thank you so much for the time. This has been a real treat for me, and I now I get to tell my kids and I just talked to Dug.