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This is J.J. Johnson

The mind behind popular kids' show "This is Daniel Cook" keeps his ideas young, fresh and cutting edge

By James Koole

J.J. Johnson
To this point, J.J. Johnson’s entire career has been defined by a precocious kid in a bright orange shirt.

Eight-year-old Daniel Cook yells out “Here we are!” at the start of every one of his shows. He’s the host of This Is Daniel Cook, and he’s a bona fide celebrity – even outside of the preschooler demographic.

J.J. Johnson, the show’s creator, did the same thing, proclaiming, “Here I am!” when he burst onto the scene in 2002. Unproven, with a pilot in hand, he took an idea and a kid to a couple of Canada’s children’s broadcasters, and convinced them to give him a shot at making a new kind of television show for preschoolers.

Johnson had been working for a talent agency while in his final year in radio and television arts at Ryerson University. He says he wasn’t exactly a star student. “I must admit that I didn’t intern or do all of those things that I should have done throughout school, so I graduated with no on-set experience whatsoever.” He described his job as being at “the lower end of the TV spectrum and as far removed from production as you could probably get.”

It was there that he first met Daniel.

Johnson’s job often involved entertaining kids while their parents spoke to the talent agent. He remembers the day Daniel, then five years old, came in. “So I’m talking to him and we were just talking about Transformers, and he was just a really cool ¬ – he was certainly confident around adults and you could tell he was really interested in learning what your interests were, so he caught me off guard a little bit,” he recalled.

“When his parents left, the agent came down and was like, ‘That kid deserves his own show.’” Johnson says that comment, combined with his impression of Daniel, got him thinking about what kind of show that might be.

Johnson quickly ruled out the usual kinds of programming. Animation was too expensive and he wasn’t knowledgeable about it, and he ruled out puppetry confessing to “a life-long fear of puppets.”

His idea was deceptively simple – a magazine-style show with a preschooler as host.

Much to his surprise, when Johnson starting doing some research, he realized it hadn’t been done before. He discussed his idea with a school buddy, Blair Powers, and the two started planning to shoot a pilot to “see if this could work.”

Johnson and Powers formed Sinking Ship Productions and shot the pilot episode over two days in and around Toronto, visiting a fire station, a chocolate maker and other locations. In Johnson’s words, the shoot was “spectacular.”

With footage in hand, the two got to work making the show.

“Over the next few months we edited it, we shot an opening, we had original music composed – we really did go all out with making sure all the elements were there.”

“We sent that pilot out with a one-sheet to every kids’ broadcaster in the country. After having heard through school that it takes six months to a year for anyone to respond to you, if they even choose to, I was settling back into the agency job.”

Much to his surprise, he got a call from TV Ontario the very next day.

Patricia Ellingson, creative head of children’s and youth programming at TV Ontario, says she sees a lot of ideas from students. She’s always willing to meet students, and give them some advice. “Typically a lot of the stuff that comes in is inappropriate and isn’t a real TV show – it’s usually an idea and hasn’t become a show yet, or the idea has been done 300 times before and isn’t terribly original,” she says.

“So, you sort of listen and you try and politely not strip them down completely and make them think they’ve chosen the wrong career.”

But Johnson was different.

“I was impressed with his good sense of what children’s television was about,” she says, noting that Johnson was “somebody who was committed to doing children’s television and not just anything and everything.”

Ellingson knew the idea was strong. Because Johnson and Sinking Ship showed not only a commitment to children’s television, but also a thorough understanding of what it entailed, she had fewer concerns about their relative inexperience.

Johnson recalls having to confront that “So, you’ve done nothing” reaction. “I think a lot of it is self-motivation,” he says. “I think you have to be conscious of where you are in the industry.”

Ellingson suggested Johnson partner with an established production company to help with the business end of things. “It’s not even so much the inexperience. It’s very expensive making a television show and typically smaller producers will get in very deep financially without realizing what it takes to pull off a series,” she says.

Johnson agreed and partnered with marblemedia, a small Toronto-based company that TVO had worked with before.

Bonita Segal, director of original productions for Corus Kids Channels, had a similar experience with Johnson. She recalls hearing about “a program that was a little boy who did interviews.” Looking for programming with real kids for Corus’ Treehouse TV channel, Segal sought out Johnson to get a copy of the pilot, and to see what the show was all about. “I just thought it was fabulous, and so I wanted it right away,” she says.

Segal says they wanted to help bring the idea to the screen, and that Johnson was willing to take any advice and help that was offered. “I’ve worked with new people before and it was impossible to teach them. This was not the case with them,” she says.

Segal says Johnson and his company have a great vision and a passion for what they do. “They’re pretty bright. People may underestimate them and assume that they haven’t thought this through. Whenever we’ve said, ‘Well, you know, why are you doing this?’they obviously had thought it through in great detail and were not doing stuff on a whim.”

She appreciates that Johnson likes to maintain control of his projects. “As the [broadcaster who writes the cheques], I can recognize that people need to have control. They do need to have passion, and they do need to have vision. And that’s what I’m looking for when people make shows for me. And the best shows that I’ve ever gotten have been from people who are like that.”

Segal notes Johnson is always learning, always continuing his education. “Whenever there’s a conference, he’s there.”

Clearly, it’s taken more than just an idea, more than just hard work, more than just a talented kid, and it takes more than luck.

Ellingson raves about Johnson. “Already everything he does has a unique feel and approach, and this guy is going to be – I hate to pump him up too much because he’ll have to live up to it – but he’s like [Steven] Spielberg.”

It sounds like hype, but Ellingson sees something special in the young producer-director. “He’s unique, he’s focused, and he’s passionate. He just eats it up. He lives this day in and day out and he loves children’s television – he just loves it. It’s not work for him. It’s a passion, and some people would call it a calling. He’s got it.”

Johnson lived with the fear that he’d be seen as a one-trick pony. “I had nightmares about it,” he remarks.

But Sinking Ship has four new shows in production, including Are We There Yet, a travel show for kids, hosted by kids, in partnership with National Geographic. Also on the slate is Roll Play, which aims to get kids off the couch and exercising. TVO’s Ellingson says Roll Play is “the thing I’m most disappointed in not getting, because it’s a brilliant piece.”

Johnson and Sinking Ship continue to work hard to innovate and to create new shows. “I think we have established ourselves in live-action preschool, which is wonderful to work in, but we are already now setting the stage for pilots that take us out of that area. Just because I think for us, too, it would be nice to get some distance after the shows that we’re doing personally, to kind of show that we can pull something else off.”