This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on October 23, 2006. Partner content is not updated.
TV's This is Daniel Cook Gets New Host
What goes up must come down, and that's no less true in the high-stakes world of pint-sized TV stars. Take the case of Daniel Cook. Exactly one year ago, in its Oct. 17, 2005, issue, Maclean's ran a story called "Everybody loves Daniel," extolling the "beauty" of a homegrown eight-year-old who said exactly what he thought on his wildly successful show for preschoolers, This is Daniel Cook. Seven months later, the backlash hit. This spring, after 131 episodes of red-headed Daniel feeding a giraffe, milking a cow and riding a horse while rolling his eyes and interrupting adult guests, Internet chat rooms filled with invective. "A little brat," a Vancouver parent called him. "Uppity" and "rude," others chimed in. On a website manned by the children's TV channel Treehouse, which aired the show, yet another complained about his "horrifying" eating habits and about how he never washed his hands.
Last month, Daniel was replaced by another precocious host, seven-year-old firebrand Emily Yeung. She showed an early flair for inventiveness, allowing her newly stuffed zebra, Ariel, to pick her own outfit in one segment, and faking out Toronto Raptor Chris Bosh in a game of one-on-one in another. She also had the patience to sit still and be quiet while grown-up guests talked. "Much better," wrote a mother on canadianparents.com. "She actually pays attention." Wrote another, "Maybe having a little girl's perspective on things will be a refreshing change."
Emily is blithely unaware of the controversy - or the schadenfreude you can set off by being yourself and stumbling on national TV. She is just digesting the effects of early fame. This is EmilyYeung debuted on Treehouse in six million homes the day before school started. When she set foot in her Grade 2 classroom, her friends already knew she was a TV star in training. "They kept coming up to me and saying, over and over, 'I've seen your show, I've seen your show,' " Emily said via a conference call from her home in southwestern Ontario. It's hard to convey the idea of potential jealousy to a little girl who has just 10 minutes to talk before gymnastics, so the question is, "Do they want to be famous, too?" Says Emily, thoughtfully, "I don't know yet."
Besides, Emily doesn't want to talk about fame. What she really wants to talk about are her fish Cappy, Flippy and Diamond (all deceased), her Halloween costume (she is going as Princess Jasmine, the heroine of Aladdin, with a stuffed lion painted to look like Jasmine's pet tiger, Rajah), and how she has baths with "little fizzy things that look like English mints and make you smell good and change the colour of the water." J.J. Johnson, the 26-year-old co-creator and director of both This is shows, is in on the interview and he bursts into laughter at Emily's riffs. "Her mind just runs," he says. "She is brilliant and it comes from a genuine place, which is even better."
Understandably, Johnson and executive producer Mark Bishop, 30, need some prompting to offer comparisons between Emily and Daniel, but they know the questions are inevitable. Have they seen the nasty chat-room postings? "Yeah," says Bishop. "And it's funny, too, because I think kids relate to Daniel right away." Adults, he says, may not appreciate the fact that Daniel gets distracted. If a guest is talking and a plane flies overhead, he might look up and start talking about the plane, for example. "We would keep that in," says Bishop, "and maybe adults would interpret that as Daniel not paying attention, but for a six-year-old viewer, their mind isn't always focused."
Daniel also had a natural entre nous habit of reacting to the camera as if it was a person, says Johnson. "It's like he is in on it. Sometimes he will give a joke and a kind of wink." Johnson attributes this to Daniel's wonderfully playful personality. "Those kinds of critiques I don't really pay too much attention to," he says. "Kids cover the spectrum. They are happy and upset and bored and thrilled." Daniel often needed to be patient off-screen. "One time at the zoo in the rain," Bishop says, "we had 300 kids lined up to meet him like he was a rock star. Sometimes he likes a break."
Daniel is getting his break now, although he will go on to do another show, Dino Dan, with Johnson and Bishop, to air on TVO next year. As for Emily, she has a holiday special airing in early December, and even bigger plans for her eighth birthday next April. She wants an algae fish, she says. "He sticks to the side of the tank and sucks up the algae. You don't need to clean the tank so much. You could say he will be eating like a vacuum cleaner." You can see why the kids love her.
Maclean's October 23, 2006