Jonathan Kidder is living many Americans’ dreams in his role acting as Michelle Obama’s right-hand man in the new hit show, “Waffles and Mochi.” The puppeteer, model and actor co-stars as Busy — the bee famous for always wearing an oversized, yet adorable, tie — who is the grocery store’s manager and former first lady’s literal wingman.
In the show, Michelle Obama surrounds herself with lovable puppets reminiscent of characters from The Muppets. Three days after the children’s series was released in March, the show hit the number six ranking “in the U.S. top ten” on Netflix.
Aside from puppeteering and performing the voice over work for the Busy bee, Kidder is the assistant puppeteer for the entire eight-episode series.
“I was honored to bring this new character to life, and I hope you tune in and get cooking with us,” Kidder told The News Station in an exclusive interview. “It’s a beeeeeelightful show, and I had a blast working on it.”
Kidder is the only gay creator in “Waffles and Mochi.” He is — and has always been — passionate about using his platform to build accessibility for other gay folks like himself. In our interview for The News Station, he explains sometimes people spew homophobic remarks, but when you’re puppeteering, no one judges a feminine male puppet or a masculine female puppet. Puppets are just puppets, which is partly why Kidder loves them so.
But Kidder is so much more than just Busy the bee.
He grew up in California, where his parents owned a flower shop. They instilled a love for the creative and eccentric arts in him. Kidder spent many afternoons drawing sketches of the customers coming in and out of the family store.
His goal now — after puppeteering for about 20 years — is to imbue the characters he plays with a bit of gay sass in an effort to resonate with his LGBTQIA+ audience. Even in today, homosexuality is one of the most taboo topics in kid’s television programming.
Kidder’s intent on changing that.
He’s also a model, appearing in advertisements for Chase, Stitch Fix and an epic commercial for Diet Coke in which he and his boyfriend sat in the backseat of an Uber. Taking on LGBTQIA roles dispels the stigma associated with homophobia, he says, which he believes stems from fear of the unknown.
In addition to puppeteering and acting, Kidder manages the VIP sections at the annual music festival Coachella where her’s an art director behind the scenes. He also worked with Angelina Jolie throughout the production of the film “Unbroken.”
I planned on asking questions about the show. However, Kidder’s publicist informed me an hour prior to our interview he’s no longer permitted to speak about “Waffles and Mochi.” This felt like a flop, but in the end we were all given an intimate look at this fascinating man behind the puppet.
During our interview for The News Station, Jonathan Kidder spoke out about what inspired him to become a puppeteer, the homophobia he has faced in the industry, how he responds to this form of hate and so much more.
The below interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
The News Station: When did you begin puppeteering?
Jonathan Kidder: In middle school, I had an art teacher who I’m still buddies with, Audrey Brown, and she changed my life. She ran an afterschool program, and our unit involved puppets for a whole week, and I blended the visual arts and the performing arts in such a perfect way for my young, gay mind who had been struggling with growing up.
I didn’t really want to stop playing with toys, you know, as a middle schooler, and it kind of gave me a way that I could continue to use my imagination and manipulate objects in the manner a child does when they are playing with toys. But technically, it was a profession, you know? There could be a future in this. I began getting paid in my early 20s.
TNS: Would you say your experiences in school inspired you to pursue puppetry as a career?
Jonathan Kidder: Absolutely. What drew me to puppetry was the blend of the visual and performing arts. And also, as a young kid, I started to become a people pleaser. I had trouble being myself. I have been in this industry for about two decades.
TNS: I’m a people pleaser, too, I get it.
Jonathan Kidder: Yeah, and I’m only recently learning new, effective vocabulary about it to the point where I’m having major breakthroughs. I hired a PR person to set up interviews. I would never have done that before.
What is so appealing about puppetry is that it’s a way for me to hide and say what I really want to say without getting caught. People will hear anything with a puppet on my hand, and it’s a very effective mask, really.
TNS: Do you ever feel like you’re not the main star since your face isn’t shown while holding a puppet?
Jonathan Kidder: I don’t want to say that I prefer it, but I will say that in a way, it is safer. You don’t really get the same credit as a puppeteer as you do as an actor.
The entertainment industry doesn’t honor puppeteers in the same way that they honor actors, even though in many respects you’re working on multiple characters, multiple voices and manipulating an object, which is very hard work. So you don’t get the same kind of recognition that you do when you are in front of the camera.
I’m also an actor, character actor, comic actor and model, so I’ve definitely had my face in front of the camera.
TNS: Regular actor or only voice over?
Jonathan Kidder: Both. I think of myself as a comedic actor, a character actor. Those are the roles that I audition for more and more. I’m asking my management to submit me for gay characters. In entertainment we are known as a certain type, and I love that I’ve been able to amplify visibility for people on the queer spectrum by being cast as queer characters.
That has happened a lot for me in commercials, actually, for instance, being cast with a boyfriend for a fairly normal commercial for Diet Coke. Me and my boyfriend were in the back of an Uber, and it was clear that we were romantically involved.
The ability to portray that to the world is pretty phenomenal, and I’m here to make a difference. I see with my fellow puppeteers how a lot of us come from a good and loving place. It takes a lot of humility to spend most of your time underneath a table. Puppeteers are a special crew. We’re also fairly mystical, as well, something I’ve noticed throughout my career.
TNS: Since you are also a model and actor, can you tell us any movies or commercials we might have seen you in?
Jonathan Kidder: Absolutely. You’ve seen me in a commercial for Vanguard Investments and Diet Coke. There were billboards everywhere. You’ve seen me in — what have I done recently? — I always wish I had a print out right next to me. It’s like when you’re at the SATs, and you’re like, “I know this! I know this!”
There’s a puppet show on Hulu called “Let’s Be Real,” and ironically the episodes also air on FOX. They’re political puppets, and I play a number of different politicians. At one point I’m Trump. There’s a scene where Trump is talking to Stormy Daniels. That’s me.
TNS: Are you pro-Trump?
Jonathan Kidder: Nooooo!
TNS: My daughter at 10-years-old is anti-Trump, too. She’s brilliant.
Jonathan Kidder: She sounds phenomenal. I puppeteer Trump and Biden, Kanye, it’s political. It’s a pretty funny project. Oh, Tucker Carlson while he gets his head beat up by a progressive alliance. It’s a pretty funny thing, and that’s on Hulu right now.
TNS: Have you experienced homophobia in the modeling, television and film industry?
Jonathan Kidder: There’s a spectrum to homophobia, overt or passive. But the answer is yes, I have. My belief about homophobia is that it’s really another form of suppressing women. The idea that manhood is superior to womanhood and that masculinity is superior to femininity is what drives homophobia.
And homophobia, I believe, is a fixed way of seeing things that womanhood, femininity and maternal qualities can’t express themselves however and wherever. That womanhood needs to be limited to a very selected, controlled place in society and that keeps manhood dominant.
When you have a man exhibiting feminine qualities, there is often homophobia. When you have a woman exhibiting masculine qualities, same ordeal. I believe that as human beings, we are all of the colors of the rainbow, each and every one of us. This is all a part of the joyful part of being on this planet, in these strange little bodies that we rent while we’re here — we have to turn these back at some point!
TNS: Nope, we don’t live forever!
Jonathan Kidder: Nope, and our masculine and feminine qualities aren’t tied to our plumbing, they’re spiritual qualities that breathe and move through us. I believe that as a puppeteer, I breathe life into objects. and I can let that life force energy breathe through me into the object I’m puppeteering — one with masculine qualities and feminine qualities have so much room in a puppet character to really come out and show up how they want to.
There’s less stigma around what a character is doing or saying compared to a person. So it’s an interesting art form to be involved in right now when the world is waking up to the expansiveness of our humanity. Our culture is finally starting to embrace the rainbow spectrum.
TNS: How do you cope with and react to people who are homophobic?
Jonathan Kidder: Working with children and in a field that is so oriented around kids — the question is, when do you grow up? When I interact with certain behavior, I’ve realized that the judgment is very immature behavior, like a grownup with a childlike mind.
But what helps me deal with adults who are coming from a place of hate and ignorance is remembering there’s fear behind homophobia, and I can see the child within that person.
When I had been a camp counselor and dealt with really upset children, I learned to step back and hold space for that human being, allowing them to be however they are. As a gay man, what I want is acceptance. That’s really what I hope for — people accepting me as I am and as I am not.
So if I want you to accept me for how I am, then I should accept you for how you are. And if you don’t understand my lifestyle or if my sexual orientation is confusing to you, I have space for that. I can deal with your misunderstanding, but I ask that you have space for me, too. That’s how I work it.
TNS: That’s really admirable of you. So going with that, what changes do you hope are made in this area over the next five years?
Jonathan Kidder: I would like to see a differentiation between the professional arena and the private arena. One of the things I hope changes is pronouns. I believe that everybody has they/them pronouns because it’s proper English to call someone “they” instead of “he.” That’s not an incorrect thing to say, right?
So I would like to get out of “are you a man or a woman? Do you identify with being male or female?” in the professional arena. I’d like to see actors being cast for their ability to perform and how they come across, with less interest in their home life — less interest in how they identify.
How did they read the lines? Does this person seem like they’d be a good fit for this character, yes or no? Everything else is irrelevant, and I’d like to see a clear distinction between people treating each other as human beings and having that be the first way we look at each other.
I believe that the healing of homophobia is really an equalization of the sexes. I would like to see women treated with more respect, I’d like to see women honored and acknowledged, not like a cause that needs to be lifted up but as just full-on human beings. I’d just like to see equality happening between the sexes and the natural outplaying of that across the rainbow spectrum of human beings.
TNS: Can you tell us about your journey towards emotional sobriety and the relation it has to puppetry?
Jonathan Kidder: Yes I can. Emotional sobriety is my favorite phrase right now. Addiction is trying to escape an intolerable reality. The journey of being present and in the moment, living in your own skin and inhabiting your life fully is to stop escaping.
The journey for me has been about self love, being willing to acknowledge the inner-child that still hasn’t completely grown up and who has some arrested development — I think we all suffer from that. I think part of being human is growing up, and it’s really, really difficult, and I have so many wonderful children in my life that I support and mentor, and I’m a godfather to many who call me Uncle Jonathan.
If sobriety is about being healthy and having healthy behavior, then that’s about being responsible, mature adults. The second step in the 12-step program is: “We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore our sanity.” What is sanity? The root of sanity is “sante,” which means health.
Children are learning how to be functional adults, and when they grow up, learning to keep their parents comfortable and please their parents and community — acting how their parents want them to in order to gain acceptance, approval and validation.
For a little gay boy who has very effeminate tendencies, sometimes they feel the need to butch it up, not act like a girl or throw like a girl. You start squishing out all of the female aspects of your character, and all of a sudden you’ve got this adaptive personality, and you’re escaping into fantasy, imaginary characters and an imaginary world — escaping into, eventually, substances.
But really for me emotional sobriety is about discovering that I don’t need approval from anyone else, and that I can have a powerful relationship with spirit and esteem, myself, and be willing to take good care of myself, not letting my self-hatred and perfectionism run my life train off of the track.
TNS: I’m anorexic and a former heroin addict, so I completely understand.
Jonathan Kidder: Wow. And thank you for sharing that. I appreciate your vulnerability.
I didn’t realize about emotional sobriety as a little boy, I started hiding. I escaped my reality when I was around eight years old and realized that I had a crush on one of the boys in my second grade class. Anyway, I realized I had a crush on this boy, and the kid started calling me gay because I was effeminate, and I thought that meant I was an evil, horrible thing.
Growing up, conversations about gay people portrayed them, me, as dangerous — so while I wasn’t sure what it all meant, I started fighting with who I was and trying to escape the nightmare I had began living. And what’s tricky about the arts and our careers is that they can also be a form of escape.
The main aspect of my emotional sobriety is not beating myself up with my inner-voices and inner-conversations. I have a character who is a phoenix that I created. Her name is Phoenix Kidderfeather.and I am developing a series with her about self talk. The phoenix represents self love and the third chakra, which is a symbol of the element fire, and it’s located in your stomach, where you’re said to better connect with the relationship with your inner self.
Since the element of that chakra is fire, I imagine my inner fire growing stronger, loving myself more, and everybody talking about Taco Tuesday. So I like to call it Self Talk-O Tuesday, and on that day of the week, I try to be extra mindful of my self-talk and call myself out on any negative phrases I say to myself in my mind. If I wouldn’t let anyone say the kinds of things I say to myself to a friend, why am I getting away with saying this to myself?
TNS: Do you have any final words you want to share with our audience?
Jonathan Kidder: To puppeteer is to breathe life into something, and I find that before I have my puppets talk or do a scene, I like to take a nice deep breath with my character to feel centered and grounded, and I find that taking a deep breath is what helps keep me grounded as a human, too. So if you want, we can take a deep breath together. I like to breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth, it helps oxygenate the blood. We can just breathe [Jonathan and I breathe in and out together slowly].
Breathing is everything, and puppets are endowing an inanimate object with life, and I teach puppetry a lot. I always start with breathing, it’s the first sign of life.
The last thing that comes to mind that I want to share with you is one of my favorite phrases in the emotional sobriety journey, “name it to tame it.” I like to give my inner voices names. One of my inner voices I refer to as my codependent voice, people-pleaser voice, who I named “Coco.” So when I notice that I’m having codependent thoughts of being a people pleaser, I’ll say to myself, “Hey Coco, I hear you, but sit down, honey.” Or in my perfectionist voice, “OK, I hear you Perfectionista, I hear you girl, but we’re cool, calm down.”
If puppetry is giving an object a personality, then giving your own inner-conversations a personality and name can help tame them and help you distinguish the difference between the authentic being, authentic thoughts and thoughts that are just part of growing up, which I still have to do.
[Jonathan Kidder then pulls out Felix the puppet and does a comedic bit for my 10-year-old daughter.]