Michelle Obama’s ‘Waffles + Mochi’ Gay BFF: Meet Jonathan Kidder and Busy the Bee
Busy the Bee on Netflix’s “Waffles + Mochi” may or may not be gay. (Mostly, he’s just a sassy bee.) But proud, out puppeteer Jonathan Kidder hopes that he can inspire LGBT kids.
As Michelle Obama sits at a picnic table in a bucolic rooftop garden, surrounded by bushels of organic vegetables and pots brimming with pastel-colored flowers like overflowing Easter baskets, a bespectacled bee is buzzing around her.
A busybody by trait and by name, Busy the Bee is the manager of Mrs. O’s grocery store in the new Netflix series, Waffles + Mochi. A Sesame Street-meets-Anthony Bourdain entry into the kid-TV-verse, Waffles + Mochi serves up the former first lady’s mission to spark youth curiosity in healthy eating with a smoothie of adorable whimsy, goofy trippiness, and almost sarcastic humor.
“You need a little savory. You need a little sweet,” says Jonathan Kidder, the puppeteer behind Busy the Bee, likening the show to one of the dishes that titular puppets Waffles—a part-Yeti, part-waffle creature—and Mochi—a chirping Japanese rice cake giving Baby Yoda a run for his cuteness crown—travel the world to learn about. “And I bring in the spice.”
Kidder doesn’t just get to play Abbot to Michelle Obama’s Costello in the duo’s kid-friendly, grocery-store comedy act. (Mrs. O almost never appears without Kidder’s exasperated, wise-cracking bee mid-meltdown at her side.) He is also one of children’s puppeteering only openly out gay creatives.
That’s a significance he tries to imbue Busy with, in hopes that the intrinsic sass that explodes from both puppet and puppeteer might resonate with a young LGBT audience—especially as homosexuality continues to be one of the last taboo topics in kids’ programming.
After so many years spent learning to be comfortable in his own skin and identity—let alone those of the puppets he’d perform with—Kidder is doing it all with the megaphone he’s been given, thanks to his position under the table next to the former first lady of the United States’ knees, where he hides so Busy can fly.
Michelle and Barack Obama’s production company Higher Ground won an Oscar for the documentary American Factory and, with Bruce Springsteen’s help, has arrived in the podcast space in a major way. But Waffles + Mochi is its first scripted offering. “Their production company is called Higher Ground Productions. I like to say I represent Lower Ground Productions,” Kidder says, joking about his vantage point puppeteering from the floor.
He laughs: “You have to start at the bottom and then work your way up.”
Kidder estimates that he was asked to perform as Busy and work so closely with Obama because his friends that cast him in the show—creators Erika Thormahlen and Jeremy Konner, and Michelle Zamora, who performs as Waffles—thought of him as the kind of person who, he says, “brings the party.”
It doesn’t take long to understand what he means by that, and why that kind of energy would be useful on the high-pressure, top-security closed set where, despite that stress, the former first lady is supposed to somehow perform as playful.
Minutes into our Zoom, he tours me through the flower garden outside his window, under which his dog, Hibiscus Rose, is sunbathing. Flowers are big in his life; his parents were florists in Oakland, where he grew up, and he spent a lot of time on the floor of the shop helping with the family business: “Even our dog could do wedding corsages.” A theatrical origin story for a theatrical guy.
He describes Waffles with all the dazzled intrigue of a red-carpet reporter reciting who’s who at the Oscars. “The illustrious Waffles herself! Parti-Yeti, part-waffle.” Then, in a flamboyant, hushed whisper: “Who is she? What is she? We don't know, but we love her.”
He’s spent years working in the educational theater space, specifically as a puppeteer in other productions that happened to center around nutrition. And that’s in addition to acting, modeling, and dancing.
He also moonlights as one-man party entertainment at weddings and receptions. You could book him to perform psychic readings using puppets—“never underestimate a psychic puppeteer,” he warns—or to draw “Kidderatures,” portraits of guests to use as icebreakers at the awkward start of events.
Later in the evening, he’ll resurface as Miss Fuego, a 7-foot-tall bird puppet that encourages attendees to dance. Then when it’s after hours, find him at the pool, where he’ll be shirtless and wearing a silicone mermaid tail as Merman Kidder, doing tarot cards readings while you dip your toes in the water. At the suggestion that any of this is strange—or anything but fabulous—he simply says, “What? You don’t have a silicone merman tail in your closet?”
His initial involvement with Waffles + Mochi was traveling the world with the show’s skeleton crew on international shoots as an assistant puppeteer. Impressed by his energy, the creators asked him to join the cast as Busy, a character that was still in development but which they felt could benefit from Kidder’s “dry, gay sass,” as he puts it.
They also felt that he’d be good at breaking the ice with Obama when it was time to film her scenes. Unsurprisingly, they got along like gangbusters. “She called me naughty,” Kidder brags.
It didn’t make it into the edit, of course. But the take was during an episode about the flavor umami (pronounced “ooh, mommy”). Kidder and Obama were encouraged to riff with each other, and at one point, he had Busy say, “All this talk about ‘umami.’ When are we going to talk about ‘udaddy?’”
She laughed and started making “udaddy” jokes of her own. “And that's the point where she looked down at me and just called me naughty.”
No one is saying that Busy, a puppet on Waffles + Mochi, is an actual gay bee. Although when asked about it, Kidder does joke, “Let's be honest. All puppets are a little bit gay.”
But the fact is that he was brought on to play the character because of who he is, and how that would be channeled through the puppet.
“They never said overtly, 'We need you to be as gay as possible, please,'” Kidder explains. “But I got the sense that they liked that I brought this diversity to the mix. My job was to let the character be colorful, and let my rainbow out through him.”
For someone who had a hard time accepting the fact that he was gay—and certainly understands the reasons he pursued a career as a puppeteer, in which he could literally hide his true self—there is something landmark about an out performer puppeteering a character “whose identity is questionable.”
“The way I looked at it is, if I was a gay kid, I would have really valued having a character that felt like I felt inside,” he explains. “That was maybe a little bit more flamboyant. But male. That was maybe a little bit more sassy. But also a dude. Then learning that the person who played that character was an out, proud gay man, that would have been amazing to encounter as a kid.”
The progress in gay representation in children’s entertainment is measured in very small, very slow steps and milestones. And when it does happen, predictable backlash follows from conservative critics crowing about family values and the so-called moral dangers of introducing children to the mere idea of the LGBT community. (Enjoy reading about the communities that banned an episode of Arthur after the PBS series showed a male teacher marrying another man.)
“I think in the industry, we get concerned about the conservative people, like, ‘Oh, no. We don’t want to upset such a large part of the audience,’” Kidder says. “But what about the children? What about the innocent children who are not having their reality affirmed? Who are going to grow up like me: fiercely codependent, a total people-pleaser, who’s created a false self?”
“That’s what happens when you don’t get your reality affirmed as a child, you create an adaptive personality to sort of survive the world because you think what you are isn’t good enough and doesn’t work,” he continues. “That is a very, very bad thing. Let’s stop worrying about the conservative view. Let’s start dealing with the young, innocent human beings who need to just be accepted for who they are.”
There’s an impressive amount of enlightenment coming from Kidder, an empath-psychic-spiritual-puppeteer-merman who had to work until his recent 40th birthday before he could really articulate it or understand it—especially the toll the journey took on him.
His passion now for being a role model of LGBT representation in the children’s entertainment space comes from knowing how systemic the struggle is for anyone discovering their identity. He remembers talking once to his father years after coming out, asking if he ever had a hard time with it. His dad responded, “No, I just wonder why you had such a hard time coming out.” Says Kidder, “He was waiting to accept me. But I was so afraid.”
Even when the path isn’t as bumpy as you thought, “It's so messed up to come out of the closet and realize everybody was always fine with you being gay,” he says.
He doesn’t know if a bee that he’s puppeteering on Netflix next to Michelle Obama will help with that, but maybe it will. He hopes it will. Just as he hopes flapping around a dancefloor as Miss Fuego, doing some psychic readings, or sliding into a merman tail could bring some light into the world. The biggest realization, though, has been that, by just being himself, he’s doing that, too.
“That is the kind of thinking and kind of living that’s allowed me to release the Kraken, if you will, to go ahead and order that merman tail,” he says. “That was a day I was like, ‘Am I really pressing this ‘complete purchase’ button? Like, I'm going to be that dude with a tail.’ But life is beautiful, and in the end, it’s just so cool that we get to do this stuff.”