Mo Willems is very serious about the importance of being silly.
That’s apparent to the children and adults tickled by “There is a Bird on Your Head!” or “We are in a Book!” or any of the author and illustrator's other much-loved works.
But the former “Sesame Street” writer is after more than giggles with his new HBO Max special out Thursday, “Don’t Let the Pigeon Do Storytime!”
Willems’ intent is to perform what he calls a “shame-ectomy” on adults, freeing them to embrace creative high jinks and inspire the children in their lives to do likewise.
The special includes the frustrated bird introduced in “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!” along with a truly game troupe of celebrities who give themselves over to sketches reflecting Willems’ brand of boisterous storytelling with a kid-safe edge.
The children lucky enough to attend last summer's Kennedy Center taping clearly had a blast, their beaming faces captured in close-ups as Willems puts Anthony Anderson, Yvette Nicole Brown and Tony Hale, among others, through their paces, aided by on-screen graphics and sound effects maestro Fred Newman (“Prairie Home Companion”).
A pint-sized TV viewer, however, might find the shenanigans less involving at a distance — and besides, what’s with Bobcat Goldthwait as the director of a children’s show?
Willems quickly and politely corrects the questioner.
“This special is not a kid’s special. It’s not made for kids, it’s made for the parents and the grandparents, aunts and uncles, trying to give them a shame-ectomy,” he said. “The kids are cool. Kids can jump up and down and yell and be silly. But a lot of grown-ups have lost their ability to be silly.”
Seeing the special’s Story Time All Stars act out — whether it’s Anderson bouncing up and down or Rachel Dratch pretending to munch on a kilt — “it gives you permission to do that,” Willems said.
Creativity in adults provides a wellspring for children, said Willems, who describes himself as deciding to “really be on the kids' side.”
He wasn't just paying a visit to New York's prestigious Kennedy Center: Willems is its education artist-in-residence, responsible for a variety of projects. An ongoing one (through Oct. 23) is the Small Works campaign, which invites people to share how they’re helping the well-being of others. In return, a daily winner receives a palm-sized piece of original art from Willems.
In an online video, Willems says that today's heavy burdens of injustice, illness and other woes can be confounding. But maybe by tackling “just a little bit of the world,” he suggests, we can move the needle to kindness and beauty.
While his artistry is clearly connected to heart as well as head, he refuses to be labeled saccharine. In explaining why Goldthwait was right for the HBO Max special, Willems describes him as a talented director and someone who is interested “in the truth and not sugarcoating it.”
“And my books are not, 'A happy, happy bunny went to a happy place and met a happy thing and it was a happy day," Willems said.
True that. In “Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale,” one of his several Caldecott Honor-winning books, a child is distraught when her beloved stuffed animal is left behind at a laundromat. (For the record, Willems says the “K” in Knuffle is pronounced, in honor of his Dutch ancestry.)
“The bunny is put through a washing machine,” the author notes, clarifying the tragedy's depth. “It's worse than ‘Modern Times.’”
The reference is to Charlie Chaplin's 1936 silent film classic, in which his Little Tramp character slips from an assembly line into the maw of a giant machine and, like Knuffle Bunny, survives.
It's a sly comparison that befits Willems, who matches the verve of Dr. Seuss and empathy of Mister Rogers with his own contemporary sensibility. But he gives credit for his artistic style and attitude to Charles Schulz and “Peanuts.”
“Charlie Brown is a circle and his nose is a letter C," which Willems said he could replicate as a child. “All of my characters are designed to be easy enough to copy, so that a 5-year-old could go out and make stories with my characters.”
He notes another parallel: “Peanuts” is a comic strip in which everyone is miserable, “and that's the Pigeon, right there.”
The lanky, shaggy-haired artist also is deft at engaging across all forms of media. There's other HBO Max projects ahead, and for the Kennedy Center, he's at work on a short opera or "slopera,” inspired by his Elephant and Piggy book “I Really Like Slop!” He's written a symphonic piece with Ben Folds slated for next spring and made large-scale abstract images based on Beethoven's Ninth Symphony to serve as audience meditation aids.
Where does he get the energy?
“It is a privilege to get to work, and I don’t want to waste that privilege,” Willems said.