Lisa Henson on ‘Lily the Unicorn,’ girl power, and the Jim Henson Company

Lily the unicorn, the titular character of Amazon’s new series Lily the Unicorn, isn’t your average mythical creature. And that’s GOOD—it’s Lily’s unique brand of unconventional whimsy that’s ushering in a new era at the Jim Henson Company, led by CEO Lisa Henson.

Henson worked 10 years at Warner Bros. and was president of production of Columbia Pictures before she returned to the family company (she’s the daughter of the beloved puppet pioneer Jim Henson). Now she’s modernizing the company in a bold way by spearheading a slew of female-driven creative ventures, subverting stereotypically feminine archetypes with a smart, strong twist, and creating new characters to love. We were thrilled to chat with her about her amazing work, the company’s awesome new projects, and of course, Lily the Unicorn!

Hi Lisa! So you’ve had an extensive career prior to becoming CEO at the Jim Henson Company in 2003. What prompted you to find your own way instead of immediately joining the family business?

It was important to me to have an understanding of the industry outside of our family because as I was growing up the Jim Henson company was really the premiere puppet company, the only company of its kind. Everything was so unique within that company. No other company was that way with a cast of puppeteers and puppet builders. So I think just having a more generalized education in the entertainment business…for quite a long time I was outside the company. It was a good perspective to bring back.

Absolutely. What would you say is your proudest achievement at the Jim Henson Company as of 2015?

My biggest achievement of my career was launching and producing the show “Sid the Science Kid.” We went on air with that in 2008, and we basically recreated the company in 2003, we had some different company upheavals. We sold the company, we bought it back, we had a bunch of challenges, and when we got reinvested in the future of the company we decided we want to focus on the digital puppetry, it’s a new technology and no one had done it before.

A very visionary executive at PBS Kids named Linda Simensky agreed to make 40 half hours with this new technology. And having the chance to bring out a brand new educational show on PBS as the first production with that technology was so rewarding. For me being involved on the educational side of a PBS show—which the Henson company wasn’t on that side of for Sesame Street, my dad created those wonderful characters, designed and puppeteered them, and created those puppet segments—but the educational part was done by a staff of educators. So we had the really fun challenge and rewarding task of creating a science curriculum for pre-schoolers. The whole project was amazing on every level.

So all these three new creative ventures the Jim Henson Company is putting out really seem to have a strong focus on female characters. Is that intentional or just happenstance?

It is a purposeful initiative for us. For these three shows that we’re developing, we’re trying new things in three regards. All three of them are 2D animation which is a medium that we as a company have very rarely done. You’re a big fan of Muppet Babies (writer’s note: I am), that’s pretty much the only 2D animation the company produced. So we’re excited to be trying something new. Everything old is new again, right? TV is still a great medium for kid’s animation.

All three are a little bit for older kids. Dot is for older pre-schoolers, but Lily the Unicorn and The Enchanted Sisters is for an older age group. Lily in particular is for older kids, like 10 to 12 year olds would love it. And it’s kind of a show we’ve made for ourselves, a lot of us at the company just grew up loving animation, and we love weird, random, highly comic animation. If I were a kid today I would’ve been the girl that loves Adventure Time, and Regular Show.

Oh definitely, I still love it right now!

Yeah, but those shows don’t have strong female characters in the lead. So when we said we wanted to develop a show in that genre starring a girl, we did meet with a bit of resistance. Amazon was just great, they saw that that’s something people weren’t doing and we should do one. So it’s been a really fun task to develop a really funny show—its not an educational show—it’s like a comedy about a lovable weirdo.

I’d like to say that we at the Henson Company have always done lovable weirdos, but its time that some of the lovable weirdos should be girls. They don’t always have to be the pretty character, or the bossy character, they can just be the lead character.

She [Lily] is sort of a funny character that’s sort of the antithesis of the sparkly magical unicorn that might be on other shows. She’s kind of ungainly looking and she’s a weirdo, but she’s so confident and one of a kind, she’s the only unicorn in her school. But she loves that, she loves to be unique and up to anything. She’s a bit wild.

When I actually saw Lily I thought, “Wow, she’s not a sparkly, slender, majestic Kate-Moss-of-Unicorns. She’s adorable, but she’s kind of round. And in that image she’s with a giraffe with a bob cut and braces and glasses, and I thought, “That’s great, that’s so me.”

The girl character is just as unusual as guy characters in that genre. Her best friend is a boy character named Roger the Penguin who really doesn’t like challenge or going outside of his comfort zone, so her role is always to drag him along to try something different.

She’s sort of up for anything, and she’s also extremely lucky. In the pilot she does this song and it instantly goes viral. But you’re right, she’s not a majestic, magical unicorn, she’s kind of clumsy and awkward looking, which we love.

See, I was actually wondering if those sort of aesthetics were intentional…? Because I feel like that’s so important for young girls who don’t, well, feel like a slender, sparkly unicorn every day, so to speak.

Exactly, most of us feel like we look like Lily the Unicorn. Most girls probably have that inner image of themselves more than the magical perfect unicorn.

Dallas Clayton is such an interesting writer, artist, creator, we were big fans of his Awesome Books. The Awesome Books have this wild imagination and a very positive outlook on life, but they weren’t necessarily character driven. Lily the Unicorn is his first character book and we just fell in love with it immediately, and to our great pleasure Amazon wanted the TV show to look just like the books, and we’re like, “Oh, that’s amazing!” Because the books are drawn in such a quirky style and now the show just like it, it’s a great style. And Dallas wrote the script, did all the character designs and he’s one of the EPs of the show. He’s got a great voice…but he’s not a girl. (laughs)

What are your other female-fronted projects about?

Dot is based on the book by Randi Zuckerberg, and she’s sort of a younger tech girl; she’s really tactile with technology. She represents the way kids are today, which you don’t see that much on TV, you don’t see kids using technology in a very comfortable digital native type of way. That is an older pre-school show. It’s also going to be a useful show for parents to see modeled a healthy relationship between technology and real world activities for kids, because she also gets out, fishes, scavenger hunts and does all sorts of things in the real world, too.

For Randi Zuckerberg it was really important to do a book like that starring a girl because she worked in Silicon Valley, and she was so aware of the gap. She wondered, “Where did all the girls go?” Girls are naturally interested in technology. She really wanted to have a book that would help close the gap with girls in tech.

And Enchanted Sisters is this book series that we have in development, we do have it in development as a TV series but it’s this really charming book series we’d love for people to get turned onto. The Enchanted Sisters is about princesses, because we know that girls love princesses, and while the Disney Princesses are very awesome and powerful to girls, they’re not really our style. One is the princess of winter, and she lives in a magical igloo castle. It’s got a wish-fufillment and fantasy, but it is a little more wholesome because it is connected to nature and not about marrying a Prince Charming.

Also the themes are all about friendship. They’re great friends for each other. And those adventures put their friendship to the test. We know that girls of a certain age, particular a kind of 10-year-old girl, tend to be very interested in issues of friendship. Like what is a true friend, what’s a best friend, what does it mean to be loyal, do you have to do everything together? So basically the subject matter is friendship and what it matters for girls.

It’s interesting, because with something like Adventure Time they have eccentric princesses that are hot dogs or slime, and with Princess Bubblegum you have a girl that does take a healthy interest in science. But at the end of the day, these characters are mostly used to fuel Finn’s adventures, whereas it’s great that you’re trying to bring these concepts to the front instead of having them be an aspect of the show.

Yeah, it’s really put girls in the lead role that we need to be more consciously pursuing. Not just saying “We have good female characters” or “We have a balance.” We still have shows starring boy characters, too, but we really felt it was time to have shows starring girls.

That sounds amazing, and we totally agree! If you have any little sisters, daughters, or just a love of quirky cartoons, check out the pilot of Lily the Unicorn on Amazon right now.

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(Images courtesy of the Jim Henson Company, Shutterstock)