When you’re living in the darkest timeline it’s important to find things that give off even the faintest glimmer of happiness. For me, it’s been rewatching all 10 episodes of the Disney+ animated short series “Forky Asks a Question.” Originally debuting in November 2019, before COVID-19 and stay-at-home orders were a part of our everyday lives, “Forky Asks a Question” was one of the first original series to premiere on the Disney streaming service — and it’s been a godsend in these times.
Each episode sees Forky (voiced by Tony Hale), of “Toy Story 4” fame, trying to figure out life’s questions with the help of various side characters in his owner Bonnie’s room. In Episode 5, Forky seeks to answer “What is love?” by talking to a host of older toys voiced by Carol Burnett, Betty White, Mel Brooks, and the late Carl Reiner. As Forky learns about love things take a turn for the dramatic, and all that drama has resulted in the series securing an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Short Form Animated Program.
“Forky Asks a Question” creator (and Pixar voice actor) Bob Peterson initially got the idea for the “What is Love?” episode while making up a whiteboard listing both the initial questions Forky would attempt to answer, as well as the side characters Peterson wanted to see the character play off of. When Peterson discovered “Toy Story 4” director Josh Cooley was working with “giants of comedy” like Burnett, Brooks, White, and Reiner, Peterson said he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to include them on the series.
In trying to figure out how best to use the quartet, Peterson drew on Burnett’s penchant for melodrama, best exemplified in her work on “The Carol Burnett Show.” “I thought it would be perfect to pair an innocent like Forky with characters who have such wisdom,” Peterson said. He also wanted to create a tribute to the actors who he had grown up with, and who helped him shape the type of comedy he wanted to demonstrate on the series.
The recording sessions were filmed over a two-day period on the back-end of the group’s voice recording for “Toy Story 4,” leaving Peterson with just 30 minutes to capture everyone. The showrunner says everyone had an amazing work ethic, a throwback to their work in the 1950s and ’60s when television was filmed so quickly. Peterson was incredibly terrified and intimidated to work with such legends. “[Burnett] came and was tall and regal. I was not prepared,” Peterson said. “I stood next to her explaining things and my knees are knocking. I was just so in awe.” Burnett was a pro, though, Peterson said, immediately launching into a comedy routine that could have been filmed on her series back in the day.
Betty White was next, and working with her was a bit of an emotional experience for Peterson, who said the “Golden Girls” actress looked like his late mother who passed away a few years ago. “She was so willing to step up to the plate,” he said. Brooks, according to Peterson, was incredibly confident, unsurprising considering his work as both an actor and director. And Reiner, who recorded his lines in his own house “was so grandfatherly,” Peterson said, and wanted the group to stay and look at some of the things Reiner himself was working on.
Peterson said it’s still surreal to know Reiner, who passed away June 30 at the age of 98, is gone. “I was so thankful that I got even just a brief moment with him where our lives crossed,” Peterson said. “From the beginning I knew this was precious cargo…[and] when I look back at it now I’m really glad that we showed Carl Reineroceros [his character in the series] having this loving, sensitive side to him, which was partly Carl.” But, really, everything about “What is Love?” seems surreal to the creator. Peterson would watch Brooks, Reiner, Burnett, and White record their lines and he would give side glances to the crew who were all in amazement that they could pull these people together.
The Emmy nomination was “a great way to wake up,” Peterson said. “I knew it was out there, submitted [for consideration], but I’ve kind of been doing other things. It was a great surprise and made me feel really good for the whole team that I work with.” And with COVID-19 continuing to change our way of life, Peterson said he’s grateful that the series can provide some happiness for families, especially small children. Peterson’s still trying to figure out how he’ll celebrate the Emmys, whether he’ll wear a tux and do a funny Zoom background. But, regardless of the logistics, he knows he’ll be celebrating with his own family.
When asked if audiences can expect Forky to return, Peterson is ambivalent. “It’s kind of in my court whether to go on with it,” he said. “At the moment I’m so busy with the next streaming project demo that I haven’t really written any scripts or pondered, but it’s still a possibility.” That being said, Peterson says his next project — which he can’t discuss as it hasn’t been announced yet — is one close to his heart and will bring a lot of joy to fans. So while these 10 episodes of “Forky Asks a Question” might be all we’ll get, Peterson has plenty more up his sleeve.
“Forky Asks a Question” is available to stream on Disney+.