Early shift for Amy Poehler

Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- Bessie Higgenbottom, the newest character to join the Nickelodeon lineup, may seem familiar to many parents who tune in with their children to watch her debut Saturday morning.

Perhaps that’s because the Honeybee trooper, voiced by “Saturday Night Live’s” Amy Poehler, resembles a character Poehler did a decade ago on the sketch comedy show “Upright Citizens Brigade.”

But it also could be because Bessie -- who aims to collect every Honeybee badge and transform herself into a superhero called the Mighty Bee -- is a throwback amid today’s crop of slick animation.


The gap-toothed, bespectacled 9 3/4 -year-old is drawn with simple lines and googly circles. She and the other characters on “The Mighty B!” pop like balloons, stretch like taffy and prance across hand-painted scenes of San Francisco that give the series the feel of classic cartoons such as “Bugs Bunny” and “The Flintstones.”

Perhaps most old-fashioned is Bessie’s attitude: sheer, unadulterated enthusiasm.

“We didn’t want it to be that ironic or sarcastic,” Poehler said of the animated series, which she co-created and executive produces.

Bessie is “kind of like an open-faced sandwich,” she added. “She’s not very tricky. I liked how determined she is, often in the face of adversity. We didn’t want to make a cute, girl-specific comedy. We wanted to do something where Bessie is a girl, so she can’t help but like rainbows and unicorns and puffy stickers, but she also doesn’t mind getting down and dirty.”

The first episode finds Bessie on the hunt for a dog that she can enter into the Honeybee Dog Show. After wearing her mother down with a seemingly endless list of reasons why she should get a pet (“729: If I got a dog I would rescue it, and there are over 3,812 homeless animals in the city of San Francisco”), she happens upon Happy, a scruffy street mutt with a torn ear. Soon enough, she has the reluctant pooch in ballroom dancing lessons, while her devoted, cape-wearing little brother Ben (Andy Richter) watches in awe.

“The Mighty B!” was the brainchild of Poehler and husband-and-wife team Erik Wiese and Cynthia True, both animation veterans. (He’s a storyboard artist who worked on “SpongeBob SquarePants” for four seasons; she’s a writer who penned scripts for “The Fairly OddParents,” among other children’s shows.) The idea first took root when True’s mother sent her some childhood photos, including one of True in her Brownie uniform.

“We kept laughing about it,” Wiese said. “She’s in this tight little Brownie outfit and she looks so proud.”

The couple had been talking to Poehler, a longtime friend, about working together and remembered the character she played on “Upright Citizens Brigade,” which aired on Comedy Central for three years. What if they did a cartoon about an eager scout?

Poehler jumped at the idea.

“I’m honestly excited about tapping into an audience that isn’t a late-night audience, frankly,” she said. “ ‘SNL’ can be so transient; the stuff we do comes and goes. And I’d like to think that Bessie is the kind of character who will hopefully resonate and stick around.”

Bessie talks a mile a minute, spittle flying. She draws a face on her finger every morning and talks to it as if it were an imaginary friend.

“She’s like part Animal from ‘The Muppets,’ part Daffy Duck, part Jimmy Stewart and part Gilda Radner,” Poehler said. “My dream would be that Bessie would spawn all these open-minded, supremely confident young girls.”

As a kid, Poehler made it as a scout for only about a month. “I probably learned to fold a paper bird, and then I think I was done,” she said.

Nickelodeon snapped up “The Mighty B!” for 20 episodes and is launching the show at 10:30 a.m. between “Back at the Barnyard” and “SpongeBob SquarePants,” in the middle of its Saturday morning lineup.

“I have huge hopes for it,” said Brown Johnson, the network’s president of animation. “There’s something about that optimism that is really important today for kids and families.”

The show’s sunny point of view is purposeful counterpoint to the rest of popular culture, Wiese said.

“I feel like right now television has this idea that everything has to be sarcastic, verbose and loud,” he said. “Bessie is the genesis of everything else -- she is a scout who knows you’re only going to be a little kid once and she loves being a little kid. Girls this age are trying to grow up too fast, and that’s what Bessie is competing with.”

Other than Bessie’s inexplicable love of Phil Collins, the show eschews jokes for adults and focuses on engaging story lines for its young viewers.

“We really wanted to do something that didn’t pander to them,” Poehler said. “We liked the idea of treating kids’ situations as if they’re very serious adult situations.”

Thus in the fourth episode, called “Toot Toot,” Bessie goes on trial after she passes gas at a Honeybee meeting.

Poehler said she was heartened by the reaction to the show after screening it for some friends’ children.

“I’m hoping they put on capes, I’m hoping they draw pictures on their index finger that they talk to,” she said. “I’m hoping they really jump around and try to do good. That would be my dream come true if it just made all these kids spaz out even more.”