Actor/puppeteer Jonathan Kidder spends a lot of time at Michelle Obama’s feet — literally — in “Waffles + Mochi,” premiering Tuesday (March 16) on Netflix.
He plays Busy Bee, the bespectacled, tie-wearing supermarket manager who interacts with Obama in the educational children’s series, co-created by Erika Thormahlen and Jeremy Conner and executive-produced by Michelle and Barack Obama under their production company, Higher Ground.
“I spend most of my time as a puppeteer on the ground, so when I met Mrs. Obama for the first time I was lying on my back, under a table,” Kidder told The Post. “She looked down at me and I looked up at her and all of the sudden it was a bee talking to her, which allowed her to connect with that character.
“What else can you do with a guy like me laying at your feet?”
In “Waffles + Mochi,” the titular puppet pals, played, respectively, by Michelle Zamora and Russ Walko, interact with Obama and Busy Bee in their supermarket and travel around the world learning about food — and how to cook with fresh ingredients (tomatoes, in the series premiere). Guest stars include Rashida Jones, “Stranger Things” co-star Gaten Matarazzo, Sia and Mandy Moore.
Kidder was originally hired as an assistant puppeteer after Zamora put in a good word for him with Konner, who directed 10 episodes. “I actually owe it all to…Michelle,” he said. “After she booked the job, they were talking to her about what a big task this [production] would be, going all over the world and working with the former First Lady and they said, ‘What can we do to support you? What do you need?’ She said, ‘I need Jonathan Kidder.’
“I’ve known Michelle for over a decade through doing educational theater puppetry and other commercial and TV projects. It was really special to be invited [onto the project] that way.”
He proved indispensable as the “Waffles + Mochi” team traveled (pre-COVID) to locales including Japan, Peru and Italy and several cities in the US. So, when it was time to begin shooting the supermarket scenes in LA featuring Obama (with Busy Bee et al.), series creator Thormahlen thought of Kidder.
“The character wasn’t fleshed out yet,” he said. “They weren’t sure if they were going to cast a male or female…and when we wrapped the international shoot, Erika approached me and let me know they were thinking of me as this character, then they formally offered me the audition. Everyone calls me Kidder and they said, ‘Kidder, we need someone who can make Mrs. Obama laugh,’ since Busy Bee opens all the scenes with her. ‘Are you comfortable with that?’ My answer was ‘Hell yes! Bring it on!’ It felt like home.
“They really just wanted me,” he said. “I’m a fairly sassy gay man who makes no apologies and who generally has his hands full and that’s who I was on the international shoot. I had some really cute gossip moments with Mrs. Obama. There’s a scene where she has a mug in her hand and Busy Bee starts talking about one of the [supermarket] employees, Bianca — he made up a name for her — and Mrs. Obama said, ‘We are spilling tea, talking about Bianca, we need a teacup.’ I don’t think much of that was used, if at all…but that’s what they wanted. It was a casual, fun conversation yet it was focused and a little bit sarcastic and sardonic.”
“One thing about puppeteering that I love is that you can really let the spirit of that puppet character come though you,” he said. “I felt very present and comfortable and at home — sort of like being in the middle of a big hug.
“And that’s what I feel this show is about.”