LYNN ELBER Associated Press
LOS ANGELES — Bonnie Hunt’s approach to comedy deserves a patent. She is comically candid but reliably good-hearted, giving viewers credit for their intelligence, as evidenced by pretty much everything she has acted in, written, or both.
What Hunt has done for adults in projects like “Jerry Maguire,” “Dave,” and TV’s “Life with Bonnie,” she’s now generously extending to kids — and the adults who love them — with “Amber Brown.”
The new Apple TV+ series, out Friday with 10 episodes, is based on the mop character created by Paula Danziger in a bestselling series and written and directed by Hunt, who also leads as showrunner.
Although she has acted and voiced in children’s films, including “Jumanji” and the “Toy Story” and “Cars” franchises, “Amber Brown” is the first project of hers. But Hunt says she always had a family audience in mind when she writes and considers storytelling a privilege.
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“I grew up with TV and movies and I know how powerful it can be as a kid,” she said. “If I saw my parents watching something like ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ or ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show’… they were just in those moments, free of stress and worry and just laughing.”
Family is key for Hunt, a former oncology nurse. She is a devoted aunt to many nieces and nephews, and thanks her mother for urging her to write something for children. Alice Hunt, who died last November at age 95, became known to TV viewers with her weekly video visits from Chicago to Hunt’s syndicated talk show 2008-10.
‘She’s in everything I write, all her humor, wisdom. My mother raised seven children in the city without assistance,” Hunt said after early widowhood. “I think all my siblings are good, nice, decent people, and that’s a pretty big achievement. I’ve always told her that.”
Hunt had started writing a series about an eccentric aunt when she ran into a director at a production company that owned the rights to the Amber Brown books. They joined forces and Hunt was introduced to the family of the late author, who died in 2004 at the age of 59.
“When we met, Bonnie seemed to fit perfectly with Paula’s very large (and sequined) shoes,” Carrie Danziger, the author’s niece and inspiration for the Amber books, said in an email. “Like Paula, Bonnie is a very devoted and loving aunt” and has the comedic know-how to capture the spirit of the books.
Hunt has made changes (with the blessing of the family, she notes) that soften some of the tougher sides of Amber’s life. The youngster still longs for her divorced parents to be reunited, but their relationship is less bitter than on the page and they are a little more attuned to their daughter’s feelings.
Amber is two years older than her 9-year-old book version and attends high school. She’s also a budding artist, “almost a scholar,” as Hunt puts it, and she expresses her deepest feelings in vivid sketches that come to life and show what she cannot tell.
“But she also has a video diary, so we have what she can say out loud and what not,” Hunt said. The combination gives the show a fresh look, but a conscious effort has been made to avoid the overly hip and hypertonic of many tween programs.
“I wanted a bit of that ‘Andy Griffith’ quality that I can still see today, the timelessness of it, the pace of it, the heart and soul, and the humor that comes from the truth,” she said.
Race is not a theme in the series, but Amber’s family is multi-ethnic and the cast is diverse. Her father is played by Michael Yo, who is of black and Asian descent, with Sarah Drew (“Grey’s Anatomy”) as her mother. Showing off a lavish crown of curls, Carsyn Rose stars as Amber, who is depicted in the books as a freckled face, a white boy with a ton of red hair.
When the casting went to agents, Hunt said, the characters were only identified as “mom, dad, friend” and with no further description. In Rose’s audition, she showed “such a beautiful quality, very authentic”, and Hunt was later impressed by Drew and Yo.
“They became the family,” Hunt said.
With the entertainment industry finally opening up to diversity and inclusion, “Now I just want to show it. I don’t want to tell it,” Hunt said. “It just is, because it’s beautiful and it’s part of us.”
Hunt writes steadily and does voice acting, but has largely disappeared from the screen in recent years apart from a few scattered roles such as in the miniseries ‘Escape at Dannemora’. She has made spending time with her family a priority and lived with her mother in Chicago through the pandemic and until her last days.
Hunt longs to embrace acting again, and those familiar with her work know that she brings even a small role or a single line to life. So is Renée Zellweger’s cynical sister in “Jerry Maguire” or an impressive White House guide (“We walk. We walk. We stop”) in the satire “Dave”.
But even a youthful-looking actor knows that roles are hard to come by in middle age, especially if you’re a woman.
“I really miss acting,” she said. “It would be nice if the right thing came, a great storyteller who would write something for me. I would love it.”