Hailey’s On It! Interview: Creators Devin Bunje and Nick Stanton on Marvel Easter Eggs, Musicals, Jo Koy, Mick Foley

John Nguyen

Auliʻi Cravalho, the voice behind Disney’s Moana, is back in animation with Hailey’s On It! the animated series that premiered this month on Disney Channel. It follows Hailey (Cravalho), a young teenage, half-Hawaiian girl who’s afraid of taking risks. Hailey finds out from a time traveler that the world is at stake if she doesn’t overcome her fears. Now she must complete her daring checklist and become the savior she was meant to be.

Hailey’s On It! deals with time travel and pop culture, and Disney fans will get to see all types of Easter eggs and references including Marvel and musicals. The show creators, Devin Bunje and Nick Stanton, have worked on live-action and animated projects, and the two chatted with Nerd Reactor about Hailey’s On It!, musical influences, Marvel references, Auli’i Cravalho’s singing, and working with talents like Weird Al, Jo Koy & Mick Foley, and more.

Nerd Reactor: Was it a challenge at all going from live-action to animation?

Nick Stanton: It was both exciting and a challenge, I’ll say. It’s exciting that in animation, you can obviously just do things that you can’t do on a live-action show, and you can open up the world and take it to crazier places. So that’s always fun for us. I mean, we started our careers in animation. Just love it. It was a challenge, especially given that we were developing the show mostly during the pandemic.

We were big fans of just getting audience feedback for jokes and stuff, but our last show was shot in front of a live studio audience. So you immediately knew whether a joke was working or not, or if it fell flat, or sometimes it got a bigger reaction than you thought. Sometimes it would not get any reaction at all, and you could do a quick rewrite. And we were really good at kind of listening to what the audience was saying. And then we had years where we just couldn’t get any kind of reaction. So we’re sort of flying blind a little bit. And I think we’re still super happy with the end product. But you know, with animation, you sometimes get it back months later and sometimes it works better than you thought. Sometimes it doesn’t. And those adjustments are sometimes months in the making, whereas you do immediate punch-ups on a live-action show.

HAILEY’S ON IT! – Nick Stanton (Creator/Executive Producer), and Devin Bunje (Creator/Executive Producer). (Disney/Craig Sjodin)

NR: Disney+ is geared more toward the younger crowd, but after watching this, it was also for the older crowd. Parents can also enjoy watching this, especially with some of the jokes. What was your mindset in putting in a lot of references from pop culture?

Devin Bunje: Exactly. Yeah, we’re not trying to dumb anything down for the kids. We actually think kids are pretty sophisticated in their comedy as well. So it’s anything that makes us laugh. The writing staff or the crew will usually try to find a way in and we wanted to make a show that would appeal to all ages, especially family viewing and stuff. And there’s a lot of stuff I think for every age.

Nick Stanton: I have two small kids at home that are in the demo, so I can get a pretty good gauge if it’s making them laugh, and it’s usually the same things. It’s actually very sophisticated for a kids’ TV show. This is a best friend, a boy and a girl who are best friends. But they might become more than that. And it’s complicated, right? You know, it’s like Jim and Pam in The Office. And we’re like, “Oh, will kids get that?” It’s a story that has a lot of intricacies, but I think kids will relate to it as well.

NR: There are a lot of moving parts, especially with science fiction, the future, dealing with the present, and Hailey trying to navigate all that. Was there some kind of board, like trying to plan things? For example, this is what she’s done, here’s the list, here’s what the future is like, and here are the characters.

Devin Bunje: Yes, a lot of planning goes into every episode and the whole season. We do have a serialized nature to the show. So there are definitely things that are going to change. The relationship dynamics are going to change. Hailey obviously grows as a person, kind of coming out of her shell throughout the first season, and just sort of the relationship dynamics and their interactions with other friends and love interests and things like that. But yes, as you stated, the timeline stuff is always a constant thorn in their sides as well as something they have to be careful not to ruin.

Nick Stanton: We really had a laser focus on making sure it’s not a time travel show, right? Like that happens in the first episode and there are some hints of it in other episodes, but we like the idea sort of following the Bill and Ted’s model where it’s a crazy time travel thing but taking place with real kids in our present day, kind of normal world. I think that was important to us, not like we’re not seeing the effects of the butterfly flapping its wings. It’s just about the present-day kind of relatable stakes.

HAILEY’S ON IT! – “The Beginning of the Friend” (Disney) HAILEY, SCOTT

NR: With the different episodes, you get to introduce different characters, and the show is loaded with a lot of popular actors and comedians and even wrestlers like Mick Foley. You got Jo Koy, etcetera. What was that like at the very beginning?

Nick Stanton: We have a fantastic casting department that would send us just great people who were excited to do the show; Mick Foley being an example. I was a big wrestling fan back when Mick Foley was the WWE Champion, and I remember watching Mankind’s wrestling matches. And he’s funny too! Not only does he have that gruff wrestler personality, but he got all the jokes in the episode, and it fulfilled my childhood fantasy of working with the great Mick Foley. We got a lot. Weird Al is going to be on. I think UHF was independently both of our favorite movies growing up. So that was huge for us to work with Weird Al. And he does a couple of songs for us, too.

NR: What was that like trying to get them onto the show? Did you have to pitch to them? Or did you just say, “Oh, it’s gonna be on Disney+.”

Devin Bunje: We luckily don’t have to get into the negotiation part. But usually, either we know there’s interest or they give us suggestions, or we have an idea of we’d love to get a Jo Koy type or something. And then more often than not, we usually are able to able to. They’ve been able to get him interested enough to come to the show, which is great. And I think speaks well of the quality of scripts that our writers have put out.

NR: And each episode has a lot of just fun, adventurous parts. I think one of my favorite ones is just the one with musicals. And there are a lot of parodies making fun of certain musicals; for example, Hamilton. What was your background in experiencing theater? When you’re watching it, were you like, “I want to add this into this episode.”

Nick Stanton: I did a lot of high school theater. So you know, a lot of that came from a little bit of experience because it is just a regular, you know, high school, you know, theater production, but the person who’s throwing is one of our main characters, Christine, the hat queen, and it’s all hat themed musical called hats. And they do we do every kind of musical parody based on you know, a hat, basically. So yeah, that was really fun. Just kind of doing a medley of like, you know, kind of our favorite show tunes, but also putting jokes and puns and stuff in there.

Devin Bunje: Yeah, and the writer of that episode is Kevin Yee. He’s an actor and a writer, and he’s a huge musical fan. I feel like we had four other musical parody things that we didn’t have time for, or we couldn’t get the Frozen one approved by legal. But it’s pretty good. It was sort of his baby from the start and he really pushed for doing a really over-the-top high school production.

NR: Since the show stars Hailey, I have to talk about the casting choice for Auli’i. Was she on your mind from the beginning?

Devin Bunje: I don’t think we would have imagined she was interested at the very beginning, to be honest. We wrote the pilot and the first round our Disney TVA casting department sent us a bunch of auditions, and she auditioned for it. And we’re excited that a Disney princess is interested in it. When we listened to it, it was great. She’s been an incredible actress. Moana, you know, it’s sort of a comedy. It’s a comedy with heart, but she never had to carry the punch lines or anything, and we really want Hailey to be one of the funnier characters on the show. So we’re like, “Well, let’s see if she can do it.” And the first time we brought her in, she just started nailing it and it was incredible. She’s such a great actress, and she’s so sincere and so sweet. And it all comes across. And she really kind of got the Hailey character really quickly. So yeah, she was great.

And the same with Manny [Jacinto], he was in that same first batch. He was the first Scott. Nick and I loved him in The Good Place, and he just brings such a sweet sincerity to everything. And I like to say he’s like a unicorn. He’s just so unique in his comedy and his rhythms. It’s a very special kind of character. It’s not something you’ve seen anybody can do in a weird way.

HAILEY’S ON IT! – “The Beginning of the Friend” (Disney) HAILEY

NR: With Auli’i, there are fans of her singing in Moana. Fans will get to hear her singing in the show. Was that a conscious decision? Like, “Are we going to have an episode where she gets to sing?”

Nick Stanton: Yeah, originally, that wasn’t really part of the storyline that we were imagining. But once we got Auli’i, we’ve got to incorporate music into this series in a big way. And you saw that in the musical episode where she has that big number at the end. But we do that throughout the series now. And there are some really great songs from our composers, Andrew Underberg and Matthew Tishler. They share the exact same sensibilities as us. They could do just every genre, and you do see every genre of music throughout the course of even just the first season. There’s like a big rock festival, there’s like a kid’s TV show that they go on, there’s obviously the musical episode, and we just go to a lot of really fun places, and Auli’i has been a huge part of that.

NR: I think Disney fans will get a kick out of it, too, especially with the casting, the music, but also a lot of references to even the Marvel Cinematic Universe. What’s the limit? Do you try to cram everything? “Let’s add this, let’s add this.” So what’s stopping you guys, or do you have free rein to do whatever you want?

Devin Bunje: Disney legal. Usually, it’s time. I mean, we always start with the story. The story is the most important thing. So everything comes off of that. And then the more we can squeeze in little fun references or jokes or parodies or homages, or whatever it is, the better. Yeah, we had the one episode where they dress up as their favorite superhero characters, hoping to meet the great comic book artists that created them in their episode. And we were able to do a lot of fun, sort of parodies of the Marvel Universe. So that was a fun one to do. And the writer of that episode, Lindsey Reckis, is a huge fan of all those superhero movies and did a great job finding ways to sort of tip our cap without actually parodying anything directly.

NR: Out of all the stuff that the show is packed with, what do you want the audience to get out of it?

Nick Stanton: I think a theme that we really want our audiences to come home with is that you can be the change that you want to see in the world. This is about a normal girl who’s doing a lot of times normal things on her list, but it’s the first step toward her doing really big things. So I think that’s an important message that we wanted to give to our audience.

Devin Bunje: Yeah, we like the idea that anyone can actually make a difference. It’s not even if you feel like you are too scared to do the simplest things. You can, you are capable of greatness.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.