“It’s like a warm hug”: Yvette Nicole Brown on the timeless, compassionate charms of “Frog and Toad”

Yvette Nicole Brown doesn’t want to disrupt anybody’s childhood. The “Community” star has spent enough of her career in children’s entertainment — from “Drake & Josh” to “Pound Puppies” — to feel a sense of responsibility to her youngest audience members. “I’ve chosen to stay in the PG-13 lanes,” she explained on “Salon Talks,” “so that any baby that discovers me can take a safe route through life if they follow my career.”   

Now, babies and nostalgic parents alike can follow the Emmy Award-nominated actor to her latest project, Apple TV+’s warmly faithful animated adaptation of the Arnold Lobel’s beloved “Frog and Toad.”  “I learned to read reading ‘Frog and Toad’ books when I was a kid,” Brown recalled. “It’s been a wonderful joy to get to step into this world.”

During our conversation, Brown opened up about the “love story” of “Frog and Toad,” and the backstory of its late creator, about being a caregiver for her father for the past decade, and about her other new show, “Act Your Age,” a comedy she describes as “The Golden Brown Girls.” Watch Yvette Nicole Brown on “Salon Talks” here.

This conversation has been light edited for clarity and length.

How did you become involved in “Frog and Toad,” and who are you in this magical world?

I learned to read reading “Frog and Toad” books when I was a kid, because they came out in the ’70s and so did I. It’s been a wonderful joy to get to step into this world. I voice Rabbit on the show. And what I love about “Frog and Toad” is that it celebrates differences and it tells young people and adults, because it’s not just a show for kids, that it’s OK if you’re not the same as your friends. Just find a way to find your way to common ground and celebrate the differences. I think that’s what we need more in this world.

You are joined by an incredible array of other voice actors. 

It’s crazy. Kevin Michael Richardson and Nat Faxon are Frog and Toad. And Margaret Cho, Ron Funches, it’s just an embarrassment of riches. I was looking at the list and it’s like, “Emmy nominee. Oscar winner.” I was like, “What’s happening?” It’s just wonderful people that understand what we’re trying to do — a delicious group of people.

I saw you tweet recently about how Frog and Toad are boyfriends. I did not know until recently the story of the author.

Yeah, I didn’t know that. How would we know that as kids, first of all? Arnold Lobel, when he created the books, was in the middle of his own awakening and trying to reconcile feelings that he was having. It was at a time when it wasn’t OK. I think he was married at the time and was a family man. “Frog and Toad” was his way of dipping a toe into certain feelings that he had that he hadn’t spoken out loud about. 

“‘Frog and Toad’ is one of those shows where it’s like a warm hug.”

What I love about the book series and the show now, it’s not discussed then or now. You get from this series and this television series what you need to get. If you need a soft place to land because you have some questions and you’re figuring some things out, Frog and Toad are there for you. If you just want to see a wonderful friendship between two amphibians, “Frog and Toad” is there for you. It is a choose your own adventure as you read the books or watch the show, which I love.

Frog and ToadFrog and Toad (AppleTV+)

Watching it with young children, you can view it through that lens of what it was back then, and then know that this is also a story written by a gay man who is expressing his own awakening through this beautiful love.

Tender little story, however you look at it, if it’s a love story for friends or it’s a romantic love story. The point is: it’s a love story. I think it’s just a beautiful love story and it teaches us so much about how to coexist, and that’s beautiful.

And about friendship and community.

And the community that you build because there are so many other animals that are a part of this world, and all of them are different and all of them get along. I love it.

You’ve done a lot of work in the space of kids’ entertainment, from the jump. Is there something about that particular space and that kind of entertainment that gives you something different as a performer?

Absolutely. I wanted to be a singer when I was a kid, and that was the big dream, the entertainment dream. But the regular dream, the grounded dream, was I wanted to be a kindergarten teacher. I’ve always loved kids at the five or six age. That’s when they’re first discovering that they’re human beings and how to move through life. It’s such a special, important time. 

“I wanted to be a kindergarten teacher. I’ve always loved kids at the five and six age.”

When I did become an actor, one of the first things I did was “Drake & Josh.” I talk about this all the time. I didn’t have to do a kid show. I chose to do a kid show. In that space, I see myself as a role model. I know a lot of people don’t want to be. I think it’s great for people to look up to you. I think it’s great to model kindness and decency and love, and so that’s what I try to do. 

When I chose to do “Drake & Josh,” I realized that every four or five years, Nickelodeon would reboot the show and start it again. Every four or five years, a new set of kids would be coming up discovering the show and discovering me. Every decision I made after that was to make sure that I, Yvette, didn’t make a decision that confused them or showed them something that they weren’t ready for. I’ve chosen to stay in the PG-13 lanes so that any baby that discovers me can take a safe route through life if they follow my career. That’s a choice I made. 

The decisions that I make as an actor, “Is this something that people can watch from eight to 80?” is usually my decision. The only time I’ve ever strayed from that is a couple of voiceover roles because it’s not my face. I was a little naughty in “Crossing Swords” and a little naughty in “SuperMansion,” but still, it’s pretty close to what I normally do. It’s a decision I made and I don’t regret it.

You’ve done so much for voice work. What draws you to it? 

The basics of it is that it’s not based on what you look like. I love that you can be a squirrel or you can be a cloud in the sky or you can be a Black woman. It’s not about the physicality of what you actually are. I love the make-believe imagination part of it. 

I also love because of that, that I can do it in my pajamas. I love that I can roll out of bed and go. I built a space, because during COVID we all were recording from home. It was the only part of entertainment that was still working. So I started in my closet with all the clothes around me. It was hot and sweaty in there, and it was not conducive to having a good time. I thought, “I’m going to build a space. I’m going to make a space for this.” Because we didn’t know how long this pandemic was going to last. Now I’ve got a great booth in my house and I’m able to settle in, go to my little chair, my dog Harley at my feet, and I get to create worlds at home, so it’s my favorite part about it.

When you left “Community,” you got a lot of flack. Some people don’t know why you did that. Tell me about your dad.

I’ve been a caregiver for my dad for 10 years. That’s how long it’s been since “Community” went off the air. I noticed that things were happening with him maybe six to eight months before that. Once the show got canceled, I immediately got on a plane, went to Cleveland and just started packing him up. Because I’m like, “I’m going to move him with me.” 

Then “Community” got picked up and I realized that 16-hour days was not conducive to me being able to take care of my dad in the way that he deserved. I went to Dan Harmon and Sony at the time and said, “Is it possible that you guys can release me from my contract?” I told them why, and they kindly released me, no strings attached. “Go and take care of your dad.” It was the fans that were a little mean about it, which I didn’t understand. 

“Fans […] were a little mean about it … some people didn’t understand why I left.”

To some of their credit, some people didn’t understand why I left. They just knew it was a family issue. But in my mind, what kind of monster is going to choose a television show over their father or whoever they’re choosing to care for? I was a little put back that they thought that fame or money or success or whatever. They think those things would make me pass on caring for someone that taught me how to use a spoon? It’s never going to happen. 

I made the decision for my dad. It was the best decision I’ve ever made. I do not regret it. Now people know because I’ve been very vocal about my caregiving journey and am excited to share the truth of what it is because I think when more people hear our caregiving stories, the more it demystifies the idea of what caregiving is. 

I’m on the Creative Care Council for this great organization called Caring Across Generations. It’s created by a wonderful woman named Ai-jen Poo. The Creative Care Council is me, Bradley Cooper, Megan Thee Stallion, Seth and Lauren Miller Rogen, Richard Lui, Yves Mathieu East, Brandee Evans. We all are people that are in different places in the entertainment industry. The goal of Caring Across Generations is for us to share our care stories and also to advocate for more people in television and film sharing care stories. Ai-jen, our great creator of this organization, was recently in DC and she got President Biden to sign an executive order that will provide more opportunities for those that are caregivers.

What people don’t know is that when you’re a caregiver and you have to take time off, there’s no way for you to get paid for that time. A lot of times we sacrifice our jobs and other parts of our lives in order to care for people. There needs to be a safety net for caregivers as well. Because what if you don’t have a daughter that can take you in? There should be some type of system where you can get the care you need, even if you don’t have family that can provide it.

It’s important because when we talk about caregiving, we have to also look at who is taking care of the caregivers. Even when you say you would never regret it; it’s the best decision of your life, it’s still so hard.

It’s so hard. It really is.

And you need support.

There’s this thing called self-care. I’ve never been able to master it, but I heard it exists and it’s awesome. You have to find a way to find something that brings you joy as a caregiver. What I have found, and I’ve found this after my mother passed, Lego brings me joy. Lego is something that I, if I’m building, I can just focus on the Infinity gauntlet or the Volkswagen Bug or whatever it is that I’m building. You focus on that thing and then once it’s done, you have something tangible that took your mind off of the thing that was heavy for you. 

I tell people, maybe it’s coloring, maybe it’s a puzzle, maybe it’s crocheting, maybe it’s binge watching “Ted Lasso.” Find something that takes your mind off the thing. That’s the self-care for me, and it’s important for every caregiver to find that because you spend so much time being outward-facing, concerned about your person, that you forget that you are also your person. Before you’re a caregiver, you have to care for this person. So you have to find a way to do that. I’m struggling with it. I don’t know how to do it, but I’m trying.

“Lego brings me joy … Find something that takes your mind off the thing. That’s the self-care for me.”

“Community” is so meaningful to so many people. It was a slow burn with building that  audience. Was there a moment for you when you thought, “Oh, this is a thing for people?”

You know what’s funny? I think the pandemic actually. I know that’s a long time after “Community,” but the pandemic taught me that. TV Guide used to have this thing, like “Save One Show.” They had all these shows and “Community” won the year that we were in the poll. I thought, “Wow, out of all these shows that are on the bubble, they want to save us.”

It was a slow burn because we weren’t a loud show and we came out around the same time as “Big Bang Theory.” I think people thought, “Well that’s the show for nerds. This other show, I don’t know what it is.” All the love from the nerds went to “Big Bang Theory” at the time, even though our show, I think, is really the nerdy show. It really gets meta and it goes into the nooks and crannies of all these interesting television shows and events. I feel like people discovered us late. They binged us. We got on Netflix and Hulu and they started binging and they go, “Oh, this is really weird in the best way.” 

It is very weird and very sweet and lovely in the best way. And speaking of being sweet and lovely, you’ve got “Frog and Toad,” which is absolute joy.

It’s sincere. I like the pacing of “Frog and Toad.” It’s a quiet show. It’s a pensive, quiet show. I love that you sometimes just lean in to something just to get the lesson. “Frog and Toad” is one of those shows where it’s like a warm hug and you just kind of lean in and you just go, “Oh, that’s what it is.” That’s what I used to love about “Mister Rogers” too. He was a quiet man. He would start talking and he wasn’t bombastic. He would just put his little sweater on, his little tennis shoes and, “This is what we’re going to talk about today.” I think that’s kind of what “Frog and Toad” is.

 Frog and ToadFrog and Toad (AppleTV+)

If I may, there’s another show on Apple TV+ and I’m also a part of called “Shape Island.” It’s the same kind of thing. It’s three shapes on an island, learning how to coexist. I’m the narrator there. When I start that show it’s like, “Today on Shape Island . . .” It’s kind of lovely in that way, both shows.

What’s next? You’re working on a million things. 

One more thing I want to talk about, this great sitcom on Bounce TV called “Act Your Age.” It’s a big hit. We’re like the No. 3 new show and we were the biggest debut of a show on Bounce TV ever. It’s me, Tisha Campbell and Kym Whitley. Mariah Robinson plays my daughter and Nathan Anderson plays Kim’s son. We are like “The Golden Brown Girls.”

We’re women of a certain age living together and learning how to coexist much like Frog and Toad. If you can’t find Bounce, you just got to get an antenna. Get a regular antenna or HD antenna because it’s an over the air station. Plug that sucker in and there you go. I mean there’s other ways. You can stream it. You can go to bouncetv.com/findus and find other ways you can watch it. But I’m telling you the easiest way: just get an antenna.

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