Jamie Shannon has a new morning routine. He straps a puppet onto his right hand, torques his voice to mimic a three-year-old girl and hits live on his cell phone.
Suddenly, he’s sending and receiving love worldwide on TikTok. Today, there are fans from locations as diverse as Panama and Switzerland, and they’re all watching because of Mona, a delightfully chaotic toddler with beady, black eyes, two wispy ponytails and a pea-shaped head. She sort of looks like an alien.
It doesn’t take long for Mona to launch into her now signature song: “Who’s that wonderful girl, could she be any cuter?”
You may have heard it while scrolling your feed recently. Shannon is belting it loud from his puppet studio, inside an old school on Toronto Island that’s been converted into artist spaces. His assistant says a neighbouring artist has made noise complaints.
“I’m amazed my voice still works like that,” said Shannon.
Mona is the pint-sized protagonist of the Canadian children’s show Nanalan’, a show Shannon created with fellow puppeteer Jason Hopley in 1999.
The show has been off the air for nearly two decades, but old clips have blown up online over the last few weeks, particularly on TikTok where the Nanalan’ tag has 145 million views, spawning millions of memes.
“It’s outrageous,” said Shannon, who started posting Nanalan’ clips online earlier this year and has pulled out the puppet again after some went viral.
“A lot of the comments are ‘That’s me, that’s me, that’s me,’ ” he said. “They feel like Mona.”
“It’s actually flooring to me to think after all of these years, it’s suddenly reaching millions and millions and millions of people,” said Hopley, who plays the titular Nana, Mona’s organ-playing grandmother who sings the “wonderful girl” song to Mona in the original clip.
“We have a reach that we’ve never had before.”
Escapist, wholesome and safe
Nanalan’ started as a series of shorts on YTV, before expanding into full episodes that aired on CBC-TV. It could also be seen on Nickelodeon and PBS.
The show follows the adventures of Mona, who gets dropped off at her Nana’s house and plays in her backyard with Nana’s dog Russell (or Russer, according to Mona’s delightful mispronunciation.)
This quirkiness helped Nanalan’ stand out from other children’s television shows that aired in the early 00s — you can often see wires attached to the puppet� hands and the show was mostly improvised. (Shannon says there were no scripts.)
Mona now lives among dozens of other odd-looking puppets in Shannon’s studio on Toronto Island, where he’s been working for 13 years. To set the mood for his Mona livestreams, he plays the sound of chirping birds from a computer.
“We wanted to create something that just felt authentic,” said Shannon.
He thinks that’s part of the reason the show is resonating online today, 24 years after it first aired.
“The world is so traumatizing right now … I think it’s such a comforting show and kind of escapist and it’s safe and wholesome and I just think people really are desiring it.”
According to Hopley, “The message of Nanalan‘ is peace and joy and love and unconditional support and I think that’s one of the reasons why people are absolutely finding it again.”
He describes his character Nana as the “most glorious hype woman of all time,” pumping her granddaughter Mona up at every opportunity. He’s gotten many comments from fans who tell him they wish they had a Nana like Mona’s.
“I think people really, really connect with that now. I think people want that in their own lives,” said Hopley, who is also the voice and creator of CBC Kids’ beloved Gary the Unicorn.
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Puppeteers haven’t seen each other in years
Hopley admits his own life has changed a lot since the show initially aired, and he says he feels more empathetic and in touch with himself and the world.
“So in a sense, I think I’ve become more like what Nana is actually supposed to be … I’m reaching my Nana years, I think.”
The show’s resurgence has also brought Hopley and Shannon together again. The pair once created several shows like Mr. Meaty, Ooh, Aah & You and Big and Small, but eventually started doing their own projects.
They haven’t seen each other in person in years — Hopley thinks it’s been a decade — but thanks to Nanalan’s newfound fame, Shannon says the two are talking creatively almost daily.
“It’s just so validating and affirming of what we thought was an amazing show but didn’t quite get its day,” said Shannon, who has been floating the idea of a Christmas special or maybe even a Nanalan’ movie.
He’s just thrilled that the show he helped create seems destined for bigger things.
“I knew this was true. I knew it was true about Nanalan’.”