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  • Annette Dawm

Off and Running with Joseph Motiki

Joseph (Joe) Motiki has been a staple in children’s programming for nearly 30 years! Since “retiring” from TVOKids/The Crawlspace in 1999, Joe has worked on countless animated and live action projects. His long list of credits started with HBO's Crashbox (1999) all the way up to one of PBS Kids’ most recent shows, Work It Out Wombats! (2023) He also has a role as “Mayor Joe” on Miss Persona.

Initially, Joseph was a university student when he auditioned for his first job at TVO, prior to The Crawlspace: “It was a late-night phone-in program called What.” He explained. “There was an open casting call and 350 people went out for it. I survived a number of auditions and ended up becoming the host of the show. It was nominated in 1995 for a Gemini Award for Best Youth Program (today the equivalent is a Canadian Screen Award). When What ended, I thought I would just finish my studies in Radio Television Arts and go from there. Peter Herrndorf, the Chairman and CEO of TVO at the time, thought I was a talented guy and felt if I left TVO I would end up at another station. So I moved over to TVOKids without an audition, and the rest is history. Unfortunately, Peter just passed away…. He made a difference everywhere he went. He was real leader, and a really smart man.”

From the beginning, Motiki realized that he shined as a host because he could just be himself: “I would want people to know that it's me, the real simple genuine me, especially when it comes to hosting. I've done a lot of things in my career but hosting is my special skill, being able to make a connection with a viewer through a camera into their home. There are a lot of actors who host shows these days by acting like a host, or doing what they think a host would do. A lot of it comes off false to me, maybe because I'm in the industry. It's just Joe hosting the show. I think viewers know that, which is why they have responded to me the way they have over the years.”

Throughout his time in The Crawlspace many children’s shows came and went, but none of them had the same lasting power that came with Arthur—or as Joe called him, “The Phenom”.

“I called Arthur ‘The Phenom’ because his popularity with our viewers was phenomenal! When Arthur debuted, the show was essentially replacing Ghostwriter on our schedule. Ghostwriter was a show about kids in New York who communicated with a ghost, who could only talk to them by writing. It was super popular with viewers. Now it was gone and Arthur was in. The momentum started to roll quickly with Arthur and you could tell how popular the show was getting through the letters and pictures that were mailed in about the show. I started calling him ‘The Phenom’ and that took on a life of its own with viewers! A kid who watched Arthur on TVOKids knows he is ‘The Phenom’, and the show definitely was. It ran for 25 years and did 253 episodes. That’s phenomenal!” (Since then, Ghostwriter has been rebooted on Apple TV+ and Arthur has been reformatted as a podcast.)

Eventually, Motiki met Marc Brown, the creator of Arthur. He even went dancing with Bill Nye the Science Guy!

“It was always very cool to meet the stars of our shows when they would come to town to promote their programs. It really showed how well the TVOKids Crawlspace was doing since they would make a point of coming in. They were appreciative of TVO's dedication to promoting educational programming like theirs. Marc Brown was a chill guy who was really impressed by all the Arthur drawings and artwork we were able to show him from viewers. All of Bill Nye's appearances were epic, especially the shows we did with him at the Ontario Science Centre! We had scheduled three, but so many families showed up that we doubled the number of shows to six! We even took Bill dancing on one of the occasions he visited. The Kratt Brothers were cool dudes and Neil Buchanan shot some stuff for us. They’re really good people.” He continued.

For many kids, it was a very sad time when Joe retired. They sent him goodbye mail and he kept it. Then, over a decade later, he joined Facebook in order to let them know that their letters had arrived. Overall, he said that his experience with these now grown-up kids has been “pretty fantastic!”

“I only created social media platforms because my agent thought it was important to have a social media presence…. I created a secret group on Facebook years ago to track down and thank viewers who sent me goodbye mail when I retired from The Crawlspace. Of course, they ended up telling friends and that group became a very special thing. When a kid is 7 or 8 years old, they can't really verbalize what a show means to them. But as young adults, they have really let me know what growing up with The Crawlspace meant to them. For me, I feel like I helped raise them a little bit, so on social media I refer to you all as the #TVOKidsAlumni. I love seeing and hearing how well you are all doing. Of course, on TVOKids I made over 200 appearances with Patty Sullivan across Ontario, so I could hear stories from kids and their parents wherever we went. These days, I take part in panels and events and people talk to me about TVOKids, or Medabots, or Ice Cold Cash, or other shows of mine they've enjoyed. The feedback is great. It's a nice reminder you don't work in a vacuum, and it beats having tomatoes thrown at you.”

After leaving The Crawlspace, Joseph dove into voice-acting work: “….I got an agent and decided to see what the industry was like and test myself against other performers. In Canada, where I'm based, you just get sent out for everything: host gigs, commercials, TV series, and animated programs—all of it! The very first voiceover gig I auditioned for was at Cuppa Coffee Studios for a great guy named Dave Thomas. As a student, he had submitted animated work we used on What years before. I landed the show, Crashbox for HBO, where I played a character named Professor Rocket. I was off and running from there. Animation allows you a lot of freedom in your performance. You can throw in some ad-libs that you think will make a character or a scene better. If they like it, they'll animate what you did and add it to the show; if they don't, no harm, no foul. I threw in a lot of ad-libs for Crashbox! The next show I landed was Rescue Heroes and after that it was Medabots….”

As previously mentioned, currently, Joe can be seen in Miss Persona and heard in Work It Out Wombats!

“Working on Miss Persona has been a really trippy experience. I'm really proud of Kim Persona! She worked on and developed this show for about five years before it made it to series. A lot of people say they want to work in the industry or pitch a show, but never put in the work. Kim put in the work. I spoke to her class in Centennial's Children's Media program and she just worked and worked. When she approached me about the show, I said it sounded great and I would play any role she wanted me to. I ended up being Mayor Joe. She approached people who she either grew up watching or really wanted to work with and they all agreed: Alyson Court, Anthony Carelli and of course, Fred Penner. The joy I get out of that show is the happiness I feel for Kim and producer, Brandon Lane, who made something, and then employed all their friends to work on it…. I’m hoping we get another season of Miss Persona because that show is too good to ever stop.”

Wombats is about computational thinking. Kids are going to watch Malik, Zadie and Zeke be confronted with a challenge. They will watch them get frustrated sometimes, but they won't give up and they'll work together and eventually solve the problem. As someone who spent four years introducing educational shows like The Magic School Bus, Bill Nye, etc. it's a real trip to now be one of the people in the show. I voice Mr. E who runs the ‘Everything Emporium’. He gets frustrated with the wombats because they are so eager to help out, but he softens as the first season goes on.”

Joe is also working on several other projects, including Lyla in the Loop for PBS Kids. It will premiere some time in 2024: “I'm working on a show right now about a young family in New York and the adventures of their 7-year old daughter Lyla…. I'm also playing with the idea of doing a YouTube show of some sort, something lo-fi that I could do from home a couple of nights a week. We'll see. But right now I'm mostly looking forward to summer. The last couple of years have been tricky to negotiate for everyone in the world, and I'm stoked about having a summer like we used to have. We'll see who wants to have one with me.”

Finally, when asked for his career advice, Joseph Motiki replied, “I always tell people to put in the work. Put in the time, develop your skills, and when you think you're good enough, work harder and get better because when your time comes, you want to be ready. People will tell if you were ready or not. Commit to what you are doing, regardless the job or the field. If you're a garbage collector, be the best damn collector you can be. If you're an accountant, kill it. Absolutely kill it. People watching you work should be able to see you are all in. Whether it's viewers, co-stars, your director, or the person who may have taken a risk on you, you owe them your best effort, always. So give it. If you find you are not enjoying it anymore, do something else. The key to life is your job, especially here in North America where we work 50-60 hours a week. You better love what you do, or love what it affords you, because the only thing we do more than our job is sleep. So make sure you're enjoying it. When you do, everything in your life falls into place a lot easier.”

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Photo courtesy of Joseph Motiki.

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