Hanah Lee Cook (B.A., ’15) is a writer for ‘Muppet Babies’ and other Disney shows
Hanah Lee Cook (B.A., ’15) is a little young for an Emmy winner. In December, the 29-year-old Gator was part of the creative team that landed an award for Outstanding Writing for a Preschool Animated Program for the Disney Junior reboot “Muppet Babies.” But then again Cook had a big head start on success: She’s known she wanted to be a comedy writer since she was in the sixth grade.
“My plan was to Tina Fey my way into the business because it’s tough to break in as an actor,” said Cook (referencing the “30 Rock” actress’ show biz beginnings as a “Saturday Night Live” staff writer).
Cook grew up in sunny Santa Clarita, California, where academics and athletics were heavily emphasized in her home. Yet she stayed fixated on winning laughs rather than trophies.
“I knew I wouldn’t be happy unless I were doing something creative with my day-to-day,” said Cook. “When I applied to SF State, I said, ‘I’m sorry, but I can’t go to this school and not do some form of performing art. … I’m here to make things and have a good time.”
When Cook arrived at San Francisco State in 2011, she already had an impressive resume underway: She had over a dozen theatre roles under her belt as an actor and had co-founded a sketch comedy troupe, all while in high school. During her sophomore year of college, Cook joined the SF State chapter of Delta Kappa Alpha, an arts-oriented, gender-inclusive fraternity. That led to more acting experience in Delta Kappa Alpha short films as well as her first full screenplay.
“It was about a girl with Asperger’s and her sister trying to have a conversation with her,” said Cook. “The whole time, the sister is trying to relate to her, and her sister is just staring at her cat and imagining if the cat has wings.”
Cook says that the script, like much of her writing, is influenced by her life experiences.
“It stemmed from growing up with a family member with Asperger’s,” said Cook. “It was difficult to engage with him. It meant a lot when he engaged and made eye contact with us.”
According to Cook, studying theatre and acting at SF State helped with her writing, specifically when she took multiple classes with Laura Wayth, assistant professor of Theatre & Dance.
“Laura Wayth, who teaches acting, was amazing,” said Cook. “I didn’t take a single screenwriting class. I learned how to write by doing the actor paperwork in the acting classes, where we identify what your character wants, what’s in their way and what they’re going to do to try to get it. That taught me how to write a story that’s not just a conversation about a difficult topic between two people.”
Wayth, who started teaching at SF State in 2013, recalls being immediately struck by Cook's creativity, wit and potential.
“She has a very analytical brain and an incredibly wry sense of humor, and those two things combined are stage dynamite that she’s channeled into her writing,” Wayth said.
Before graduating in 2015, Cook held multiple internships at small and large production companies as a production intern. She credits that experience with helping kickstart her career.
“I sometimes wish I had a fun summer break, but I would not be where I am if I hadn’t done that,” she said. “You really have to set your goals and be realistic about what you need to do.”
Upon graduation, she started as a production assistant for Warner Bros. Animation. She then held positions at multiple animation companies, including Cartoon Network, as a freelance writer. In 2020, she landed what was supposed to be a six-month job as a staff writer for Disney Television Animation. The supposedly temporary assignment never ended, however, and two and a half years later came the Emmy nomination and win.
“Just the nomination announcement and that my name was going to be on it was insane,” said Cook. “I totally felt like a fraud because I wasn’t a full-time staff member at the time. But we broke every story together. All of us are in all those episodes, and hearing that ‘Muppet Babies’ won, I think we all blacked out for a second.”
Turning her passion for writing into a career in animation isn’t just a childhood dream come true for Cook. She’s also following in the footsteps of her father, who works for Titmouse Animation Studios, the company behind “Big Mouth,” “Star Trek: Lower Decks,” the recent “Beavis and Butt-Head” reboot and other animated shows.
“I grew up in a big animation-oriented household, so it was always around,” said Cook.
Now, as a writer working on a variety of Disney shows, Cook continues to use her own childhood experiences as inspiration for her work. Her inability to whistle inspired an episode she wrote for “Mickey Mouse Funhouse,” for instance.
“I did an episode where Daisy Duck can’t whistle,” said Cook. “She doesn’t know how, so they get Hercules’ muses to teach her. In the end, she can’t do it, but she learns she can do other things, and that’s OK.”
Including those kinds of inspiring messages in her scripts is important to Cook. She might be writing for children, but that doesn’t mean she avoids difficult topics.
“I’ll write about more personal things like little microaggressions I experienced as a kid,” said Cook. “Some people say it’s not relatable because not everyone experiences those things. I’ll say, ‘You’re right — this is for all the other kids who may be doing those things and not realizing their negative impact.’”
So though her day job allows her to fulfill the very goals she brought with her to SF State — making things and having a good time — she’s also found a way to bring extra meaning to the comedy she creates.
“What little effect I can have, what little thing I can do, I’m going to try to do it,” said Cook. “Luckily, Disney has been letting me.”