English Prof. Kelly Younger on Latest Disney Project, Muppets Haunted Mansion – Plus, the Importance of Studying Fairytales

What do felt puppets and a Jesuit university have in common? It may sound like the setup to a bad dad joke, but in this case the answer is English professor Kelly Younger.

Professor Younger has been teaching at LMU for 20 years, and he is also a film and television writer who has worked on a number of feature films as part of the Disney Animation Story Trust and the Pixar Brain Trust. He co-wrote and co-executive produced Muppets Now, as well as the new comedy Halloween special, Muppets Haunted Mansion, which premiered October 8th on Disney+, and stars Will Arnett (as The Ghost Host), Yvette Nicole Brown (The Hearse Driver), Darren Criss (The Caretaker) and Taraji P. Henson (The Bride). The original special follows the Great Gonzo into the one place the daredevil has yet to face: the Haunted Mansion. Younger’s busy schedule involves far more than just the Muppets; he is currently writing a live-action movie for Disney Studios, a holiday movie with Imagine Entertainment, an animated special for Apple+, and a live-action drama series for Amazon Studios. With the release of Muppets Haunted Mansion, Bellarmine News reached out to him about his experiences as both a teacher and a writer.

Although Younger has had (and will continue to have, I’m sure) great success as a writer, he has never felt any desire to give up his role as a professor at LMU. He credits his students saying, “They inspire me, challenge me, teach me, and give me hope for the future.”

Many of those students have asked Younger for advice about how to follow in his footsteps and break into the entertainment industry. He always offers the same somewhat-paradoxical response: “Lead an interesting life. Especially when you are starting out, get a job doing anything but writing. Work with interesting people who are very different from you. They will become characters, they will inspire new worlds, they will challenge you to think of stories other than just your own.” Looking back on his life prior to becoming a professor and screenwriter, Younger reflects that every job he had told a story that allowed him to learn about people, empathize with them, and view the world through their eyes. Ultimately, he believes that is the true secret to telling stories: “Our industry is empathy… and the only way to break into that is to break out of your comfort zone.”

One of the ways in which Younger tries to impart that knowledge to students is through his phenomenal Fairy Tale seminar. In the class, Younger not only teaches about storytelling mechanics and fairy tales, but also about the natural human need for storytelling and how to recognize the universal elements embedded within those tales. As Younger describes it, “These simple stories provide breadcrumb trails toward empowerment, transformation, confidence, agency, community, and care. One of the major lessons I hope to impart is that if you can read the past, you can face the future.”

Although Younger missed the in-person interactions Zoom learning deprived us of, he also found that the virtual environment of the past year and a half offered surprising opportunities. As he puts it, “It’s impossible to teach a fairy tales seminar without referencing or discussing Disney’s influence,” and the accessibility of Zoom classes meant that Professor Younger could more easily invite guest speakers from Disney and the entertainment industry to discuss their work with his students. Through that connection, Professor Younger was able to help many students land interviews, internships, and jobs in Hollywood.

In talking with Professor Younger, it is clear that he is devoted to both his roles of writer and professor. And in both, he excels. So whether it be as a student enrolling in one of his classes, or an audience member engaging with one of his projects, I encourage you to see for yourself how Kelly Younger tells stories through empathy and experience.

 

Written by Taylor Dischinger ’23, English major