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Sesame Street presents TJ, its first Filipino muppet

TJ is Sesame Street’s first Filipino muppet.
Photo: Screen grab

Sesame Street has introduced TJ, the show’s first-ever Filipino muppet. TJ joins Ji-Young, the show’s first Korean muppet, that was introduced in 2021. TJ first appeared on May 7, 2023, alongside actor Kal Pen, Sesame Street favourite Grover and Ji- Young. In the video, TJ and his friends learned the meaning of the word “confidence.” TJ said that he was working on learning Tagalog, the language his Filipino family speaks. “It’s a language my Filipino family speaks,” he tells his friends.

   Bobby Pontillas Photo by Gage Skidmore
Bobby Pontillas speaking at the 2019 San Diego Comic Con International. Photo by Gage Skidmore

TJ also added that he has confidence when learning the language because he can always ask his Lola (grandmother) for help when he doesn’t understand a word. “I’m confident because I can always ask my lola for help when I don’t know a word.”

TJ’s creator is the US- based animation director Bobby Pontillas. He collaborated with puppeteer Louis Mitchell to create the muppet. On his Instagram post, Pontillas said that he based TJ’s looks on kids of his long-time friends in Seattle, Washington, Max and Mateo. Voice actor and puppeteer Yinan Shentu plays TJ.

In an interview by ABS-CBN’s Rhia Grana, Pontillas said that during the initial stages of the character creation, he met with Mitchell to discuss the muppet’s main personality and physical features. The goal was to create a new muppet character that’s authentic and coming from a place of real-life experience.

Pontillas made sure that Mitchell knows it’s really important to get the skin tone right. The Filipino muppet has to have a slightly dark complexion.

“I wanted [TJ] to really represent Filipinos that I have come across with in my lifetime, both in the Philippines and America.” Then it has to have a “very Filipino nose,” he added. “Look at my nose, it’s wider and flatter,” Pontillas pointed out to Mitchell.

In terms of personality, Pontillas said that TJ is a little shy and reserved, drawing from his own experience growing up in the US. “That shyness I think kind of comes from being a second generation [Filipino- American in the US]... being part of a minority group in America.”

Filipina American Rosemarie Palacios, Sesame Workshop’s Director for Talent Outreach, Inclusion and Content Development, was instrumental in giving Pontillas the opportunity to do the character design for TJ, the muppet. In an Instagram post, Palacios disclosed that TJ was named after her own brother.

Bobby Pontillas is the only child of Corazon Pontillas, who hails from Nabua, Camarines Sur. Mrs. Pontillas, at 21, moved to the United States to join the US Navy. She was stationed in Guam, and it was there where Bobby was born.

Mrs. Pontillas enrolled her young son in art school. Later on, he studied at The Art Institute of Seattle between 1999 to 2001 where he discovered the world of animation.

His first shot as a professional animator was getting a job in a gaming company. A decade into his professional career, he landed his dream job at Walt Disney Animation Studios. That’s where he had the chance to work on animated movies like MoanaZootopiaWreck it Ralph, and Frozen. He left Disney to join the start-up company Taiko Studios, which was comprised of a few Disney animators and technicians. With this group, Pontillas co-directed with Andrew Chesworth the animated short film One Small Step, which got an Oscar nomination in 2019. He joined Walt Disney Company again in 2019 to develop films and series for Disney Plus and Disney Channel.

– With notes from an interview by ABS-CBN’s Rhia Grana