Elijah Wood looks ridiculous. He’s teaching a dance—or at least trying to. He raises his right arm and leg in unison, before quickly doing the same on the left. He looks like a drunk Pinocchio. “Do the puppet master!” Wood enthusiastically shouts to an overgrown red cyclops, gangly green monster, and retro-looking yellow robot. The creatures get down to a tune filled with old-school beats and indie-pop synths. Wood, in his Chuck Taylors, hops around in the day-glo, 2D forest. No, it’s not some tripped-out version of The Lord of the Rings. This is educational programming at its finest. This is “Yo Gabba Gabba!”
For a TV show that’s meant for tumbling tots, Nickelodeon’s latest kids hit oozes hipsterdom. You practically need thick-framed glasses and skinny jeans just to watch the live-action preschool show. “Yo Gabba Gabba!” transports viewers into an uber-modern land of make believe. Host DJ Lance Rock zaps peeps into a magical universe where toy monsters come to life, ready to dance and sing among the indie-est of bands—think The Shins, Mates of State, I’m From Barcelona, Hot Hot Heat, and MGMT.
The wacky show’s musical guests aren’t surprising when you examine “Yo Gabba Gabba!’s” roots. It’s the brainchild of Christian Jacobs (of the punk-ska band The Aquabats) and Scott Shultz (of indie-poppers Magestic). The two wanted to come up with a cheap way—read, get corporate sponsors—to add characters to the Aquabats’ odd and extravagant live act. They figured a kiddie TV show would fit the bill. There would be superheroes and villains—a weird mesh of retro kid programs, like “Electric Company” and “Sigmund and the Sea Monsters.” Christian recruited his design-gifted brother Parker to work on some concepts.
The bros underestimated the success of their super-quirky series. Now in its second season on Nick Jr., the 22-minute program incorporates the band—not the other way around. Parker, now the program’s animation art director and character designer, is thrilled to see where “a little imagination and creativity will take you.” The show received a Daytime Emmy nomination for Outstanding Achievement in Costume Design/Styling in 2008.
With retro-groovy sets, strange songs (“There’s a party in my tummy. So yummy! So yummy!”) and kooky monsters like Foofa, the “pink flower bubble,” the series is one-of-a-kind. But just a glance at the out-there kiddie-fest will have you wondering: What were the creators smoking?
The answer might surprise you.
“We’re all drug free. I’ve never been drunk before—I’ve never even had a sip of coffee,” Parker says. In fact, the creators of the show are hardcore Mormons. “We use bright colors and want to stimulate your imagination. It’s a little weird, and I’ll admit that, but it only cheapens it to say that we’d use some sort of drug to create this effect.”
Whatever the crew is doing, it’s working. American Apparel clad parents everywhere are blogging rave reviews. “Parents are used to hating whatever their kids watch because the shows were made specifically for kids,” Parker says. “I want ‘Yo Gabba Gabba!’ to change that stigma about children’s television. It’s actually cool to watch.”
And there’s plenty for Ma and Pa to enjoy. Internet sensation Leslie Hall (famous for kitschy songs about gem sweaters) is a reoccurring “Gabba” guest. “When I was asked to be on the show, I was totally freaking excited,” says Leslie, who taught spiffed-up jazz hands to kids in “Dancey Dance” segment. With Biz Markie’s fresh lyrics, drawing lessons from Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh, and special guests like Andy Samberg, Leslie is right when she calls the kid series “a super-sweet pop culture show with only cool people allowed.”
With kids and parents digging “Yo Gabba Gabba!,” it just may be the next “Seasame Street.” Sales have soared for T-shirts and figurines produced by Kidrobot, an upscale toymaker with hipster cred. Vans’ character group slip-on shoe comes in kids and adult sizes. More than 20 million clips from the show have been streamed from the show’s Web site.
Across the country, parents are rejoicing. Finally, a TV show little Tommy likes that won’t zap the cool from you. Now all you need are some mother-daughter Chucks.
[Story by Kayla Craig, who freelanced this in 2009 whilst still in college. Random blog post, you say? She saw something about “Yo Gabba Gabba!” today and thought she’d share this story with ya’ll. She’s going to be such a hip mom.]