No more purple dinosaurs!

The creators of "Yo Gabba Gabba" tell the story behind the coolest (and least annoying) kids show on television.

Published August 28, 2008 10:15AM (EDT)

From the time my daughter was born, I knew I never wanted her consorting with Barney the purple dinosaur or his posse of grinning, syrupy-voiced child actors. I didn't even want her to mingle with Elmo, that baby-voiced shut-in, with his crippling speech impediment and his chronic upper respiratory infection, or Dora the Explorer, with her endless demands and her cultural identity crisis. In fact, I was pretty sure that none of the preschool buddies my TV had to offer were good enough for my sweet little petunia.

But then one day, my daughter was sick, and reading books in bed just wasn't cutting it. In my desperation, I sought solace in Nickelodeon, where I found a strange black man dressed like a DJ from another planet in a bright orange puffy hat, carrying a rainbow-colored boombox across a blank white screen. He opened the boombox, and the little creatures in it came to life and sang "Yo Gabba Gabba! Yo Gabba Gabba!" I felt like I had stepped into an underground, alterna-kid universe: The DJ was sort of odd and quite possibly gay, the creatures weren't completely annoying, and the music was really good.

Soon, "Yo Gabba Gabba" became our sick-day go-to show, and I found myself singing along with the songs (My personal favorites: "I Like Bugs!" and "Don't Throw Things at Friends!") or trying out "Biz's Beat of the Day" (basic beat-boxing taught by Biz Markie) or dancing along with some guest star's "Dancey Dance." Whether Tony Hawk was showing off some cool skateboard tricks or Brobee (the freaky little green creature) was learning about the "tiny, ugly germs" on the ground, my daughter, Claire, and I were totally transfixed.

Now typically, über-hip stuff for kids makes me a little queasy. But this was different: a kids show that wouldn't make me groan and tear my hair, even when viewed in the middle of the night as we waited for the Children's Tylenol to kick in.

With a whole new season coming up (premieres 11:30 a.m. Monday, Sept. 22, on Nickelodeon) just in time for a new flu season, Claire and I may never have to resort to mingling with purple dinosaurs, sneezy red shut-ins or bossy kewpie dolls. "Yo Gabba Gabba" creators Christian Jacobs and Scott Schultz say that was exactly their intention when they dreamed up the show for their own kids.

I've seen every episode of your show probably five or six times, and miraculously enough, I still enjoy it. How did the idea for the show come about?

Scott: Well, we found ourselves with 1-year-old kids and we were watching entertainment with them. We were looking at what was out there and wanting to participate in it with them and finding a little bit of a void of shows that would be interesting to us as well as our preschoolers. We thought of "Sesame Street" and other early childhood development programs, and said, "Wow, there was a lot of great stuff going on back then." We thought we could bring some of that flair -- some of those artists doing art and the animation and the musicians doing guest appearances and the music -- bring that back to the preschoolers.

Which children's shows had those kinds of elements?

Christian: "Sesame Street," "Electric Company" and a lot of the shows that we were privy to during the age of childhood development programming. You know, all those late '60s and early '70s shows. They all had this variety format because they were mirroring what was going on in popular culture and on TV at the time: Ed Sullivan, "The Show of Shows." And it seemed like the kids programs were bringing younger and hipper elements into it, and not necessarily excluding kids from that, just appropriating that kind of a format to that age group. That's kind of what we wanted to do. There's so much great music and art and fun things going on out there, all it needs to do is be age-appropriated, then kids can share that with their parents.

"Sesame Street" and "Electric Company" did partake in the music and art of the times, when I think about it. Do you think there was a point where that got cleaned out of kids programming?

Scott: I think it goes along with popular culture and the over-sterilized and over-educational slant of shows. I mean, we still educate on our show, but it comes more from a variety show angle than from wanting to teach something specific. Definitely preschool has become a genre of its own, its own protected, hallowed ground, where it used to be lumped in with children's entertainment.

There is this perception that young kids can only handle extreme simplicity and positivity, as if they should exist in a little rainbow bubble for the first five years. But do you ever worry that some popular culture trends will be too much for little kids?

Christian: I think there have to be boundaries, not only for comprehension, but just in terms of what's appropriate, since the show we made is pretty much a labor of love for our own families. We try to add in what we feel as parents is important for kids to learn at an early age, whether that's behavioral things, like sharing, or just [urging kids to look] at things from a different perspective. There are boundaries, but the box is so much bigger, I think, than people realize or give kids credit for.

We don't want to put any subversive elements in the show. There are people who read that into [the show], but they're really not there. It's really just a show for kids.

Well, there was that article about how the show is a big hit among college-age stoners. How did you feel about that?

Christian: We just had to shake our heads, because stoners will stare at bark on a tree. It's just something to write news about. We get it, whatever.

Scott: We do like hyper colors and exciting, simple visual things that might harken back to H.R. Pufnstuf and things that could be interpreted as psychedelic, but really, it's just exciting, vibrant colors that interest us and are visually stimulating.

On a lot of other kids shows, the art is so busy and all the colors clash. Plus, there's this assumption that kids can only appreciate really simple folk songs with repetitive lyrics. And you think, "Why can't my kid learn to like the stuff that I listen to, so that I don't have to listen to this crap?"

Christian: Exactly. And, you know, they can. Scott and I are huge music fans, we're both in bands, and our day jobs were in art. Scott was doing graphic arts and editing and I was working in marketing at a clothing company doing art. So we were doing music at night and art during the day, and the show is kind of a collaboration of what we've been into forever. You know, my kids like the Ramones and they like listening to hip-hop. They're not listening to NWA, of course, but why can't those type of beats and that fun dance music be appropriated for a kids show? The lyrical content, of course, isn't appropriate in most songs nowadays. But you can have a legitimate-sounding song like something by the Pixies, but make it about eating breakfast.

Why not try to have your kid develop a more sophisticated palate for music, really?

Scott: Or at least you just expose them to different stuff. We've found that they do have a palate and they'll like and not like certain things, even at a young age. Christian had the Ramones thing with his kids, and I'll try and be like, "Oh, this is great for you guys," but they don't really like it, and then they'll pick up something else that they really like.

How do you produce the music for the show? My sister-in-law thought you might be rewriting popular songs using kids' lyrics.

Christian: We write everything. When we got picked up, we picked our dream team of our friends who are songwriters and guys in our bands. We worked with them and wrote all the original songs. So last season, we wrote something like 200 songs ... actually, almost twice that. The show is basically built around the songs: First we write all the songs, then we figure out where they're all going to go and how it's going to fit into the narrative within the show.

What about that song about flying kites?

Christian: Yeah, the band Free Design, that was one of their songs -- "I Like Kites" from the '60s -- and we had the Parallelograms come and cover the song. So there are some instances where we do license some music. It's pretty rare, though.

Scott: We want to [do it more], but all of our favorite songs are too expensive!

Christian: Yeah, it's a pretty shoestring budget compared to most television programs , so it's really hard for us to get licensed music, and it's sometimes hard for us to get bands and guests to appear. [The second season features guest appearances by the Ting Tings, the Roots, Jimmy Eat World and Mates of State.]

Do you sit down with your team of musicians and songwriters and say, "OK, now we're going to write a ska song about cleaning up your room?"

Christian: The great thing about the way we do things is that people will come to the table and say, "Hey, what if we wrote a song like this, it's called "Pick It Up" and it's a ska song?" And we'll all laugh and say, "Yeah, totally, that's so funny!"

Hmm. It sounds like you guys are the stoners, not your viewers!

Christian: Well, everyone brings something to the table. That's what's really fun about it. It's very rare that we'll turn songs away or turn ideas away. We haven't had too many death metal songs, so we haven't had to turn any of those away yet!

You're probably less focused on education than most shows, but there are a lot of good songs that express something that's hard to get across without repetition, like the song about food, "Try It, You'll Like It!" Sometimes I sing that to my daughter, or "We Are the Tiny, Ugly Germs!" It's sort of tough to explain why you shouldn't eat off the ground or out of a trash can without a song!

Christian: The show is definitely mirroring a setting where kids are playing together. We're drawing on experiences that both Scott and I deal with. They have a bunch of friends over and they're playing and one of the kids knocks something over, and whether it's on purpose or not, how do you deal with it? That's a great place for us to hit home those lessons that you have to repeat over and over again. Like, "Try it, you'll like it" -- my kids still have a hard time trying new things and doing new things. They hate that song now!

What do you observe among little kids these days that may be different from the way we were when we were growing up?

Christian: I don't know. There are so many things that seem subtle but are extremely different [from the way we grew up]. Just the fact that your daughter or our kids can ask for "Yo Gabba Gabba" anytime they want. They don't have to wait for it to come on at a certain time of day, or once a week. Everything is so accessible, but at the same time, everything is being shut in and caged in. Like you can't just let your kids run to the park without you. I worry about the whole overstimulation of children [with media], and yet I work in that medium, so it makes me a little nervous.

Do you ever meet kids that are so totally saturated by hip stuff that it seems like a little bit too much?

Scott: We've had that response, people saying, "Oh, you're trying to over-hip our kids or sell them on what's cool." But I think we're just providing a platform of really interesting and diverse things musically. I don't think we're hitting an agenda. We're not a hip-hop show that's trying to promote hip-hop. We're not an indie show trying to support that type of music. I think we're pretty broad musically, and although we do have some things we like better than others, we go out there and try and get the best of the best to come on the show.

Christian: We also know that kids probably don't know who Biz Markie is, or care. The significance of Mark Mothersbaugh (of Devo) teaching drawing on the show is definitely going to be lost on a 4-year-old. But the people we want to have involved in the show, they're kind of cartoon personalities, and their enthusiasm for children comes across in their performances. We make sure the guests we have aren't coming on to hock their new album. They really want to be there for kids.

There are all those Baby Einstein DVDs that show kids van Gogh and play Mozart, but your show sort of respects popular culture enough to present it to kids. And really, why should today's art and music be viewed as somehow more commercial -- and less valuable -- than older cultural offerings?

Christian: It's probably even less commercial, because Mozart is public domain, so the people that made that stuff are killing it. Our kids watch all those shows, too, and we want to educate our kids, but you're exactly right, there's no reason that the things that are happening now can't be included as special and good and cool to kids.

Scott: Or careful selection of the pop culture, because, you know, you can see other shows that will try to be a cross section of popular culture, but it's not always the stuff that you'd want your kid to see or be a part of.

Christian: We do try to stay away from a lot of controversy or things that are going to stir up trouble for the show. We've been approached by other people to be a part of the show but maybe [what they have to offer is] a little too over the line, or there's too much baggage. Because it is more about the kids. We don't want to make it about ...

Pushing the envelope?

Christian: I think we already are pushing the envelope for kids stuff, so we're not trying to outdo ourselves as far as being subversive or sticking it to the man. There's nothing like that. It's the things we love, offered to the kids we love -- our kids and kids out there.

Have you ever tried putting a kids show online before?

Christian: Well, that's where the show really came from. Scott and I created the show pretty much by ourselves, and we found an investor -- one of our friends -- and we made two episodes and sent them out to different networks. We were feeling impatient, and then we said, "Plan B, let's just put a clip up on the Internet." That's really where the show took off.

We got all these hits, and suddenly people from the networks were calling us back. And one of them, Brown Johnson from Nick Jr., she flew out from New York and we met with her, and she said, "The show is awesome, it's great. I had five people send me the link to your clip online." I guess one of them was Jared Hess who directed "Nacho Libre" and "Napoleon Dynamite." And she said, "We want to do your show."

Really, the show springs out of DIY: Do it yourself, put it on the Internet, and if it's good people will watch it. I don't think the show could've been made 10 years ago, because there's no way we could've taken it to pitch meetings and really gotten people excited about it without the general public proving that they like it. I hope there'll be an increase in quality, diverse programming because of the Internet.

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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