Remember when kids’ TV was good? When every Saturday morning was full of promise as long as you had a bowl of Cap’n Crunch and an episode of H.R. Pufnstuf on one of the four channels?
The ‘70s were the golden years of kids’ TV—grown-ups had just realized that kids’ programming could be both educational and wildly creative. And I watched a lot of it.
But by the time I had kids of my own, in the mid ’90s, TV wasn’t as good as I remembered. The Teletubbies were Orwellian stooges who taught kids to obey faceless overlords. Oswald was like taking a sleeping pill. Sesame Street was still around and consistently excellent, but Dora the Explorer? Cloying and politically correct. The Magic School Bus? Nobody was that happy to be in school. Blues Clues I could take or leave, but Barney and Friends filled me with rage. Kids’ TV, it seemed, had been dumbed down and sold out. The gooey creative center was gone; only the candy-coated shell remained.
We’re in America, dammit, and we certainly can’t escape the engine of our capitalistic democracy: commercialism. Nor would we want to. But that doesn’t mean kids’ TV has to suck. There had to be a solution. A happy middle ground, a place where capitalism meets consumer demand and creates smart, fun and wildly creative children’s television. In 2007, when my kids had pretty much grown out of the demographic, I finally found the show that represents the paradigm of American exceptionalism: Nick Jr’s Yo Gabba Gabba! You see, creators Christian Jacobs and Scott Schultz were fathers just like me—they too hated shiesty children’s programming. So they combined forces—both are musicians, and Jacobs is a former child actor—and created a children’s television show that they would enjoy watching. (If only they’d become dads five years sooner.)
You have to see the show to appreciate it, but here’s a primer. There’s this DJ who wears a fuzzy orange hat, black glasses and an orange jumpsuit. His name is Lance Rock, and he opens every episode with a loose-limbed stroll through a blank set carrying a giant boombox that he places on a table and opens, removing five dolls from inside. Then he says the magic words, “yo gabba gabba!,” and the dolls come to life. There’s Muno, a rubbery, one-eyed creature who looks like he’s made out of a dish mat; Foofa, a pink potted plant thing; Plex, a yellow robot; Brobee, a short green hairball with floppy arms; and Toodee, a blue cat, I think. They dance to catchy tunes, sing and learn how to wash their hands and why you shouldn’t bite your friends, among other lessons. It’s standard-issue kids’ show stuff. But Yo Gabba Gabba! is so much more.
For one thing, it’s filled end-to-end with parent-pleasing details. The goofy guy referred to only as “Mark” who teaches kids to draw? His full name is Mark Mothersbaugh, a founding member of Devo. The beat-boxing teacher is rapper Biz Markie. Musical guests include hipster acts MGMT, the Ting Tings, the Shins, Ladytron and Las Vegas’ own the Killers. Kids might only see grown-ups playing music, but parents are in on the secret.
“That’s the kind of stuff I want to see, too, you know,” Jacobs told The New York Times in 2007. “My kids don’t know who the Shins are or why they’re cool, but why can’t we introduce them to them?”
But the show’s genius goes deeper than winking references for a generation of pop-culture-soaked parents. Gabbaland is a freewheeling, psychedelic collage of live action and illustration where everyone dances and adults play along without condescension or irony. Guest animators help impart an eye-popping variety of visual styles, while the music is catchy enough to be good for its own sake and not just because of who’s playing it. It’s design-savvy in a way kids’ television hasn’t been since Pee-Wee’s Playhouse in the ’80s.
Clearly Jacobs and Schultz are on to something. Last year, it won a Television Critics Association award for outstanding achievement in youth programming. Foul-mooded foodie Anthony Bourdain even expressed his love for it on his Travel Channel blog in 2009. “I don’t care what you say,” he wrote, “DJ Lance, Muno, Broby, Foofa, Toodee and Plex have taught my daughter many valuable lessons—like the desirability of napping, for one. Not to throw objects at Daddy’s skull. Not biting. The value of ‘trying again’ and ‘not giving up.’ All set to surprisingly weird, offbeat songs, which, in another venue and with other lyrics, one might find oneself enjoying at a club.”
Inevitably, the show has spawned a merchandising bonanza. You can buy Yo Gabba Gabba! boomboxes, soundtracks, bedding, party supplies and action figures. Kids can flash their cred with Yo Gabba Gabba! Vans shoes and T-shirts. Still older “kids” might well be programmed to think warmly of Kia after seeing the car company’s commercials featuring Muno hanging out of the sunroof of a Sorrento that’s cruising down the Strip.
So, yes, Yo Gabba Gabba! has sold out. And good for them. To the victor go the spoils, as the American Dream dictates. But you’ll still find something joyous and creative among all the merch, tie-ins and sentimentality. I think DJ Lance sums it up after each musical guest: “Listening and dancing to music is awesome!”