Even on a blazing day in June, Mark Mothersbaugh showed up at Los Angeles’s Downey Studios looking like a wacky professor dipped in a fresh coat of paint. His shirt was bright yellow, and his pants were flame-retardant orange. His eyes, framed in lime-green glasses, lit up like a pinball machine. A bit of scruff lent his chin a touch of hipster élan. And in front of three TV cameras, the man who commanded America to “Whip It” as the frontman for Devo was ready to teach its kids how to draw a monkey.
A couple of Magic Marker strokes later, Mothersbaugh had created a very funky monkey indeed. When the segment airs on a new Nickelodeon show called Yo Gabba Gabba!, his simian scrawl will turn into a bit of animation, wiggle off its canvas, and dance away as the new-wave icon follows suit, shaking his arms and hips in an improvised frug.
The Starburst colors, playful how-to spots, and upbeat banter—Okay, boys and girls!—may be the staples of programs aimed at preschoolers, but Yo Gabba Gabba! is the first live-action kid’s show since Pee-wee’s Playhouse that’s as entertaining for adults as it is for children. The preview clips of the low-budget pilot that were uploaded on the show’s website last year rang up more than a million hits in a four-day period. Nickelodeon subsequently licensed the program for 20 episodes, and the show premieres August 20 on Nick Jr. and Noggin.
“All of our babysitters are like, ‘When can we get a T-shirt?’” says Christian Jacobs, a 35-year-old father of three who created the show with his friend, the designer and director Scott Schultz, also 35. The pair made short films together while in high school, and then started designing for the myriad surf-and-skateboard manufacturers around their homes in Huntington Beach and Costa Mesa, California.
For music fans, Jacobs may be better known as MC Bat Commander of The Aquabats, a spoofy, ska-inflected band whose superhero-themed stage routine was an early rough draft for Yo Gabba Gabba!. An effort to launch an Aquabats television series, which Jacobs calls a latter-day version of The Monkees “but more sarcastic and punk-rock,” dissolved in development with Buena Vista in 1998. The ideas, however, set a template for their current show’s signature characters.
Even at a glance, the characters reference the collective unconscious of children’s entertainment. Brobee, a green furball with a unibrow, and Toodee, a blue, catlike dragon, could be the kids that Sesame Street’s Ernie and Bert could never have; Muno, a cactus-skinned red Cyclops, might be a sanitized refugee from the savage, adults-only satire Wonder Showzen. Foofa, a pink bubble with a daisy on its head, is a Teletubby 2.0, while the robot Plex’s crossed, black-dot eyeballs are pure Chuck Jones, like Marvin the Martian in Duck Dodgers in the 24-1/2th Century. DJ Lance, the ebullient human host, springs about in a bright orange jumpsuit and totes a giant boombox—as if the ’70s PBS series The Electric Company had been re-imagined as a Beastie Boys video.
The name itself contains a world of music references—The Ramones’ slogan “Gabba Gabba Hey!” meets Yo! MTV Raps. “Scott and Christian wanted to have a magical phrase as the title of the show, something kind of like ‘Abracadabra,’” says Justin Lyon, the show’s producer. “They also wanted it to be easy for a kid to say, phonetically.”
Animation stills from (from top) “Listen” by Lori Damiano, “Hey Come Out and Play” by Jesse LeDoux/Puny Entertainment, “This Is What the Summer Brings” by Joel Trussell, and “Shapes” by Paperrad.
Yo Gabba Gabba! takes everything people love about classic kids’ TV—creative design, novel animation, and catchy tunes—and cranks it up a notch. Or three. It’s easily the most pop-saturated, design-savvy entry into the genre since Pee-wee’s Playhouse brought its production designer, Gary Panter, into millions of suburban homes every week. Yo Gabba Gabba! features taped appearances by The Shins, Rahzel of The Roots, Cornelius, and actor Elijah Wood, who demonstrates a dance called “The Puppet Master” in one of the instructional bits that punctuate each half-hour episode. Hip-hop legend Biz Markie has a recurring role in a segment called “Biz’s Beat of the Day,” which teaches kids how to beatbox.
Each episode also features 90-second animated segments (called “Jingalongs”) that are set to original Gabba songs and covered by current faves such as Dan the Automator and Tahiti 80. These animated segments showcase a wildly eclectic roster of animators and designers, including HomestarRunner.com, Paperrad, the Unibros, and Jesse LeDoux.
One such piece, from guest animator Joel Trussell, illustrates a soulful ditty called “This Is What the Summer Brings.” The Tennessee-based artist, whose clients include McDonald’s, Blue’s Clues, and South Park, revels in retro imagery with a touch of mid-century Americana. The piece depicts bubble-headed, pastel kiddies as they ride on a Ferris wheel, eat cotton candy, and arc above ocean waves on the back of a giant fish. Trussell adapted the look from the British children’s book illustrator Aliki and old Sesame Street album cover art.
Lauren Gregg and Craig Sheldon, the animators who run the Athens, Georgia-based Kangaroo Alliance, create a similar appeal in their piece “Be Nice to Animals.” It’s a sunnier version of the studio’s usual fare for clients such as MTV and the band Of Montreal. “We like cute things in messed-up situations, but lately we’ve been leaving out the ‘messed up’ part,” says Gregg. “It’s a little more kid-friendly.”
Audiences will also see the first animation from LeDoux, a graphic designer adored for his poster art and CD packaging. LeDoux worked with Puny Entertainment to animate “Hey Come Out and Play,” a song that was performed by his friends The Little Ones. The video follows a bored kid, illustrated as a kind of pale blue Easter egg, who leaves homework behind, meets a friendly skateboard ramp, and flies up into the clouds. The visuals were based on a stack of storyboards that make vivid use of the rounded forms and surreal landscapes that LeDoux often favors in his print design.
Yo Gabba Gabba!’s co-creator Scott Schultz cites an unlikely influence on the show’s psyched-out aesthetic: Paul Rand. “He was able to use art to tap into the memories of childhood within adults,” says Schultz. “We wanted to give a subtle wink and nod to parents by referencing the past visually, and more importantly, make something fun that parents might be able to join in experiencing with their kids.”
Jacobs agrees. “We’re not just fabricating something to try to be hip,” he says in his office at The Magic Store, the Orange County production company where the show is put together. “Things that are made for kids that are trying to be hip just seem forced.”
Trussell, a father of two sons, considers himself a fan. “There’s something daring and experimental and downright weird about the show
,” he says. “And when I say weird, I mean awesome.”
Such weirdness has some major backing. The show is coproduced in a partnership with W!ldbrain, a San Francisco-based entertainment company whose CEO, Charles Rivkin, formerly oversaw The Muppets empire at The Jim Henson Company. Paul Frank’s mascot Julius makes an appearance, and Parker Jacobs (Christian’s brother), an art director at Paul Frank, is also the show’s animation art director.
It’s good to have so much grown-up enthusiasm, but actual kids are notoriously fickle. Nickelodeon may worry that Yo Gabba Gabba! will prove to be too cool for preschool, but for now, it’s not letting on. Brown Johnson, the network’s executive vice president who oversees the Nick Jr. programming bloc, uses terms like unique, brave, and boundary-pushing to describe the content. “It’s definitely weird,” she admits. “But it’s good weird, as opposed to creepy weird. Pure, innocent, happy weird.”
If Yo Gabba Gabba! can win the hearts of the monkey-bar set, it will also provide a unique platform for a new generation of graphic artists, even as it inspires the next group. “I think one thing it shows kids,” says Mothersbaugh, a veteran TV and film music arranger, whose 2-year-old daughter, Margaret, convinced him to take the gig after Jacobs sent him a copy of the pilot, “is that there are a lot of different ways to draw the same thing.”