John Walker's Electronic House

Television: Yo Gabba Gabba

by on Feb.11, 2010, under The Rest

I wrote this piece about Yo Gabba Gabba a few months ago as a spec for something else that didn’t happen. So if you are a super-high-powered editor/publisher who wants writing about TV like the below, do get in touch. That would be nice.

The cruellest thing that can happen to any children’s television programme is its ironic adoption by the student classes. Teens and twenty-somethings oh-so-knowingly put up posters of popular pre-school characters, but, wait for it, here they’re smoking a spliff, or taking a dump! How astonishingly clever and, let’s just say it, satirical. The system, the Man, is truly smashed to bits like someone took a bulldozer to a Sylvanian Families collection.

These wretched people misunderstand any magical programme they touch, ruining the gentle, repetitive loveliness of everything from The Magic Roundabout to the Teletubbies, Bagpuss to Bob The Builder. But this isn’t to say that adults shouldn’t be able to sit and enjoy the output of channels like CBeebies or Nick Jr. If capable of watching them without becoming enraged by the numbers of arms a presenter may possess, there’s much to be appreciated on exactly the level the creators intended. But sadly any programme that doesn’t treat its child audience as plankton, bothering to work hard at being thoughtful and involved, seems to be subsumed by the weed-addled idiots.

There is, however, one programme that knows exactly what the ironic pissants will do to it before they let loose their first nasally snort. One that has them beat from the start. Yo Gabba Gabba is the creation of indie hipsters Christian Jacobs and Scott Schultz, and is quite possibly the most perfect under-five’s television programme if you don’t count Sesame Street.

Hosted by the result of a mad scientific experiment combining Ultimate Cool with Nerdiest Geek, DJ Lance Rock is the sort of bespectacled person at a nightclub who’s dressed like a complete dick, but surrounded by interesting women, and yet you don’t begrudge him at bit. Looking like Moss from The IT Crowd dressed as an orange Jimmy Saville, he begins each episode by unpacking a metallic case containing the show’s five main protagonists.

They are Muno, a one-eyed orange carrot-like creature covered in peculiar blobs; Foofa, which sounds like the name an embarrassed legal clerk from Surrey might give her vagina, and who looks disturbingly like something you might buy from Ann Summers; Toodee, a blue cat/dragon; Plex, a “magic robot”, who appears to be able to beam people into their colourful set, as well as store dirty biscuits in his tummy compartment; and Brobee, who looks like a fluffy germ with a ferocious monobrow.

The five are put down into the wide cardboard set that DJ Lance looms over, and then spring magically to life as we see them close-up, now actors in costumes. Lance, I presume, is some sort of deity to the Gabba creatures, whom they crudely worship in the form of songs and dances, celebrating their love for bugs, or declaring which foods are yummy. So far, so every other kids’ show on TV. But where Yo Gabba Gabba gains its broad appeal and cult status is through the indie influences that permeate every aspect.

Jacobs and Schultz were both young parents, sick of the vile, putrid noise that was pouring out of children’s TV channels like an endless soup of brightly coloured vomit, and decided they could do better. In their mind ‘better’ meant ‘bearable for adults’.

Hooked into the San Francisco indie scene (Jacobs was, and is, a member of the ludicrous ska band, the Aquabats), they realised they weren’t the only people they knew discovering themselves in their 30s with children who needed both supervision and distraction. Indie bands who had hit their peak in the early noughties were now having families – a whole generation of people still ostensibly cool were pulling their own faces off in horror every time the TV screen was filled with a purple dinosaur.

And so Yo Gabba Gabba was born. A programme for pre-schoolers that contains a slot where Biz Markie (of tuneless hiphop joyfest hit single, Just A Friend) teaches kids to beatbox. A programme where ultra-cool band The Shins sing a new song called ‘It’s OK, Try Again’. Where an animated sequence explaining how families are related is sung by beautifully sombre Mormon miseryguts, Low. Short stabs between segments feature references to early-80s videogames, meaningless to the target audience beyond the pleasure of moving colours, but a treat for watching adults.

The songs sung by the main cast are also hideously catchy. After visiting friends with an eighteen month old, I found myself singing about my fondness for bugs (creepy-crawlies rather than diseases) to anyone who came near for the next couple of days. Other tunes encourage trying new foods, not eating things you’ve dropped on the floor, and that if you fall down and hurt yourself, you need to get back up and shake it off (although I’m not sure if this applies to severe neck injuries).

The whole thing is consistently smart, but never, ever smug. There’s never a sense of sneaking a joke past the kids, but rather it’s just gloriously interesting, to whichever level you choose to apply yourself. And best of all, the sneering student who wants to look down on it is going to get a horrible fright when he sees Hot Hot Heat or The Ting Tings eagerly performing to the creatures, or skateboarder Tony Hawk leading everyone in a Dancy Dance, and he realises the show is laughing at him.

Forget notions that American television is somehow harmful to the under 5s. Yo Gabba Gabba is a festival of entertaining and educational scenes, coupled with surrealist counting sequences, films of children showing how much they like to dance, and tips on how to draw a cat. That the elements of each episode are remixed at the end by DJs like Mouse on Mars, Languis and Mike Relm, won’t mean anything to the audience it so clearly cares very much about, but offers yet another reason to sneak it on the Sky + after the kids have gone to bed.

Oh, and this is everyone’s favourite song from the show. And oh my goodness, this one is beautiful.


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