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Preschool Confidential 

Season two of seminal kids’ show Yo Gabba Gabba! has arrived. DJ Lance Rock and others attempt to explain its allure

Friday, Oct 31 2008
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Being a so-called “hip parent” is well and good, but no matter how many ironic Sex Pistols onesies you put on your li’l cherub, or how often you pump the Beatles, Stones and Ramones by the playpen (or newer stuff — our babe likes MGMT and the Ting Tings), there comes a day when your chip off the old rock block abandons the Na-na-na-nah from “Hey Jude” for the “Da-da-da-da-dah Dora (The Explorer)” song, or worse, the “I Love You, You Love Me” ditty drivel of the purple devil himself, Barney. Even those who employ nouveau-parenting tactics like banning the tube and Toys-R-Us trips will deal with this eventuality, but for those of us who do allow our tots some TV time (the American Academy of Pediatrics says it’s okay around the deuce mark) and happen to be music headz to boot, there are definite challenges when it comes to what’s on the wide screen and surround sound.

This was just the kind of kiddie conundrum that was had by a pair of 30-something California born-and-raised rocker dads, Christian Jacobs and Scott Shultz. (Jacobs is the singer for the wacky masked ska pack the Aquabats, and Shultz helms the indie-pop outfit Majestic.) With funding from some supportive friends, a little blogger love that went voraciously viral and lots of monster magic, they bore a new baby last year, a TV show that parents and kids alike could watch together happily (and yeah, hiply): Yo Gabba Gabba!

The vibrant Nick Jr. preschooler program debuted as one of the coolest things on television in 2007, both sonically and visually, standing strong beside the trippy ebullience of ’70s faves like Krofft Superstars and ’80s phenom Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. There were even shades of classics like Sesame Street and Electric Company in there, but with a heavy indie-rock sensibility. For those who’ve never seen it, let us, as host DJ Lance Rock likes to say, break it dow-w-w-n for season two, the first episode of which arrived at the end of September.

click to enlarge DJ Lance Rock, his friends and the most awesome boom box ever
  • DJ Lance Rock, his friends and the most awesome boom box ever

The show is set in Gabba Land, where five neon creatures live and learn life lessons with the help of their human friend, the orange-clad, beanpole-skinny Rock. Plex, Foofah, Brobee, Muno and Toodee live among talking trees, flowers and food, and watch programs such as Super Martian Robot Girl and the Super Music Friend Show (where guests like the Shins and the Aggrolites sing songs about balloons and bananas).

Before you even think it, the answer is no, Jacobs and Shultz are not on acid. They’re simply papas with vivid imaginations who understand the energy and purity of what toddlers prefer music-wise (both had day jobs in commercial art). Still, like Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and Teletubbies before it, Yo Gabba Gabba! has become a college-age cult fave, and what big “kids” are doing/smoking/taking to enhance the YGG viewing experience is beyond Shultz and Jacobs’ control, and definitely not their intention.

“Me and Christian both being musicians and in bands, we definitely had the idea to do a music variety show. That was the backbone,” says Shultz. “We weren’t really satisfied with shows we were watching at the time, and we wanted to put our own spin on the genre. We also wanted to expose kids to a bunch of different things that maybe they haven’t had the chance to listen to. The crossover appeal to older kids and adults wasn’t necessarily by design, but we’re glad it’s working out that way. “

In addition to the stellar music guests who appear each episode (none of whom, by the way, do it to plug their latest single; the show’s music team writes tot-tailored tunes for all), there are songs sung by Yo Gabba’s colorful characters, simple yet infectious little numbers like “Party In My Tummy” (which encourages kids to let the sad ’n’ lonely carrots on their plates join the bash in their bellies that the yummier foodstuff gets to enjoy) and “Don’t Bite Your Friends” (self-explanatory), both of which have a hip-hop-ish groove and pop hooks that are repetitive but not nauseatingly gooey like most tyke fare. Other songs written by the YGG music team — which includes the creators’ band-dude pals from the O.C. and L.A. music scenes — incorporate punk, ska and emo flavors while teaching manners, values and just plain fun.

“Oftentimes, people doing music for kids’ shows have all these preconceptions of what kids like,” says Mark Mothersbaugh, who should know. He’s been scoring children’s programming for over 20 years, beginning with Pee-Wee and continuing through Rugrats, Clifford and beyond. “What I like about this show is they kind of sidestep all that — and it’s one of the few shows that my own kids really like.”

Mothersbaugh has a regular Yo Gabba art-lesson segment, and his quirky style fits perfectly with the “retro early-’60s Japanese TV look” (as he calls it) of the show. He hasn’t written music for it (yet), but he says his participation has influenced a cut from the new Devo disc the band is working on. Along with Biz Markie (who teaches beat-boxing on “Biz’s Beat of the Day”) and Rock, the personalities on the show are as unconventional and charismatic as the creatures. Ditto the guest bands, which in season two are a higher-profile bunch, and include Ladytron, the Roots, Hot Hot Heat, Datarock, Jack Black and our kid’s faves, MGMT and the Ting Tings. Coupled with the psychedelic graphics, the end product seems tailor-made for the new slew of ex-slacker, all-grown-up Generation X-ers (post X usage) now having kids. But there’s a big chunk of the country left to be addressed.

“A lot of the acts on the show, we’ve heard of, but a majority of America has not,” says Jacobs, who also has an Aquabats kids’ show in the works. “I guarantee you very few people have heard of Ladytron or Chromeo in the Midwest. They’re probably like, ‘Who are these weird bands on my preschool kid’s show?’?”

That’s not so much the case overseas though, where Yo Gabba is a megahit in both the U.K. and Australia. With the new season in full swing and a merchandising deal that promises to bring toys and clothing en masse to retailers like Target and Gymboree, it shouldn’t be too long.

The show’s already turned Rock (whose real name is Lance Robertson) into an unwitting sippy-cup-scene superstar. Known long before the show for his funky frocks and zesty personality, and a longtime fixture behind the counter at Amoeba Records in Hollywood, the retro-loving audiophile, DJ and one half of long-running electro-delic duo the Raymakers is definitely adjusting to a new fan base. He still spins at the Short Stop some nights, but these days he’s just as likely to be signing autographs at comic conventions. Still, Rock keeps it real in the face of impending mainstream fame. He rarely does interviews, because he doesn’t want “people deconstructing everything” about the show and his persona. “Just like with shows such as Sesame Street, there’s a mystique that I want to keep.”

Rock does posit on the program’s success, though: “Today’s parents grew up on MTV and hip-hop and rock and synthesizers,” he says. “Yo Gabba offers the full spectrum of sounds we all grew up with. The kids love the music and the colors, and the grown-ups — people who like Star Wars and The Simpsons and collect toys — love the pop culture aspect.”

Which may just be what the creators had in mind all along. Though the show’s title has nothing to do with the Ramones — or Yo! MTV Raps, for that matter — its creators say it fit too well not to use. “The Ramones connection came up after,” says Jacobs, “but then we were like, okay, they pulled from pop culture. This is in the rock tradition of pulling from past references too. Things we grew up watching and doing, I think we share a kinship with them — that whole DIY, pulling references and making something new. It’s what hip-hop was all about and what punk rock was all about, and it’s what Yo Gabba Gabba!’s all about.”

Yo Gabba Gabba! airs weekdays on Nick Jr. See www.Nickjr.com for schedule. Music from season one available on iTunes. Season-one DVD now available. Release party at Amoeba Records scheduled for November 1.

Read about more kid stuff that rocks.

Reach the writer at llecaro@laweekly.com

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