Q&A: Yo Gabba Gabba! Creators Christian Jacobs and Scott Shultz Explain Why Indie Rock Is Good For Children
The characters of the Nickelodeon preschool children's show, Yo Gabba Gabba!, recently barbecued with riff-rockers Them Crooked Vultures: picture a gap-toothed cyclops (Muno), a pink flower gumdrop (Foofa), a yellow robot (Plex), an ovular blue fox (Toodee), and a fuzzy, unibrowed monster (Brobee) casually munching on burgers with a band that regularly plays a song called "Mind Eraser, No Chaser." For Yo Gabba Gabba!, this pairing of whimsical creatures and tamed rock stars is nothing new. In the span of the show's three seasons, Yo Gabba Gabba! has featured performances by beloved indies such as Of Montreal, MGMT, The Shins, and Chromeo. On the show, the bands perform educational sing-a-longs (i.e. "Nice N Clean" or "Brush Brush Brush") penned by co-creators Christian Jacobs and Scott Schultz, bracketed by drawing segments with Mark Mothersbaugh, beatboxing with Biz Markie, and some quintessential storytime. The third season of the show, on hiatus since March, returns with new episodes today. To celebrate, we chatted with Jacobs and Schultz about the charms and challenges of working with rockstars, why the Jonas Brothers can't be Super Music Friends, and the importance of wearing a banana costume.
Ben Clark/Nickelodeon Bottom row: Christian Jacobs, DJ Lance Rock, and Scott Schultz. Top row: Brobee, Muno, Plex.
Solange, performing "Momma Loves Baby" on today's episode:
Judging by Yo Gabba Gabba!'s "Super Music Friends Show" segment, your viewers are arguably the youngest demographic on the planet to listen to MGMT or Of Montreal. How do you decide what kind of music to have on the show?
Scott Shultz: We're both kind of, I guess you could say, huge music fans and maybe even music snobs a little bit. But first, before we put our preference into it, we look for who would be appropriate for the kids. It's not just sound-wise, but who wants to be there for the kids, and not just play their single.
How does the songwriting process work? When Chromeo performed "Nice N' Clean" on the show, did they help write that?
Christian Jacobs: I would say it's probably 90 to 95% us; we have a little crew of songwriters on the show. When you add in the record companies and management and publishing, it just gets really expensive to collaborate with bands or even to license one of their songs. It's really hard because, believe it or not, the show is a low budget kids show, even though the special effects and costumes are so epically put together. That's sarcastic. But I'll say the most fun part is writing the songs together and going, "Hey, this sounds like Chromeo, what if they could come do the song? That'd be awesome." So then we contact Chromeo.
All of the songs come with a built-in message. How do you determine what lessons to teach the children?
SS: Sometimes it's directly from the songwriters who just come up with a great idea and we're able to work that into the episode somehow. Other times, it comes directly out of an episode, where we take a song and say, "What if we try to make the lyrics more about brushing your teeth?"
CJ: Case in point with "I Like Bugs." That one just came lock, stock, and barrel. Like bam - from one of our songwriters, Aaron. We were laughing so hard because it's this R&B slow jam singing about how he likes bugs.
Speaking of the bugs episode, bloggers were probably more exited to see Weezer dress up as bugs and perform "All My Friends Are Insects" than the kids were. What do you think a child sees when they watch one of these guest performances?
CJ: That's the thing, Of Montreal is a great example. They're so theatrical and crazy and prolific. Kevin and his brother David, we got together and collaborated on the video part of that song. Kevin has a three-year-old daughter, Alby, and so he was able to contribute to the process through the eyes of a dad. A lot of the bands coming to us now have kids and so they're thinking, "Oh what if we did this, my kid really likes this."
SS: I showed my kids that Of Montreal set and they loved it. They wanted to watch it again and again, because it had this superhero thing to it where the banana man is throwing bananas and eradicating the bad germs in the body.
Has a specific thing that your child has done inspired an episode?
SS: For sure, most of the things on the show are like that. The show's curriculum is basically watching our kids and trying to write episodes that could make something fun out of some idea--we want our kids not to bite their friends or to eat their vegetables or to wash their hands or to brush their teeth. With all that stuff, it's kind of rough when you're a dad or a mom. You can get really mad at them and frustrated or try to find a funny way to get them to do it, like [the Shin's performance of] "Keep Trying."
CC: Like physically keep trying to put your seatbelts on. My kids are like "I can't do it, I can't do it!" And it's like, "You can do it!" I can easily reach back and buckle it in, but at some point your kids need to learn to do it themselves. I think they're universal things that all parents deal with and that have been the subject of children's shows for decades. It's our generation's way of addressing these things, having Of Montreal and Chromeo help us sing it.
How do you think the show would be different if more child-centric artists performed, like the Jonas Brothers? [Upon hearing "Jonas Brothers" Shultz and Jacobs let out a groaning "oooo."]
SS: We knew kids didn't really know who's a Jonas Brother or who's Michael Jackson, they're very face value - these are preschool kids we're talking about. And so our idea let's us expose them to simple concepts that they can relate to and understand. We wanted to give a whole variety of sounds that maybe aren't being represented [in children's shows] already. So that's where we're at in designing our show, so you know, not everything would be a Gabba Super Music Friend.
CC: There's also a specific energy. Scott and I, we come from indie music; we come from that whole rock/hip-hop growing up in the 80's, skateboarding, that's our generation. And so we really want to repackage the best things from our generation and showcase them to our kids and say, 'Look, this is awesome, and here's why.' There's plenty of other stations out there that will have the Jonas Brothers on it, so we would rather go the, I guess, "alternative" route. I don't really like that tone, but we do it just to give a lot of good flavors to the show.
Definitely, I'm sure many children's show producers think they need to feature artists traditionally suited for kids.
CC: In creating the show, we literally shot a demo in a garage and wrote the whole first season there. We're doing this as a labor of love and we're putting our kids as the focus group; this is the demographic. And so we're not thinking in our minds like, "Wow if we got Bono or the Jonas Brothers on the show, that would really up the ratings!" I think the closest we've come to that is last season, when we had an avalanche of response from people saying they wanted to be on the show. We really had to check ourselves to make sure we weren't throwing someone out there because they're famous.
Going back to the kind of music you have on the show - listening to Chromeo in preschool seems pretty hip. Do you guys ever think that you're breeding a generation of music connoisseurs?
SS: I think maybe the kids will be more open-minded, having been exposed to lots of different kinds of music, stuff that maybe they wouldn't have liked beforehand. I don't know, maybe that's kind of high-minded to say?
CC: I think so too, and that's the idea of the show, not only with music but with the art styles and different lessons. Our kids are going to like what they're going to like, but if you put a lot of things out there for them, you're going to find they have a better chance to become well-rounded individuals in society. I think that's the goal for any parent, and so if we can help other parents with the show, that's really our motive. That is kind of high-minded to assume that's going to work, but that's what we're trying to do as parents.
My kids right now, they love Queen. They listen to Queen all the time, and I think it's so funny. I don't know how they discovered it, but they just love to listen to "We Are the Champions." It's pretty awesome. Then my ten-year-old, she loves Taylor Swift. I don't know, maybe if I was ten, I'd like Taylor Swift, too. But that's her age and I support her because I know she's listened to the Ramones and Kraftwerk, but she chooses Taylor Swift.
I think one of the best parts of the show will be when children look back and recognize the artists. Once the upcoming Flaming Lips episode airs, the audience will discover the band parading around in the nude in the "Watching the Planets" video years later.
CC: I think that happens already. We had Devo on the show and Mark Mothersbaugh teaches the segment where you learn how to draw and my four year old was like "Dad, wait a second, that's Mark right there singing!" And I said, "Yeah that's Mark, he's in a band called Devo."
Once they realize who all the Yo Gabba Gabba! performers are, it'll be their version of the old Nickelodeon show Pete & Pete, which had an episode in which Iggy Pop blows out an amplifier.
CC: Right, and then finding out later who Iggy Pop is and why he's so important to the musical landscape and realizing your gateway to figuring that out was through a children's television show. It's funny - the most unlikely place to learn about Iggy Pop is on a children's television show. Probably the same with Devo. The most unlikely place to learn about Devo is a preschool television show. Well, maybe not the most unlikely, but top five.