Why Weird Is Good And Other Lessons From The Producer Of Yo Gabba Gabba
Yo Gabba Gabba‘s origin story is the stuff of kid TV legend — Christian Jacobs and Scott Schultz wanted to make a TV show for their kids even though neither had any TV experience. Enter Justin Lyon, who didn’t have any more TV experience than Jacobs and Schultz but faked it better because he’d just graduated from film school.
Lyon helped Jacobs and Schultz realize their vision for a live action pilot inspired by classic 70s kids shows like H.R. Pufnstuf and The Banana Splits. The show was summarily dismissed by network executives everywhere until a teaser for it was uploaded to the internet in 2006 and was viewed over a million times in just 4 days. The show debuted on Nickelodeon a year later and remains a staple of the network’s programming.
We caught up with Lyons to talk about why A-list celebrities can’t stay off the show, how getting rejected by the entire TV industry was actually a great parenting lesson, and why only one character on the show can move its mouth.
Yo Gabba Gabba has featured all sorts of music, TV and film celebrities as guests. What’s the difference between a guest who has kids and one who doesn’t?
They’re all awesome, and they all come because they want to be on the show, but there is a difference. I think Bill Hader expressed it best. He said, “For the first time, I’m a peer with my kid. I’m as excited to watch the episode as my kid is.” It’s something they’re very proud of, and they love doing it because they can share that moment with their kid.
The show’s impetus is to create TV that adults can share and participate in with their kids. When you’re brainstorming ideas or shooting segments, how do you know if you’ve hit that sweet spot?
That’s Christian and Scott. They use their kids as litmus tests. They want to make sure that we’re all into it and we think it’s cool — they come from very artistic and creative backgrounds and they have a good sense of what’s cool and relevant, but they couple that with their kids. Christian was playing with his daughter and the TV was on. He was flipping around for something appropriate and when he came to MTV a 50 Cent video was on. As soon as she heard the beat, his daughter responded. He changed the channel because of the lyrics, but then he flipped back to it and she reacted again, bobbing her head. That’s where Christian and Scott were smart. Most people say, let’s write children’s songs. No, let’s write children-friendly lyrics to rad songs. Why can’t The Killers or The Roots play songs that sound like them as a band, but that have kid-friendly lyrics?
We’ve turned down bands that weren’t kid friendly or didn’t have a general appeal to kids. We try to be diverse and expose parents to different genres and bands, but you have to balance the creativity with what’s appropriate. Case in point, Band Of Horses, they’re fans of the show. They were recording a new album and Ben wanted to write a song for his daughter. So they wrote it with the hopes of going on Yo Gabba Gabba. It sounds like a Band Of Horses song, but it was kid friendly.
Snoop Dogg reached out; we’re fans — we love him and think his music is cool, but we didn’t know that he’d be the right fit as a guest on the show, so we wound up having him perform on the live tour. You have to be sensitive. Kids and children and families, they welcome you into their homes and you don’t want to abuse that trust. You can get exposure, but is it worth it? Does it fit the vibe and the message we’re trying to send? We don’t take that lightly; we’re cautious of what we expose kids to.
Yo Gabba Gabba isn’t the first example of a creative idea that was dismissed as too “weird” to work, which ultimately was proven to work precisely because it’s weird. What lesson do you draw from that professionally, and as a parent?
The easy answer is that you should never follow the mainstream. They’re not always right. The networks who rep the mainstream weren’t right, but then people saw it and they wanted the show. They made the networks want it. We wanted to make it weird enough that we’d watch and that kids would be drawn to it. You walk a fine line between being too crazy and too bland and you don’t want to lose the magic.
As parents, our kids are completely different — different traits, ambitions, dreams and desires. If you err toward the mainstream, you don’t fulfill your ambitions or desires. You want you kids’ dreams to come true. We want to encourage kids to dream, encourage parents to play with their kids. The mainstream says that life is hard and things don’t always work and, as a father, you don’t want to be naive. But you don’t want to discourage your kids from dreaming and making their dreams a reality.
Why is Brobee the only character on the show with facial expressions?
That’s a valid question. We thought it would be fun if he changed from sad to happy, but at the end of the day, there are costs involved, and mouths that move — that’s a factor. The other characters express themselves in ways besides their mouths, they have personalities that they show. We know different kids have different personalities, so we try to embody those types; shy, bashful, or super excited and eager. But we wanted a show that plays internationally and when it comes to dubbing a show in Italian, when the mouth doesn’t move, that’s a different scenario. Preschool shows can be global, and we’re sensitive to that. We think the show’s messages are global, and we saw what Sesame Street did. Sesame Street lives all over the world.
Does a 2-year-old care if a mouth is moving? That’s the genesis of the show — as a kid, what do you do with your toys? You make them come to life, you talk to them, you have conversations. In the show, Lance Rock brings these toys to life. Your kids create situations where their imagination is at play, and that’s what Yo Gabba Gabba is.
Any great adult songs you’ve been surprised to learn that kids love?
Our second son, when he was a baby, Vampire Weekend had just come out with their first album, and the first song on that album — it didn’t matter how much of a fit he was throwing, if he was crying or freaked out — whenever he heard it he would stop instantly every time. He’d sit in complete silence and enjoy the music. That was surprising.