In a world where most kids; TV shows tackle the scary world of feelings, Ask the StoryBots stands apart because it is focused on facts. In every episode, a difficult question is posed to the titular bots — what is DNA? how many animals are there? what is music — and our heroes fly out into the real world in search of the answer. Basically, the StoryBots represent a clean-cut version of Google, but with a conscience. And along the way, the bots often encounter familiar faces, from Weird Al to Jennifer Garner to Edward Norton.
Developed by two brothers —Evan and Gregg Spiridellis — Ask the StoryBots began its life as a series of YouTube shorts. The Spifridellis brothers had previously made a career for themselves as the creator of JibJab, which, if you remember the year 2004, was very big in the world of funny political satire videos. So, how did two comedy-focused brothers decide to create one of the smartest children’s shows on TV? The answer is: they were sick of what they were seeing.
Fatherly caught-up with Evan and Gregg Spiridellis to chat about their path to the StoryBots, what their program offers that others don’t, and why parents need children’s entertainment to not profoundly suck.
What is the brief journey from political satire videos to educational hit Netflix series for Kids?
Greg: It happened because we had our own kids. From 1999 through 2012, when we first started Storybots, we had built JibJab into a profitable and stable business that had lots of creat artists and lots of great management. And Evan and I had young kids and every time we sat down to watch something we wanted to put pencils in our eyes. There wasn’t anything we wanted to sit down and watch with our young kids. We started imagining: what if Sesame Street were created today? How would it be different? What would we do differently? That was how we started thinking about StoryBots. And we also saw the huge audience who was watching kids’ content on YouTube. So we started making shorts for YouTube. So, we got traction there, and between 2012 and 2016 that created the show that ultimately was licensed to Netflix.
I think a lot of dads struggle with finding a good show to watch with their kids. How did you guys avoid falling into lame traps with StoryBots?
Greg: The bar is we need to make ourselves laugh.
Evan: We made this show for ourselves as much as we did for our kids.
Do you think the celebrity guests the anchors for the parents, then?
Evan: Right. the celebrity guests are 100 percent there for the parents. There aren’t a lot of preschoolers who know who Snoop is. It’s an extra little wink and a nod for us. So far, it’s been fun for our guests. It’s definitely the grown-up angle.
Who is dream-guest you want but haven’t gotten yet?
Greg: We could rattle off probably lots of names from you know, Obama to John C. Reilly. We’ve had lots of ideas. I mean, it’s challenging because it’s on camera and these people have very busy schedules. The guests we’ve had, especially in Season 3 are just, we’re pinching ourselves.
Evan: And, Edward Norton got an Emmy nomination for his portrayal of Gary the Electronic’s salesman. So, you know, those are the things help us. as we do outreach now.
How do you cook-up the questions? Are they all from real kids?
Evan: We started with a list of like 400 questions. And we sort of whittled them down and tried to get them down to the perfect eight or the perfect ten questions.
Have you ever gone back to that list and found some crazy questions? Were any of them out of control?
Evan: I think the out-of-control stuff is stuff we tackled! I mean, how do you explain how cell phones work or what DNA in a 22-minute episode for 4-year-olds?? We kind of set the bar really high for ourselves and made our lives really difficult. But, I honestly can’t remember out of the 400 questions what was left, I know we said, ‘Oh god, those would be really, really hard.’
Greg: I think we embraced the challenging stuff. DNA for example. Our bar is always, can we explain this really complicated idea that a 5-year-old can repeat to a parent and blow their mind. Can you explain how the ear works or how the eyes see, or how DNA makes people look different or has Evan said, how cell phones work. We’re less-intimidated by really complex ideas. I think the one bar is, for the most part, there needs to be an answer. There need to be objective answers we can deliver. But even then? What about the question like: How many animals are there in the world? I mean, nobody knows, but we were still able to make an episode around it.
What else is hard to define for kids?
Evan: Music! How do you define music for kids? There’s a million definitions out there. But, we felt like if we could wrap our arms around one way that we could break it down and help kids understand elements and repeat those elements to their parents, then that would be a win.
Why is it important to do a kids’ show that isn’t about make-believe? I mean the StoryBots themselves are make-believe, but the subject matter and the questions are not.
Evan: In the show, I think that’s true. I mean, we do have some short-form content around social-emotional stuff. I mean Ask the StoryBots, it’s very format-driven. They get a question, they go out into the world to get an answer, they come back, and they deliver a fact-based song. But, as we’re looking forward with Netflix, we’re really thinking, how can we do more of the social-emotional dimensions of these characters in a differently-formated show? It’s something we’ve not really shied away from, it just didn’t work with Ask the StoryBots.
But, do you think there is a dispropriate amount of fact-based schools for preschoolers versus feeling-based shows? So, is there a version of StoryBots for even older kids? Which is also about science and math?
Greg: I think we’re really comfortable in the preschool and elementary school age-zone. With kids, what they respond to year-to-year is so different. So, creating something for middle school doesn’t really seem where the StoryBots would go. But I will say, my kids are in middle school, and they are doing DNA in 6th grade, the teacher is going to use the StoryBots episode on DNA in that class.
We’re tackling middle-school and high-school level stuff. And college-level stuff already. So, we’re not going to dumb it down. Ever. We get videos of people’s kids talking to them in like the back seat of the car, telling them how the inner ear works. Or white brain cells work. Immunology specialists have said they learned more from the StoryBots than they did in college. We are not talking down to kids at all. And they are getting it.
Ask the StoryBots seasons 1-3 is streaming on Netflix right now.