Nick Jr.'s Yo Gabba Gabba isn't your run-of-the-mill kids' program. Since the show debuted in 2007, it has grown into a huge cult phenomenon, embraced by preschoolers, parents and jaded hipsters - albeit for different reasons. Its success can be traced back to 50 Cent.
No, really. Yo Gabba Gabba will bring two shows’ worth of infectious tunes and plushy costumes to the Tacoma Dome on Saturday – and the TV series that spawned the show was at least partly influenced by gangsta rap.
Co-creator Christian Jacobs recalls a channel surfing epiphany he had with his baby girl a few years ago, when he and partner Scott Schultz were still developing their concept.
“She was playing with blocks and I was flipping channels and it went past a hip-hop video,” Jacobs recalls. “It was 50 Cent or something like that, and she stopped what she was doing.”
He was struck by how thoroughly the music had seized his toddler’s attention. But he didn’t exactly want her to learn about thugs, blunts and nightclubs just yet. So he kept surfing.
But any time his daughter heard that beat, she was hooked. “I think that might have been one of the fertile seeds of Yo Gabba Gabba” he said.
Before the show, Jacobs was better known as lead vocalist, or “Bat Commander,” of the California ska outfit the Aquabats. He and Schultz both had experience as touring musicians and in TV and video production. And for years, they tried to develop a show around the band, which was known for wearing quirky superhero costumes and goofball humor.
“We kept hitting our heads against the wall trying to go the traditional network route,” Jacobs said. “Once we had kids, it seemed like the skies opened up and it was clear to us what all of this experience had led into, and that was to make a show for children and just do it ourselves.”
The 50 Cent incident inspired them to experiment with combining kid-friendly messages with bombastic break-beats.
“That music is so simple and almost primal,” Jacobs said, “just simple beats, a kick and a snare, a kick and a snare. It’s almost like chanting, you’re chanting over something. So we (thought), ‘Let’s just appropriate this to what kids need – like lessons about sharing and loving people and caring – to these Miami bass beats.”
“I think for a while people just kind of accepted, ‘Oh, kids’ music, it’s gotta sound like Raffi,’ ” Schultz said. “What we found is our kids loved Raffi, but they could also listen to a really catchy Ramones song or a simple ’80s dance song. We just definitely wanted to filter it and make sure it’s appropriate for them. But musically, they were interested by lots of different types of stuff.”
The duo released their pilot episode on the Internet, unaware of exactly what they were unleashing. “The rest is history,” Schultz said. “Everyone kind of latched onto it, and we had a show on Nickelodeon soon after.”
“I think we just came in at the right time ’cause it seemed like there were some other kids’ shows that were attempting to do the same thing around the same time,” Jacobs said. “I think maybe Yo Gabba’s style was a little less forced.”
Celebrity cameos were a key to connecting with older viewers from the beginning. Rap legend Biz Markie appeared on the first episode. And one of Yo Gabba’s most popular segments was the result of painful serendipity.
“What happened was I was supposed to do the Dancey Dance of the Day,” elaborated Biz, whose real name is Marcel Hall. “My back was hurtin’ and I couldn’t do it. I said, ‘Why don’t I do Biz’s Beat of the Day?’ And we did it and it got an overwhelming response, and that was history.”
In that segment, the rapper teaches kids how to beat-box, hip-hop style. “(It’s) showing the kids how to have fun without it being electronic,” he said. “You can just have fun like we used to do back in the day, whether we played tag or whether we played hide and seek. Just fun like that. Plus, you can make a musical instrument with your mouth. It don’t cost nothin’ – just free fun.”
The Killers, the Shins, Elijah Wood, MGMT, the Roots and Jack Black are just a few of the popular musicians and actors who have appeared on the show. A measure of just how hip Yo Gabba Gabba has become: DJ Lance Rock and other costumed characters appeared at this year’s Coachella Music Festival, an annual Indio, Calif., showcase of some of the trendiest bands on the planet.
“We were pretty surprised,” Jacobs said. “I think it validates that kind of fun silliness kids rediscover at (college) age.
“There were those ironic kids in school that would buy the ‘Teletubbies’ lunch box and carry it around school to be ironic or something. But I think we’ve felt a genuine, real love toward the show.”
The live show promises to be different from most touring kids’ productions.
“A lot of the kids shows end up looking more like a Broadway production – you know, just with their favorite characters on stage,” Schultz said. “We wanted kids to have their first rock show, their first dance party – somewhere they could go jump up and down and scream and cheer and just kind of have a fun time.”
The live show features DJ Lance Rock, Muno, Foofa, Brobee, Toodee and Plex – all characters from the TV show. Plus each stop has featured musical guests. Singer- songwriter Keller Williams will be Yo Gabba’s Super Music Friend in Tacoma, and Caspar Babypants (also known as Chris Ballew from the band The Presidents of the United States of America) will appear during the show’s Dancey Dance segment.
And of course Biz’s Beat of the Day is sure to be a crowd pleaser. “It’s one of the most surreal, awesome, epic things you could experience,” Jacobs said, laughing. “It’s amazing – just to hear 2,000 4-year-olds do a beat of the day, beat-boxing in unison. It’s like nothing on TV.”
Yo Gabba Gabba Live
What: The Nick Jr. road show teams up with Keller Williams and Caspar Babypants
When: 2 and 5 p.m. Saturday
Where: Tacoma Dome, 2727 E. D St., Tacoma
Tickets: $35 to $49
Information: 253-272-3663 or www.tacomadome.org