In the 1970s, Jim Henson's experimental puppetry bridged the age and hipness gap in entertainment. It entertained kids without being condescending and was creative enough to engage rather than enrage parents.
Since then, the show that has arguably had the greatest success replicating Henson's formula is Nick Jr.'s Yo Gabba Gabba. The program uses life-size puppets, psychedelic sets, wacky costumes, catchy songs and a hip list of guest stars to provide first-class edutainment. The live stage version of Yo Gabba Gabba comes to Boise for a show at the Morrison Center Tuesday, Feb. 26.
Though Yo Gabba Gabba has a squeaky clean image, fans of the show have the decidedly unsqueaky rapper 50 Cent to thank for it.
"My daughter was born in 2000, and 2001 was when I was watching a lot of kids programming," explained the show's co-creator Christian Jacobs. "One day, we were watching TV and I was doing the dad-channel-surf and she was playing with her ponies or whatever, and I remember flipping past MTV and it was 50 Cent's 'Up in the Club,' and she looked up and her head started bobbing. But then I had to change the channel because it was all hot pants and Cristal."
Jacobs started off as a child actor but didn't care for the cutthroat environment of adult acting. Jacobs also spent years as the charismatic frontman of Southern California ska band The Aquabats, which puts on Anime-influenced live shows featuring superhero outfits and monster fighting.
"We weren't making money--it was like this elaborate hobby," Jacobs told the OC Weekly. "And when you have a wife and kids and your hobby is putting on a tight shirt and a helmet and a mask, well, you start getting weird looks from your in-laws and people asking you what you're doing with your life."
However, when Jacobs noticed his daughter's head bobbing while watching TV, he had the realization that simple repetitive beats appeal to kids. Jacobs immediately began experimenting with hip-hop and dance music at home, quickly working in themes, characters and costumes from The Aquabats.
"The idea exploded and it was all downhill from there," Jacobs said. "Downhill in a good way."
Jacobs and his cousin, Scott Schultz--aka The Seaghost--made online samples of Yo Gabba Gabba that were widely viewed and earned the duo a production deal from Nick Jr. in 2007.
At the start, Jacobs and Schultz made a five-page wish list of performers they'd like to have as guests. They update the list every year.
"In the beginning, people were like, 'What are you doing? What is this thing?' And now we get people calling us," he said.
Some standout guest stars have included Mark Mothersbaugh, of Devo, teaching art lessons; Biz Markie showing kids how to beat-box; Amy Sedaris appearing as the tooth fairy and Elijah Wood singing about oral hygiene. Musical guests have included The Roots, Weezer, MGMT, Of Montreal, Jack Black, Ladytron and The Faint.
Part of what makes the show's guest appearances so fascinating is that the kids have no clue who those performers are, something Jacobs acknowledges.
"Guests you have on the show are totally irrelevant to the target audience," he said. "But as far as that goes, if you're going to go for guests, go for people you totally idolize."
Jacobs also said that the guest stars are unique performers or pioneers in their fields, not just people with projects to promote.
Another thing Jacobs and Schultz knew from the start was that Yo Gabba Gabba was meant to be performed live onstage.
"We both, in essence, come out of live music, so we always knew that a live tour would be happening if the show ever got off the ground," he said. "So we just wanted to put a live show together that would be enjoyable for parents as much for kids."
Jacobs, who now has four kids, knows a thing or two about it.
"Being a dad and taking your kids to see 'blankety blank live,' that's a hefty price to pay for something that's lame," he said.
And Yo Gabba Gabba is anything but lame, with its dancing puppets and huge video wall.
The Boise leg of the tour includes musician Mike Park, frontman of Skankin' Pickle and founder of Asian Man Records. Park will be joined by McCall's leading kids' band Play Date, comprised of Bouncing Souls frontman Greg Attonito and his wife, Shanti Wintergate. Play Date will do a one song performance called "Feel Like Jumping," which Wintergate described as "an old reggae song that we ska up."
One person who won't be in attendance is Jacobs. He now runs the show from home, which he says is far better for his family life than being on tour half the year. His daughter who inspired the show is about to enter high school.
"At one point, from age 7 to 11, she was like, 'Don't talk about Yo Gabba Gabba, it's stupid,'" he said. "When they're 2 and 3, it's the greatest thing in the world. Then when they turn 13 to 15, they realize it actually was the greatest thing in the world."