Were it not for Sesame Street, we would all be much bigger assholes. Where else would we have learned about cooperation, near and far, or the letter B? But they’ve lost their way a bit in attempting to stay current. Kids don’t need to be current. Kids have no idea what year it is.
Sesame Street is still mostly a good show, but it started going downhill when two things happened.
1. Elmo. Viewers born after 1983 can’t really imagine a universe without the furry red one. With a voice like a pack-a-day smoker, he has somehow charmed the Pampers off of generations of kids. It’s hard to make a case against the endearing little bastard. But you’ll recall that the Tickle-Me-Elmo craze heralded a crass commercialization that Sesame Street had not previously embraced. You can’t really fault the Children’s Television Workshop for making bank while meeting market demand. But what sanity-loving person hasn’t at some point fantasized about drowning Elmo in the bathtub? The same cannot be said about Ernie.
2. The Outing of Snuffleupagus. All of the adults on the show used to think that Snuffleupagus was Big Bird’s imaginary friend. It always provided a pleasant moment of frustration when Snuffy would shuffle off camera just as the adults arrived. Big Bird would exclaim that they just missed meeting his friend. And the adults would give patronizing smiles and nods, while acknowledging among themselves that Big Bird had some imagination. But we kids believed Big Bird. We knew Snuffy was real.
Then in 1985, in a misguided lesson about how kids should be trusted and believed (WTF?), all of the adults came to acknowledge Snuffleupagus’s existence. It was as if Clark Kent took off his nonprescription eyeglasses and said, “Check it out – it’s me… Superman!” Lame.
By themselves, these two developments meant very little in the glorious history of Sesame Street. But they signaled a major change in the show’s direction. Instead of a bunch of hippies brainstorming fun skits for kids, Sesame Street tried to improve on what already worked. They ignored their instincts and started taking cues from experts in marketing and child development. Now when you watch, it’s hard to miss the arbitrary attempts at street cred, namely: unnecessary special effects, pointless pop culture references, gratuitous use of computers as props, and the near-constant farting of Linda, the deaf chick. (Just seeing if you’re still paying attention.)
So what’s a Jew to do? Yo Gabba Gabba! That’s not gibberish. It’s a television program. If you’re already familiar with the show, you can stop reading now and get back to your important life. For the uninitiated, Yo Gabba Gabba! [exclamation point theirs] stars DJ Lance and the five figurines who live in his boom-box. That’s right: they live in his motherfucking boom-box.
DJ Lance is refreshingly black. I can’t recall a black children’s television host since LeVar Burton ruined books for everyone on Reading Rainbow. DJ Lance is way cooler than LeVar Burton. For one thing, he’s not blind. Secondly, instead of gaylord baby songs, DJ Lance spins groovy tunes to make you swoon. He acts as sort of a benevolent god to the five figurines who magically come to life on the show’s psychedelic set.
At first glance, the characters are reminiscent of the Teletubbies. They even have similar sounding nonsense names: Muno, Plex, Foofa, Toodee, and Brobee. And I think one of them is gay. But instead of a shrill Teletubby ass-fest, Yo Gabba Gabba! is totally cool to have on in the background while you’re shaving, reading the paper, or fighting with your wife.
The show is about navigating the world through the prism of childhood. Naturally enough, this allows for endless episode themes, like sharing, teeth, weather, bugs, etc. Topics are handled with the liberal use of astonishingly catchy songs. Everything gets turned into a song and dance. If one of the characters so much as stubs his toe, they sing about it. When they’re done singing about it, they dance about it. All told, it’s not a bad approach to life. It worked for Michael Jackson. Skits and segments are refreshingly brief, while always hewing to each episode’s theme. The live-action is interspersed with trippy animated shorts that stimulate kids’ imaginations. This evokes groundbreaking aspects of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, minus the public masturbation.
To sweeten the deal for captive audience parents, there are cameos by the likes of Andy Samberg, Mos Def, Sarah Silverman, and Tony Hawk. Also Elijah Wood, but that’s no reason to hate. Jack Black hosted an entire (and classic) episode. Biz Markie has a recurring gig doing a human beatbox. Appearing on the show has become a badge of honor for indie bands. Witness songs by the Shins, the Killers, the Decembrists, the Ting Tings, the Roots, and MGMT. Somehow, YGG has managed to book guest appearances by actors and bands that make Jimmy Fallon look like a third-rate talk-show host… wait, that came out wrong.
The show’s strength lies in its refusal to patronize kids. YGG is endearingly sweet, but never saccharine. The educational content is pervasive without ever being overt or pedantic. DJ Lance is unflagging in his enthusiasm, encouragement and concern. Most impressive, the characters are pitch-perfect in capturing the spirit of childhood, whether lying awake in a darkened room unable to fall asleep, or quitting a game of tag in frustration over never being able to catch anyone.
In short, the YGG gang are nicer, more patient, more fun and more creative than you. They are who you want your child playing with. Despite your best efforts at screwing up, Yo Gabba Gabba! may just redeem you… until of course, your kids graduate to Nickelodeon, discover Spongebob Squarepants and start emulating the assholes they will eventually become.
Yo Gabba Gabba! airs on Nick Jr., is available for download in the iTunes Store, and can be found in snippets on YouTube.