Jack Black, Yo Gabba Gabba, and Kid-Cult Appeal

Curator's Note

One key strategy that has been common throughout the history of media targeting children is offering a dual appeal to adults that intends to fly below the threshold of children’s awareness, a strategy that the TV industry termed "kidult appeal" in the 1960s in reference to hit shows like The Flintstones. From the pop culture parodies of Looney Tunes to Bullwinkle’s cold war commentary to the examples of Sesame Street discussed earlier this week by Heather and Amanda, many of the most beloved examples of children’s media are enjoyed on different levels by kids and their parents.

 

However, a recent successful children’s show seems to operate with a different style of kidult appeal: Yo Gabba Gabba! Aimed primarily at toddlers, the show functions like Teletubbies as produced by indie rockers - in fact, one of the creators is a member of The Aquabats. The show combines outlandish cartoony live-action costumes, repetitive but catchy musical hooks and dance moves, and a line-up of guest artists unlikely to appear anywhere else on television, regardless of target audience, including The Shins, Low, Cornelius, The Roots, and Mates of State. The clip featured here features the show’s most famous guest star, Jack Black, making new friends with Muno, Foofa, and Plex.

Gabba doesn’t offer references and double entendres to mainstream American culture to engage parents, as on Sesame Street or Bullwinkle. Instead it takes figures from the indy margins and makes them act like goofy toddlers without real storylines or jokes. At least for me, I find this appeal harder to take for extended periods, beyond just the "look who’s on today?" fascination. Instead, the show has become popular with a less parental set of adults: college-aged stoners and twentysomething hipsters, tuning in for the spectacle of some favorite bands in unlikely contexts with trippy visuals. For most thirtysomething parents I know, watching Yo Gabba Gabba feels like a timewarp: something we might have enjoyed under different contexts (and substances) 15 years ago, but that our young kids find oddly engaging.

 

The Jack Black episode was particularly interesting for me - although Black is a major movie star, the intertextual reference most relevant here was to a cult failure on his resume, Heat Vision and Jack. The story of an astronaut and his talking motorcycle, I couldn’t help but think of this hard-to-see show when Black get stranded with his talking bike on Yo Gabba Gabba. This reference is a nod to the small legion of pop culture fans who’ve heard of or seen this enigmatic never-aired pilot, an allusion designed to elude most parents and certainly all kids. This mode of "kid-cult" appeal uses the realm of children’s entertainment as a mask to allow cult artists and references to winkingly engage their under-served fringe audiences, not necessarily the parents of their designated demographic.

But don’t tell that to my 3-year-old son, jumping up and down on the couch and chanting "Jack Black!" as we rewind the TiVo to play the episode on an endless loop.

Comments

Michael Z. Newman's picture

Hipsters!

I really like Yo Gabba Gabba, which I guess isn’t surprising because it seems to have been made for people just like me — I’m not really literate enough in alternative music culture to know who all the musical guests are but I feel flattered for being addressed as a viewer with a taste for the authentically indie.  This fits with the cultural movement sometimes described as "hipster parenting" (article in Time) which is basically the application of the vanguard of elite, liberal, white taste culture to the realm of children and parents, counterposing the hip version of parenting against the mainstream of cheesy kids’ shows and music that adults might find insufferably cute, cheerful, cloying, etc.  The hipster parent wants to avoid the square identity of stereotypical domestic family life by preserving some of the edginess of youth culture.  Thus some cultural commentators (article in NY mag) view this trend as one of extending adolescence indefinitely — now parents dress and speak like children and want to share their culture.  (This is pretty brilliantly parodied in Modern Family.)  I see Yo Gabba Gabba’s effort to be the hip version of a show for preschoolers to be doing several things — as you persuasively point out, it’s appealing to a younger adult audience than the typical hipster parents (unusual for a kid show, though Teletubbies also has had this kind of appeal), but it’s also offering a sense of distinction to parents on the basis of alt credibility.  And it’s offering them the opportunity to pass along superior taste to their kids.

 

Sort of related: another thing about Yo Gabba Gabba that I admire is its rejection of the most popular formula in preschool TV in recent years, i.e., the Blue’s Clues style episode structure of problem-solving/mission-accomplishing, copied extensively by shows like Dora, Diego, Ni Hao Kai Lan, Imagination Movers, and Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.  The format of YGG is more discontinuous, like Sesame Street (a source the creators acknowledge).  This seems to me like part of its retro appeal (along with the old-school videogame graphics), and it also makes it stand out from the pack, which goes along with the idea of giving distinction to hip kids’ culture.

Heather Hendershot's picture

hip to be square?

Love your comment, Michael, re. hipster parenting.  Yo Gabba Gabba is great fun—and the tunes get caught in your head in a loop—but it makes me feel so out of it.  I can’t pretend to have heard of The Shins, etc.  I’m used to feeling distanced from some kids shows because they simple aren’t designed to match my cognitive level.  For example, Dora the Explorer weirds me out with the pace of her blinking.  But it is new for me to feel distanced from a kids show because it is actually, on some level, over my head!

 

As for Jack Black, his performance here is particularly interesting.  We are used to him as a highly ironized man-child.  Here he plays a man-child more straight up.   (And—as my students pointed out when I showed them this clip today—without the usual dirty bits.)  Can you imagine the director of the segment coaching him through how to be "seriously" childish?!

Erin Meyers's picture

star parents

I agree with the idea that the show uses irony-free  (or at least lower irony, I have trouble seeing any performance by JB as without irony…I think it’s the eyebrows) performances by typically hipster or indie stars as a way to appeal to the parents in a different way.  I wonder if there’s a larger trend of media addressing parents in this sort of way where the typical reading of a star is underneath something associated with childhood/parenting.  I’ve noticed recently stars who have children in real life doing more child-friendly and/or parent-friendly things, which is certainly not unprecedented (see most anyone who has guest starred on Sesame Street. JB in Yo Gabba Gabba falls into this as well). 

 

Perhaps this is related to the tabloid/gossip blog obsession with celebrity babies, as we are now used to seeing these stars not only in their public performances, but in their private lives as parents (just like us!).   I’m thinking of an apple juice commercial by Marcia Cross (Bree from Desperate Housewives) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DOu08bppCpA or the Colgate commercial with Brooke Shields http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ikvFqqqus_U.  These ads reference their roles as mothers (Shields more explicitly connecting the “star” and “mother” roles in her life) in the ads.  But what strikes me as odd is they are shown as parents to children who are not their own, when celebrity watchers would certainly recognize their children from paparazzi photos.  This is not to suggest they should use their own children in the ads, but that it is interesting how a star whose public performance has nothing to do with children (Housewives not exactly a family show, though I suppose Cross does play a mother, though not exactly one we are meant to see as a role model) is able to be used in ads for a kid-centered product because, I think, of her extratextual association with children/parenting.

 

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