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Parents go gaga for kids’ ‘Yo Gabba Gabba’

It's very much a children's program, of course — the story revolves around the adventures of five colorful creatures — but the guests and pop culture references make it particularly grown-up (and celeb) friendly.
/ Source: Entertainment Weekly

It was the most important meeting of their lives, and Scott Schultz and Christian Jacobs were completely blowing it. The skater-dude rock musicians (and aspiring kids'-show creators) were stuck in traffic, desperately trying to make a breakfast with Nickelodeon's influential president of animation, Brown Johnson, who sat waiting at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons hotel, their fates in her hands.

''I think we were like 45 minutes late, something gnarly,'' says Jacobs. ''Like, really, really not cool. We were biting our nails the whole way.'' Amazingly, Johnson stuck around, and she ended up being glad she did.

''They rolled up in this really crappy old nine-passenger band van,'' she recalls. ''I fell in love with them. It was like having breakfast with puppies. Their excitement was so contagious and felt so pure and fresh.''

By the end of the meeting, Johnson had pretty much made up her mind. ''She said, 'I love the show and I'd love to pick it up and give you guys creative control,''' says Jacobs. ''Our jaws dropped. We were like, 'What? This doesn't happen.'''

Music and celebs
Today, "Yo Gabba Gabba!" is the coolest kids' show on TV, a growing phenomenon that's a hit with both preschoolers and their indie-rock-loving parents. It's very much a children's program, of course — the story revolves around the adventures of five colorful creatures — but the guests and pop culture references make it particularly grown-up (and celeb) friendly.

Jack Black, Andy Samberg, Elijah Wood, and "30 Rock's" Jack McBrayer have appeared on episodes, while Christina Aguilera, Jason Bateman, and Dennis Quaid have been spotted at "Yo Gabba" live events. Brad Pitt even dressed up as its host, DJ Lance Rock, for Halloween last year. And the show's most recognizable character, one-eyed Muno, can be seen hawking cars to the over-16 set in a current ad.

Then there's the music. Over the first two seasons, indie-rock stars like the Shins, MGMT, and the Ting Tings stopped by to perform, and season 3, which kicked off on March 8, will bring tunes from the Flaming Lips, the Killers, and Weezer (while the show regularly airs on Nick Jr., four new episodes will premiere on Nickelodeon).

''The music Yo Gabba Gabba! offers is like no other kids' show,'' says Aguilera. ''It's nice to have something my son, Max, enjoys that's also fun for me.''

Even some adults who don't have kids are getting on board. ''A friend showed me some of it, and right away I was like, these songs are great,'' says "Saturday Night Live" cast member Fred Armisen, who will turn up on a future episode. ''It was obviously a supercool show. I told my manager, 'You've got to get me on it!'''

Early daysSouthern California natives Jacobs and Schultz, both 38, are cousins by marriage; they met as teens when Jacobs' mother married Schultz's uncle. The two quickly hit it off, and soon they were doing everything together: ''skateboarding and surfing and making music videos and dodging the law,'' as Jacobs puts it, half-jokingly.

They skated with Spike Jonze and Tony Hawk, and eventually they were each playing in bands — Schultz in the now-defunct indie-pop group Majestic and Jacobs singing in the still-active Aquabats. The Aquabats' live show is quite theatrical (band members wear costumes and sometimes battle giant creatures on stage), and in the late '90s they scored a couple of network development deals to try to turn it into a kids' show.

It never got off the ground, though, and in 2001, Jacobs and Schultz, both new parents, found themselves immersed in the often insufferable world of preschool TV. ''We were like, 'Wow, we can do something way better than this,''' says Schultz.

They started to think about something different — something they'd like as much as their kids would. ''We noticed that everything was very lukewarm, safe,'' says Jacobs (who declined to name names). ''The kids enjoyed it, but there wasn't a lot for us as dads to get excited about. It seemed like we needed to make something for our generation to relate to.''

This time, they decided to do it on their own, punk-rock-style. For years they worked during off hours, hatching plans in Schultz's garage. Muno and Brobee were creatures from the Aquabats' stage show, and the rest slowly came together from there. By 2006, the idea was developed enough for them to shoot a pair of pilot episodes, and they scrounged up about $150,000 from friends and second mortgages.

There was only one thing missing: a host. Majestic had toured with a group called the Ray Makers, and Schultz thought one of the members just might work. One day, they visited him at his day job at trendy L.A. record store Amoeba.

''We went down and met him,'' says Jacobs. ''He comes out and he's wearing this '70s getup, like he would have been on Electric Company or in Sly Stone's band — a huge beard and a giant Afro and these rainbow-colored striped pants. He had a big smile on his face and said, 'Hey, how ya doing? I'm Lance.' It was like lightning struck.''

When the "Yo Gabba" crew offered him the job, Lance Robertson didn't take it that seriously. ''I was kind of like, whatever,'' says the self-described ''big music nerd,'' 44, whose one-bedroom Hollywood apartment is stuffed with some 6,000 records. ''I did not ever dream it was going to be what it is now. But I could tell that these guys were doing something positive. I just went with it.''

Indie promotionWith DJ Lance in place, they shot the pilots, which featured the now-familiar "Yo Gabba" creatures and '80s rapper Biz Markie, an eventual staple of the show whom they had cold e-mailed through his MySpace page.

They promoted it like an indie band looking for a record deal, schlepping DVDs in a backpack to hand out at local concerts and putting up some clips on their website. A few prominent blogs linked to the videos, and soon so many people were clicking that it crashed their server. Then came that fateful meeting with Nickelodeon's Johnson, and not long after they were in production on season 1.

''We were so excited at that point,'' says Schultz. ''It was like your band's getting signed. All of a sudden you've won the lottery.''

"Yo Gabba Gabba!" premiered on Aug. 20, 2007. The first episode featured Elijah Wood, who had e-mailed the guys after they handed him a DVD at an Aquabats gig, and Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh, whose regular picture-drawing segment would become an audience favorite.

Strong reactionsThe show was definitely unusual, and viewers had some strong reactions. ''We would read the blogs and comments,'' says Jacobs. ''It was about three-to-one positive. Some said, 'This is amazing, this show is the best thing ever.' And then some said, 'This is way too weird. I hate this. I will never let my kids watch it.' It affected me, in a way, because I really don't see why it's so weird. It's just different. Some of them were really off-the-wall: 'This show's evil.' It was like, what?''

Celebrity Sightings

Slideshow  26 photos

Celebrity Sightings

Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr. on the "Let's Be Cops," red carpet, Selena Gomez is immortalized in wax and more.

Should you ever find yourself shooting an episode of "Yo Gabba Gabba!," be sure to bring lots of water. The show's cavernous Downey, Calif., set has no air-conditioning, and workdays are often long and steamy. ''It gets pretty hot and intense,'' says Schultz. ''They tell me it's too expensive to air-condition, but how do you tell that to [season 2 guest] Jack Black when literally between takes we'd have to stop and blow-dry the sweat off?''

Even so, the crew finds ways to keep things light. Sometimes they have costume days, when everyone dresses up as vampires or nerds and prizes are awarded for the best outfit. ''I'd love to [appear on] shows like that every day,'' says Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne. ''They love what they do. You don't always run into that. A lot of the time you show up to places and everybody is tired and bitter and they hate their job. It was a very uplifting experience.''

As much fun as they have on set, the "Yo Gabba" gang's been having even more of a blast on the road. They first brought the show to the stage last November, and they've now had multiple sold-out gigs in four different cities, each of which featured surprise guest stars like Snoop Dogg, the Roots, Sarah Silverman, and Dinosaur Jr. "Yo Gabba" will hit stages in Minneapolis, St. Louis, and several other towns later this month, and plans are in the works for further touring in the near future.

Then there's the "Yo Gabba" movie, which could be out as soon as next year. Director Jason Reitman is reportedly involved in some capacity, although Jacobs won't offer anything more than a wink and a nudge on that front. ''We're working with some cool people on the script,'' he says. ''Everything else is just 'up in the air,' so to speak.''

But no matter what happens, the "Yo Gabba" team is thrilled simply to be reaching people, making a show that moms and dads their age can relate to.

''This might sound incredibly lame, but I think our generation is unique in a lot of ways,'' says Jacobs. ''I love my parents, but it was like, 'Hey, son, that's your cartoons' or 'That's your punk music, I'm not into that.' Whereas this show encourages a special bond between parent and child that I think is going to be valuable to the future. That might be kind of arrogant to say, but the fact that it's working makes me proud and kind of emotional. It's really magic.''