Recently, I’ve had occasion to watch a little too much children’s television. And by “too much,” I mean I suddenly burst into song to describe household objects, letters of the alphabet and everyday occurrences.
Partially, I blame Netflix whose instant streaming comes with an evil, evil default setting of playing episode, after episode, after episode of just one show. Of course, the baby thinks I’m hilarious, but I’ve alienated all my non-parent friends. My near-lethal exposure to hours of programming intended for kindergarteners has brought me to two conclusions.
Firstly, the Department of Homeland Security and Central Intelligence Agency really need to look into using the theme song to “Elmo’s World” — played on a continuous loop — as an instrument of torture to elicit confessions from terrorists. “La-la, la-la. La-la, la-la. It’s Elmo’s World! Elmo’s World!”
With that one song alone, we could end most armed conflicts before they even start. And besides, since it was all paid for by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and U.S. taxpayer money — the feds probably already own the rights to use it.
The second conclusion I’ve come to won’t be news for most parents of children ages six or younger: It’s that “Yo Gabba Gabba!” has eaten Big Bird’s lunch.
How ‘Sesame Street’ lost its crown
It happened slowly — almost too slow to notice, but by the time Tickle Me Elmo reigned supreme as the must-have toy of the mid-1990s, the luster of “Sesame Street” had started to fade. The now-resigned Kevin Clash, the indomitable puppeteer and voice of Elmo, was the whiz kid from Baltimore. He was a young black guy so inspired by Jim Henson, Frank Oz and Carroll Spinney that he got on a train to New York City to cold call and get to know “The Muppet Show” and “Sesame Street” cast members.
By the time he was in his twenties, Clash was working as a puppeteer on the set of the movie “Labyrinth.”
Clash, who is gay, stepped down as Elmo in November 2012 after a series of allegations surfaced that he had sexual relationships with teenage boys.
Regardless of his guilt or innocence, the impact he had on the show was and is profound. During his meteoric rise in the last two decades, a cult of personality grew around Elmo himself. The little red guy, rather than the big yellow bird, became the go-to character of choice for most episodes. No longer did the off episode center on Prairie Dawn, Cookie Monster or Mr. Snuffleupagus. Little by little, the spontaneity gave way to stale ritual. By 1998, “Sesame Street” was devoting almost half of every episode to Elmo with the “Elmo’s World” segments.
Elmo the Muppet spawned more young Muppet clones. First there was Zoe, then Rosita and then Abby Cadabby; all of them are ham-fisted, greedy attempts to dig into the demographics and capture lighting in a bottle one more time. If little boys were buying Elmo dolls, then girls would love the pink one with wings — wouldn’t they?
My biggest problem with “Sesame Street” is not, although maybe it should be, the immoderate use of CGI. It’s not that all the stock footage is of New Jack Swing-looking kids — complete with whack, funky-fresh neon and Pan-African colors — who look like they were ripped off the set of a Boyz II Men video. Part of that warms the cockles of my ’90s Kid heart.
But where was the gritty, noir “Sesame Street” I grew up watching in the ’80s and ’90s? When did every episode get so preachy? I remember when Cookie Monster thought cookies were an “all-the-time” food. I remember when Grover was a green and dirty hippie. I remember when Kermit the Frog smoked eight packs a day. I remember the day when Elmo kept it real by heading straight to hell to find Bruno the Trashman, Mr. Hooper, Little Bird and all the other characters that time killed off. I remember when the Grouches decided to “end all humans,” forcing Maria and Luis had to quell a Muppety race riot on Sesame Street.
Different channel, new name
From the get-go, “Yo Gabba Gabba!” brings back a kind of kid’s TV show that had been slowly losing out to CGI and animation — a live-action show where a strong central narrator, like Mr. Rogers or Captain Kangaroo, interacts with a menagerie of strange creatures.
DJ Lance Rock, the host and narrator, starts each episode by opening up his boom box (secretly also a toy chest) and laying out his toys. He then does much what Billy Batson does to become Captain Marvel — he utters a nonsensical magical catch phrase. Only this time, instead of “Shazam!” it’s “Yo Gabba Gabba!” and it brings the toys — Muno, Brobee, Plex, Foofa and Toodee — to life.
Pretty much everyone on the show, human or otherwise, behaves like an old-school Muppet. DJ Lance wears a bright orange jumpsuit and fuzzy hat, moves constantly and talks with wipe-sweeping, emphatic gestures; the monsters, who are played by actors inside giant mascot costumes, bound around the stage with an athleticism that mustn’t be easy under 30 pounds of foam rubber.
There’s probably also something to be said for the God symbolism behind DJ Lance — who spends most episodes looming above the action and providing helpful guidance to troubled creatures — but I’m sure an academic will write a book about that one day.
When I was little back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the obviously-from-the-1970s segments of “Sesame Street” — like the stop-motion plastic cup adventures of Teeny Little Super Guy, and the hallucinogenic pinball interludes — had a certain charm. Mostly, I guess, it was because they were born out of pure whimsy and not a driving, all-encompassing need to educate the hell out of children or lose Congressional funding.
“Yo Gabba Gabba!” relies a lot on low-budget trickery familiar to most parents today — Adobe Flash animations with choppy, low frame rates. Even so, the show is gorgeous, filmed in high resolution and has songs you’ll never, ever stop singing. It’s attracted a ton of guest stars — like “Sesame Street” used to — including The Flaming Lips, Elijah Wood, Anthony Bourdain and Amy Sedaris. Mostly where the show succeeds is that it isn’t always predictable — Biz Markie doesn’t always show up for “Biz’s Beat of the Day” — and it doesn’t rest on trite ritual.
It’s a show that sees fit to let kids be kids and just have fun. That’s not something they always get in this “cookies are a sometimes food” world we now live in today.
The Letter of the Day is “M,” which spells “Muppety,” “money” and “Mike.” Mike Townshend is a writer and journalist, watching way too much children’s television, who lives at an undisclosed location in the Hudson Valley. Please forgive him if he suddenly bursts into song or speaks using wide-sweeping, emphatic gestures. Follow him on Twitter @TownshendReport.