Once MTV started cutting out a lot of the M, pop bands began looking for other ways to gig on the small screen. Late-night variety shows sometimes fit the bill, though a guest shot or at least a song placement on "The O.C." or "Beverly Hills, 90210" was better. Today, one of the hottest spots for bands, especially indie-rockers, is Nick Jr.'s "Yo Gabba Gabba."
Now in its third season, the colorful children's show features regular segments from Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh ("Mark's Magic Pictures") and old-school rapper Biz Markie ("Biz's Beat of the Day"). The host is DJ Lance Rock, the orange-clad human overlord to rubbery creatures Muno, Foofa, Brobee, Toodee and Plex. The electric musical company on the show has included the likes of Smoosh, Mark Kozelek, Low, Cornelius, Dean & Britta, the Shins, Tahiti 80, Jason Falkner, the Ting Tings, the Clientele, Hot Hot Heat, Of Montreal, the Bird & the Bee, MGMT, on and on. Just this season, "Yo Gabba Gabba" has featured "Weird Al" Yankovic," Mates of State, Weezer, Mos Def, Solange Knowles and Dr. Dog.
This weekend, the stage version of "Yo Gabba Gabba" returns to Chicago, complete with Biz, Lance and a special guest or two. In theaters, "Yo Gabba Gabba" is more concert than kiddie show. Co-creator Christian Jacobs describes it this way: "It's more like a Flaming Lips concert with potty break in the middle."
'YO GABBA GABBA LIVE: THERE'S A PARTY IN MY CITY!'
• 2 and 5 p.m. Saturday; 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Sunday
• Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State
• Tickets, $25-$55
• (800) 745-3000; ticketmaster.com
"Yo Gabba Gabba's" appeal to both its young target viewership and a secondary demographic of young, hip parents lies in its origins outside the TV studio system. Jacobs created the show with Scott Schultz; both have music backgrounds, but no prior experience in television. Jacobs does, however, in a cartoonish band called the Aquabats. When he talks about "Yo Gabba," he calls it a "music show" as often as he does a "children's show."
"We just wanted to create a music show that seemed relevant and incorporated stuff we were listening to," Jacobs said of the TV program. "There's no reason kids can't get the cool stuff. It seemed our kids were responding to a lot of the stuff we were listening to. We wanted a cool, fun show that rocked -- like a concert, like a dance party. ... For the stage show, too, we wanted to make that kind of experience that was really big and stimulating and overwhelming, like a good concert can be. And these are the real characters from the TV show. It's the real DJ Lance Rock, and the real voice characters inside the costumes. It's not just some road version. Biz is with us, too. He teaches beatboxing live. It's so amazing to be in a room with 4,000 families all beatboxing -- one of the most amazing things I've ever experienced, every time. The kids get excited. They rush the stage. We're creating little rock snobs."
"I'm a natural at it," Markie said in a separate interview. His style of rapping focuses on the beatbox (vocal percussion sounds) and has always been accessible to a young audience. His debut album in 1988 featured the tracks "Make the Music With Your Mouth, Biz" and "Pickin' Boogers." (His most familiar song is "Just a Friend" from 1989, though Markie is often best known as the focus of a lawsuit whose result mandated that hip-hop performers compensate artists they sample from.)
"This is what I've been doing all my life." Markie said. "Kids like it. I show the kids how to have natural fun like we used to have, how to do everything with your body, with your vocal chords. It's a rarity, 'cause everything's electronic now. And it's not just the little men who get into it. Some of the little girls can really rock it."
Markie (born Marcel Theo Hall) was originally sought for the TV show's "Dancey Dance" segment. "Christian and Scott, they were fans of mine. But my back was hurting, and I said, 'Why don't I teach the kids how to beatbox?' We did it on the pilot. ... Now I'm becoming the black Mr. Rogers." With that, he beatboxes a few lines of the "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" theme song ("[bff, bff, bff-ah!] Do you know [ba-chaka-cha!] the people in your neigh-[bff-ooh-ohh-ahh!]-borhood...?").
On the tour, the show spotlights special guests in each city. Tracy Bonham and the band Reel Big Fish have appeared thus far. During last year's visit here, Kid Sister rapped with the kids. This weekend's Chicago shows will feature Brooklyn rock-soul artist Citizen Cope.
All the cool players want to be on "Yo Gabba Gabba." Two weeks ago, rapper-singer M.I.A. was on the phone talking about her new album ahead of last week's concert in Chicago. In the middle of the interview, an assistant brought her 18-month-old son into the room. I asked the sometimes controversial star if motherhood had tamed her at all.
"You mean, am I going to stop cursing?" she asked. "No. We're watching 'Yo Gabba Gabba' on repeat, though, so if my next album sounds like 'Yo Gabba Gabba,' then maybe." She paused. "I like those songs, though. I was supposed to do a song with them, but I'm waiting for the baby to be old enough so he can be in the episode with me."
"That's perfect, see," Jacobs said. "Her motivation to come on the show -- she wants to do it with her son. It was the same with Solange Knowles, Erykah badu, the Roots. It's all about their kids. The parents get excited about something they feel good about, that they can understand. ... It's a generational thing."
How well does "Yo Gabba" play in the rock world? Well enough that earlier this year the "Yo Gabba" stage show had its own slot at the Coachella Music and Arts Festival outside of Los Angeles.
"I'm over the moon as a huge music fan that it's become what it's become," Jacobs said. "Every year we talk to them and say, 'Wouldn't it be rad to play Coachella?' Last year they called and said, 'Christian, it's time.' Playing for 5,000 college-and-above kids, they were singing along and going crazy. It was amazing."
EXTRA! APROPOS OF NOTHING ...
'Yo Gabba Gabba" co-creator Christian Jacobs grew up in Los Angeles -- Molly Ringwald and others went to his high school -- and went on his share of auditions. He landed a few movie parts ("Gleaming the Cube," baby!), including his most notable for Chicagoans: Jacobs was Boy in Record Store in the John Hughes classic "Pretty in Pink."
Boy in Record Store had the very brief distinction of being chased by record shop owner Iona (Annie Potts). For his alleged shoplifting, she shoots at him with a staple gun. "You missed my eye by an inch!" he protests. "Half an inch," she corrects.
"I had a crush on Annie Potts," Jacobs said. "That vinyl black dress with her hair spiked up? For a 14-year-old boy, that was nirvana."
"John was super-nice," he added. "I liked him a lot better than Andrew McCarthy. Nobody liked him. Duckie was cool, though."