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.