Nickelodeon’s Stepchild, Eager for More Love (Published 2009) (2023)



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By Dave Itzkoff

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THESE days, even monsters have handlers.

On a recent Monday morning at a cavernous design studio here, a quintet of colorful, uncategorizable creatures — or, at least, a group of people dressed to look like them — were being instructed on how to stand atop a long, narrow float that will soon make its maiden voyage in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Crew members from the children’s television show “Yo Gabba Gabba!” were positioned around the float, directing a pink flower-bubble beast named Foofa on her ballet steps and telling a furry green unibrowed animal called Brobee how wide he could sweep his exceptionally long arms when he waves to parade watchers.

On Thursday, when this psychedelic menagerie makes its way through Midtown Manhattan on a Keith Haringesque float (with a giant boombox at its center), “Yo Gabba Gabba!” will take its most significant step into mainstream popular culture, sharing a parade route with the likes of Spider-Man and Mickey Mouse. At the same time, a live tour based on the television series continues to travel the country, stopping at the Beacon Theater in Manhattan for three sold-out performances on Saturday.

These milestones highlight how rapidly “Yo Gabba Gabba!,” a show aimed at a preschool audience and broadcast on Nickelodeon’s Nick Jr. channel, has built a fan base of young (and not-so-young) viewers with a mix of charming characters, catchy music and hip celebrity guests.

They are also occurring at a time of growing pains for the show, when its producers are wondering if Nickelodeon — which does not produce “Yo Gabba Gabba!” itself, and instead licenses it from an outside studio — values their show as much as its other children’s franchises.

“We’re a little bit of a stepchild,” Christian Jacobs, who created “Yo Gabba Gabba!” with Scott Schultz, said in a telephone interview.

He added: “Everyone we work with creatively at Nickelodeon is so super-into the show. But we’re at a place in the business model where they’re like, ‘We don’t own that show, so we don’t necessarily want to push it.’”

Now in its second season, “Yo Gabba Gabba!” has taken off in many measurable ways since its August 2007 debut: It is shown three times a day, seven days a week, on Nick Jr., and draws around 524,000 viewers an episode, according to Nielsen, about a third of whom are 18 and older. (By comparison, “Dora the Explorer,” which is shown on Nick Jr. in prime time, gets more than one million viewers). Nickelodeon said that “Yo Gabba Gabba!” videos averaged more than 1.3 million streams per month at the Web site.

Its producers, however, prefer to focus on the eclectic lineup of performers who have been booked on the show, from the Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh and the rapper Biz Markie (who are featured regularly), to buzz bands like MGMT and the Shins (who played original songs), to Elijah Wood and Andy Samberg (who have boogied in the recurring “Dancey Dance Time” segment).

In perhaps the ultimate act of cultural validation, Brad Pitt was photographed on Halloween dressed as DJ Lance Rock, the program’s human host. His costume was provided by Wildbrain, the studio that produces “Yo Gabba Gabba!” with the Magic Store, Mr. Jacobs and Mr. Schultz’s company.

“We had no idea he was a fan of the show,” said Michael Polis, the chief executive of Wildbrain, “but orange suits him.”

Despite these accomplishments, the producers say that Nickelodeon’s long-term commitment to “Yo Gabba Gabba!” feels unclear.

After their first season, they said they waited several anxious months for Nickelodeon to renew the show. Now they do not have a firm premiere date for a third season (which they recently wrapped shooting) or an order for a fourth.

“If we were owned by them, like ‘SpongeBob SquarePants’ or ‘Dora the Explorer,’ it would be a no-brainer,” Mr. Jacobs said. “Which one of those shows had Jack Black on it for a whole episode, or got the Shins?”

The producers also note that of the 44 merchandising deals that “Yo Gabba Gabba!” has struck in the United States and Canada — for everything from action figures to CDs to dinnerware — Nickelodeon has a stake only in the show’s home video, giving the network even less incentive to put its full weight behind the series.


Brown Johnson, the Nickelodeon executive who brought “Yo Gabba Gabba!” to Nick Jr., said in a telephone interview that though the show was not a Nickelodeon-owned property, “it fits our brand incredibly well.”

“The out-there creativity and the wonderful innocence in the show are a really good match for us,” Ms. Johnson continued.

She said that a range of criteria factor into the network’s decision to renew a show, from ratings to cost-benefit analysis to online video hits to intangible cultural buzz. (“Brad Pitt was a big check mark in the good column,” Ms. Johnson said.)

“It’s tough times,” she said, adding that the third season will most likely have its debut next year and that a verdict on a fourth season would be rendered “in about a year.”

The current “Yo Gabba Gabba!” live tour and its Thanksgiving parade presence could provide further proof of the show’s viability.

Before its United States itinerary, which concludes in Chicago on Dec. 5, “Yo Gabba Gabba!” spent two weeks in May on tour in Australia, where the show is broadcast on both Nick Jr. and that country’s public ABC television channel (and where the Australian branch of the parent-advice Web site described the show as “crack for toddlers”). This was followed in the summer by a handful of smaller stateside appearances by the DJ Lance Rock and Brobee characters.

During this time Mr. Polis, a former executive with the Jim Henson Company, worked with Macy’s to secure a spot in its annual Thanksgiving parade, including a 90-second performance in front of the Herald Square store that will be shown on NBC.

“We felt it could bring real pop to the parade,” Amy Kule, the Macy’s parade producer, said of the show. “It’s on the cusp of becoming something big.”

As a late addition to the Macy’s lineup, the “Yo Gabba Gabba!” team built its float by converting one that was used in last year’s parade to promote Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku Lovers perfume.

Mr. Jacobs, a founding member of the punk-pop band the Aquabats, said he relished the chance to “go into the parade as complete fly-by-night, low-budget, amateur dudes.” He emphasized that the float was being financed by Wildbrain and with funds raised from the live tour.

Nickelodeon, he said, “if they wanted to, could jump in and say, ‘Hey, we want to co-sponsor it with you guys.’”

“But really,” he continued, “this whole live thing, it’s all us.”

Ms. Johnson of Nickelodeon said that the channel believed that Mr. Jacobs and Mr. Schultz were the best equipped to decide who their promotional partners should be, and gave them enormous latitude to choose the opportunities they want to pursue.

“We really trust those guys to deliver high-quality, highly entertaining, kid-appropriate content,” she said. “There are very few times where we’ve had disagreements about anything.” She added, “I hope to be working with them for a long time.”

Mr. Polis of Wildbrain called Nickelodeon “a great partner,” and said that he understood that the cable channel had a business to run.

“They’ve got to focus on properties that they feel are going to provide them with the greatest return,” he said. “We do our best to offer them the opportunity to work with us.”

Mr. Jacobs, too, was optimistic for the future of “Yo Gabba Gabba!” But for now, he was mostly concerned that its cast of characters remain with the parade float for the duration of its Thanksgiving Day journey.

“We’re hoping it all works out,” he said. “Or it will be a complete disaster, and everyone will still talk about it. Either way, we can’t lose.”

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