Sporting its own special energy

Times Staff Writer

TELEVISION is by nature a kingdom of the known; it plays upon our desire to return to a familiar place, for familiar fun, week after week, or even day after day, same time, same channel. Yet there is no pleasure quite like that of happening upon a strange program for the very first time, of being for an instant flummoxed, intrigued, disturbed. In such moments television gets a little of its mystery back.

So it was when I first stumbled upon "LazyTown." That it was meant for children was easy enough to tell even if just from the context. It appears daily at 11:30 a.m., as part of the Nickelodeon preschool programming block known as "Nick Jr." (and also on Noggin every day at 4 p.m. and CBS Saturday mornings at 7 -- Viacom being the common thread).

Nothing else about it was quite so easy to pin down, however. Although I am a television-watching professional, I somehow had not gotten the memo on this one.

Against a bulging Toontownscape whose preternaturally bright colors sang of Fisher-Price and extruded plastic, a tall man in a kind of blue sports suit, wearing a mouse-whisker mustache, a floppy cap and goggles that gave him the look of a French skier, was dancing with a little girl kitted out in a pink wig and a pink minidress such as one might find adorning a Japanese pop singer. The man was charmingly childlike; the girl seemed older than she was supposed to be. The music was the purest technopop, with lyrics of the sort that usually promise a high ranking in the Eurovision song contest.

Bing bang diggariggadong.

The first thing that I say after I wake up

Bing bang diggariggadong.

I say those words before I go to sleep.

Bing bang diggariggadong

Funny words I sing when I am dancing

Bing bang diggariggadong

Silly words that can mean anything

When the skier-man wasn't dancing, and even when he was, he was doing flips and cartwheels and twisty spins. And there was a villainous sort whose facial appliances and makeup recalled Al Pacino as Big Boy Caprice in Warren Beatty's "Dick Tracy." The men spoke in lilting accents that were hard to place, which further cemented the impression that whatever I was watching was not from around here. Everyone glowed.

Well, I have learned a few facts since then, and it's a measure of the quality of "LazyTown," which debuted on Nickelodeon last August and quickly became one of the network's most popular shows, that demystification has not taken the fun out of watching it. (You'll have an extra chance to judge for yourself when Nickelodeon airs a prime-time hourlong special Monday night at 8.) That the series was not, as it seemed at the time, brought into this world merely to blow my mind but rather is meant to encourage little kids to be active, eat right, get enough sleep and play well with others has not made it any less strange, or any less appealing to one so far outside its target audience.

And the foreignness that informs it is come by naturally, for though LazyTown itself is located nowhere in particular, it is a product of Iceland, the land of glaciers, volcanoes and Bjork. Indeed, the show has something of the flavor of a Bjork video, if Bjork were to wear a pink wig and minidress and pretend to be 8 years old -- not so unlikely, when you think about it.

Professional athlete turned athletic entertainer Magnus Scheving is the man behind "LazyTown," as well as its star. He plays Sportacus -- a sports-oriented superhero who lives in a sort of blimp permanently hovering above the town and stocked with sports equipment and fruits and vegetables -- and he acts as a protector and good-health conscience to its citizens. (The character's Icelandic name translates roughly as "Sports elf.")

Besides the little pink girl -- Stephanie, played by American half-pint Broadway vet Julianna Rose Mauriello -- and the villain -- Robbie Rotten, played by Icelandic classical actor and stand-up comedian Stefan Karl -- the town is represented by six puppets. Robbie, who lives in a gray-blue semi-subterranean industrial space (its one spot of color is a fuzzy orange recliner), wants to be rid of Sportacus for reasons that are not really clear -- for someone ostensibly devoted to laziness, he stays fairly active making trouble. It may simply be that he wants to be the only person left in town over 5 feet tall.

'Lazytown' goes global

I talked to Scheving earlier this month, by phone from Iceland, one day before he was to leave for the United States to perform "LazyTown Live!" in four cities (or markets, as the industry likes to call them) as a lead-in to Monday night's special, "LazyTown's New Superhero," and the release on Tuesday of a DVD and CD. (Which will come as a great relief to those who can't go a whole day without hearing the "Bing Bang" song.)

Scheving has been a champion in competitive aerobics, the aim of which seems to be to crowd as much activity as possible into a two-minute routine -- which explains a lot about Sportacus, who will not walk when he can flip, cartwheel, roll and tumble. He created LazyTown and its characters for a 1991 book, "Go! Go LazyTown!," to promote physical activity in an age of creeping obesity. This led to a couple of hit musicals and gave rise to branded bottled water, coloring books, shoes, fruit, beach toys, T-shirts, cod liver oil, toothpaste and a 24-hour radio station.

Scheving has been careful every step of the way: "In a country the size of Iceland, where everybody knows you, the reputation is the only thing you got. So it had to have a huge amount of integrity in it."

His talk is full of figures. He's the father of three. Eight is the number of years that he wanted to "test-market" "LazyTown" before taking it global ("I said to my team, 'We cannot move out of Iceland until after eight years because we have to test this on two generations' "), a long view that in this country would be seen as un-American; but when they finally got to Nickelodeon ("top-notch in the kids' business"), they were well prepared and immediately embraced.

Four thousand to six thousand a week was the number of people who came to see the LazyTown stage musicals, until something like 80% of Icelanders had seen it. Team LazyTown numbers 163, Scheving said; his closest collaborators have worked with him a dozen years or more and have "lived the LazyTown dream, so it's not like you were working on it, you actually lived it, you liked it, you loved it."

Eighteen is how many more episodes they're thinking of adding to the 53 they've already made; 40 to 50 is the number of countries "LazyTown" will be seen in by the end of 2005. (Next month it finally debuts in Iceland -- dubbed into Icelandic, strangely.) And come November, Scheving will have been alive 41 years, though he imagines Sportacus to be 27.

He was quite prepared to find a younger, fitter actor for the role. "I felt like -- foof foof foof -- I wish this happened like 10 years ago." But he takes it as a challenge, and there's no question that he is Sportacus still, and the only one who can be; it's a matter of charm, and of a kernel of amateurism that keeps things real.

"I would not say that I'm the best actor in the world," Scheving admitted, but by now Sportacus "is part of me. It's just who I am. I still put the costume on, like, every week," he said. Like the superhero he plays on TV, he responds to calls for help, visiting hospitals to encourage sick or injured kids to drink their water and eat healthy food. He walks on his hands and gives out fruits and vegetables. "Sometimes people say, 'You don't need to do this.' But actually I like it."

In the prime-time special, it's decided that Sportacus deserves a vacation from the hard work of rescuing kids who are falling out of trees or about to crash into walls -- the last thing in the world he wants or is equipped to take, but he agrees to try. Scheving does some marvelous fidgeting in the deck chair the kids set out for him in the middle of town. Stephanie takes a turn as SportaStephanie, while Robbie Rotten mischievously creates a robo-dog from a Viking helmet, some false teeth and a scrap of deep pile carpeting.

He winds up attacked by his own creation -- Karl is quite an accomplished slapstick artist -- sitting forlorn atop the billboard that hides his lair. "I'll be stuck up here forever," he says. "My feet will never touch the ground again, birds will build nests in my hair, and kids will walk by, look up and say, 'Look, there's that billboard guy.' " I can't recall a more elegantly poetic line of television dialogue, and the bad guy gets to say it.

To judge by Internet message boards, the show has plenty of fans outside the "target audience" -- that is, older than 6 or 7. Sportacus/Scheving has an ardent complement of grown female admirers -- "hottie" seems to be the term of choice, though he has been called "a cutie-patootie" too. One writer calls Stephanie "the most adorable, darling little pink puffball that a grown woman could ever develop a strange kind of fetish for." Some are parents of members of the peewee demographic; some are teenagers or twentysomethings still not done with kids' programming; and some are accidental tourists like me who, having looked in once, could not look away.

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