Fighting for truth, justice the silly way
Christian Jacobs is standing on the set of “The Aquabats! Super Show!,” having cupfuls of what looks suspiciously like vomit poured all over his body. The set is cold, the slime colder, but Jacobs couldn’t be happier. His new kids series, which premieres on the Hub network March 3, is the culmination of a two-decades-long dream of bringing the Aquabats superhero team to TV.
In 1994, the Orange County native formed the Aquabats, a ska-punk band whose live shows combine giant inflatable characters and kaiju grudge matches with tunes such as “Attacked by Snakes!” and “The Man With Glooey Hands.” At one concert, Jacobs defeated a guy dressed as a giant tortilla by repeatedly swinging a young boy at the villain’s “face.” What kid wouldn’t want to watch a TV show like that?
Or so Jacobs thought. After years of false starts (including a 1997 pilot for Disney and a 2001 deal with Fox), Jacobs struck gold in 2007 as co-creator of another kids’ show, the Emmy-winning “Yo Gabba Gabba!” on Nickelodenon. The show, which spawned a flood of books and dolls, an international concert tour and a popular line of Vans skate shoes, persuaded people to give Jacobs’ first love -- the Aquabats -- a second look.
The Hub, a kids network that launched in 2010, ordered 13 episodes, but the band’s history was so long and tangled that it took a year for Jacobs to clear all legal claims on the property--from Fox, Disney, assorted music companies, several former band members, even “the guy who made our stickers in 1994.” The series finally began production in May 2011.
“They’d been turned down by everybody,” says Margaret Loesch, president and chief executive of the Hub. “If everybody turned it down, what do they know that we don’t know? Maybe they were wrong. We hope that they were wrong. We pray that they were wrong!”
As head of a network that plays fourth fiddle to the Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and Disney, Loesch understands the challenges involved. “Look, it’s a risky show,” she says. “But we’re the underdogs. We have to take chances.”
Aquabats organist James Briggs, a.k.a. Jimmy the Robot, describes the series as “the cilantro of television,” a polarizing flavor that viewers will either really like -- or not. In many ways, the show is an homage to the cult kids programs of their childhood (“The Banana Splits,” “Thundarr the Barbarian”) and ultraviolent Japanese fare (“Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot,” “Battle of the Planets”) that the band members watched and loved as kids. As for the show’s exclamation-pointed exuberance and its delivery of positive messages through the catchiest of tunes -- that’s pure “Yo Gabba Gabba!.”
Like “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” before it, “The Aquabats! Super Show!” is a mishmash of low-fi effects, from stop-motion animation and life-size puppets to pyrotechnics and CGI. Animated segments pop up at random. And then there are the thrilling fight sequences, against foes such as the Uberchaun (an evil German leprechaun) and Man-Ant. “In one scene from ‘Man-Ant,’ we had three giant ants that weren’t really there, Man-Ant, four picnickers, five Aquabats and four goons,” says Jason Devilliers, who directed the episode.
In addition to Jacobs, the show features Crash McLarson, a bass player with anger management issues -- “He can get 50 feet tall and break things,” says Jacobs -- and Jimmy the Robot, who gets teased by the other Aquabats because, well, he’s a robot. Ricky Fitness is the group’s speedster -- “not like the Flash fast, more like Carl Lewis fast,” says Jacobs -- while Eaglebones Falconhawk is notable for his invisible bird, Dude, and fragile skeletal structure.
The series interweaves the band’s music with battles against not-so-evil creatures. While the Aquabats are no great shakes as superheroes, as musicians, they’re first-rate, a distinction that Jacobs felt was important to make on the show. “Kids would be like, ‘Why would I want to watch a show about a band that sucks?’ But watching a show about superheroes that aren’t very good and get hurt all the time is funny.”
Paul Tollett, whose Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival has hosted both the Aquabats and the Yo Gabba Gabba! live tour, says he heard about the nascent series for years. “They always talked about it,” he says. “I always tell Christian that it’s a good thing he has a couple of TV shows, because otherwise he’d just be one of those crazy people always talking about cartoons.”
Jacobs understands that “The Aquabats! Super Show!” will rise or fall on the likability of its characters, and he compares his series to the hit Nickelodeon franchise “SpongeBob SquarePants,” another show about a group of weird-yet-lovable goofs.
“It’s seemingly stupid -- you have a dumb starfish and a greedy crab -- but the relationships between the characters are very real, and there are emotional arcs,” he says. “It’s easy to write the silly stuff for the Aquabats. Someone gets kicked in the face and their head explodes -- that stuff’s easy! The stuff that’s hard is: Why do we care about these guys? Those are the things I’m really excited about.”