Aquabats are living out their fantasy as heroes
Adult life is made up mostly of expected things, to keep our minds from exploding. But when the unexpected thing does occur, if it is not harmful or tragic, it can bring with it feelings of incredible happiness. Such was the moment when I first encountered “The Aquabats! Super Show!,” the Saturday-morning, live-action superhero show whose second season began June 1 on the Hub and whose first season has just been released on home video by Shout Factory.
Who are these masked men? They are the M.C. Bat Commander, otherwise known as Christian Jacobs; Crash McLarson, a.k.a. Chad Larson; Ricky Fitness, born Richard Falomir; Jimmy the Robot, sometimes called James Randall Briggs Jr.; and EagleBones Falconhawk, whose driver’s license reads Ian Fowles.
They are in their 30s and 40s, and before they were saving the world Saturday mornings on the Hub, they were simple punk-ska-neo-new-wave-surf-pop musicians from Southern California, who dressed as superheroes and fought monsters onstage. For that matter, they still are.
Jacobs is also the co-creator of the strange and lovely “Yo Gabba Gabba!,” a show for small children and anyone who has kept a capacity for delight, which has aired on Nickelodeon’s Nick Jr. since 2007. It takes place in an endless white space, in which a man named DJ Lance Rock overlooks a kind of diorama world where colorful creatures with names like Muno, Brobee, Foofa and Toodee and Plex sing and dance and have adventures. The Aquabats appear there sometimes too, to sing “Pool Party!” or “Counting to Five.”
I recently visited the Aquabats in their new secret lair, in an office park in Santa Ana, which as secret lairs (and office parks) go is very green and airy. Crash and Ricky were not present, but Joel Fox, whose actual name is Joel Fox, was. He works on both “The Aquabats! Super Show!” and “Yo Gabba Gabba!,” animating and filming things. When I walked in, without so much as a secret knock, he was blowing up balloons.
On the walls were posters for old movies; rugs designed by Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh — a “Gabba!” regular who’ll also appear this season in “The Aquabats! Super Show!” — were on the floor. Propped in a corner was a surfboard painted by Jacobs — as they were in their mild-mannered alter egos, I will call them by those names — in the one-eyed, two-toothed likeness of Muno, with the word “Rad” painted across his chest. “Rad” is a word you hear a lot from the Aquabats. (“Super Rad,” from 1997, was the band’s biggest single.) It is the great approbation of their generation.
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“It just kind of always seemed like a TV show even when we performed live,” said Briggs; we were gathered in a kind of lounge decorated with paintings of the “Gabba” monsters. “We even had a theme song.” There were “commercials” too, in the stage shows, between the songs.
Jacobs agreed. “It always just felt like the child of television. Everyone in the band felt the same way, like, ‘Dude, if we can pull it off, let’s do it.”
“When we first started developing the idea for the TV show,” said Jacobs, “it was more in line with what the ‘South Park’ guys were doing, it was a little edgier — for man-boys, like that whole Adult Swim thing. Because it’s so full of references and retro stuff, I felt it would be a perfect show for ‘our age’ to watch. Maybe kids would like it. But it was when I started having my own children that I shifted to, ‘Oh, this could totally work for kids, absolutely.’ But the idea was to make something that had an all-ages vibe.”
It has the quality of superhero games kids might play, given a budget; it also has the quality of superhero games childlike adults might play, given not too big a budget. Frequently cash-strapped, the Aquabats travel the highways in their Battle Tram, playing shows and battling monsters — a cactus monster, a cobra man, a floating eyeball of death.
“Some of the characters that show up on ‘The Aquabats’ we”ve been fighting in our concerts for years,” said Jacobs. Muno and Brobee, now friendly monsters on “Yo Gabba Gabba!,” also got their start onstage.
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Bobcat Goldthwait directed a pilot for Disney in the late ‘90s, “but it felt like a compromised mission,” said Jacobs, using a spy term. The band’s fortunes tumbled as the bottom fell out of ska, with which they’d become identified. “We”d play shows and, like, 20 people would show up.”
Then came “Yo Gabba Gabba!,” which Jacobs created with friend Scott Schultz (with whom he”d produced skateboard videos in the 1980s); they mortgaged their houses to make the pilot. After its first season they returned (with “Gabba” collaborator Jason deVilliers) to the Aquabats, scraping together money for a new pilot, Jacobs said, “finally doing it ourselves and doing it right.”
Stylistically, it resembles an accurate take on similar kids shows of the 1970s and ‘80s, with a Japanese influence via “The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.” Like “Batman” or “Get Smart!,” from an earlier time no less important to the show’s creators, you can watch it as pure adventure even while in on the parody and self-awareness. That the stars are enthusiastic amateurs — apart from Jacobs, who was a child actor – gives it a special flavor.
“It”s like the punk-rock thing,” said Fowles. “Now these kids are going to watch and be like, ‘I can be an actor, sure!’”
The collaborative, self-starting ethic of the show is something they learned from the music scene, and also from skateboarding.
“As a teenager,” said Jacobs, “with divorced parents and going against the grain — if I was just into punk I would have probably been eventually just into drugs. But skateboarding was such a positive thing. You’re always going forward thinking about the next thing, looking at things differently — like that bus bench, all the things you could do with it, or those stairs, all the things you could do down the stairs or up the stairs, all the different things you could do with four wheels and a board. Skateboarding opened my eyes not just to the tricks you could do on a skateboard but what you could do in the world. It gave our generation, the skateboard generation, confidence without ... school.”
Appropriately, the new season opened with appearances by skating legends Tony Hawk and Eric Koston. (Jacobs has known Hawk since they appeared together in “Gleaming the Cube.”) It will end with a “Road Warrior” homage co-written by Gerard Way, lead singer of the recently disbanded My Chemical Romance. There are helicopter shots.
If the future is not perfectly certain — there are only five episodes in the new season — the present is bright. The show has been nominated for a daytime Emmy. The band is joining the Vans Warped Tour this summer. At a pair of recent performances in the U.K., audiences were singing along to songs they could only have heard on “The Aquabats! Super Show!,” and, says, Jacobs, “there was more yelling out for Jimmy the Robot or EagleBones — people identified with individual characters way more than I’ve ever felt before.”
Still, it is very much the sum of its parts. “I think if you add all our voices together like a chord, we’re all playing this thing together even though we’re hitting different notes. I think with ‘Gabba’ and the Aquabats, not only in the band but behind the scenes, we’re all involved with playing with each other for so long, literally and figuratively, it does create a singular voice, and it feels different — and it feels pure.”
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