I found that interviewing the Aquabats’ Christian Jacobs was one of those cases where people who do comedy are often very serious about it, and how it takes a great deal of intelligence to do stupid well. Jacobs is no stranger to Hollywood, having started his career at the ripe age of 4 after his family relocated from Idaho to Los Angeles. He appeared in teen films like Pretty in Pink and skateboarding mystery Gleaming the Cube, and on TV shows ranging from The Love Boat, Married…with Children, and Roseanne before retiring from the acting business in the 1990’s. His missionary work for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints took him to Sendai, Japan, for two years at the age of 19, which Jacobs credits with developing his philosophies on entertainment.
The influence of Japanese pop culture also found its way into his work when he returned to the United States and formed the Aquabats in 1994, quickly establishing their niche in the ska band scene of Orange County by donning superhero costumes and engaging in elaborate fights with rubber monsters during concerts. In 2003, Jacobs and his friend and frequent collaborator Scott Schultz hit pop culture gold with Yo Gabba Gabba! on Nickelodeon, where the potent alchemical stew of rubber monsters, indie rock, and animation combined in a show that rapidly endeared itself to kids (while often baffling adults). The success of Yo Gabba Gabba! ultimately led to bringing the Aquabats themselves to TV to the Hub Network in 2012, where its first season has earned a daytime Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Children’s Series.
In conjunction with the release of The Aquabats Super Show Season 1 on DVD and the impending premiere of season 2, Toonzone News got to talk with the MC Bat Commander himself (or at least the more sedate Christian Jacobs aspect of his persona) over the phone about the origins of the show, the sensibilities that drive it, and what to expect in season 2, while incorporating strange analogies that occasionally involved simian evolution.
TOONZONE NEWS: I know you’ve been trying to get the Aquabats on TV for quite some time. Can you could walk us through the timeline from “Hey, let’s try to get the show back on the air” to the season 1 premiere? I’ve seen a few slightly conflicting summaries for that. How did that all work out?
CHRISTIAN JACOBS: Back in the day…this is probably 1996 or ’97 when we were touring and playing shows as a band of superheroes that fight monsters on stage, it just dawned on me: this could be a funny show. This could be a cool TV show that kids would like and I would like, because I was a big kid at the time. I’m still a big kid. We started floating it out there to business people and promoters, and maybe even stretching the truth a little bit and telling people we were going to do a TV show. It’s funny how in Los Angeles, the word travels fast. We had a song on the radio, and we were interviewed by the local radio station and we said, “We’re working on a TV show now.” Just totally joking, very tongue in cheek, but I didn’t really want people to think I was joking. I wanted them to think it was for real, and then of course, people started talking and we started getting phone calls from people, like, “Hey! I’m from such-and-such. Are you guys really doing a show?” And it kind of worked, because it got people talking.
Then at that point, we were like, “OK, we’ve got to come up with some ideas.” One of our managers was good friends with Bobcat Goldthwaite, and Bobcat came and helped us do the “Super Rat” video and we got talking about doing a pilot. We brought it over to Fox and to Disney. It just kind of snowballed, and in 1998, we did a deal with Buena Vista. We did a pilot with Bobcat, but it wasn’t really what we were gunning for. I think it had a little bit to do with budgets and stuff, but we had our foot in the pool, so to speak, so we used that and when the option was up, we went to Fox Family Channel, to Cartoon Network a number of times, and to Nickelodeon. We were out there beating the bushes for a long, long time about the show. Then I think we shot something ourselves in late 1999, using a music video budget to make kind of a demo of the show that people would be looking at. Our vision of the show was definitely more Asian cinema…Shaw Brothers meets Ultraman kind of thing, and we got a lot of responses, but it never clicked. I think once a project has been painted, a lot of people don’t want to go back there, you know? “Oh, you did a pilot and it didn’t work out so it must have been a bad idea,” is the general thought process in this industry, which I think is a bad one. I don’t control people’s brains…yet (laughter), but there are tons of good ideas out there. I always thought the Aquabats was a good idea, and the fact that we were still doing shows and gaining fans and doing records, to me it was constant proof that, “Look, this could work if someone would just give it a shot.”
But we kept doing the band, and right around the time of 2002 or 2003, we started coming up with the idea to do Yo Gabba Gabba!, and with the timing of the Internet and YouTube, it just clicked. Yo Gabba Gabba! seemed like it went so fast into production that it really kind of left the Aquabats in the dust a little bit, but the idea was still there, so between seasons 1 and season 2 of Yo Gabba Gabba!, we had a little bit of traction and a little bit of cash, so we were like, “Let’s just go make a pilot for the Aquabats show, the way we always wanted to do it.” Write the script, we’ll actually speak and have dialogue between the band members, and let’s just do it. So we went and shopped that ourselves and pitched that around and we did the rounds again and again. I think a lot of people were like, “Oh, this is a project that is dead.” I still think the pilot is really good, but there was that stigma over top of the Aquabats that it never worked. Yo Gabba Gabba!‘s popularity definitely helped us get back in doors, but for the most part, until the Hub came along, no one was willing to take a risk on the show. In 2007, we shot a pilot for the Aquabats show, the way it should have been, almost 10 years after we started first pitching it around. Then Ted Biaselli and Mark (Kern, SVP of Communications) and Donna (Ebbs, SVP of Programming) at the Hub were like, “We want to make this. We want to do this, so let’s figure out how to do this.” That was 2010. And then the rest is history (laughs). But it’s definitely been a journey.
TOONZONE NEWS: It doesn’t seem like there was a lot of big change in broad strokes between the pilot I’ve seen and what was in season 1. Would you say your approach or your sensibilities about the show changed between the pilot and the first season?
CHRISTIAN JACOBS: There’s some minutiae that changed here and there, and the format of the show definitely changed from the pilot to this. In the 2007 pilot, which is on the DVD boxed set, there’s wraparounds with us at a live concert. There’s a live audience there, like a concert crowd. “Welcome to the Aquabats show! Now we’re going to watch TV!” Then we watch an adventure and then come back to the crowd and play a song. There was definitely more of a live crowd or gig vibe to the show, where we interacted with the audience and then the adventures were done on the TV screen behind us. I think the reason that format shifted was to put more time on the screen for the actual narrative. The narrative wasn’t so short and we could have more of a three-act kind of traditional narrative.
In the pilot, too, we gave a a good 6-8 minutes to the animation. It was great, and we loved the way it turned out, but at the end of the day we all felt more excited about the live-action parts of the show. You can get way more dynamic in animation, but we’re trying to make a live-action cartoon, and building rubber monsters and kung-fu seemed a lot more exciting and challenging to us. There’s so much great animation out there and there’s so much competition, there didn’t seem like there was a ton of live-action cartoons happening, so we definitely leaned more towards the live-action for the series. For the pilot, half of the time was live-action and half was animation.
TOONZONE NEWS: Speaking about the animation, what were the origins of even incorporating the cartoons at all?
CHRISTIAN JACOBS: What we did for the pilot, which is kind of sneaky, I guess, but we did the pilot deliberately half-live-action and half-animation because we were pitching to places like Cartoon Network that were like, “We love the idea for the show but we hate live action. We only want to do cartoons. Maybe if you have 30 seconds of live-action per episode, then we’d think about it.” So what we did in the pilot is that we did half-animated, half-live-action. When we got the deal at the Hub, the Hub was like, “Well, we like the live-action stuff more,” and we were like, “We do too! We do too!” but the cartoons just turned out so good that we were like, “There’s got to be somewhere that we can leave cartoons in there. It’s a kid’s show, there’s got to be cartoons in there SOMEwhere.”
We like the whole randomness when a cartoon appears, because it’s like a meta-kind of thing. We’re making a show for kids that we’re really aware of. It’s very tongue in cheek. That’s where we came up with, “Well, what if we just randomly happened on cartoons, and they were serialized, have nothing to do with what’s going on?” We just weaved them in there and retained the cartoons because we really liked them. That’s also where the Little Bat cartoons came from, too. Just non-sequiturs that are sprinkled throughout every episode, to service that part of our hearts that are committed to animation and cartoons as well.
I think we get to explore that even more this new season because we change it up a little bit. In the first season, we kind of wrapped things up into a very strange basket, where we tied the first animation into the last episode, and it’s this weird infinity loop (laughs). This season, we wanted to speak to the Aquabats’ origin stories, and we thought it would be fun if every Aquabat had a different recollection of how the Aquabats became a band, and if every one of their memories was represented by a different style of animation. So for these next five episodes, there’s going to be five memories of each one of the Aquabats remembering how they became part of the Aquabats and how the Aquabats became a band. They’re all done by separate animators and animation houses. One studio does some stuff for Robot Chicken and they did a stop motion one. Too Many Legs did an homage to Ralph Bakshi rotoscoping and Heavy Metal for Eaglebones Falconhawk. There’s some really cool animation this season, and styles. Mixing up animation styles is something I’d like to continue to do if we are lucky enough to do more. When it is a cartoon, it doesn’t always have to be the same one. You could suddenly have a UPA-style cartoon or Felix the Cat or suddenly it’s the Aquabats in Filmation the animated Star Trek style. It’d be fun to go back and homage some of that…Gatchaman or Battle of the Planets where we’re all bats but we’re birds (laughter). That’d be awesome too. I think that’s something we’re really excited about continuing to do, because we’re obviously big cartoon fans as well.
TOONZONE NEWS: That’s funny…what you’re describing sounds kind of like a Tokusatsu Rashomon. Kind of overloading on the Japanese cultural references, I guess.
CHRISTIAN JACOBS: I would love it. (laughs)
TOONZONE NEWS: I read in one of your other interviews that you aim to be accessible to as broad an audience as possible, but I find both Yo Gabba Gabba! and The Aquabats Super Show are a little polarizing. My experience is that people either get them and love them and get really excited about them, or they watch them and they go, “Huh?” and it’s really clear that they don’t “get” it. Are you aware of that, and how do you reconcile that polarization with your own drive for accessibility?
CHRISTIAN JACOBS: That’s perfect, because that’s totally correct. I think both shows are very polarizing. The thing about Yo Gabba Gabba!, I think, because it is for smaller kids, there’s a wider ability to accept it. When you’re a 2-year old or a 3-year old and you’re watching a show and dancing, even if you don’t get it, you get THAT. You can get THAT: “Oh, man, my cute little 2-year old is dancing to this song! And I don’t really like the music, but I gotta love it,” you know? Which I think explains why the Wiggles were so popular. I would watch the Wiggles with my kid and I would be violently ill and have to change the channel because it was so sappy and dorky, you know? Yo Gabba Gabba! was kind of a reaction to those kinds of shows. No offense to the Wiggles, but they just weren’t making that for me, they were making that for 3-year old kids that want to sing about fruit salad. OK, cool, but why couldn’t you something like that and include SOME parents, or include adults. Really, Yo Gabba Gabba! was a reactionary project to a lot of stuff that was going on. The Aquabats was, too, just one of those things that wasn’t realized until way after the fact. When we had the idea, and the inspiration to do the show, there really was nothing like it going on. It was pre-Incredibles and pre-Mystery Men…it was post-Watchmen the comic, but it was superhero satire and something that not a lot of people were doing.
CHRISTIAN JACOBS: Definitely, but in a way, all of that stuff helped open the door more to the Aquabats, I think. I think the Aquabats would have been way more polarizing when we wanted to do it. But now, because of the massive influx of superhero everything, it leaves us a great place on the shelf for the Aquabats. It’s like, here’s the one show that’s kind of making fun of all that, but at the same time totally loves that and respects it. I saw this interview with Jackie Chan in a Bruce Lee documentary once, and Jackie Chan was like, “I was coming up, and I was going to be the next star, and I had done a couple of films already, and then Bruce Lee, BAM! He comes out with The Chinese Connection, and I’m like, ‘I can’t compete with that.’ OK, but I still want to do what I’m doing.” That’s when he said, “Instead of punching someone and screaming in their face…WA-HAA…I would punch someone and shake my hand, like, ‘Ow, that hurt!’ I added humor into kung fu and then I was able to come into my own thing. I was the opposite of Bruce Lee.Bruce Lee was going to be the guy who would walk in beat everyone up by himself and be very convicing at doing that. I was the guy who was going to get beat up and barely make it out.” (laughs)
That kind of resonated with me about the Aquabats because it’s kind of what we’re doing in essence. We’re the Jackie Chans of superheroes (laughs). We see monsters and we don’t go, “Come on, let’s go get it!” Or we don’t Robert Downey Jr. it and say some kind of smart remark to that. He’s great in those movies, but he’s always laughing at danger and just marginalizing world destruction. No big deal, right? We’re falling into the fetal position and saying, “Please don’t kill us!” And I think that we have a place in pop culture because of the popularity of superheroes.
As far as being polarizing, I think it is what it is, and with Yo Gabba Gabba! and the Aquabats, it wouldn’t be what it is if we were trying to please everybody. So many programs and TV shows, especially kids shows, are trying to be everything to everybody, and in that sense they’re becoming disposable. “Who cares?”, you know? I love where we’re at because we’re still underdogs, and we’ve just been nominated for an Emmy, and it’s like, “Are you kidding me? No way! That’s a joke, that has to be a joke, right? We’re the Aquabats! We don’t get nominated for Emmys!! That’s retarded! We’re the Aquabats, we’re stupid, don’t you guys get it?” I think it’s great because we’re being recognized for the merit of the show, and at the same time, to a mass audience, we’re still the underdogs. We’re still the Aquabats. And we’ve got our own little thing going and it’s fun. Not to sound elitist or arrogant about it, but people that get it are part of the team, and the people that don’t will remain clueless. Of course, it would be great if everyone liked it because then I could pay my bills, but that’s not why we’re doing it. We’re really wanting to be something different, and even though the idea is an old one, it’s working because there hasn’t really been a very successful inept superhero satire that you still care about, you know? I guess The Tick was, but I felt like the comics were so much better than the TV show.
TOONZONE NEWS: The cartoon was pretty funny…
CHRISTIAN JACOBS: Yeah, that’s true.
TOONZONE NEWS: Even then, the Tick is a different kind of satire. It’s common ancestry, I suppose, but they went in one direction and you went in another. It’s …I don’t know, chimps vs. orangutans or something…and MAN am I stretching this one far…
CHRISTIAN JACOBS: (laughter) No, it’s good! The more metaphors the better, I love it!
CHRISTIAN JACOBS: Obviously, I really love it. I like the fact that it is so different than everything on TV. Even if I had nothing to do with it, it would be my favorite show to watch with my kids, absolutely. There is something there for us guys, you know? There’s violence in it and there’s some spooky parts, but for the most part I feel like as long as we’re doing something where kids and parents can watch stuff together. Some of my fondest memories with my own dad were watching movies with him or staying up late and watching war movies like The Dirty Dozen. Otherwise, that was it. I didn’t really feel like my dad cared about what I was into. Not that he didn’t care about ME, he just didn’t care about my music or skateboarding or comic books, you know what I mean? Which I think is unique to our generation. We get to sit down with our kids and watch The Aquabats Super Show! and laugh and be like, “Yes! I can’t believe they did that!” Or we can watch Yo Gabba Gabba! with them and it’s OK to go out and buy the toys. Your son has a set of the toys at home and you’ve got a set of the toys at work. It’s kind of cool to be a part of that movement, I guess, where parents want to be right there with their kids, and be into the stuff that they’re into, and it’s OK. And hopefully, I can continue to make things like that.
TOONZONE NEWS: I know exactly what you’re talking about because my parents never …I don’t think they ever got Star Wars, but some day I will be sitting down and sharing that with my son. I love that there are things like Yo Gabba Gabba! and the Aquabats and a lot of other stuff on the Hub and elsewhere that I want to sit down and watch because I like them.
CHRISTIAN JACOBS: Yeah! And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Especially if it creates a bond between you and your kid. I think that’s a great thing to aspire to in developing things. It’s a unique perspective. Instead of just writing something for yourself, “This is what I’d want to see,” you keep your kid in mind. Obviously, that’s paid off in spades for me…and I’m not talking economically, I’m just talking about my relationship with my kids, we’re like friends and as they’re getting older they’re ribbing me and ripping on me in a fun way, and we understand each other. I love it when we’re watching SpongeBob or something and there’s a reference to The Great Escape or something. Or just some random reference, and my kid will turn and look at me and go, “Great Escape” and I’ll be like, “Yes! Got it! Steve McQueen reference!” Just some random thing, but just there’s so much. I think our relationships with our kids can be stronger if we care enough to include them in what we’re into, and vice versa. Not judge them. They want to be into Justin Bieber…you know it’s temporary, so do it, you know? And find out about Justin Bieber and why he’s cool, and be like, “All right! He did this himself. That’s rad. He put a video on YouTube and he got discovered.”
CHRISTIAN JACOBS: About season 1? No, if anything, I would do some things differently with season 2. I think there’s no possible way season 1 could have been any better because of budget and things. It’s really the best it could have been. We were under so much duress making that. We had no time and the animations were being done overseas, and for the first half of the season, our post-production was being done overseas and we were like, “Wait, how do you do post-production overseas? We can’t do that!” There was just so much drama in making that. Our co-creator and my great friend Jason (deVilliers) directed most of the episodes last season, and when we got the call to do season 2, he called me and he said, “Dude, my hands are shaking and I’m getting anxiety.” (laughs) He got anxiety over the show last season because it was really rough. It was hard, and he never slept. He ended up editing most of the episodes. I’d go visit him at 4 in the morning and look at cuts and be like, “Dude, you’re crazy.” He’d sleep in my office in the corner and wake up in the morning and shoot more episodes. There were days when Matt Chapman and Jason didn’t sleep the night before and they’d show up and direct for 12 hours. By the end of the day, they were, like, hallucinating. It was pretty crazy.
So, long story short, season 1 has so much charm and it means so much to us watching it, every episode, because we know how hard it was, and how the expectations were so low coming from the network. They’d get dailies back and be panicking because, you know, all the effects didn’t work and…(laughs) it was basically like if you went out into your backyard and tried to make a TV show with you and five of your best friends, and then you got calls from the network saying, “This sucks! It looks like you’re in your backyard shooting a TV show.” And you’re like, “Yes, because that’s what we’re doing! We’re in our backyard making a TV show!”
With season 2, we had more time and more resources and we had more help. I’m not going to slag season 2 because you haven’t even seen it yet, but tonality-wise, the Aquabats are back and we’re the heroes of Earth for season 2. We saved the world, and so everyone is like, “Aquabats! You’re our saviors!” and there’s a lot expected of us, but we’re the same crew, you know? Which I think is metaphorical to season 2. We tried a lot of extra things and did some crazy stuff, and pulled some amazing things off this season, but there’s a little bit of innocence lost in season 2. I don’t think anyone’s going to notice except for me and Jason, maybe, but there’s something about season 1 that’s unbeatable to me, because it was so hard to do and there was so much drama surrounding it. It almost makes me cry just thinking about it because it was really crazy (laughs).
I guess the main thing in season 2 and going forward is bringing back that feeling that the Aquabats are underdogs. I feel like we were able to serve the emotions a little better in season 1 because there were a lot of emotions going on. That scene in “ShowTime!” where we’re sitting around talking about how we have no money left and we spent it all on these commemorative plates or whatever, and we have one piece of pizza to share between us…that was very much what was happening. We’d run out of money and we had nobody there, and when you have no one there, it takes longer to finish things because essentially we’re working for free. With season 2, that wasn’t there, so there’s an emotional edge that isn’t there as much. Going forward, we want to figure out how to bring the emotions out in things even though it’s clearly a silly show about a bunch of stupid superheroes. I think what made season 1 great was it seemed like there were a lot of emotional arcs, where we would get emotional and it a lot of it felt really real because we were all dying and we hadn’t slept.
That being said, I think season 2 blows season 1 away in a lot of ways. Production-wise, story-wise, what we were able to do. We homage The Thing and Tremors and Road Warrior. There’s this incredible scene in an episode that Jason and I wrote with Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance, where we’re being chased down the highway by these bad guys and we kind of do the whole Road Warrior/Mad Max scene where they’ve got the gas and they’re trying to get away and it’s pretty intense. It’s like, “Wow, this is a kids show?”
TOONZONE NEWS: You get the coolest collaborators, I have to tell you (laughter).
CHRISTIAN JACOBS: Oh, man, Gerard is awesome! He’s really cool. Mark Mothersbaugh is in an episode, and Martin Starr and Leslie Hall. Tony Hawk and Eric Koston came out for an episode so we had some really incredible juice this season, for sure.
CHRISTIAN JACOBS: Yeah, the Yo Gabba Gabba! live show is actually going to go to Australia. It’ll be there in a couple of weeks, and then it comes back and does some more dates in the Fall. The Aquabats just got back from a really short tour in Europe. We did a festival in Belgium that was cool, and it was really fun to see how the TV show is finding its legs in the UK. People singing along with “Burger Rain” in London, which was really weird (laughs). But that was cool. We’re going on a work tour in a couple of weeks, for just a couple of weeks. We’re writing new episodes right now, hoping to produce a few more this year, and hopefully Yo Gabba Gabba! will come back, and we’re developing some top-secret projects with Gerard Way and Mark Mothersbaugh. We’ve got a lot of thigns going on, which is cool, but again my favorite thing to talk about is obviously the Aquabats and the show.
Toonzone News would like to thank Christian Jacobs for taking the time to talk with us, and J.P. Shields and the PR team at the Hub Network for setting it up. The Aquabats Super Show Season 1 is on DVD now from Shout! Factory, and season 2 is set to premiere on the Hub Network on Saturday, June 1, 2013, at 1:00 PM (ET/PT). For more details, check out Toonzone’s earlier coverage here.