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Saturday, March 2, 2024

The Very Online History of the Best Kids' Show on Netflix

On a late June day in 2012, Gregg and Evan Spiridellis uploaded five videos to YouTube. Each featured a quintet of monochromatic cartoon robots, catchy songs, and an educational slant. Six years, 150 songs, and 500 million views later, StoryBots is now a kid’s entertainment empire. It also just happens to be one of the best shows on Netflix, with the second season of Ask the StoryBots arriving on the streaming provider today.

None of this should come as a surprise if you recognize the name of the StoryBots creators. If "Spiridellis" doesn’t ring a bell, JibJab might; that’s the company they founded in 1999. Or better still, if you were on the internet in any capacity in 2004, you almost certainly had their satirical video “This Land!”—a riff on that year’s presidential race by way of Arlo Guthrie, in which John Kerry warbles that George W. Bush is a “stupid dumbass”—repeatedly hammered into your brain.

The Spiridellis brothers have been making popular internet videos for nearly two decades, which online equals several lifetimes of relevance. As with all good stories, though, the fun part is the journey: How two guys who went supernova at the dawn of Web 2.0 went on to craft one of the funniest, smartest, most delightful children’s shows of recent memory. Starring robots.

The JibJab Jumpstart

“This Land!” wasn’t just viral. It was all-encompassing—popular in a way that videos in today’s fragmented, platformized internet no longer can be. There was still such a thing as mass culture in 2004, and for a few weeks that summer, JibJab was it.

“This was pre-YouTube,” says Gregg. “Of anyone who saw video on the internet in July of 2004, I would bet for 90-plus percent of them, our video was in the mix. That share of voice doesn’t exist anymore.”

The video landed Gregg and Evan on The Tonight Show. ABC News put them among their People of the Year. JibJab would go on to tally 80 million views through the campaign season. Today, that would be a weak performance for a Taylor Swift video; in 2004, when only 25 percent of US adults had broadband at home and the iPhone was just a glimmer in Cupertino’s eye, it was a revelation.

The Spiridellis brothers also took it as a sign. “When we were doing ‘This Land!’ you could create one thing that would appeal to 100 million people. The internet hadn’t been split into a billion niches yet,” says Gregg. “But what we realized was, as good as we might be in terms of creating really funny little shorts, there was no way we were going to keep pumping out hits that big.”

JibJab continued to make funny videos, it just did so less frequently. Meanwhile, the duo focused their business efforts on making funny greeting cards that let you insert a photo of your face. That started in 2007, presaging the internet's appetite for hyper-personalization. (See: Bitmoji.)

The business is still up and running. But along the way, Gregg and Evan had kids. And in the vast saccharine wasteland of children’s entertainment, they saw an opportunity.

Hooray for A

When the JibJab brothers embarked on their kids-content quest, they started at the front of the alphabet. “Hooray for A,” the very first StoryBots video, doesn’t closely resemble more recent fare. The animation is more straightforward, and the song’s lesson—”a” is a letter, and here are some words that start with it—isn’t all that ambitious. But in it, you can see the outlines of an overarching philosophy. It’s funny. It’s self-aware. Most of all, it’s an earworm.

The StoryBots spent that first year working methodically through the alphabet, with the occasional spin on a classic—the StoryBots version of “Jumping on the Bed” has 35 million views—thrown in for good measure. But in 2015, they began to branch out. That summer, the Spiridellis brothers released thematically linked sets of songs: outer space, animals, seasons. Then came body parts, time, vehicles, shapes. Colors, emotions. The works.

Each song lasts no more than a minute or two. But even in that small parcel of time, each tosses out irresistible facts, jokes, and hooks. Just as importantly, they explore a sweeping range of musical styles and artistic mediums. “When You Breathe (Lungs)” sounds like Jack Johnson and looks traditionally 2-D. “Let’s Wait for Yellow” uses stop-motion, and in a just world would be the song of the summer. Pastels, live-action, 3-D animation; hip-hop, folk, pop. For all the facts and figures you can learn from the StoryBots YouTube channel, the genre education might be even better.

As for what song or style gets assigned to which subject, that’s an inexact science. “Sometimes there’ll be an artist that inspires us, and we’ll say oh, we can craft a world like this. Sometimes we’ll come up with a story format, like a western, and it’s gotta be done like this,” says Gregg. And sometimes it just feels right, the brothers agree—like a series of educational outer space songs set to hip-hop beats.

Regardless of medium, the videos were a hit. The StoryBots have notched 12 million views for a song about trucks, and 29 million for a breakdown of the planets. A five-song series about dinosaurs collectively racked up another 60 million. That popularity emboldened the brothers Spiridellis to take the natural next step: Make a television show.

“We knew people liked it. We made something parents liked. We could look at comments, we could get their feedback,” says Gregg.

“That gave us confidence,” adds Evan. “We went out and we produced this thing.”

They lined up a celebrity lead in Judy Greer, who plays lead bot Beep. They called in high-profile guest stars, like Jay Leno and Tim Meadows. And they set to work giving their 90-second morsels of smart, catchy kid songs a narrative arc, building out the world they had created.

Ask the StoryBots

Each episode of Ask the StoryBots on Netflix follows a relatively simple formula. The five bots—Beep, Boop, Bing, Bang, and Bo—are tasked with answering a question, and spend the next 22 minutes or so doing just that, through songs and comedic interludes. The first season’s subjects range from the standard issue (why is the sky blue?) to the slightly more arcane but probably more important (where do french fries come from?).

The pure fun of it all belies the plate-spinning act that makes it possible. “One of the things that sticks out to me is how many things it does well all at once,” says Polly Conway, senior editor of TV reviews for Common Sense, a nonprofit focused on how children interact with media. “Just the way they can switch from a song back to the original plot, and then it’s live action, but then it’s green-screen, and then it’s claymation. In lesser hands it could be overwhelming, and too much, especially for the age group that they’re targeting. But it’s just really fun, and it’s funny.”

Take the very first episode: “How Does Night Happen?” To find the answer, the StoryBots crew visits a knight (live action), explores the ocean (2-D animation), and takes in a lesson from the sun itself (stop-motion). Songs about the letter N (perhaps best described as They Might Be Giants-esque), the color red (rap) and chickens (upbeat pop) provide narrative breaks. There’s an extended sequence of sight gags at the beach. It’s a lot—but it somehow never feels like too much.

Critics agree. Ask the StoryBots won two Emmys this year for its Christmas special—starring Ed Asner as Santa Claus—and has been nominated for a pile more. It was one of just two children’s shows to be a Peabody Award finalist in 2017 (the other was Amazon’s Tumble Leaf, also excellent). And groups like Common Sense, the Webby Awards, and the British Academy Children’s Awards have heaped praise as well.

“I think it’s unique in that a lot of shows are very niche at this point. There’s a show called Annedroids, and it’s about engineering and science. Or there’s Daniel Tiger, which is all about feelings. Shows trying to really hyper-focus. StoryBots is just like, we’re just going to learn about everything! That I think is pretty ambitious, but they manage to do it super well,” says Conway.

It’s also relentlessly informative. “On the short-form videos," Gregg says, "we’ll go to a educator and say, 'we want to do a series on outer space, we want to produce five videos. What five topics should we do? Under those five topics, what are the 15 key facts we should try to get across in the song?'"

“'And then give us a bunch of other stuff that we can weave in if we can make it entertainment,'” says Evan, finishing Gregg’s thought. “What are the tentpoles we have to hit from a learning standpoint, and then what are other lessons that would be valuable but not as critical?”

That input from educators—specialists in various fields, educational psychology PhDs, and so on—continues throughout the development process of both individual songs and television episodes. At various points along the way, the team checks back in to make sure everything makes sense.

For the TV show specifically, every writing exercise starts with the “lesson recap,” the part at the end where the StoryBots explain what they’ve learned—why the sky is, in fact, blue—in a minute or less. Once an educator signs off, the team can go on to fill in the rest. These are also heavy hitters; the creation of season two episode “How Do People Catch a Cold,” for instance, took several calls with the head of virology at UCLA.

That rigor maybe shouldn’t come as a surprise; it’s an educational show, after all. But it’s worth noting, if only because Ask the StoryBots has that remarkable quality where you don’t realize you’re learning in the first place. You’re having too much fun.

An Animated Empire

Season two should follow that same roadmap, with stops for guest appearances from Snoop Dogg, Edward Norton, Wanda Sykes, and more thrown in. And while the show will still dip into the back catalog for musical interludes, half the songs this time around will be brand new.

It will also reach more kids than ever. While season one only hit select markets, all eight episodes of the follow-up will launch on Netflix globally, translated into 22 languages.

Even without the show, the StoryBots are becoming hard to miss. In Hollywood, it’s unusual for creators to use their own money; Netflix has at least an $8 billion budget for original content this year because it usually foots the bill. But for Gregg and Evan, independence was paramount. By putting millions up front into the creation of Ask the StoryBots, they retained the rights to all of its associated intellectual property.

Owning every aspect of StoryBots means that the characters can continue to thrive not just on YouTube, but elsewhere online and even in schools, a burgeoning educational empire that Gregg and Evan hope will become this generation’s Sesame Street. (For what it’s worth, despite the change of address to premium cable, Sesame Street still bangs.)

There’s StoryBots Classroom, which 70,000 teachers across the US use to incorporate the characters into lessons. The StoryBots website encompasses songs, math problems, and digital books, most of which—in a JibJabian touch—you can insert your child’s face into for a personalized experience. A line of physical books occupies shelf space at Target.

“Television is just one piece of what we see as all these canvasses we can paint in all different places with the stories and characters,” says Gregg. “We see the StoryBots as living in an unlimited number of mediums.”

Beep, Boop, Bing, Bang, and Bo may still never be as ubiquitous as “This Land!” But does a kids’ show in 2018 really need to be? That question doesn’t take 22 minutes to answer: It just needs to be smart, and funny, and creative, and kind.

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