The Next Yo Gabba Gabba

02.24.12

‘The Fresh Beat Band’: Nickelodeon’s Newest Preschool Sensation

The Nickelodeon live-action music show The Fresh Beat Band has the juice-box set squealing and forcing their parents to buy concert tickets. Strangely, the parents don’t mind.

I’d never asked my cousin, a senior executive at Live Nation, to help get me into a concert before, but this situation was desperate. The New York-area shows had sold out in a nanosecond, and two very important people were depending on me. So I sent an e-mail asking if there was any way for me to buy tickets to the hottest gig in town: the Fresh Beat Band. My cousin’s reaction was surprise that the first time I’d enlisted his aid was for “some Nick thing” he’d never even heard of. He was further surprised to discover that he couldn’t help. “These tickets are as hard to get as Radiohead,” he marveled.

We can’t get tickets!” laughed Scott Kraft, who, along with his wife, Nadine van der Velde, created and executive produces The Fresh Beat Band, Nickelodeon’s live-action show about four friends and bandmates–Twist, Shout, Kiki, and Marina–who sing and dance their way through candy-colored sets as they work together to solve appropriately solvable problems. The 15-week, 95-date American tour, which kicked off earlier this month in Anaheim, Calif., marks the first time the foursome has hit the road, and everyone involved seems stunned by the passionate response.

“You work on the soundstage and you really don’t have a clear picture of the impact you’re having on people,” said Thomas Hobson, who plays keyboardist Shout, in a telephone interview from the Fresh Beats’ tour bus as it made its way from Oakland to Modesto. “We were flying under the radar, and it wasn’t until tickets went on sale for the tour that we all stopped and went, ‘Wow.’ Being on the road has been insane. People love the show.”

Hobson might have used the word “people” by design, for while Nick bills the Fresh Beats as a “preschool band,” all evidence indicates that their appeal goes beyond the juice-box crowd. (“It might be time to stop calling us a preschool band,” Hobson noted.) While Kraft and van der Velde conceived the show in part because they wanted their young daughters to have fun, hooky pop music to call their own, the songs, written by composition cooperative Matter Music, engage older kids and even, I can confess, their parents.

“These are songs that follow the same DNA as a Britney Spears or Katy Perry song, just written with kid-oriented lyrics that have an inspiring message,” said Teri Weiss, a senior vice president at Nickelodeon Preschool who helped develop the show. The Fresh Beat Band soundtrack, featuring 19 songs culled from the show’s three seasons (“I Can Do Anything,” “Friends Give Friends a Hand,” “Stomp the House”), was released in advance of the tour and is selling well; it debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard soundtracks chart.

“The songs sound like what you’d hear on the radio, the shows look like sitcoms you’d see on TV, but it’s a safe space for [kids],” Kraft added. Having recently been asked what “we freak in a jeep” means by my eight-year-old daughter after she listened to, and loved, Katy Perry’s “California Gurls,” I see the appeal of this, especially since, at their ages, my kids don’t seem to discern much difference musically between what they hear on the Nick show and what they hear on pop radio.

The Fresh Beat Band, which began airing in 2009, is also likely to give some children their first introduction to hip-hop, although it wasn’t originally intended that way. The creators adapted the role of Twist, the band’s resident beatboxer, after Jon Beavers auditioned. “Jon came in, and everyone was supposed to sing, but he freestyled eight bars,” Kraft recalled. “We developed that character for him because we loved him as an amazing talent.”

As rapping white guys have done throughout history, the extremely tall Beavers, whose Twist is lovable but clueless in a Joey Tribbiani kind of way, has provoked the ire of some viewers. Poet Bassey Ikpi, writing on the xoJane blog, laments, “Do you know where my son, spawn of my hip hop-loving loins, learned about beatboxing and DJing? From a giant, goofy white man in the Fresh Beat Band.” As evidence of the show’s infectiousness, though, it’s worth noting that even Ikpi follows “The Fresh Beat Band is quite possibly the worst show I’ve ever seen in my life” with “and I kind of love it.”

Part of the reason the show might be clicking is that everyone involved in making it is having a good time. The four leads, all in their mid-20s, have substantial talent (no lip-synching on this tour) and considerable chemistry. By all accounts they’re tight in real life, even surviving the replacement of the original Marina, Shayna Rose, with another redheaded drummer, Tara Perry (doomed to be forever known in my household as “the new Marina”). In interviews, Kraft described a set where cast and crew affectionately throw pies in each others’ faces, while Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer, who plays guitarist Kiki, spoke of nights on the road when the Fresh Beats stayed up into the wee hours playing board games. When asked whether he gets recognized in public, Hobson said that on tour he does because during their off hours, the four Fresh Beats are always out together.

The Fresh Beat Band seems poised to become known outside of its target demographic, perhaps occupying a similar cultural space as Yo Gabba Gabba.

Celebrity guests are starting to make their way onto the show, the plotlines of which are getting zanier and more ambitious. Singer Jason Mraz and actress Sarah Chalke recently turned up on “The Wizard of Song,” an hour-long homage to The Wizard of Oz—1.5 million viewers, 797,000 of whom were in the 2-to-5 demographic, tuned in to its premiere. A Bollywood episode ended with an extravagantly costumed and choreographed Fresh Beat version of Slumdog Millionaire’s “Jai Ho.” Some installments even veer into “very special” territory, as when Twist left the band to launch a solo career as a rap artist. (Spoiler alert: he came back.)

Given this evolution, The Fresh Beat Band seems poised to become known outside of its target demographic, perhaps occupying a similar cultural space as Yo Gabba Gabba. While it’s not as trippy-cool as that other breakout hit from Nickelodeon, it’s not a complete stretch to imagine Brad Pitt turning up in a Twist costume come Halloween. When asked about his vision for the future, Kraft joked about “a Fresh Beat Band theme park.” Sounds great. It would probably be easier to get tickets to that.