By Alex Distefano
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Meeting Christian Jacobs in person is a bit of a letdown. It's not because he isn't charismatic—because he totally is. The Aquabats lead singer and star of the upcoming television show The Aquabats! Super Show! is—not surprisingly—incredibly endearing. Underneath the drawn-on mustache and Sharpie-blackened tooth, there's a dimple on his right cheek so deep you hope for a glimpse of it every time he laughs at his own jokes.
No, it's a letdown because no matter how fantastic he is, Jacobs' Aquabats persona, MC Bat Commander, is always going to be even more so. And when you're talking to the MC Bat Commander in his uniform—the noxious blue rashguard with the A on it, the neoprene helmet and mask—you can't help but hope he'll maybe do a backflip or two, throw a random karate kick to scary monsters, or shoot fireworks out of his mouth.
And now, with The Aquabats! Super Show! about to debut on the Hub, the cable-TV kids' channel that screens everything from Transformers to The Wonder Years to new episodes of My Little Pony, that's not going to change. If anything, once America sees MC Bat Commander battling monsters on a weekly basis, the real-life Jacobs is going to be even more at a loss to live up to his audience's expectations.
Jacobs is on set at Oak Canyon Ranch in Silverado. It's dusk, the hour when everything is beautiful, when everything the sun touches—the trees, the dirt road, the grass and the valley beyond—has turned pink, then gold, then purple. It's a little chilly, but the breeze smells wonderfully fresh—except, of course, during the times when the Aquabats pile into a yellow convertible and screech off after the evil villain Cobra Man and clouds of exhaust and dust fill the air. After a couple of takes in which Jacobs and crew ham it up (with egregious Aquabats expressions—there's waggly eyebrowed shock, cross-eyed concern and curled-lip fear, plus exaggerated running movements), Jacobs turns to sorting live snakes for the next scene. The reptiles are on loan from a reptile distribution center that a friend of Jacobs' owns in Santa Ana, and they're all pretty tame and cuddly.
Apparently, the Aquabats could've used fake snakes for the shot, but they didn't. A production assistant looks on, admiringly. "You'll find that in Christian Jacobs' world," he says, "between doing something easy and okay and hard and great, he'll go for the hard and great every time."
* * *
Compared to the Aquabats mythology, the real story of the Aquabats is a little . . . mundane.
The now-40-year-old Jacobs grew up in the San Fernando Valley in a big Mormon family (his great-grandfather, LeGrand Richards, was a prominent leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) that pushed him toward show business. "Most of my childhood was spent going on auditions for commercials and TV shows. I didn't have an after-school, practice-with-the-team-for-state-championship childhood," he says. Every once in a while—much as on his TV show—the Fountain Valley resident and father of four will break a conversation and illustrate a point by acting out scenarios with himself animatedly. "I'd get home from school, and my parents would drive me to auditions. That's how we paid the bills: The kids were actors, and the parents were managers. . . . My childhood was pretty focused on the entertainment industry."
It was in Hollywood that Jacobs got valuable on-the-job training from working on various television sets. When he was 10, he played Sally Struthers' son on a series called Gloria, a spin-off of a spin-off of All in the Family that lasted all of a year. As a teenager, he participated in the mockumentary The History of White People of America, produced by the creators of Spinal Tap (Harry Shearer and Michael McKean), as well as landing a bit part in John Hughes' coming-of-age classic, Pretty In Pink. "Some sets I liked working on, and some sets were misery. But I got a good idea of what I would do if I were in charge," he says.
At 15, Jacobs starred in Christian Slater's skateboarding movie Gleaming the Cube. Meeting skaters such as Tony Hawk, Tommy Guerrero and Stacy Peralta—who were artists and entrepreneurs aside from being great skaters—helped him forge his own path, he says. "I was really influenced by the way [skaters] looked at things. . . . Skateboarders look at a bus bench and have a whole bunch of different things to do on that bench than just sit on it. The '80s were like a Renaissance period for skateboarding." He then dropped out of high school to skateboard all the time, admitting now that "I don't know if that was such a great idea."
While never becoming a breakout star, Jacobs was happy with acting. "I accepted that as long as I could keep working," he says. But as he got older and started auditioning for adult roles on soap operas and teen schlock such as Beverly Hills, 90210, he got fed up. "The competition as an adult actor is different from when you're a kid. People are cutthroat to get a job as an adult. It became disgusting to me, and I didn't want to act professionally anymore. So I started a band."
He laughs. "But it was never meant to be something serious."
Jacobs met his bandmates through friends and the Orange County music scene in the '90s. Shortly after forming in 1994, the Aquabats elbowed their way into the third-wave ska movement that No Doubt, Save Ferris and Sublime reigned over, fully happy to be the clown princes of the scene.
Bob Becker, head of Fearless Records, says audiences went nuts for the Aquabats from the get-go. "They just took off. I watched other fledgling bands struggle to get an audience, but the Aquabats had an audience immediately just because they were so different."
That's putting it lightly. When they opened for Reel Big Fish at Al Capuccino's, Jacobs remembers, "We were all wearing baker's outfits. We had a barbecue out there, and we were cooking while we were playing."
Aping Devo by playing shows in silly matching outfits seemed like a good idea to the band, but they didn't always make sense. There was the period in which everyone in the band wore chef's hats. There was a fez-wearing phase. As Jacobs quipped in an Aquabats retrospective in 1999, "If we were to play rock & roll wearing normal clothes, we wouldn't be the Aquabats. We would be . . . the normal guys."
After Jacobs and friends cemented the Aquabats story (see "The Mythos of the Aquabats"), the superhero costumes were cobbled together with help from the brother of a band member who owned a local wetsuit business. "They just got more detailed over time," Becker says.
The band, the sound, the aesthetic and the legend of the Aquabats also developed over time. In the beginning, there was a fluctuating number of members—at one point, 12 crazies stormed stages across the Southland. Today, bassist Chad Larson (a.k.a. Crash McLarson) is the only other remaining original member, with James Briggs (a.k.a. Jimmy the Robot) joining in 1995 and becoming the third-most senior member. The members took on stage names, Jacobs says, because they wanted to create personas that were ridiculous and stupid. "There have always been bands that didn't use their real names, and at the time, we were really into this band called Rocket from the Crypt. They had really cool nicknames. We were kind of doing the same thing, but just a lot more dorky."
And the fact that they're more known as characters than musicians? Ian Fowles (a.k.a. Eagle "Bones" Falconhawk), who joined the band in 2006, says, "We've tried to create funny characters out of our real selves, so I don't mind if people think of us that way. Maybe some people will take the time to dig a little below the characters and listen to our music—they will see that we are all real musicians, too. If not, that's okay! Being known as a character is still great."
* * *
With the help of Jacobs' younger brothers Parker and Taylor, both graphic artists, the band developed a highly recognizable visual aesthetic. The team of Jacobs brothers illustrated all of the band's logos and T-shirts, as well as the monsters the band battled onstage. At one point, Parker was part of the band as the Professor, the man who gave the Aquabats superpowers; Tyler played the onstage part of the Pigbat, a strange hybrid of pig and Aquabat.
After a few years of taking the Aquabats on tour (Jacobs remembers a time when he made everyone in the band wear a different costume for every show, how their get-ups were more cumbersome than their musical gear), he "got the crazy idea that we could be a kids' television show—cartoon, live action, whatever. It just had the makings of a Batman-meets-the-Monkees," he says.
As early as 1997, three years after the Aquabats had formed as a lark, they already had, per a Los Angeles Times story, "a script, a marketing plan, and a mission: [. . .] landing a Saturday morning kid's TV show." The Aquabats' concept landed a couple of deals with major studios early on; in 1997, Buena Vista Television produced a live-action mini-pilot based on the band's 1997 album, The Fury of the Aquabats, but nothing came out of it. Fox Family Channel commissioned a script in 1999 that spawned a five-minute pilot that's nowadays viewable on YouTube—but that deal fizzled out as well.
It's fascinating to compare those ancient clips to the full-blown production airing this weekend at the Hub. Jacobs is thinner and more nimble; Crash McLarson has more hair (and is also thinner and more nimble). The other Aquabats members aren't in the band anymore, and the costume the band sported then is a more elaborate version of the suit the band wear today (it's black, and they're full suits). Still, there's the same sly sense of humor (the clip touts a would've-been-awesome appearance by Marilyn Manson as the Tooth Fairy), the same funny action sequences, the same monsters. Oh, and the pilot was mostly shot at Oak Canyon Ranch, as The Aquabats! Super Show! is today.
"There has never been one instance that I have left an Aquabats concert without a huge smile on my face. It always seemed like they were a kids' crazy cartoon come to life in the first place, so it seems only natural that they would finally have their own show on TV," says Reel Big Fish singer Aaron Barrett.
Yet getting the group to the small screen took more than a decade—mostly because of another boob-tube spectacular that Jacobs helped to create.
"Yo Gabba Gabba! pretty much got in the way of the Aquabats," Jacobs says matter-of-factly. "But that's okay. Because essentially, Yo Gabba Gabba! saved the Aquabats."
Probably the hippest kids' show since Electric Company, the success of Nick Jr.'s Yo Gabba Gabba! caught everyone off-guard. Geared toward preschoolers, Jacobs peppered the show with the same elements that made the Aquabats so popular: bright characters, loveable monsters, catchy songs and funny skits. It was hosted by a real DJ. Devo singer Mark Mothersbaugh held regular art lessons. Cool bands such as the Shins and MGMT performed on the show.
Jacobs and the rest of the Aquabats had been trying to make a TV show for so long that when they thought the Aquabats would never happen, they eventually shifted gears to a new project, Yo Gabba Gabba! And for much of that time, the Aquabats were in limbo. "We'd make an album and play shows from time to time, but it was really hard to do because we weren't making money—it was like this elaborate hobby," he says. "And when you have a wife and kids and your hobby is putting on a tight shirt and a helmet and a mask, well, you start getting weird looks from your in-laws and people asking you what you're doing with your life."
Yo Gabba Gabba's success showed the industry that Jacobs and company could make a show. "We took the momentum from Yo Gabba Gabba! and decided to produce The Aquabats! Super Show! independently," Jacobs says. It worked: "We're very grateful to the Hub for [picking up the show] and taking the risk."
The Hub ordered 13 episodes for the first season, which starts at 8 a.m. Saturday.
Ted Biasseli, vice president of programming for the Hub, calls the The Aquabats! Super Show! "the only live-action, animated, musical comedy, action-adventure series on TV right now." That description is a mouthful, and it doesn't actually need so many words to spell out how wonderfully surreal it is.
In the first episode, "Manant," the Aquabats have to figure out who's burning down burger/burrito joints around town. They end up battling a half-man, half-ant villain who wants to use their powers to populate the world with giant ants. There's a montage in which the band bathe in hamburger rain. It's similar to the Power Rangers, only goofier. And, as with Yo Gabba Gabba!, it's hilarious. It may be a little too intense for little kids, but your 10-year-old will get it—and love it. And, as with Yo Gabba Gabba!, The Aquabats! Super Show! is a trip to watch when stoned—supposedly. . . .
* * *
In January, we take a tour of the set at the show's studio on the border of Santa Ana and Fountain Valley, just down the street from the Observatory. We get a glimpse of the official Aquabats vehicle, the Battletram, which looks like a mommy's version of the Batmobile from the outside, but actually houses the Aquabats headquarters, Jimmy the Robot's lab, bunk beds and a full-on bathroom inside. There are the ultra-cool props, including beautifully created monsters (Manant; Cobraman; a giant monster chicken; and a hairy, tentacled beast named Snakey were all crafted by some of the same people who made the Muppets through the years). As we walk through the lab, Jimmy the Robot's detachable moving hand is in action. Over lunch, Weird Al Yankovic pops in to make a guest appearance as the President (the role is for a revolving cast; Yanlovic also guests as a superhero later in the season). No one does an ultra-fan freak-out—he's just one part of the crackly energy around the set. As Fowles says, "The fact that we have been able to make our own TV show has just been a big bonus to already being in such a fun band."
These days, not a lot is made of Jacobs' religious background, but its sounds like a big reason he is inclined toward creating PG shows. "I'm interested in making stuff for kids and families because then everyone can join in the fun," he says. "I don't like excluding people. I say, 'Let everyone into the party; let everyone come.'"
At 19, Jacobs left the world as he knew it to be a Mormon missionary in Sendai, Japan, and those two years were critical in developing this philosophy. "When you're living in another country and discovering that culture as a missionary, the point is to live outside yourself and help other people by doing service [work]," he says. "You have to find common ground with people, even if they're an elderly couple who live in the woods. You constantly meet people whom you think you would have nothing in common with, but it's always right there beneath the surface."
And that includes making things that everybody can enjoy. "It flies in the face of what a lot of people believe—that as long as you're happy with it that it's okay. You might be okay with it, but you're not going to be able to sell it, and no one's really going to come to your show. You have to have a balance between art and commerce, which is what we wanted to do with the Aquabats. We're having a lot of fun, but it's gotta be inclusive or it doesn't go anywhere."
It didn't hurt that those years in Japan were also crucial to the development of The Aquabats! Super Show! look. "Before I went to Japan, I was into anime and manga, but living there, I got to understand the culture on a higher level," Jacobs says. He refers to tokusatsu shows, television dramas that feature—you guessed it—superheroes fighting monsters that make considerable use of special effects. "It's totally ridiculous, but there's beauty in it, too.
"Once you understand the culture, things become more accessible," he adds. "It's a little less random feeling. It's like Yo Gabba Gabba! You think it's tweaked when you first watch it, but when you really watch it, you see that it's just a sweet kids' show that's sincere about helping to teach kids to love one another."
This article appeared in print as "To the Bat's Head! Christian Jacobs' 15-year journey from leading the ultimate OC cult band to The Aquabats! Super Show!"