Children’s television programming is always colorful, sometimes educational, and often bizarre. A human-sized hamster wheel? A talking chair? Grown men going to bat for a herd of rainbow-colored ponies? These stories explore the art and economics of making television for kids.
1. “‘It Smelled Like Death’: An Oral History of the Double Dare Obstacle Course.” (Marah Eakin, A.V. Club, November 2016)
Nickelodeon’s hit game show, Double Dare, aired in the late ’80s and early ’90s (with a season-long remount in 2000), and one of its biggest draws was its obstacle course. The A.V. Club spoke to host Marc Summers, the producers and a variety of set designers about the gallons of whipped cream, baked beans and Gak it took to make the messiest show on TV. Pro tip: Don’t eat while reading this.
2. “Friendship is Complicated.” (Maria Bustillos, Longreads, January 2015)
A Longreads original story about the tricky economy of “merch-first” children’s television and the integrity of the creators and communities behind these hit shows.
3. “The Art of Pee-Wee.” (Eric Ducker, The Verge, March 2016)
Two years ago, my partner introduced me to the art of Wayne White, creator of many of the beloved characters of the Pee-Wee universe, via the documentary Beauty is Embarrassing. The documentary gave me a deeper appreciation of a) an aesthetic I’d never understood, and b) the determination it takes to cultivate artistry and whimsy in a commercial environment. This article is the perfect complement to Beauty is Embarrassing; it explores the artistic exchange that was happening during this time between the worlds of so-called high and low art:
“By hiring a staff largely from outside the industry for Pee-wee’s Playhouse, [Paul] Reubens managed to make something both strange and broadly appealing. “We weren’t from the closed-off professional world of set design and puppeteering. We were from this open world of art,” says Wayne White, over the phone. “We felt complete freedom to borrow from any source we could. I was thinking a lot about German Expressionism and Little Golden Books from the ’50s. We were all thinking about toys from the ’50s and ’60s, too. We were thinking about abstract painting. You name it, we would throw it in there.”
4. “The Clean, Green and Slightly Bonkers World of CBeebies.” (Sophie Elmhirst, The Guardian, May 2016)
I live in the United States and don’t have regular access to the BBC; therefore, this excellent essay was my first glimpse into CBeebies, the BBC’s educational programming for kiddos. (Later, a quick Google search brought up the headline “Tom Hardy is reading a CBeebies Bedtime Story and mums are totally losing it!” I’m not not going to click that.)