From the beginning, Parker Jacobs' life has been one roundabout path to fame after another. I like to think of him as the most influential Huntington Beach artist that you've never heard of. In fact, Jacobs has been quietly impacting the American skate-pop-punk aesthetic since 1993, when GOGO13, the ska band Jacobs formed in his garage so impressed his older brother Christian that he promptly went out and formed the Aquabats.
Almost everyone knows the Aquabats-slash-"Yo Gabba Gabba" story by now: In the early 2000s, a few years after the third wave ska heyday had passed, Christian Jacobs created the children's show with his cousin Scott Schulz. Using many of the elements that made the Aquabats concerts great -- some "YGG" characters were based on monsters that fought the Aquabats on stage, great songs and lots of dancing -- "Yo Gabba Gabba" revolutionized TV for the toddler set and cool parents who just couldn't sit through "Sesame Street." Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh is a regular drawing instructor. Biz Markie has a beat boxing segment. And "Yo Gabba Gabba" has had the Shins, Jimmy Eat World and even cult heroes Rocket From the Crypt as guest stars. The show has also been nominated for numerous Emmys, and Jacobs himself has been personally nominated for four. "We've never won one. It's still Elmo's world. We just sit there watching 'Sesame Street' get awards," Jacobs says, laughing.
As the show's art director, Jacobs gets to marvel at his long, strange journey toward the five-year-old subconscious.
"I got into art because I had really poor vision as a kid -- I still do," he says. "But back then being visually stimulated was really important because of my bad eyesight, and drawing was my outlet and my way to express myself."
It wasn't the only talent he had; Jacobs started out skirting the limelight as a child actor. Not a child star, he clarifies, even though he was in five episodes of "The Wonder Years." "It was our family business," he jokes. "We would spend our days after school going from studio to studio trying out for commercials."
The four Jacobs kids all played our bit parts and that's what we did to support the family," he said, adding, "We weren't trying to be famous, we were trying to make rent."
In 1996, Parker moved in with his brother Christian. At the time, the Aquabats were already being courted by Disney for what would eventually become "The Aquabats! Super Show!", so Christian posed this question: "What if we stop knocking on the front door to get acting jobs?"
"Christian kind of convinced me with this vision," Jacobs said. "He was already making films and skate videos, and he already knew how to direct. And we grew up in the business so we knew how to make [films], so he said let's make our own shows so we can have control over the roles that we get," Parker said. "It was a real backwards approach to doing it -- 'Let's have a successful band, and the band can have a TV show, and then we can be actors and directors!'" he said recalled.
It worked. It helped that along the way, Jacobs picked up graphic design skills. The Aquabats were touring, and he helped out. He was the artist behind the merchandise, stage design and costumes for the Aquabats. Jacobs said, "We were selling crazy things, like live tarantulas that we packed really well and took on tour with us." He also moonlighted as a member of the band as the Professor character; other times he would play the villain so the band would have someone to fight onstage.
"We were doing pretty good. We were getting on the radio and MTV. Then our record company lost a whole bunch of money on this crazy idea they had called Coachella," Jacobs said. The Aquabats' record company, owned by Paul Tollett, was Goldenvoice Records. And after the first two Coachella Arts and Music Festivals failed, Goldenvoice told the Aquabats they couldn't afford to be a record label anymore.
"That's when everything slowed down for the Aquabats," Jacobs explained. "Christian told me I should probably get a day job, and that's when we called up our friend Paul." This was Paul Frank, who had designed the belts the Aquabats wear. "He was a great pal of ours, and I thought I'd work there for two weeks -- a short time -- and then I ended up working there for seven years." Still, it was at Paul Frank that Jacobs honed his artistic skills, so when "Yo Gabba Gabba" was in its infancy, Jacobs said, "I would work at Paul Frank in the daytime and then go home to work at 'YGG' at night. I'd get about two hours of sleep. My boss told me to pick a team, and I took my chance with 'Yo Gabba Gabba.'"
Christian had a similarly roundabout pitch when convincing Parker to work on the show: "Christian told us it was a way to get a company to fund a really good Aquabat monster costume, because we were never happy with our monster costumes. So we created this universe," Jacobs explained. Christian came up with Muno, a cyclops he started drawing in the 1980s. "Christian is blind in one eye, so he kind of identified with this cyclops," Jacobs said. "We made that our Aquabat villain. When I got tired of getting beat up in a cyclops costume, we made another big green furry monster with three horns. That was Brobee," he added.
What makes Yo Gabba Gabba so cool is that its creators didn't really try too hard to make it so. "We grew up with punk rock and skateboarding. That really shaped our sensibilities, our fashion sense and our musical pace," Jacobs says. "We supposedly have our finger on the pulse of cool, but that's just where we come from. We are what we eat. We're just sharing it."
Sure, there are obvious Dr. Seuss and Muppets references, but as Jacobs says, "It's really hard to categorize what influences us. We get 'Those guys must be on drugs' all the time, which used to make me upset. Give me some credit! People on drugs can't really do stuff! I've never done anything -- I've never even drunk coffee! But looking back when I watch it, I go, 'That show is kinda weird.'"
"Yo Gabba Gabba" is also a validation of a hunch Jacobs has always had: "I knew we were always going to be in the media somehow; we always have been. And I knew we were always going to have some sort of weird influence but I think I made a goal when I was 21 that I wanted to do a movie or show that could be an influence for good. So how do you go about doing that? Oh yeah, start a ska band!"
Jacobs is currently working on his own TV show property, about a bigfoot character and a wizard called "Goon Holler." (It's launching as a book first; "The Goon Holler Guidebook" comes out Oct.1)
His ska band, GOGO13, also just released their first album after 18 years of existence. Yet even with all the credits to his name, Jacobs balks at being considered a fine artist: "It would be great to do work that's appreciated on its own merit; usually I'm selling something -- it's graphic design, after all. But it's really hard or me to do something and be like, this is good as it is," he says. "It's easier to be ridiculous and have some motivation [like selling] behind it, or have it under somebody else's name."
That's where his daily doodles come in. Made with ink and paper, Jacobs has posted a drawing everyday on his site since 2008. It's been a chronicle of Jacobs' life in the whimsical form of monsters, ice cream cones and goofy, animated vegetable drawings. "I'm constantly drawing and doodling stuff and it's hard for me to put a finger on it, like, 'This is a magical art painting!' This is really a cool thing I do myself, usually it's just stuff I have laying around that maybe has merit on its own."
Jacobs' drawings don't have much by way of explanation, but they document his daily life in a much more intimate manner. Tumultuous events, uncertainty, fear and happiness are all laid out in vibrant strokes and colors, words lettered in comic-book style. "I had recently gone through a divorce and that wiped me out," he said. With the daily doodles, he says, "There's a lot of ways I could vent my feelings and frustration without pointing fingers and naming names. And usually it's in the form of a cross-eyed animal."