| October 1, 2004
Oobi Does It
The creator of a popular children's show discusses his low-tech success

Richard Termine / Noggin
Spawn of Senor Wences?: The cast of 'Oobi'

By Nicki Gostin

If someone under the age of 3 is living in your house, then you probably already know all about Oobi. "Oobi" is a puppet show that airs twice daily on Noggin, a cable channel that specializes in quality educational TV for preschoolers. It's already won a gold and silver Parent’s Choice award and kids love it too—ratings have steadily increased since its debut last year. The season opener last month was Noggin's highest-rated original-series premiere. But you really know you've hit the big time when you have celebrity fans: Uma Thurman gushed when she met puppeteer Stephanie D’Abruzzo (who plays the character Uma, natch) backstage at the Broadway musical “Avenue Q.”

To call "Oobi" low-tech would be a mild understatement: Oobi the puppet is actually just a human hand with two Styrofoam eyes perched on his knuckles—think Senor Wences, only shot from a different angle. Other characters include his sister, Uma; pal Kako, and grandfather Grandpu, all played by hands adorned with eyeballs. The show also features kids talking about whatever Oobi is going through in that episode. On a recent episode, when Oobi discovered that he was scared of camping, tots chimed in afterward with what spooked them. "Oobi" is the brainchild of Josh Selig, 40, who got his start as a writer for "Sesame Street." Selig recently spoke with NEWSWEEK’s Nicki Gostin about creating "Oobi," the state of children's television and the care and feeding of his puppets. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How did you come up with the idea for "Oobi"?
Josh Selig: It was inspired by a puppet audition that I watched in Warsaw, Poland, many years ago. I was working on a coproduction there, and the puppeteers were doing the auditions without any puppets, with just their bare hands. I was amazed at how the more skilled puppeteers were able to convey so much emotion with just their hands. That idea kind of stayed in the back of my mind for some time and when the opportunity came to pitch Noggin, I pitched "Oobi."

I imagined you being really stoned in college with some buddies.…
No, sorry to disappoint you.

How did you come up with his name?
We played with a lot of different names. We like Oobi because of the two O’s and the relation between the eyeballs. I wanted to come up with a name that wasn’t like any other name, so I didn’t want to name Oobi after a real child, since he’s kind of his own species.

Do the puppeteers ever complain of cramps?
It’s interesting—they love it because on most of the shows they’re on they have to carry around very heavy puppets and they often do need breaks because their arms get very sore. But on "Oobi" all they have is two little eyeballs, so for them it’s a walk in the park.

Would you hire someone who had a really hairy arm?
Well, actually Grandpu has quite hairy hands, although in the case of Oobi we have to make sure that Tim [Lagasse, who plays Oobi] shaves his arm so he doesn’t look like a hairy kid.

What about their nails?
We pay for them to go once a week to their local manicurist to get their nails done.

Does anyone ever come to work with dirty nails?
Yeah, we have had to clean them up a little bit.

When you have kids on the set do they see a hand or Oobi?
They buy into it very quickly. It’s extraordinary. Meeting Oobi was like meeting a big celebrity. They were nervous beforehand. Even though there’s a puppeteer standing right there they always focused directly on the character. It’s really a credit to the puppeteers.

You also worked on the Israeli-Palestinian version of "Sesame Street." Was there some tension there?
Originally there were going to be two different sets, an Israeli and Palestinian, and there was going to be a third set that was a park. It was going to be neutral ground where the two groups of people could interact. But as we got closer to production a lot of people raised the concern that such a park doesn’t actually exist, so there was some hesitation to actually create such a place. So rather than have that third set, the compromise was that the Israeli and Palestinian characters would visit each other. But there were some very big screaming matches as these things were sorted out. It’s just an area where all these issues are so volatile.

What do you think of preschool TV in general?
I think there’s a lot of good preschool stuff. It’s really changed. When I started out there was really only a couple of shows to choose from, and now there’s dozens.

Do you have kids of your own?
No, I don’t.

Well I’m sure you’ll make your mother very happy when you do. Would you limit their TV time?
I think that I would. I really do enjoy making TV, but I can’t see overall it’s a very positive influence.

So you don’t think kids should be watching at all?
I think it’s OK to watch, but I think parents should be very selective and set real limits. No TV show is going to be as good as going to the park. It’s far better to have kids engaging with family and friends than to be sitting in front of the tube. It’s a nice thing to do occasionally; it’s not a healthy thing to do for hours and hours.

Do you think parents use it as a babysitter?
They certainly do. Back when "Sesame Street" started parents felt very guilty about that, and they used to watch TV more with the kids—and now they don’t. It’s sort of accepted now because there’s such good educational content they feel like they’re doing something good for their kids when they put them in front of a TV.

Or they’re lazy.
Or they’re lazy.

© 2004