What has pink ears and pearly white fangs, wears black, thick-framed glasses (sometimes with flip-up shades), and is always crashing into things?
Kids know: It’s Batly, one of the happy-go-zany characters that inhabit Eureeka’s Castle, Nickelodeon’s popular and much-praised puppet show for preschoolers now in its second season.
On Eureeka’s Castle, the brash Batly — a bat, naturally — has lots of memorable company. Eureeka is a pig-tailed moptop, human variety, who’s a wizardess in training and already has sprouted cute little croissant-like wizard horns. Then there’s Magellan, a bumbling baby dragon with an unruly, ever-thrashing tail; Quagmire and Bogge, the squabbling Moat Twins; Mr. Knack, the castle’s handyman; and Crawdaddy-o, a wise-cracking fish.
Eureeka’s Castle is a flat-out favorite of kids, but grown-ups also approve. Last spring the show won an ACE award, cable’s Emmy equivalent. In response to all this applause, Nickelodeon programmers have increased Eureeka’s airtime from five days a week to seven.
The creators of Eureeka’s Castle say there’s one good reason for the show’s success: the yuk factor. ”We studied up and we think we know the three things that make little kids laugh,” says executive producer Kit Laybourne, 46. The supposedly surefire big three:
Laugh Secret No. 1: Wordplay.
Batly crashes into Eureeka’s kitchen. Eureeka’s horns twitch a few times and she says, ”Hey, why don’t you knock before you drop in.” Batly’s comeback: ”I did knock. I knocked my head.”
Or, Batly talking to his pet insects: ”Knock, knock.”
Insects: ”Who’s there?”
Insects: ”Don who?” — Batly: ”Don go away, ’cause here’s something that’ll really make your day.”
Says Laybourne, ”Preschoolers love jokes, including stupid jokes, much more than adults.”
Secret No. 2: Sight gags and physical shtick.
Whenever Magellan sneezes, the entire castle shakes. And Batly’s entrances are always head-bangers and laugh-producers. ”Big, big yuk getters,” Laybourne says. ”Can’t have enough.”
Of course, that sort of funny business ties the show firmly to a long-established tradition. ”I grew up watching the Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, and Laurel and Hardy, and they’re not on the air now, and I think kids are really missing out,” says chief puppeteer Jim Kroupa, 32, whose New York City-based company, 3/Design Studio, designed and built the show’s puppets.
Secret No. 3.: Running jokes.
Every time Eureeka casts a spell, it goes awry. Whenever Batly loses his glasses, Eureeka tries to divine them out of thin air — and comes up with grass, two basses, and a pair of Lassies, but no glasses. ”Little kids love this kind of stuff,” Laybourne says, ”because they can see what’s coming up and they’re in on the joke and they delight in seeing how it gets played out.”
Eureeka’s Castle also features live-action movies, claymation films, and musical interludes by such performers as Tom Chapin. Also impressive are the cartoons produced by Weston Woods Studios. These animated versions of classic kids’ stories include William Steig’s The Amazing Bone, about a pig with a talking bone, and Harold and the Purple Crayon, Crockett Johnson’s 1955 story about a little boy who, crayon in hand, draws his own adventures as he goes through them. Each Eureeka’s Castle episode is divided into four segments featuring the puppet characters, with the other elements in between.
Puppets remain the prime attraction, and all the show’s principal puppeteers spent time working for the master himself, the late Jim Henson. But where Henson’s work on Sesame Street often was concerned with teaching kids about numbers and the alphabet, the Eureeka’s people have a different mission — addressing the millions of kids who spend much of their livvs in day-care. The show specializes in how-to-get-along issues: how to deal with bullies and teasing, how to handle boredom, how to answer the phone. ”Each of the scripts has that fig leaf of redeeming value,” says Laybourne, who works closely on the show with creative director Eli Noyes.
Needless to say, even those lessons provide kids with their minimum daily requirement of side-splitters. ”We are aware of our target audience and their special needs and how they need help coping with the problems of their lives,” Laybourne says. ”But just as much of it is about equipping them with a sense of humor. We’re making a generation of Americans that will laugh harder.
”And,” the keeper of laugh secrets adds, ”I think they’re going to need to. It’s looking pretty weird out there.”