Every kids’ TV show has a perky host, adorable characters, colorful scenic design, earworm-worthy songs, and important educational lessons that young viewers can apply to their everyday lives. The new series JANNY JELLY has all of those elements in its 7 episode first season (now streaming on YouTube, see additional links below). However, if you even watch just one episode, remember: this show is definitely not for the little tykes.
Created, written by and starring Allie Jennings as its unbelievably sunny title character, this deceptively innocent-looking satire/parody of children’s TV programming upends all the usual tropes you’ve associated with shows like SESAME STREET, MR. ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD and BLUE’S CLUES. Each episode also takes aim at the often condescending approaches that many kids’ shows take towards its own viewers – the children who watch such programming.
Mixed with the wackiness of 80’s favorite PEE WEE’S PLAYHOUSE, JANNY JELLY wickedly confronts topics that today’s growing little brains can’t possibly grasp. Janny, her mother (a.k.a. Mrs. Janny’s Mom, played by series co-producer Tommy Fleming) and her cute little friends playfully learn about such fun issues as food packaging, negative body image, corruption in politics, environmental destruction, and even death!
With all that established, the story of how JANNY JELLY danced and sung her merry way onto our screens is an educational experience in and of itself.
It begins with Jennings, who gradually tired of the auditioning grind and decided to create the kind of project she always dreamed of doing; one that merged Jennings’ love of perverse adult comedies like WONDER SHOWZEN with her goal of playing a role she could enjoy.
“I came up with the idea after I’d gone out for a lot of auditions for roles that I didn’t feel like I was right for. I kept going out for these weird horror movies where I played this demon girl. I was like, I wish I could be in something I was really excited about, like a project that was goofy and fun but had a message, too. I was like, ‘oh, I’ll just write one!’”
What Jennings wrote turned out to be an edgy subversion of a genre that can often be annoyingly gentle. “I thought that a twisted kids’ show would be the perfect vehicle to show off my comedic sensibility,” she replies. “I’ve always really liked musicals, even though I can’t sing. I thought that a kids’ show would be a good vehicle to get in some really fun, original songs, while getting my point of view across on a lot of different issues.”
Jennings’ personal experiences with some of the subjects featured in JANNY JELLY are also compounded by the ways that adolescents grew up learning about things that were supposed to be easy to understand. As she and other kids would end up discovering during their adulthood, the lessons they learned in the classroom were more complicated than they thought.
“For the issues of politics and the environment, all of them are topics that I think about on a regular basis as topics that should be simple. The idea of eating food should be a simple thing, and as kids, we’re taught that it’s a simple thing,” says Jennings. “Later on in adult life, I had experiences with weird body image issues, plus learning about food production and how the meat packing industry is kind of corrupt. They treat animals really poorly. This simple thing that I was taught as a child, you learn that it’s a lot darker as an adult.”
While using JANNY JELLY as a means of coping with life’s problems, Jennings also hopes to demystify them in a darkly humorous way in the series. “(I want to) reveal the flaws in trying to teach very simple things that are more complex,” she adds. “All of the episodes come from things that I’ve had personal issues with as an adult; things that I feel many people have issues with as adults.”
If JANNY JELLY was a normal kids’ show, its viewers would learn things that we all know to be common sense. Since it’s neither normal nor an actual bonafide children’s TV series, JANNY JELLY turns the otherwise respectable mission of educational television on its head while comically perverting everything we were ever taught in the classroom.
“Whatever the lesson is that I think you should take away from it (the show), I would flip it, and have Janny believe the exact opposite thing at the end of the episode,” Jennings says. “The other characters that came along to try to teach her the right way would typically have the good intentions in mind to teach her these things, but somehow just through misunderstanding and her own selfishness, she would twist the right lesson into the exact opposite. That’s how I structure the satire of it.”
The adult hosts of children’s TV programs typically exercise a level of intellectual superiority over their young audiences, as if the kids they’re trying to reach aren’t as smart as the grown-ups project themselves to be on the screen. Of course, kids are just as intelligent as adults. Aware of that truth, Jennings’ title character illustrates how learning and curiosity go hand in hand.
“One of the fun things about Janny is that she represents the way people learn things in the real world,” says JANNY JELLY director/co-producer Ryan Wagner. “If you don’t stop to question what people are teaching you, then you might be learning from an absolute idiot. The parody of it is sort of a fun way to represent the way we learn in general.”
“Instead of the kids’ show host being the smarter one talking down to the children, some of the children’s comments are quite intellectual and aware,” adds Jennings. “It seems that the children watching the show are smarter than her, and more aware of what’s going on in the world than Janny herself.”
JANNY JELLY conjures up obvious memories of the fondly remembered BLUE’S CLUES, but Jennings says that that ‘90s Nickelodeon classic was just one of many influences on her series’ overall style.
“It (the structure of JANNY JELLY) was probably a mix of BLUE’S CLUES and SESAME STREET and PEE WEE’S PLAYHOUSE, but (with) different tropes from different shows,” explains Jennings. “PEE WEE’S PLAYHOUSE has a word of the day, and so we took that from there.”
One of the most common edutainment tropes – the invisible kids’ audience – is hilariously parodied in JANNY JELLY. “BLUE’S CLUES has this wonderful trope of Steve talking to a children’s audience that you can’t see, but you can hear their responses,” Jennings replies. “That was a really fun joke to play with – not only (using) the kind of inappropriate questions that Janny would ask the children, but also (using) the surprising responses of the children watching, realizing that this show is kind of messed up, as well.”
JANNY JELLY’s producers didn’t need to conduct endless casting calls to find that inquisitive off-camera chorus. “The little kids’ voices you hear in the show are both my younger cousins,” Fleming says. “We just made them say all that weird stuff, but my aunt and uncle were very cool with that. They’re very talented. They’re great. They’re good actors.”
Jennings, Fleming and Wagner also didn’t have to search far and wide for JANNY JELLY’s supporting cast. “When casting, we just cast our already really funny and talented friends. I had people in mind when I was writing characters,” Jennings says. “For Janny’s mom, I knew I wanted Tommy to play that character. When writing it, I could hear Tommy’s voice in my mind, and it would help me come up with jokes.”
Those talented players would also be joined by JANNY JELLY’s extensive corps of behind the scenes craftspeople. Having seen how incredibly well the show’s cast and crew rose to the challenge of making a low-budget comedy, Wagner continues to be astonished by their accomplishments.
“None of us have extensive careers yet. We’ve done some very cool work, but it’s cool to see a collection of a cast of 25 kids in their ‘20s, all into comedy, all trying to make stuff that makes people happy,” he reports. “As a director, I’ve never seen this many funny people in one space. There was an insane energy on set.”
Though it’s clearly not intended for kids, JANNY JELLY would definitely be appropriate viewing for fans of Cartoon Network’s late night Adult Swim and other adult-oriented comedies. While grown-ups can watch it and be reminded of their childhood in a bizarre way, millennials and newshounds also comprise significant portions of the show’s growing fan base.
“What’s cool about the show is that it appeals to people that used to watch the television, which are probably more people our age and a little older,” says Wagner. “Then, the satire in it is applicable to any demographic if you’re aware of what’s going on with gender issues, body issues and political issues. Anyone that’s ready for some commentary would definitely enjoy it.”
In case you still haven’t gotten the message, here’s one more reminder: JANNY JELLY is not for kids. “Anyone can enjoy JANNY JELLY except for children, because children should not watch this show! It can be a little inappropriate at times for children, ironically,” Jennings remarks. It is, however, appropriate for people like her parents. “I also say that my mom and dad are big fans. They’re in that age group. They’re big fans, not only because I’m in it!”
At this drama-filled point in world history, comedy has helped viewers understand politics and social changes in ways that no newscast could hope to do. Though JANNY JELLY analyzes important topics through the prism of a faux children’s TV series, it’s remarkably unique due to its fearless approach to humor.
“It’s structured more like an episode of BLUE’S CLUES than it would be an episode of SESAME STREET,” says Fleming. “In terms of the comedic styling, it sets itself apart by being bold, young and courageous. Something that is a problem in some comedy circles now is that we’re too self-aware and we’re too careful and painstaking about our comedy, instead of just throwing things at the wall to see what sticks.”
Just as significant to its success is the show’s cheery namesake. “One of the most important things that sets it (JANNY JELLY) apart is that it’s a female protagonist in a starring role where it’s not constantly relevant that she’s female,” responds Wagner. “The humor isn’t in any way because she’s a woman. It’s just a funny lead actress who wrote it, and who’s great. It’s not much more complicated than that.”
Though Jennings, Fleming and Wagner frequently cite WONDER SHOWZEN’s influence on JANNY JELLY, the latter’s continuity and depth gives it a sitcom-like feel. “What makes JANNY JELLY different from WONDER SHOWZEN is just that there’s a key cast to it,” Jennings explains. “A lot of JANNY JELLY is also about the relationships Janny has with these other characters. In each episode, Janny goes through a character arc. She starts in one place and ends in another. It’s more character-based than sketch comedy-based.”
Developed by production designer Monique Thomas, JANNY JELLY’s relatively simple virtual set was modeled to match the look of shows like BLUE’S CLUES and the Canadian series THE BIG COMFY COUCH. Complimented by Marly Hall’s charmingly economical costumes, plus bright visuals from Thomas and other gifted graphic designers, JANNY JELLY can easily be confused for an actual live action kids’ TV show.
“So much of what sells this show as a kids’ show is the costumes,” Wagner says. “The thing that I always said to them (Hall, Thomas and production manager Laura Rutledge) is that everything should look as good as it can while still looking homemade. Homemade was the big feel of everything. They could have done much more beautiful stuff, but I kept them down in that homemade area. We had an incredible team of people who all worked really, really hard to make the show as bad as it does!”
During production of the “Death” episode, an unusually undersized prop would end up being a surprisingly beneficial addition to the plot. “Janny’s interrogating her little fish, and she uses this little purple desk lamp to twist on her (like during an interrogation),” Wagner explains. “We ordered a full size purple lamp just for the room, and when it was delivered, it was this tiny little 4 inch lamp. Some fun little mistakes like that ended up on camera, which turned into an incredible little joke that we had.”
Like Jennings and Wagner, Fleming marvels at the impressive quality of JANNY JELLY’s low budget wardrobe design. “I am always floored watching the episodes by how amazing the costumes looked,” he says. “It is a kids’ show aesthetic, and it is supposed to be a little DIY. We just got someone who is really talented to get in there with limited resources, and to do what a low budget kids’ show would probably do.”
Even JANNY JELLY’s music and songs are produced to equal the makeshift style of its visual elements. After challenging his production and costume designers to produce work that’s not as elaborate as they’re capable of making, he pushed series composer Charlie O’Connor to create a score that’s neither richly orchestrated nor lyrically complex.
“What I would have to say to him was that the instrumentation, melody and everything all has to be limited to this kids’ show genre. That was a pretty big challenge during the process. He was too good for the show,” Wagner recalls. “Originally, he had his own playing of live trumpet. He had live flute in there. He had some really cool stuff and we all had to dial it back so that everything ended up being synthesized. Everything is him. Everything was on his keyboard and guitar.”
Produced in a diverse range of musical styles, O’Connor’s songs hilariously correspond to the subject matter and guest characters in each episode.
“In ‘Technology’, Janny and Petey Peanutbutter (Michael Sturgis)’s song is a love ballad,” says Jennings. “That kind of song really worked for the episode, because in it, she learns ‘why compromise for love when you can just have comforting technology instead?’”
When it comes to songs about serious topics, O’Connor even subverts the expectations of viewers and listeners. “With ‘Death’, that song was really fun to write because we took a character like Death, who should really be this creepy, spooky kind of character, and instead, we did a reverse and have him kind of like be a wannabe Broadway star,” remembers Jennings. “He has this campy, musical theater-y kind of vibe to his song.”
Janny Jelly herself is definitely not the best teacher of life’s lessons, nor is the show that bears her name a respectable example of quality educational television. That said, it is one of the best examples of how comedy can lead people to better understand a world that gets crazier by the second. With JANNY JELLY, the laughs that come courtesy of its outrageous spoof of children’s TV shows aren’t the only thing that its viewers will come away with as the credits conclude.
Like Jennings, Wagner and Fleming also look back proudly on their involvement with JANNY JELLY. “I hope that it matters to people as much as it matters to us, because we love it. We’ve been with it for two years now. We’ve been waiting just to show it to people,” adds Wagner. All involved look forward to giving their fans more antics from Janny and friends. “I, of course, have hopes for the legacy (of the show) and continuing it. Of course, I hope that we get to keep doing this. If people care about it as much as we care about it, then that would be enough.”
“If I do anything in life, it’s creating space for creative people to reach their full potential,” replies Fleming. “JANNY JELLY is such an ambitious, free and exciting show. I’m just in awe of the talent level that’s on display in Janny. All that I would hope is that we get the chance to do it again.”
Describing the lessons she and her cast hope to impart to JANNY JELLY’s audience, Jennings hopes that they’ll learn how compassion and wonder can outshine arrogance and ignorance.
“(I want people to) learn from her (Janny), but not the lesson she’s teaching, (and) to not take her example. That’s what I hope people take away from it,” she says. “We have to be very careful. We should take a lot of time in educating our children about things that are simple, (and to) explain the complexities of things. In the end, that will be rewarding.”
(NOTE: All episodes of JANNY JELLY are closed-captioned for the deaf and hard of hearing.)