‘Jam Van’ Dares to Ask: What if Family Road Trips Were Actually Fun? – The New York Times

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A new travel series featuring a diverse array of beloved musical artists uses original tunes to help children navigate the world.
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Few family expeditions are more fraught than long-distance road trips. What parent hasn’t longed to take the kids on a highway journey that is free of bored whines, back-seat battles and the terrifying possibility of having to put “Baby Shark” on endless repeat?
Now a new series aims to fulfill that dream: “Jam Van,” on the YouTube Originals for Kids & Family channel and the YouTube Kids app, stakes out novel territory as a tune-filled travel show for children. In each of the season’s eight episodes — the first two will be released at noon Eastern time on Thursday, and a new one each Thursday thereafter — young viewers become the touring companions of Lamb, a detail-obsessed sheep, and Anne, a free-spirited alligator. Together, they explore a distinctive American city (and, in one case, a wide swath of a state) in their sky blue S.U.V.
“I felt like this was the best way to sort of make something funny and interesting, both visually and sonically,” said Bill Sherman, one of the series’s creators and a Tony Award-winning music orchestrator and composer whose credits range from “Hamilton” (he won a Grammy as a producer of the original Broadway cast recording) to “Sesame Street” (he is that show’s Emmy-winning music director).
Anne and Lamb’s 10- to-12-minute adventures in locations like Seattle, Nashville, Los Angeles and New Orleans involve landmarks, culture, food and, most important, music. On these road trips, however, moms and dads need not cover their ears: Musical artists including Lin-Manuel Miranda, Brandi Carlile, Sheryl Crow, Fitz and the Tantrums and Trombone Shorty portray themselves in live action, serenading the cartoon heroes with an original song created for each destination.
In some episodes, like the one set in Virginia, featuring the band Old Crow Medicine Show, the artists have written the central tune’s music or lyrics (or both) themselves; in others, they perform the work of an eminent composer like Butch Walker, who wrote the song for Sheryl Crow, or Sherman himself.
The result, Sherman said, is “music that you don’t often hear in kids’ shows,” including hip-hop, ’70s funk, bluegrass and country indie tunes.
In a joint video interview, Sherman and Brian Hunt, the series’s other creator, explained how they made their show look different, too. Working with the Vancouver animation studio Global Mechanic, they invented a freewheeling collage of styles. Anne, Lamb and the animals’ Grumpy GPS — the series’s own Oscar the Grouch — are computer-animated, while the Big Book of Travel, a talking tome, is stop-motion. In addition to the live-action footage of music stars, the production team included pop-up cameos of children, who offer intriguing details about the destinations.
To create the regional backdrops, Hunt said, “we took thousands of photographs in the actual cities” that were treated to give them a “heightened look.” The images include vivid views of the Hollywood sign, the Guggenheim Museum and the Liberty Bell.
But the two men, who are fathers and close friends, intend “Jam Van” to be more than sightseeing — a resolve that was heightened by their early brainstorms at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. “No one could travel anywhere,” recalled Hunt, the president of Believe Entertainment Group, a producer of “Jam Van.” “And everybody was mad at each other.”
The best buddies Anne and Lamb get mad at each other sometimes, too. (Grumpy GPS, voiced by the comedian Marc Maron, is almost always mad.) The series’s creators hope that through these characters’ interactions, children 4 and older can learn life skills and how to get along, both on and off the road.
Anne is “really the one driving the ideas and the adventures,” said the comedian Nicole Byer, who voices the character. Lamb, voiced by the comic Pete Lee, “sometimes is like, ‘I don’t like that, that’s not a good idea,’” Byer added. Ultimately, she said, their friendship “is push-and-pull.”
In each episode, the two travel companions face a problem, interpersonal or otherwise, that the segment’s song addresses. During the pilot, set in New York City, Anne grows frustrated when she can’t find her Uncle Salligator (who, naturally, turns out to live in the sewer). She and Lamb bump into Miranda, who sings and raps an encouraging strategy.
“Building up a frustration tolerance in children so they can see their goals through to the end is such an important thing to do (as a parent, anyway),” Miranda wrote in an email.
The Nashville episode also counsels persistence. Here, a mischievous armadillo keeps running away with the steel for Lamb’s steel guitar, and Crow’s vocal performance urges Lamb not to give up.
“The power of song is that it sticks in your head,” said Daveed Diggs, who stars in an episode devoted to his hometown, Oakland, Calif. That segment’s vocal number, written by the rapper Phonte Coleman, with an additional verse by Diggs, focuses on the importance of following directions, using a catchy refrain.
In choosing the artists who would perform the songs, “it wasn’t just about who was the biggest name,” Sherman said. “It was who worked well enough for our show, who could really fit in and make it work, because it wasn’t just about singing.”
For the Seattle episode, the series’s second, the men sought out Carlile, not only because she’s from the area but also because of the plot they envisioned: Lamb and Anne, who is suffering an uncharacteristic bout of homesickness, meet an octopus whose “family” is a variety of species. Anne, realizing that friends can be as supportive as her own relatives, shakes off her melancholy.
“I was just really inspired by the subject matter,” said Carlile, because, she added, “I’m part of a nontraditional family.” (She and her wife, Catherine Shepherd, have two daughters.) The song “One Sacred Thing,” a ballad about love that Carlile wrote and performs in the episode, emphasizes “that family comes in all different shapes and sizes,” she said.
As they put the episodes together, Sherman and Hunt also discovered an unexpected synergy. Frequently, Hunt said, the main characters’ “social-emotional challenge actually served as a great vehicle to help us explore the cities.”
The conflict, for instance, that arises in Philadelphia, where Lamb is determined to stick to a schedule and Anne is desperate to eat, allowed the show’s creators to highlight that city’s quintessential dish (the cheese steak). The Philadelphia R&B vocal group Boyz II Men also introduced several Philly references to “The City of Brotherly Love,” the episode’s song about compromise.
“We added Ishkabibble’s, which is a Philadelphia cheese steak spot in down south Philly,” said Wanyá Morris, a member of Boyz II Men. They also worked a signature local greeting into the start of the song, a hoot that sounds roughly like “Heer-yoh.”
In addition to revising the musical number, the group’s members worked on being “relatable,” Morris said.
They wanted to act as if they were talking to their own children, he added, “so that the kids cannot look at us like, ‘Who are these old dudes singing to these cartoon characters?’”
Including long-established artists, however, was part of a strategy to make “Jam Van” multigenerational viewing. The show also offers historical humor: At one point, Grumpy GPS even evokes the computer Hal in the film “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Craig Hunter, global head of kids and family for YouTube Originals, who acquired the series, praised it for offering insights into “various things that the everyday kid wasn’t necessarily aware of.” Although it is far too early to know if the show will have a second season, he acknowledged that the concept “has legs.”
As for the creators of “Jam Van,” they’re already dreaming of places, artists and musical genres that haven’t yet been tapped.
“K-pop?” Sherman said. “We’re ready to go.”
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