It may have taken God just six days to create the world, but it's been almost two months, and the folks creating JellyTelly, which wants to be God's Chosen YouTube Channel, still got a lot of work to do. It's enough to make me question my faith in the inerrancy of screen entertainment.
Wait, what? JellyTelly is the latest project from Phil Vischer, the guy who co-created Veggie Tales, the ambiguously denominational Christian anthropomorphic vegetable ministry [which, after its bankruptcy in 2003, was bought and sold three times, and is now owned by the same mammon-obsessed, private equity-backed children's entertainment property roll-up that also controls the decidedly non-canonical Casper the Friendly Ghost.]
The concept, according to Vischer's video intro, is to "do something about" the overwhelming influence of media on Our Christian Youth. "They've got Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel streaming 24 hours a day into their bedrooms!" he proclaims. "Our kids are consuming more media than ever before. On average last year, more than five hours a day, including more than three hours a day of just television." Uh, hallelujah?
A church will "get an hour with a kid on Sunday morning," he goes on, but by the time it sees that child again, he "will have watched, on average, 22 hours that week of Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel. Is it any wonder that our kids are growing up knowing more about Hannah Montana than the apostle Paul?"
Wow, yes, we must do something! But what? I am apparently wrong to think it's turn off the TV and read Bible stories with your kid. Or, if religion is really a priority for you, giving it more than an hour of outsourced attention once a week. No, the JellyTelly answer is more media. The catch is, this media has a vague Christian takeaway embedded in it somewhere!
It's not an unfamiliar formula. Though he never mentions it, Vischer's most obvious inspiration for the short-form, muppety puppet-based content of Jelly Telly is Sesame Street, which explicitly sought to harness the persuasive entertainment power of TV advertising to educate kids. Veggie Tales itself was meant to be good-for-you entertainment that slipped a Christian message in along the way. [There was a small churchy uproar in 2006 when the new owners licensed a de-Godified Veggie Tales to NBC. Personally, I find Veggie Tales to be mean and cynical, and they made my kid cry.]
Jelly Telly streams a daily mix of original and licensed programming. There's no search, no links, and no program information; and the only way to navigate programming is by date. It's like media manna; you're just supposed to consume whatever the Lord in His Jelly Telly Heaven portions out to you each day. Give a kid a video fish, and he'll watch for a day; and then he'll have to come back to you the next day for more. Now that's a business plan!
Ironically, though Vischer's stated goal is to show kids a Christian life in action, the actual religious content of most JellyTelly programming is remarkably thin, rarely going any deeper than "God made the world!" and "God made you and loves you just the way you are!" There is a series of Books-of-the-Bible-based video shorts called Jelly Bits, which are available to license for church use, but even those are remarkably unrelated to actual God, Jesus, or religion.
Unless, of course, your religion consists of memorizing the names of all the judges in Judges and of all the kings of Israel in 2nd Chronicles. [In my random surfing through JellyBits, I was surprised by the number of times characters said, "There's no mention of X in the Bible." "Well it doesn't say there weren't X." Now I'm no textual literalist, but if you are, isn't that a pretty wide, interpretive door to be opening there?]
Instead of religion, doctrine, or spiritual anything, JellyTelly seems unusually preoccupied with its own golden calf: media itself. It's the most meta, media-self-referential children's programing since The Muppet Show. Two clips at random from last Thursday show what : in God's Amazing Animals: Hippos, the puppet announcer actually points out what's obvious to any kid wanting to see some of God's hippos: they only repeat a 2-second clip that barely shows the hippo's eyes and ears. MSI: The Clown-faced Carpenter takes footage of a woodpecker from the Moody Bible Institute's classic Christian nature film series about a woodpecker and wraps it in new narration by a Jelly Telly muppet scientist who talks endlessly with an off-camera guy in the control room.
Then there's Michael's 10 Best Films Of All Time a multi-part gag shot in the back of a minivan. Michael is a puppet film reviewer whose 3-yo brother Pierre, we're told repeatedly, runs the character generator. The ongoing joke is that Michael gets the plots of all his favorite Disney films [Nos 5 through 2 on the list] confused with No. 1, Star Wars. There are asides about Elton John's royalties and hairpiece, and a headscratching parenthetical about a visit to the proctologist. But there's not a single religious anything at all, not even a shoutout to God for creating Pixar, Jar Jar Binks, and hair transplants. ["God loves you just the way you are, Elton! Bald and married to a man!"]
The proctologist probe thing was not a fluke. Butts, as Jelly Telly's greatest stars bear fervent witness, are some of God's most special creations. The Bentley Brothers are two Christian hipster dorks who sing like Chris Isaak doing a Steve Lawrence impression, worship the holy fashion trinity of Elvis, Lawrence Welk, and Johnny Cash, and flagrantly violate the 8th Commandment by straightup stealing Bob Dylan's flash card schtick from D.A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back. It's pretty awesome stuff.
The Bentley Brothers are the evangelical alter egos of web celebrities [sic] Rhett and Link, Rhett McLaughlin and Link Neal, who you may know from such sublimated homoerotic redneck YouTube videos as The Cornhole Song.
If there's a message of hope to be found in JellyTelly, it may be in the single video on that Thursday lineup titled "Forgiveness." Out of the mouths of babes. Three kids just talk about why it's important to forgive. Whatever the theological mysteries or missteps, it's interesting to hear kids talk about how to treat others and why. The last kid goes on and on about how, if we don't forgive people when they hurt us, we'll end up alone with no friends, "only imaginary friends."
I'll be praying for JellyTelly to remove this cupful of self-absorbed muppet nonsense from us, and instead just suffer the little children to come unto the camera and talk.