At Macquarie University in the early ’90s, three Australian early childhood education majors, Murray Cook, Greg Page, and Anthony Field, decided they had an urge to dress up in brightly colored red, yellow, and blue (respectively) costumes that look like the uniforms on the original “Star Trek” series. It wasn’t long before they convinced Anthony Field’s bandmate in The Cockroaches, Jeff Fatt, to don a purple shirt and start entertaining at birthday parties while they danced and sang about fruit salad and wallabies.
If you’re a parent of a small child, you probably know this Aussie quartet as The Wiggles, who are the Beatles, Monkees, or ‘N Sync of the kid set. They are the highest paid entertainers in Australia, ahead of Russell Crowe, Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman.
You know right off when you watch their DVDs and videos (which you will, at least 200 times each) and their TV show four times a day on Playhouse Disney that these guys are definitely not an American creation. Mister Rogers, Mister Dressup and Bozo the Clown are gone, and no modern adult American males would dress in funny costumes and entertain kids with songs about “Fruit salad, yummy yummy!”
Their loss. The Wiggles, who earn $14 million per year, are the latest kids’ sensation, and what they can teach us about success and finding your life’s passion will inspire corporate America to play the guitar and dance with the Wiggles’ friends, Wags the Dog, Henry the Octopus, Dorothy the Friendly Dinosaur, and Captain Feathersword the Friendly Pirate, who acts with cheerful swashbuckling bravado that would make Johnny Depp want to slit his own pirate throat.
1. Do what’s good for your audience without lecturing.
The Wiggles don’t resort to After School Special messages. You want to know about the value of a healthy diet? Have some fruit salad! Exercise? Let’s get up and “Romp Bomp a Stomp,” or dance and play, with Dorothy! Let’s do the pirate dance with Captain Feathersword and run after the Wiggles in their big red car. The songs do what songs, dance and theater were designed to do originally: pass on knowledge. They do this in a fun, clever, colorful, eye-catching way. The three Wiggles (Murray, Jeff and Greg) that have ECE degrees, and children of their own, know kids can understand what’s beneficial for them without being spoon-fed. And Jeff…well, sleepy Jeff shows everyone the value of a good nap.
2. Find a way to include everybody and you’ll reap the rewards.
Jeff, who doesn’t hold an ECE degree, was shy about getting involved with kids, according to a Knight-Ridder article, “If you have small kids, get ready to Wiggle” by Rod Harmon. Greg, Anthony and Murray devised Jeff’s constant sleeping and the running gag of asking the kids who participate in the videos and TV show to shout “Wake up, Jeff!” This has become so popular that there is actually a Wiggles video, “Wake Up, Jeff!” From the first Wiggles video to the current videos, you can see Jeff become more and more involved with the children, singing, dancing and playing, although he is quieter than the other three. Kids are always attracted to someone who’s slightly different, and Jeff stands out even when dancing with a big green dinosaur reciting poetry and a purple dancing octopus. The other three Wiggles seem to encourage his uniqueness. From all the videos, CDs, and Jeff dolls they’re selling, the approach works! When Wiggles doubles tour America, Jeff will be mobbed by kids too young to go nuts over Justin Timberlake.
3) Keep it live and stay in contact.
The Wiggles could get away with doing DVDs, TV shows and albums for their adoring fans the rest of their lives. But all of them are used to interacting. Murray, Greg and Anthony expected to be teachers. Jeff and Anthony played to crowds as members of the Cockroaches. They include real-life children, including members of their own families (as you see in the credits of their videos and DVDs), in their videos and talk to them. In one scene of “Hoop Dee Doo! It’s a Wiggly Party,” several children make emu skirts while one of the Wiggles talks to them. Undoubtedly, the Wiggles’ live shows are no different, including the versions in Asia that will feature local native speakers as Wiggles clones (“The Wide World of Wiggles,” Feb. 6, Newsweek Web exclusive). Even Dorothy has her own dance party on tour. Whether you send a giant green dinosaur with a floppy white hat or show up yourself, don’t underestimate the value of making contact and getting involved. It’s fun to run and jump around with kids, too (no wonder Anthony, who’s always eating, stays thin!)
4) Don’t follow the crowd or the market.
Most American non-Disney non-Nick Jr non-PBS kids’ shows seem designed as 22-minute commercials for action figures or dolls, as well as ways to keep kids passively entertained. The traditional wisdom has been: Kids will be bored if there’s no slam-bang action and there will be no way to make money out of doing something that’s good for them. The Wiggles have proved this false. Kids dance and sing along with Jeff, Murray, Greg, Anthony, and friends, rather than sitting eating the sugary food du jour and mindlessly watching some freaky green monster get zapped only to reappear in the next episode. With an epidemic of diabetes mellitus and obesity in American kids, the Wiggles’ approach is not only positive, but continues to breed success for the multicolored four.
The Wiggles themselves doubted there would be an audience for helping children learn through music and dance. A booking agent told them there would be no money in it, but they stuck to their guns, and became wildly popular in Australia. The United States was next and the Wiggles now are a solid hit on Playhouse Disney, with sold-out tours—they have even had to add second and third shows in many cities.
5) Getting international or multicultural isn’t that hard.
The Wiggles don’t need a multicultural sensitivity training class. After all, when your friends are a singing dog, a rose-eating dinosaur and an octopus with an underwater band, you don’t have a problem with diversity. They regularly include Australian, Irish, Spanish, and other songs in their act. The franchise is expanding to Asia. If you think that this TV show doesn’t sound like a likely hit in Japan, you’ve never seen “Pokemon” or anime, or the old classic “Ultraman.”
6) Stay true to your roots.
There’s no doubt that Murray, Jeff, Greg and Anthony are Australian (again, four American guys would not do what they do), although Dorothy sounds a bit more British. Songs such as “Willaby Wallaby Woo” speak to their down-under heritage, and you don’t see them suddenly moving into a mansion in Malibu, pretending they’re wealthy Hollywood Yanks with no family or kids.
7) Your family life only enhances your work and your passion.
Three of the Wiggles are married, Jeff apparently being too sleepy to settle down, although before Anthony married he was voted Australia’s most eligible bachelor. These mates have built their career around children, and as noted in point 3, regularly include their own families in their videos. The family that eats fruit salad and romp-bomp-a-stomps together, stays together. If you give joy to millions of kids, it can’t help having a lasting positive effect on your family.
Does all this inspire you to Wiggle, to get up and dance? You probably will if you have kids. But let it inspire you to follow your passion in your work, your family, and your life. Learn from those four career consultants, Greg, Murray, Jeff, and Anthony. And hey, eat some fruit salad. You need your health, mate.