“Sequestered Storytime with Jef Czekaj”—Somerville children’s book author and artist Jef Czekaj’s DIY television show for kids—represents one of the more delightful ways folks are navigating the daunting seriousness of coronavirus.
In the show, which debuted in April on social media and Somerville Community Access Television, Czekaj reads his published picture books (“Hip & Hop Don’t Stop!,” “Cat Secrets,” “Dog Rules,” “Austin Lost in America”) as well as unpublished manuscripts (“I have lots of unpublished manuscripts I can go through”), and “old weird books.” Puppets perform magic (“I’ve been spending a lot of time watching internet magicians. … A lot of it is weird math tricks.”). Czekaj shows how to draw robots or Garfield or a giraffe. There are jokes and animated gifs of rainbow psychedelic cats.
The variety show format capitalizes on Czekaj’s range of skills—artist, musician, author, DJ, um, magician. “It’s the moment I’ve been waiting for,” Czekaj deadpans. “It’s all my useless skills combined into one new useless thing.”
The Long Island, New York, native landed in Somerville in 1998 after studies at the State University of New York at Binghamton (now Binghamton University) and a stint in Ithaca, New York. He came up through bands and indie comics (like his comic series titled “R2-D2 Is an Indie Rocker”), which led to his comic “Grandpa and Julie: Shark Hunters,” which was published regularly in Nickelodeon Magazine, part of the Nickelodeon children’s television empire, for more than a decade. “Klasky Csupo—the “Rugrats” and the original “Simpsons” folks—even produced an animated pilot for a television show based on the comics, with Dustin Hoffman—yes, the Dustin Hoffman—as the voice of Grandpa. But the show never went into regular production.
(Disclosure: I became friends with Czekaj through comics in the 1990s. And my sweetheart Kari Percival guest-starred in the July 6 “Sequestered Storytime” episode.)
As coronavirus arrived, Czekaj had finished the artwork for his next picture book with publisher Balzer and Bray (a division of HarperCollins Publishers), titled “Little Ghoul Goes to School.” “It’s about a girl-monster who is nervous about her first day of school. She’s worried everything’s nice and she wants everything to be scary and gross.” So, Czekaj says, “I was looking for something to do creatively.”
“I need down time to come up with books and ideas,” Czekaj says. “Or better yet, I’m a big fan of being in coffee shops or libraries. And all that disappeared.”
So naturally he began imagining scenarios for the 1980s sitcom “Cheers,” but set during coronavirus. He posted them to facebook. “Then I lost interest and things got way more serious with the coronavirus, so it stopped being funny.” He mulled drawing a comic that he summarizes as “Garfield meets Dilbert,” but without the terrible philosophy of “Dilbert.”
Instead he ventured into video. “When the pandemic started, [Massachusetts children’s book creator] Mo Willems was doing some basic drawing videos,” Czekaj recalls. Czekaj’s 6-year-old son “Ollie was interested and then quickly wanted to make his own videos. … We just started doing that and I had never done videos like that before.”
The first episode of “Drawing With Ollie & Jef,” which debuted March 29, was videoed by Ollie’s mom and Czekaj’s partner, Jacy Edelman. But then she was busy at work. So Czekaj began a journey to learn video editing and how to run a live-streamed show with multiple cameras. Czekaj adds, “It gave some structure for our week.”
There are now 20 episodes, ranging from about 5- to 10-minutes long each, in which they draw cats and dogs and monsters, vehicles and farm animals, unicorns, Snoopy and Kermit. It seems likely that Ollie has retired at this point (“We started when he was 5, now he’s 6. I think he hung in there more than most 6-year-olds”), and Czekaj says he may make the videos private (“Having your kid all over the internet brings up security issues”).
Folks at the Somerville Library saw some of “Drawing With Ollie & Jef” and asked Czekaj to make videos for their facebook. The result, “Sequestered Storytime with Jef Czekaj,” debuted April 23.
“From the beginning I wanted it to be like an episode of ‘Pee-wee’s Playhouse’ or ‘Sesame Street’—little episodes and skits,” Czekaj says. Another inspiration: “I’m a big fan of Bread and Puppet Theater and that school of political puppetry.”
Luckily, he had a couple puppets—Somerville Sheep and Powder House Pickle Jar made from recycled plastic containers covered with felt that were inspired by statues in Somerville’s Powder House/Nathan Tufts Park—left around the apartment from a series of live performances that he’d imagined presenting at the park, but, well, “I never did it.”
Employing the puppets was also a way to “create something that was specific to Somerville.” As research, Czekaj says, “I’ve started watching Youtube videos of puppetry and magic, which I never thought I’d be doing.”
One of the show’s signature segments is “Those Weird Statues in Davis Square.” Czekaj began with “Ten Figures”—the cement statues that artist James Tyler situated around Davis Square in 1980—and animated them to dance to his original song whose lyrics were a chant: “Those weird statues in Davis Square.”
A number of shows have encouraged wearing masks to help prevent the spread of coronavirus—including a run-in with a monster who refuses to wear a mask and a song set to the tune of “Monster Mash.”
As Black Lives Matter protests grew in June and July, “Sequestered Storytime” began addressing the protests. Czakaj showed viewers how to draw a “Black Lives Matter” protest sign. “Let’s get out there and protest. See you there,” he told the audience.
Czekaj often comes at it sidelong, and with humor. “Defund” became the Word of the Day. The protest slogan “No Justice, No Peace” was misheard by the puppets as “No Justice, No Peas,” resulting in mealtime humorously coming to a halt. Then the puppets refused to sing the note “fa” because they’re Antifa.
“‘No justice, no peace’ is a pretty abstract term. With puppets, there’d be a way to break that down into something kids can understand,” Czekaj notes. “Breaking them down into stupid puns helps me too.”
“If it was just me talking about these things, I think it could be boring and didactic. But if it’s a puppet saying it, it can be funny and important and more engaging,” Czekaj says. “I’m interested in starting conversations. I didn’t want to tell your kid what to think about this stuff. But I’m hoping bringing up this stuff will lead to conversations with parents. I’m assuming the parents who are watching agree with me politically. We’ll see. … The puppets are clueless and want to do the right thing. It’s a little bit like they’re kids who are confused and want to do the right thing.”
A new episode of “Sequestered Storytime” premieres Aug. 17 with skits about ice cream, “the joy (?) of Zoom calls,” and cancel culture. Has this kids show changed the world yet? Czekaj jokes, “Let’s say, ‘Yes.’”
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