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TELEVISION | CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

Sporting its own special energy

Nick Jr.'s 'LazyTown' is a kids' import from Iceland that has zany appeal -- even to viewers who are no longer 'junior.'

August 14, 2005|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

Scheving has been a champion in competitive aerobics, the aim of which seems to be to crowd as much activity as possible into a two-minute routine -- which explains a lot about Sportacus, who will not walk when he can flip, cartwheel, roll and tumble. He created LazyTown and its characters for a 1991 book, "Go! Go LazyTown!," to promote physical activity in an age of creeping obesity. This led to a couple of hit musicals and gave rise to branded bottled water, coloring books, shoes, fruit, beach toys, T-shirts, cod liver oil, toothpaste and a 24-hour radio station.

Scheving has been careful every step of the way: "In a country the size of Iceland, where everybody knows you, the reputation is the only thing you got. So it had to have a huge amount of integrity in it."

His talk is full of figures. He's the father of three. Eight is the number of years that he wanted to "test-market" "LazyTown" before taking it global ("I said to my team, 'We cannot move out of Iceland until after eight years because we have to test this on two generations' "), a long view that in this country would be seen as un-American; but when they finally got to Nickelodeon ("top-notch in the kids' business"), they were well prepared and immediately embraced.

Four thousand to six thousand a week was the number of people who came to see the LazyTown stage musicals, until something like 80% of Icelanders had seen it. Team LazyTown numbers 163, Scheving said; his closest collaborators have worked with him a dozen years or more and have "lived the LazyTown dream, so it's not like you were working on it, you actually lived it, you liked it, you loved it."

Eighteen is how many more episodes they're thinking of adding to the 53 they've already made; 40 to 50 is the number of countries "LazyTown" will be seen in by the end of 2005. (Next month it finally debuts in Iceland -- dubbed into Icelandic, strangely.) And come November, Scheving will have been alive 41 years, though he imagines Sportacus to be 27.

He was quite prepared to find a younger, fitter actor for the role. "I felt like -- foof foof foof -- I wish this happened like 10 years ago." But he takes it as a challenge, and there's no question that he is Sportacus still, and the only one who can be; it's a matter of charm, and of a kernel of amateurism that keeps things real.

"I would not say that I'm the best actor in the world," Scheving admitted, but by now Sportacus "is part of me. It's just who I am. I still put the costume on, like, every week," he said. Like the superhero he plays on TV, he responds to calls for help, visiting hospitals to encourage sick or injured kids to drink their water and eat healthy food. He walks on his hands and gives out fruits and vegetables. "Sometimes people say, 'You don't need to do this.' But actually I like it."

In the prime-time special, it's decided that Sportacus deserves a vacation from the hard work of rescuing kids who are falling out of trees or about to crash into walls -- the last thing in the world he wants or is equipped to take, but he agrees to try. Scheving does some marvelous fidgeting in the deck chair the kids set out for him in the middle of town. Stephanie takes a turn as SportaStephanie, while Robbie Rotten mischievously creates a robo-dog from a Viking helmet, some false teeth and a scrap of deep pile carpeting.

He winds up attacked by his own creation -- Karl is quite an accomplished slapstick artist -- sitting forlorn atop the billboard that hides his lair. "I'll be stuck up here forever," he says. "My feet will never touch the ground again, birds will build nests in my hair, and kids will walk by, look up and say, 'Look, there's that billboard guy.' " I can't recall a more elegantly poetic line of television dialogue, and the bad guy gets to say it.

To judge by Internet message boards, the show has plenty of fans outside the "target audience" -- that is, older than 6 or 7. Sportacus/Scheving has an ardent complement of grown female admirers -- "hottie" seems to be the term of choice, though he has been called "a cutie-patootie" too. One writer calls Stephanie "the most adorable, darling little pink puffball that a grown woman could ever develop a strange kind of fetish for." Some are parents of members of the peewee demographic; some are teenagers or twentysomethings still not done with kids' programming; and some are accidental tourists like me who, having looked in once, could not look away.

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