Coming To America

One day back in 1998, the Wiggles worked their magic at Disneyland. Not many people had heard of the Australian children's band back then, though they'd already been huge in their native Australia for a few years. After their gig, the four guys walked around the theme park, in full regalia, pretty much unnoticed. Cut to late last year at Disney World, when the band flew to Orlando to do some filming. "Even when it was dark, people still recognized us--in our regular clothes," says Cook. The Wiggles are now wildly popular. NEWSWEEK's B. J. Sigesmund spoke with Murray Cook (the red Wiggle) about coming to America. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: When you were just starting to tour in the U.S., some of your American marketers wondered if you might change your lyrics for American kids. They wondered if they would know that "mosh banana" was "mashed banana."

Murray Cook: I had a theory fairly early on that children don't learn those cultural differences until they're a bit older. They're just learning about language anyway, so they can handle the differences, especially in the age group we're dealing with. They're still learning what things are called. We say things differently, and they seem to accept that quite readily.

You do 300 shows a year and they're very physical. Do you ever hurt yourself?

We did a fairly big tour in Australia and at end of the year and toward the end of the run, Anthony [the Wiggle in blue] hurt his back quite badly. We had a chiropractor and a physiotherapist working together so he could continue. But it's a very physical show, and we're getting older. Greg [the Wiggle in yellow] has fairly chronic knee trouble, too, mostly from jumping up and down. He has occasionally missed shows. We have an understudy system.

Talk about the Wiggles' transition from a band to a brand.

Well, as with most things we do, it happened gradually. Until fairly recently, we haven't really been that great on having meetings and stuff like that [laughs]. Things happen fairly organically with us. But yeah, early on, we just wore colored shirts, and now we've got the Wiggles logo on there. That was so people could see us straight away and know that that was us. And in Australia, any merchandising we've done has mainly been a response to people asking us for things.

Let's talk about the licensing deal with Walt Disney International for Asia to create clones of the Wiggles--first in Taiwan and then in Japan, and possibly Korea, Thailand and China. Is this because you guys can't be everywhere at once?

We just felt that in non-English-speaking countries, it wasn't really going to work with us. Basically they're not going to understand what we're saying. Even if you dubbed it, I don't think that's as effective. Disney has the structure in places in places like Asia, where it would take us a long time to set up. It just makes sense to do it through a third party.

You watched them cast the Taiwanese version. What was that like?

A little surreal. But it was quite moving actually. It's something we've created. Seeing someone else do it was both really fun and quite moving. It was an emotion I didn't really expect. I felt quite proud of it. The people they've chosen are great. And there's a twist: the red Wiggle is a girl.

Some analysts predict that with the additional versions of the Wiggles, this could be a billion-dollar business. How do you respond to that?

Mostly we sort of laugh at it. We're not really businessmen, we're just musicians and entertainers and teachers. We're from that background. We don't think too much about the dollar side of things, I know that sounds a bit ingenuous. But we have business people who look after most of that.

Jerry Seinfeld brought his daughter backstage to meet you after a concert. Robert De Niro and John Travolta also brought their kids.

That is really amazing to us. It happened again today, doing "Live with Regis and Kelly." Jerry and his wife brought their little girl along again. You sort of go, "Oh, hi, how are ya?" and then afterward you go, "That's so strange, saying 'hi' to Jerry Seinfeld like he's a friend." We don't really know him. But I guess enough to say hello. That's exciting for us too, we're still pretty star struck.