Josh & Gab Show is teaching kids the right way with comedy
By Michael Machosky
Published: Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012, 9:03 p.m.
Josh Verbanets and Gab Bonnesso, longtime members of Pittsburgh's indie-rock and stand-up comedy scenes, have played some tough rooms before.
Among the many colorful characters encountered in local bars and clubs, there are the loud talkers, the always bored, the there-to-see-somebody-else folks, the drunks, the hecklers, the drunk hecklers, and so on.
That's standard-issue stuff, no big deal. But a room full of screaming second-graders? Now that's a challenge.
Verbanets (of rock band Meeting of Important People) and Bonnesso (the comedian) are The Josh & Gab Show. Although they're old friends who have shared many stages together, they never thought their most enthusiastic crowds would be at elementary schools.
“When you're a kid, you don't understand the concept of being cool — you just start clapping along and singing,” says Verbanets, 29, of Etna. “I can't believe how satisfying that is. I don't feel like I'm compromising my music in the least.
“Kids think we're an actual rock 'n' roll band! ... For most of these kids, this is the first time they've seen an electric guitar, and first time they've seen someone (live onstage) telling jokes.”
The Josh & Gab Show arose with a specific purpose in mind — as an unusual way to combat the eternal problem of bullying in schools.
There are few ways to stop a bully. Lectures from teachers, parents and other authority figures often have the opposite effect than intended.
“Josh and Gab appealed to Pittsburgh Linden because of their fun approach,” says Tara McElfresh, the Point Breeze school's PTA vice president, with two children at the school. The Josh & Gab Show performed two shows there on Monday. “Their singing and jokes kept the kids engaged and listening more so then an anti-bullying lecture would have.”
The idea for the show came from a local school district.
“We were approached by Montour (School District), where Gab went when she was a teenager,” Verbanets says. “They asked if we'd work with their staff to create a live anti-bullying show for kids and pre-teens. They commissioned us. We met with guidance counselors, and developed it using the Olweus (Bullying Prevention Program) curriculum. A lot of schools use that curriculum now. It's an entire lesson plan for dealing with anti-bullying tactics.”
With two other people, it might not work. But Verbanets' musicianship and ear for melody and Bonnesso's sheer energy and instant rapport with kids are what sells it.
“She's the most magnetic, skilled performer I've ever seen,” Verbanets says of Bonnesso. “I've never met anyone like her. She has great crowd control, great energy. I think it's only a matter of time before she has her own sitcom on NBC. She seems like a big kid. In fact, we go in, and kids think we're 14 or 15.”
Instead of dry catchphrases and talking points, the pair use a lot of their own experiences to relate to the kids.
“They remember Gab's stories,” Verbanets says. There's one that's “a great joke with a punchline at the end, but it's about how, as a kid, she was being bullied by a boy all year long. She later finds out that the boy had a crush on her.”
Verbanets' musical versatility keeps the show moving, to stay ahead of short attention spans. The song “I'm Not a Bully,” plays almost like a parody of the earnest children's folk songs of yesteryear, while reminding kids not to simply be bystanders when they notice someone being bullied. Another he describes as a loud, garage-rock “fake White Stripes song.” He says parody songs come easy to him.
“Our big ‘controversial' song right now is a Justin Bieber parody,” he says. “Fifty percent of kids love him, and the rest hate him. Inevitably, everyone pays attention to it.”
There's a specific challenge in writing songs for children, though it plays to Verbanets' strengths, like writing poppy, catchy songs.
“Almost all the songs I've ever written are kind of whimsical, and sing-songy,” he says. “Here, I'm being one notch less poetic, and trying to make more sense. They're specifically trying to communicate ideas to people, and not just make sense to me in my head.”
One song that always gets a reaction is called “Nine O'Clock Behind the Jackrabbit.”
“It's a true story about a bullying incident at Kennywood,” Verbanets says. “Usually, that's one of the first times you're walking along without your parents. It's about my friend who got into a fight. A lot of bullies pick the worst time to pick on you. It's never during a math test. It's always like at a dance or at Kennywood.”
In recent years, many school districts have made addressing bullying a priority. Unfortunately, there just isn't a lot of programming out there that is accessible and effective, and even less that is fun. The Josh & Gab Show seems to have figured this out at just the right time.
“Schools are realizing that it's very important to start at an early age, and find ways to make positive behavior seem attractive,” Verbanets says. “If young people are ingrained with treating others with respect, and finding creative outlets instead, it's easier, rather than (starting) as a teenager when they get surly.”
Pittsburgh Linden Principal Victoria Burgess appreciates both the message and the messengers.
“Josh and Gab were friendly, student-centered, and provided age-appropriate content to support students in thinking through what it feels like to be bullied,” she says. “Not shunning the bully — but acknowledging the challenges they may face, and providing solutions of how to not be a bully.”
So far, The Josh & Gab Show has benefited from word-of-mouth among kids and teachers — some of whom are familiar with their more adult-oriented work.
“We can barely keep up,” Verbanets says. “We've booked 15 to 20 school districts just this fall. ... It's the most fulfilling music stuff I've ever done.”
The Josh & Gab Show are planning to record an album of their music, and some all-ages shows outside of school, including the First Night events, Downtown. Details: www.joshandgab.com
Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7901.
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