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David E. Kelley is responsible for half a dozen Emmy-winning shows (and this year has a strong chance to add another with HBO’s Big Little Lies), but he’s responsible for only one internationally recognized meme: the Dancing Baby.
On Fox’s Ally McBeal, this semi-transparent visual effect — aka Baby Cha-Cha — occasionally would appear as a hallucinatory metaphor for the ticking biological clock of the 30ish McBeal (Calista Flockhart, who was 32 when the show first aired). The infant’s first appearance was on the show’s 12th episode, “Cro-Magnon,” in January 1998 when it danced to Blue Swede’s cover of the B.J. Thomas song “Hooked on a Feeling.” The original baby had its roots in some product samples that demonstrated what could be created with 3D animation software.
Jamie Clay, whose company was at one point contacted by Ally McBeal executives to produce the baby as a TV visual effect, says the meme was an early example of the “uncanny valley,” when something looks just real enough to be a little creepy. “A lot of people found the dancing baby unsettling,” says Clay.”Not enough to make them go psycho but enough to make them want to share it.”
The baby had begun to achieve fame via Silicon Valley emails, but being on Ally McBeal took its fame to an entirely different level. Immediately after its primetime debut, there were Kung Fu Babies, Rasta Babies and Samurai Babies floating around the internet. One sign of how ubiquitous it had become was a 2000 episode of The Simpsons featuring an animation of Jesus Christ dancing like Baby Cha-Cha. As late as 2015, when it was almost retro imagery, the baby appeared in Delta Airlines safety videos.
“Ally was kind of a watercooler show, and the baby was an iconic image,” says Ally McBeal producer Steve Robin. “It just caught people’s imagination.”
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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