The characters are bare-hand puppets with eyes and accessories. The concept is based on a training method used by puppeteers learning to operate Muppets, in which they use their hands and a pair of ping pong balls instead of a puppet. The show won many awards during its run, most notably from Parents' Choice and the Television Academy.
The show started out in 2000 as a series of two-minute interstitials that ran during commercial breaks. It was developed into a long-form series in 2003. A total of 48 shorts and 52 long-form segments were made. A foreign spin-off, Oobi: Dasdasi, premiered in 2012.
The show takes place in a neighborhood where bare hand puppets talk and act like people. The main character is a boy named Oobi, who lives in a quaint house with his overdramatic sister Uma and his hapless grandpa Grampu. He is best friends with an African-American hand named Kako, who lives across the street. Kako spends so much time with Oobi that he is almost an honorary family member. Together, Oobi and his family have funny, simple adventures that celebrate the awkward steps of growing up.
The characters have a very simple manner of speaking, meant to mimic how kids talk in very early childhood. They use first-person pronouns. For example, "Uma, school, first day" is said instead of "It's my first day of school." The early two-minute shorts each focus on the puppets learning about a very basic topic: music, art, play, or nature. The half-hour episodes feature longer, more involved stories and a series of interviews, where the characters talk with real families about the episode's topic.
48 shorts and 52 long-form segments were made: a total of 100 individual stories.
The show started as a series of shorts, which aired during commercial breaks on Nick Jr. and Noggin. Each short is one to two minutes long. Each long-form episode is 13 minutes long. The episodes were usually aired in pairs to fill up half-hour timeslots.
There are four main characters: Oobi, his sister Uma, his best friend Kako, and his grandfather Grampu. The show also features a supporting cast of townspeople and friends who occasionally join in on the main family's adventures.
Josh Selig came up with the idea for Oobi while watching puppeteers audition for Ulica Sezamkowa, the Polish adaptation of Sesame Street. They used only their hands and pairs of plastic eyes, which inspired Selig to consider making a show about super-simple, "rudimentary" hand puppets. (source) He turned to Martin P. Robinson and Tim Lagasse to help him develop the idea, and they built the acrylic eye props that would later become the Oobi characters' costumes. (source)
In 1999, Nickelodeon started seeking pitches for shows to put on its then-upcoming cable network Noggin. Selig pitched Oobi under the working title "Pipo," and it was turned into a series of two-minute shorts. For Oobi, Selig assembled a cast of puppeteers made up entirely of Muppet alumni. Tim Lagasse played the main character Oobi, while Stephanie D'Abruzzo, Noel MacNeal, and Tyler Bunch rounded out the rest of the main cast.
The shorts were filmed in 1999 and started airing in 2000. Oobi was turned into a full-length series in 2003. Season one was filmed from January to February 2003, and season two was filmed from January to February 2004. (source)
Oobi was filmed at Kaufman Astoria Studios in New York. The set pieces were built on tall wooden poles, positioned to be level with the puppeteers' hands when they raised their arms. This kept the actors' heads out of the camera frame and allowed them to walk normally while performing, making their puppets' movements as smooth as possible. TV monitors were placed below the sets so the puppeteers could watch their motions and position their characters for each scene. The actors wore hands-free headsets that recorded their dialogue, making them able to perform and voice their characters at the same time.
Many of the sets for Oobi were made to evoke the appearance of old-fashioned home environments. To simulate natural window light in the studio, the crew placed shades with foliage patterns over their studio lights. This gave the appearance of sunlight passing through trees. Green screens were used for the sky of the outdoor sets and for the windows of Oobi's house. (source)
Every week during production, the puppeteers visited their local manicurist to get their fingernails touched up. The male puppeteers, such as Tim Lagasse, also had to shave their arms regularly if they played younger characters. Josh Selig said in a 2004 interview that Lagasse had to shave often so that Oobi wouldn't "look like a hairy kid." Tyler Bunch was told specifically not to shave, as his natural arm hair gave Grampu the appearance of an elderly, hairy grandfather. (source)
The original Oobi shorts aired on both Nickelodeon and Noggin. Nickelodeon aired them on weekday mornings during its Nick Jr. block. On Noggin, the shorts aired daily before each 30-minute show from 6:00 AM until 6:00 PM. (source)
The first half-hour episode was simulcast on Nickelodeon and Noggin on April 7, 2003. (source) The show ran for two seasons of half-hour episodes, finishing on February 11, 2005. Reruns continued to air on Nick Jr. until spring 2013, when most older programming was taken off of the lineup. The show was added to the Noggin mobile app in May 2015.
Oobi has been shown in many territories outside of the United States. After it ended its run in 2005, it was sold to 23 international markets. (source) A few foreign-language dubs were made, including:
The original English version has been aired on ABC Kids in Australia, on AFN Prime, on Nickelodeon Pakistan, and on TVOntario in Canada. Select channels in Oceania and Southeast Asia have also broadcast the show.
In 2012, a new adaptation of Oobi titled Oobi: Dasdasi started airing on IRIB TV2, one of Iran's national TV channels. Like the original show, Oobi: Dasdasi follows a family of bare-hand puppets, but it includes a variety of new characters and is more focused on comedy. Many of the plots and sets were localized to connect with an Iranian audience.
The American prop makers for Oobi supplied the puppet costumes, which are identical to those of the original show. It was produced and directed by Negar Estakhr and Amir Soltan Ahmadi, two of Iran's foremost puppeteers. IRIB started production on the series after the two puppeteers attended a 2011 screening of Oobi in English. (source) 78 eight-minute episodes were made. The show ran from September 22 to December 20, 2012, and reruns still play on IRIB as of 2019. (source)