Washington City Paper
Youth Brigade: The creators of Pancake Mountain hope to bring their old-school-punk aesthetic to the kid-vid set.
By Sarah Godfrey, December 19, 2003
Captain Perfect loves the kids. And they love him back: Among the caped crusader's powers are the ability to reduce small children to quivering mounds of jelly with a single funny face, a clumsy gait that inspires belly laughs, and a sixth sense that allows him to predict exactly what tykes want from television programming - and it ain't Barney. "The kids in D.C. want quality!" the Captain proclaims in the premiere episode of Pancake Mountain, a new children's TV show. "Not this cheap, cheesy stuff!"
The declaration comes when the gold-top-hat-wearing superhero, played by stand-up comic Erik Myers, finds himself in a meeting with "the Board." The evil conglomerate of suits, portrayed by the likes of former Husker Du frontman Bob Mould and WTOP reporter Neal Augenstein, wants to give Captain Perfect the boot and change Pancake Mountain's format. On the table are kid-on-kid wrestling and product tie-ins, such as pancake Frisbees with faux dollops of delicious fruit topping.
As is, the show just isn't working, the board argues. Who wants to see punk legends performing kids' songs and sketches about the evils of littering? To convince the Captain that the show is in desperate need of change, a board member reads a fictional review: "Tom Shales of the Washington Post says, 'Pancake Mountain is so stale, your kids will be sitting on the television watching the couch.'"
Before our hero finds himself climbing on the conference-room table to escape the security guard sent to escort him from the building, he tells the board members exactly what he thinks of their plan to bombard Washington's kids with more of the same violent images and toy commercials that they are exposed to every time they turn on the tube: "This is doo-doo."
Like the star of his show, Scott Stuckey thinks much of children's programming these days is crap. The 39-year-old creator of Pancake Mountain decided to make the show - a mix of music, comedy, and cartoons - as a sort of penance for the advertising editing he does through his 6-year-old D.C.-based film and production company, Monkey Boy Studios.
"I guess after a while, I felt guilty about what we were putting out there," says Stuckey. "In TV, there needs to be something different. And we had the equipment and stuff anyway; we knew all of these great creative people, so it was just, like, 'Maybe we should try to do our own kind of local show.'"
Along with the solace it would provide him after long days of working for such clients as the U.S. Mint, the Washingtonian wanted to offer youngsters the same sort of colorful TV personalities he enjoyed watching as a kid. "Growing up, there were all kinds of locals on TV, like [WDCA's] Captain 20," Stuckey says. "The stations had more of a mom-and-pop thing - the weatherman might also be the clown, and you might actually see that guy walking down the street. Today, I just felt that when I look at TV shows on Saturday or Sunday morning, it could be in any city at any time."
Last spring, Stuckey, who has remixed songs and edited videos for the likes of Widespread Panic and Minor Threat, began putting in calls - to musicians he had worked with, animators, and various other friends with talents to lend the endeavor - and started fleshing out an idea for a show that would offer an alternative to Saturday-morning fare rife with "infomercials for turkey roasters and Thighmasters."
Everyone Stuckey contacted agreed to pitch in. Brendan Canty of Fugazi and Kathi Wilcox of Bikini Kill lent the trippy, high-speed theme song, Vic Chesnutt agreed to bang out a version of "I've Been Working on the Railroad," and Ian MacKaye decided that the second release by his latest group, the Evens, would be a kid's song created for the show.
Although getting older, having kids, and recording music to appeal to one's progeny may not seem punk, Stuckey says that Pancake Mountain adheres to the genre's values.
"It's still the do-it-yourself movement," he says. "The punk people involved don't necessarily sound punk, but what started the punk scene is driving us."
When Pancake Mountain launched on Nov. 15, via a promotional pilot webcast, superannuated punk kids - and their offspring - tuned in to watch MacKaye perform the infectious "Vowel Movement," in which he extols the virtues of the letters that "make the sounds that make up words."
"It was only up for a few hours, and we had like 1,200 hits or something," says Stuckey.
In between the musical performances are segments designed to appeal to kids and parents alike. The 11-minute preview includes a cartoon about a little boy with a fondness for blueberries written and voiced by local animator J.R. Soldano; "Hey Joey," a sketch in which an employee of Glover Park's Italian eatery Mama Maria's and Enzio's gives wise-guy answers to kids' queries about subjects such as math; a science segment hosted by St. Patrick's Episcopal Day School teacher "Tommy Boy"; and, of course, plenty of antics from Captain Perfect.
Segments in the works include a series of fake-commercial sketches to teach kids a lesson or two about materialism, typically extolling things that are old-school but better than their newfangled counterparts. Several involve a bright-red vintage Emenee jukeboxópart of a subversive plan to teach the kiddies about the superiority of good old vinyl over tapes, CDs, and, horror of horrors, iPods.
"Do you misplace CDs? No more, with these big, black discs," reads writer/creator Jeorge Seder from the storyboards at one weekly meeting.
"It has music on both sides!" adds Stuckey.
"It's adult programming masquerading as children's programming," says Bill Crandall, another of the show's creators. "And maybe on some subliminal level, we're nurturing hip little children."
On the basis of the teaser alone, Pancake Mountain appears to be building a fan base, at least among viewers who are old enough to use e-mail. Responses have included general kudos ("WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY COOOOOOOOOOOOOOL!" offered one viewer), offers from record labels volunteering their bands' services for upcoming episodes, and dazed and confused responses from people who loved the show but found it somewhat off the wall.
"I like the little bit I was able to see," wrote one such fan. "But, hell, it's so weird."
"Does that look like a stomach?" Stuckey asks Kevin O'Neill, another of Pancake Mountain's creators, during an editing session one recent afternoon. He is adding a clip of animation to the title sequence, which features his wife, Kristina Stuckey, and Canty playing two sleepy parents. Among the lines they lip-synch is "It's Saturday morning, and me and my stomach are watching cartoons and waiting for breakfast," so naturally, this is the perfect place to add in an animated stomach.
Stuckey has decided, per the lyrics, to tuck in a quick cut of a little girl and her stomach sitting on a couch, and is faced with an editing dilemma that the folks over at Sesame Street have probably never grappled with: How long does a gastric bag have to appear on screen for viewers to be able to discern what it is?
"Oh, is that a stomach?" O'Neill says. "Oh, yeah - I can make it out now."
The logistics of putting together a children's show have been more difficult than Stuckey initially imagined. In addition to the task of realistically rendering internal organs, there is the constant need for new materialóand, of course, the legendary unpredictability of corralling children.
Most of the kids who have appeared on Pancake Mountain to date are residents of the Glover Park neighborhood, where Monkey Boy's offices are housed, or children of Stuckey's co-workers and their friends.
Some of the children involved love their five minutes of fame. The video shoot for "Vowel Movement," in which kids hop around in black leotards with letters on their chests, proved to be a particular winner.
"We put on a costume with letters and went on a green screen," says James Howard, 8, of McLean, Va. "It was easy - we just went up and back...it was cool."
But there are times when the kids give up nothing useful or are puzzled as to why something that seems so effortless on TV is so hard to produce. As proof, Stuckey cues up footage of one child who quickly grew bored of being prodded for cute quips: "Disney Channel is much more better," the boy tells an off-camera Stuckey. "They're better at acting - you guys ask too many questions!"
One more obstacle appeared in the form of the DIY-er's old bugaboo: credentials. The show's creators originally wanted to create Sesame Street-like educational TV, but Pancake Mountain failed to stand up to strict regulations governing such shows. "We decided we can't be an educational program," O'Neill says. "People want to know who your educational consultants are, and none of us have degrees in child psychology or education."
Even without the advantage that the educational label would confer - stations are required to devote three hours a week to educational children's programming - Stuckey hopes Pancake Mountain will be picked up by a local channel, moving off the Internet and onto area TV sets.
So far, the show's creators have approached the Washington-area NBC and CBS affiliates; they eventually hope to ink some sort of deal wherein they are given a budget to work with - eliminating the need to use a ping-pong table as a sound baffle. What network money wouldn't change, however, is the network of people involved in the show.
"Making TV and movies, it's about being resourceful," Stuckey says. "It's about getting the most for your money, and even with a big budget, I would still pick these people."
In the meantime, the team behind the show keeps taping more segments, anticipating a time when they will find a deal and may have to piece together several episodes at once. In preparation, Stuckey & Co. have gone from working on the project two days a month to two days a week.
In case they don't get a bite from a major network, they are also toying with the idea of finding a sole corporate underwriter to foot the bill, or putting the show on public access - although, Stuckey notes regretfully, a run on a cable station would limit the number of people able to tune in.
Stuckey has even looked into buying airtime and running the show commercial-free, to avoid the litany of ads for violent toys and sugary cereals that would threaten to detract from Pancake Mountain's aesthetic.
"We want to buy time so we own it and it's ours," Stuckey says. "So we don't have to subject kids to commercials. I've been reading trade mags that say kids watch four hours of TV a day - and one hour of commercials. So, by the time you're 40, you've spent, like, three years of your life watching commercials.
"But who knowsówe could give in and be sponsored by M&M candy or something," he jokes. "Pancake Mountain! Brought to you by M&Ms!"
Copyright © 2004 Washington Free Weekly Inc.