Is “Pancake Mountain” finally ready for its close-up? After a decade as an intermittent, now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t cult item, the alt-rock guerrilla kids’ dance party, forged in the crucible of Washington, D.C., cable-access television and spread like a not particularly aggressive but remarkably hardy virus through the Internet, has alighted at the semi-respectable PBS Digital, where new episodes are posting every Monday. This week’s, the third, features noise-rock musician David Yow (the Jesus Lizard, Scratch Acid) cooking with goat-puppet host Rufus Leaking (J.R. Soldano), whom he incorrectly identifies as a rabbit; a dance party with L.A.'s Caught a Ghost; and Rufus and basically powerless resident superhero Captain Perfect (stand-up comic Erik Myers when he’s not wearing the cape and sparkly top hat) continuing their westward trek. (It’s not a top hat, I know, but I have already spent too long trying to identify the actual style.)
I can’t remember how or when I first stumbled upon it, but the record shows that I named it one of my favorite shows of 2007. What I immediately loved about it — besides the ineffable wonder (I would say beauty, even) of watching Emily Haines urge small children through the chorus of Metric’s “Monster Hospital” (“I fought the war/I fought the war but the war won/Stop for the love of God”) or kids working out how to dance to the time shifts of Deerhoof — was the way, with a few disjointed strokes, it conjured a cockeyed, complicated world living just out of sight around whatever the Web would call a corner. The actual relative scarcity of the product (which was also for a time available on DVD) only made it seem more mysterious and intriguing.
PBS Digital has put its brand on and reposted some of the old clips, including Rufus’ duets with St. Vincent and Katy Perry. The new series has already featured musician-comedian Reggie Watts as a barber and Garbage’s Shirley Manson delivering a musical introduction to German culture. Brody Dalle sings the series’ theme (formerly performed by Anti-Flag and originally by Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty, who wrote it, with the Julie Ruin’s Kathi Wilcox). “I worried that some bands would be like, ‘Oh, no, we don’t want to be with you once you’re on [PBS],” the show’s creator, Scott Stuckey, told me recently in a noisy Vermont Avenue coffee shop in L.A. “But most are still like, ‘Oh, my God. Poor little show.’”
Scott Stuckey: I was surprised when PBS contacted us; we had retired the show. I had gone to Georgia to finish a documentary about [quadriplegic singer-songwriter] Vic Chesnutt [the yet-to-be-released “What Doesn’t Kill Me”]. It was something he and I were working on before he killed himself. About a week or two away from finishing it, I got a call from PBS saying they were interested in bringing it back as an online show.
Before the break, we had been shopping it with J.J. Abrams. He had contacted us and said he loved the show and wanted to produce it. And I thought, “Yes! This is it.” He was great. He would show up with us for meetings.
Where did you go?
Nickelodeon, Universal NBC, a lot of production companies — Jack Black’s production company, Adam Sandler’s. Places like that.
The idea was it would be just like it was before, with the dance parties and Rufus?
Exactly. Just better production. He wanted to get us a giant space with a stage and skateboard ramps and amps and drum sets, just a place to create as it came along, which sounded amazing to me. But if we had gotten signed then, I’d have worried about it being canceled; I think we have a lot more leeway at PBS than we would with a network, where they want results quickly. They’re letting us do whatever we want; they don’t have to look at the scripts or OK anything, as long as we don’t call it “children’s programming,” because, of course, they really protect that brand.
We call it a show for kids of all ages. I’m never going to do what “Sesame Street” does anyway. I think of our show as more kind of the “Fat Albert” school of learning, where it’s maybe a lesson or two. Usually something about consumerism, or not trusting the Man or too much TV’s bad for you.
How did it start?
I was born in Georgia but grew up in D.C., and the whole punk, do-it-yourself thing really was a big inspiration. I went to New York and did two years at Parsons School of Design before figuring out I didn’t want to do that. And I had a recording studio for a while but realized there were people that did it so much better than I. But I’d been interested in filmmaking, and it had become easier — nonlinear editing was just coming out, the first generation of Avids. So I started making music videos, through contacts with bands I had recorded or worked with. I was also in Athens for two years around the time of Vic and R.E.M. and Widespread Panic.
I was back in D.C. and working with [Fugazi founder/Dischord Records boss/punk hero] Ian MacKaye on a Minor Threat DVD. And I’d been wanting to get my daughter involved — she was 11 or 12 and interested in what I was doing and was helping me film; we even had a little band together. Ian had just been on a show called “Chic-a-Go-Go,” a cable-access kids’ dance party out of Chicago. He brought up a clip, and I was like, “Wow, we could do something like that. My daughter could help me; this could be a career.” I still feel like there aren’t enough females in the business.
Ian [also] said, “Why don’t we do something like this?” And I said, “If you’ll write a song for me.”
And the song was?
“Vowel Movement,” which got us all kind of credibility. I think this was two years before YouTube started, so 2003, early 2004. And within a week or two, Entertainment Weekly and CNN contacted us.
And we hadn’t really thought what it was yet. So we just started doing it in between other work I was doing, commercial work. And, of course, about that time my daughter lost interest. She was getting about that age that anything that Dad does is uncool.
You moved out to L.A. six years ago. Why did you come west?
A lot more commercial work was out here. It really started drying up [in D.C.]. There had been work for government contractors and the big companies there, AOL, Exxon. But, then, all of a sudden — like with music 10 years earlier and Pro Tools — they were, like, “Wow, we can buy Final Cut and do this in-house.” It’s a lot like D.C. in a lot of ways: It’s a company town, a lot of egos and hubris. And more than I thought there’d be, there are underground scenes and subcultures. I have friends from high school that were in metal bands in D.C. that still play in hair metal bands on the Sunset Strip, and though that’s not really a thing I love, I love that there’s a place for that to happen. We just finished shooting a thing with Shirley Manson, a monkey, Rufus Leaking, Captain — I love the fact that in one week you can get all those things together. The resources are amazing.
You had Reggie Watts on your opening episode.
I think he may have become a regular and not even know it. We’ve had him and Shirley on six or seven different skits. I saw him on something like VH1 “Best Week Ever” three or four years ago, when we were shopping the show with J.J. It was through Bad Robot, his production company, and I called the producer we were assigned to and said, “Athena, I just saw Reggie Watts; I really love this guy.” And she goes, “J.J. came to me two days ago and said, ‘Who is this guy?’ We have him coming in next week. Do you want to come over and meet him?” So we actually filmed some of his stuff at J.J.'s place before we decided to retire the show. He is such a talent. I love that kind of anti-humor; there doesn’t always have to be a punch line. He rarely reads the stuff we write him before; he just comes in and does it the way he wants to do it. And he wrote us an original song, “Positivity.” We try to pretend there’s some learning going on.
Did you find that bands were aware of the show?
Sometimes a publicist or manager would say, “We don’t have time,” but then the band would write back directly and say, “No, we want to do that.” At Bonnaroo, we were the only interview the White Stripes gave, and people were like, “Why are they talking to this goat?” Lily Allen was the opposite; she had no idea who we were, but her publicist said, “Go do this; it’s a hip show.” And she shows up, like, “It’s 10 in the morning. Why am I awake talking to a puppet? Has my career come to this?”
We never tell them anything ahead of time; we don’t rehearse. It’s a funny thing with puppets because you can get away with asking stuff you never would as a person. And I love the fact that musicians will really quickly kind of forget they’re talking to a puppet.
I like the way they treat him as a celebrity. You take that attitude, you’re confident, and other people believe in you. It still amazes me. Captain Perfect doesn’t get quite the same respect, but that was kind of part of the character. He has that high-pitched voice, his eyes are crossed. We tried to cast other actors out here, but no one touched that real kind of vibe or made me laugh like Erik.
J.R., who plays Rufus, we have the exact opposite taste in music. His ideal guest would be Michael McDonald — he thinks he has the greatest voice in the world. He doesn’t know why we’ve had Pylon or Deerhoof or the Melvins or any of these bands on. We finished doing the Katy Perry interview — this is before she was famous — and were walking out of Capitol, and he was like, “She’s going to be gigantic some day.”
So how does he feel when you put him with the Kaiser Chiefs or the White Stripes?
It’s almost better. He’s himself. That’s what I like in anyone I work with, when someone’s genuine. When he meets those people, it’s really from him, he’s asking it from the point of view of “I don’t understand.” Only once or twice did he get fed up that I had dragged him to an interview. With Lily Allen, both sides were, like, “I’m out of here.” But that’s what makes it great: You don’t know what’s going to happen. He knows nothing about most of these bands, which is something I like about Larry King too. You’re sitting there, like, “Oh, my God, where’s he going with this?” But he’s curious; he has a zest for life and learning, which J.R. has. He wants to know and learn — but he’s never converted. I keep thinking he’ll come out going, “I’ve got to buy every Fugazi album.” But he’s not mean-spirited, either, he’s not making fun. It’s not being snarky.
One thing I love about “Pancake Mountain” is that we get glimpses of a world that seems to have real integrity, that goes on without us elsewhere. There’s nothing you could call character development or even much in the way of information, but Captain Perfect and Rufus, even in bits and pieces, have authenticity and authority.
I always liked the way that, with “Hee Haw” or “Green Acres,” things didn’t have to fit together to make sense — it did feel like a little world. And I like the idea of real community; even now we’re really pretty much still volunteer. All the old episodes were people just coming together. After a while in D.C., we had a pretty cool space where I was doing a lot of my commercial work, and bands would just come and hang out and share songs and meet each other. That was what was so special about it. I think that came across, that we did just kind of come up with it in the moment. You didn’t know where it was going, but you just went with it.
Find me crouching like a puppeteer on Twitter @TVTimesLloyd.