Creators of the cult-classic kids ’show come to Toronto to discuss the legacy of their proudly DIY, indie rock–friendly program.
Every subculture spans a continuum ranging from slick corporate product to slapdash DIY efforts. Yes, even kiddie culture. Yo Gabba Gabba may seem like the embodiment of indie cool but, compared to public-access cult-classic Pancake Mountain, DJ Lance Rock’s puppet pals may as well have rolled off the Disney assembly line.
Alas, after featuring everyone from The White Stripes and M.I.A. to Arcade Fire and Metric to The Flaming Lips and Kings of Leon—not to mention road-trips to SXSW, Lollapalooza, and Bonnaroo—Pancake Mountain announced this past February they’d no longer be serving new episodes. As star goat puppet Rufus Leaking wrote, “the hoity-toity TV network big wigs just couldn’t bring themselves to let us make our show the way it was intended. And, if our punk ethos has taught us anything, it’s never sell out to The Man. I’m still not sure who this man is (or even his name), but Scott tells me he’s important.”
Creators Scott Stuckey and J.R. Soldano are keynote speakers at next week’s INplay 2012 conference—”Never Surrender: Your Pancakes Just the Way you Want Them. Always”—at the Liberty Grand, and are currently “entertaining ideas” for a new show that will similarly use music to appeal equally to kids and grown-ups. In the meantime, I spoke to the pair about their Pancake legacy.
“Scott created the show and pulled me in as a creative partner,” explains Soldano. “It wasn’t intended to be anything, it was more or less a garage project. We weren’t paying anybody, and we fell ass-backwards into some amazing press and artists and street cred. We didn’t sit in a room and decide, ‘Hey, let’s write a kids show.’”
The volunteer-run, no-budget show was fuelled by what Soldano describes as their “DIY punk ethos of anti-commercialism” and became a phenomenon thanks to Stuckey’s music friends. The filmmaker came up out of the Washington D.C. hardcore scene—the show name and theme-song comes courtesy of Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty—before moving to Athens, Georgia, where Stuckey engineered records for R.E.M. and Vic Chesnutt. He returned to D.C. to shoot music videos and documentaries for Thievery Corporation, Bob Mould, and Minor Threat.
Pancake Mountain was essentially a lark: an experimental music, animation, and sketch show inspired by Laugh-In and Wonderama. It starred snarky goat interviewer Rufus—who started out as a sock with two button eyes, an afro wig, and a big medallion around its neck—and superhero Captain Perfect, among other oddball regulars. But what made it famous were the kid-filled dance parties featuring the coolest indie bands around.
“Ian MacKaye’s appearance gave us instant street cred,” Soldano recalls of the Fugazi singer’s performance of “Vowel Movement.” “We would get these calls like, ‘We’ve got this brand-new artist named Arcade Fire.’ I’d never heard of them but to me it didn’t matter. ‘OK, let’s bring ‘em in.’ Then over the next couple months they became huge. Katy Perry, same thing—I’d never heard of her in my life; then, like two weeks later, her record dropped. She was just an artist trying to get the word out.”
The show quickly won an all-ages fanbase, Soldano adds. “Our favourite fan mail was always from parents saying, ‘This is the only thing I can watch with my kids. I can’t watch Barney, because it’s too dumbed-down. I get the jokes and they like the music and Rufus.’ We well up with pride when we get those letters.”
Of other kids shows, Stuckey says, “They try to appeal to too great an audience. If you’re trying to get it so that a ton of people don’t hate it or love it, but just like it, then nobody is going to be passionate either way.”
Almost all kid’s programming tries to have an educational component, but Pancake Mountain took a different approach. “Our show wasn’t about learning through math and English,” Stuckey says. “It was about learning through experience and imagination; about how music brings people together and being different is okay; and that expressing yourself in an artistic way is just as important to your learning experience as what you learn in school.”
The show became a cult smash, airing on public-access, released on DVD (via Fugazi’s Dischord record label, natch), and gaining an online audience once YouTube launched mid-decade. Rufus became “the Dick Clark of the whole thing,” Soldano recalls. “It didn’t matter if I was there and doing the voice—as long as someone had their hand up Rufus’ ass behind a stack of amps, people were like, ‘Cool, awesome—Rufus is here, we can now perform.”
In 2008, they migrated to Los Angeles where they were contacted by a fan named J.J. Abrams. Yes, the guy who created Lost.
“We thought, ‘This is it, we’ve struck gold,’” says Stuckey. “Meeting J.J. was like getting an audience with the Pope. But you find out pretty quick, it doesn’t really matter. ”
Abrams helped produce the show’s later years and tried to help the duo land a network deal. But, given their ultra-indie aesthetic, it was perhaps destined to fail.
“We just got tired of people wanting to change it,” says Stuckey. “Every meeting we went to, they wanted it to fit into some specific demographic. ’We love the show’—and every meeting started that way—‘but what age is it for? Is it for college-age kids? Is it for three or four-year-olds?’ To us, the whole point was that it could appeal to lots of people and we didn’t have to target it to one group.”
Meanwhile, Yo Gabba Gabba exploded into a kiddie-culture phenomenon. “People have written us letters, ‘Oh, are you upset that they stole your idea?’ I’m like, ‘no, there are no original ideas and they did a really great job of finding an actual demographic and still having it appeal to an older audience,’” says Stuckey. “We didn’t want to do that, but my hat’s off to ’em.”
As they bounced from network to network, resisting the temptation to sell-out, the pair eventually pulled the plug in a decision mirroring Jack White disbanding The White Stripes rather than use the name for his solo work.
“We’ve done all of this all-volunteer, no money, and we’re proud of that accomplishment,” explains Stuckey. “So let’s create something different and preserve the purity of Pancake Mountain.”
“We’d rather be ‘from the people who brought you Pancake Mountain,’” Soldano adds, “than the people who brought you the failed show Pancake Mountain.”