by Rob van Alstyne
The whole story has an undeniable fairy tale quality to it. A bunch of bored suburban Minnesota teens start screwing around on home video, slowly honing their craft and bringing other friends in on the action as they move into their college years. Improbable roommate pairings come down from the University of Minnesota housing department, “randomly” assigning two Davids – one a comedic magician, the other a video-obsessed cut-up – to live together. A creative brain trust is formed, a scheme is hatched, a public access show launched.
a tinkering period, the cast and crew decide to show their wares to area television
networks in the long-shot hope there might be some interest. Here’s where
things really get interesting – a fledgling new network agrees to air the
program on a trial basis. Suddenly, this free-time project has gone from a tiny
public-access audience to statewide broadcast and millions of potential viewers.
This is the improbable story of local comedy variety program “Nate On Drums”
– and it’s only just begun.
With “Mr. Show” and “The Kids in the Hall” long since
retired and “Saturday Night Live” mired in the doldrums – it’s
sad when you realize that the departure of a semi-talent like Jimmy Phalen is
actually a crippling blow to the show – and “Mad TV” never funny
in the first place, sketch comedy on the national stage has officially reached
its nadir. I stumbled across the local antidote to my sketch comedy antipathy
quite by accident, lazing about in my cramped apartment on a Sunday night in typical
eyes-glazed-channel-surfing-zombie-mode. My clicker stopped by chance on KSTC
Channel 45 and I was quickly sucked into “Nate On Drums”’ warped
world of animated segments, high concept sketch-drawn narratives and quirky character-driven
The cherry on top was the show’s commitment to local music. Hosted by Cowboy
Curtis drummer Nate Perbix, the show did more than just feature local music in
its soundtrack. The creators took the next step and brought local bands into their
studio for live performances – bands ranging from established veterans like
the Hang Ups to up-and-comers like Revolver Modele.
Here was Minnesota’s own half-hour answer to “Saturday Night Live”
– except this was Sunday and it wasn’t live. Here was “Nate
On Drums.” I was no longer a dehydrated comic fan adrift in the sketch comedy
desert of 2K5 – my laughter oasis was in sight and, perhaps most surprisingly,
in my own back yard.
not quite my back yard. Linking up with the team behind “Nate On Drums”
in their own element – the TV studio – was actually going to take
a bit of a drive. Their show tapes at the Lake Minnetonka Communications Center,
deep in the sailing-club-laden western suburbs, and I was headed into the heart
of the white picket-fence jungle to track down my story. Arriving as the crew
put the finishing touches on the season finale of their first season it became
immediately clear that the sleek and professional-looking show was in truth a
shoestring DIY operation. I later learned “Nate On Drums’” per-show
budget – minus borrowed equipment and editing facilities courtesy of the
Communications Center – was roughly $200.
As I came through the studio doors, producers/stars David Harris and David Gillette
(who performs under the moniker Motion Price) were busy strafing the room with
handheld cameras capturing musical guest Cowboy Curtis at optimum TV angles. The
head writer and lone female cast member, Linneah Mohn, was hunched over a tripod,
following the action intently while monitoring the sound through a pair of massive
headphones. When you’re running an independent start-up variety show, it
turns out that the on-screen and off-screen talent are frequently one and the
All told, the complete team behind “Nate On Drums” encompasses just
a dozen folks, with the main cast of four (David Harris, Linnea Mohn, Motion Price
and Nate Perbix) relying on close friends to help with writing, technical direction
and all the other non-sexy grunt work necessary to make the show happen. Watching
the crew at work – and Cowboy Curtis lay down a scintillating new song from
their forthcoming sophomore album – I was struck by what a cool and uniquely
Minnesotan labor of love I was witnessing. Others have noticed too — the
show’s ratings consistently rank at the top of its time slot, at 11 p.m.
on the first Sunday of the month. The Minnesota Music Awards selected “Nate
On Drums” as the Best Minnesota Produced Audio Visual Program of 2004, and
network suits are impressed enough that they’ve decided to up the show to
weekly status starting this fall.
After taping wrapped I had a sit-down with the entire cast and crew of the show
as they held forth on the experience of shaping “Nate On Drums” over
the years, their goals for the future and why comedy revolving around celebrity
imitations and satire is “tired” – amongst other topics.
So could you give me a little background on the show? I know this is the first
season on Channel 45 but the history of the show goes back a little bit further
than that, right?
DAVID GILLETTE (MOTION PRICE): The show has been around for about three
years. It started as a public access thing and has always been based here at
the LMCC. Nate, Caleb and I were originally just thinking of a fun project to
do for the summer. We had done video work in the past and cooked up the idea
for this show and started shooting on a weekly basis. We did public access for
like a year and a half and were really having fun with it, and then we wanted
to see if maybe the stations would take a look. So Nate walked in a demo DVD
of the show to Channel 45 and they liked it. [The show] fit with what they were
trying to do with local programming, so they decided to give us a trial period
of about four episodes in January of 2004 to see if we could get any ratings.
We were lucky that people tuned in and liked it – the numbers were pretty
high. They kept us around, and now after a year they’re requesting that
we try and go weekly, because they want to get more of the show on the air.
That’s kind of the stage we’re at right now, wrapping the first
season and making plans for the second.
PULSE: So what’s the extent of 45’s involvement? Do they
fund the show? I don’t really understand much of how the TV business works.
GILLETTE: We have complete creative control – the show is completely
ours. 45 lets us put whatever we want on the air as long as it’s within
like FCC guidelines. We have kind of a barter system worked out with 45 where
we can raise money through sponsorships and commercials. We’re not paid
by 45 though. We own the show and do what we want on it.
HARRIS: We just taped episode 13, the finale of season one. After that
airs in March Channel 45 is going to re-air the six episodes that we choose
for the next six months while we get new shows ready and then following that
run we’re going to start weekly in the fall. The station has already given
us the air time but now we’re hoping to raise enough funds so we can produce
that many episodes that quickly.
I don’t know what the specific backgrounds of the cast are, whether it’s
in theater or improv or video work, but one of the things I find interesting
with all sketch shows on television is seeing how they evolve and learn to use
the medium of television as opposed to just replicating a stage show. I recently
got the first season of “The Kids in the Hall” on DVD and you can
tell that they don’t really know how to use the TV medium yet. They were
just sort of filming the stage show. The cast admits as much in their commentary
tracks. In later seasons you can see how they adjust to the camera as another
performer. Have you all had to make similar adjustments in shaping “Nate
On Drums” over the years?
LINNEAH MOHN: I have a theater background and my experience is primarily
in acting on the stage and doing a bit of improv. The thing that I think is
different about “Nate On Drums” as opposed to other sketch shows
is that we really pay close attention, particularly those involved in the editing
process pay really close attention to details and quick edits. We always try
to have things happening from different perspectives. It’s not the sort
of “point-and-shoot” sketch comedy that happens so often. I think
that’s where we’re strongest in terms of it being a TV show as opposed
to improv acting. We script it, and that’s something we’ve gotten
better about over the course of the season. So now we’re in a place where
we have live stuff happening with audio, we’ve got narrated storylines,
animated segments. We’ve gotten to the place now where the ideas are coming
together in a more specific way and we’re using all the resources that
are available to us.
GILLETTE: I think it helps that a lot of us are coming from a television
background, so it was never a matter of transferring ideas to a new medium.
Nate, Caleb and myself have been doing video projects since we were kids, so
we kind of started with all the jokes being camera-based and edit-based material.
MOHN: That’s why it was weird for me [when I started acting on
the show], because that’s not what I was grounded in at all. Theater was
all about live-action timing, which isn’t a limitation of TV because all
that can be manipulated with editing. At the same time I think it’s important
to understand how the humor would work in real time.
I think that would have to be a big strength for the staff, having everyone
bring pretty different artistic sensibilities to bear on the same project. If
everyone were coming from a theater background then I think that would probably
be evident and the show wouldn’t have as wide-ranging a feel as it does.
How important do all of you think the different backgrounds are in making “Nate
On Drums” a special kind of show?
HARRIS: Yeah, definitely. Linneah comes from a much more heavy theater
background. I do a lot of live performances with magic and comedy magic. For
me [acting on the show] was sort of a heavy transition.
GILLETTE: I don’t do any of that shit (laughing). No live stuff
– I wouldn’t want to stand in front of a crowd even if I could.
HARRIS: I used to do point-and-shoot-SNL-type-commercials with my friends,
but David [Gillette] is the one of us all with the heavy video background. It’s
still a pretty huge learning curve for me and totally different than being on
MOHN: That’s the cool thing about bringing all the different sensibilities
together too. I’ve had to learn that on TV you can’t be as big as
you would be [on stage].
PULSE: What on stage is good, like projecting your voice, all of the
sudden turns into overacting on TV.
MOHN: Exactly I’ve learned to temper my facial expressions a little
I don’t know what all of your personal relationships are, I know you mentioned
earlier that some of you guys had been messing around together with cameras
since you were kids. Often I find in any creative endeavor, particularly with
so many of the bands I talk to, the best groups are those born out of those
organically derived relationships rather than say placing an ad in the back
of a paper saying, “funny person come work on our TV show.” How
organically did the whole thing come together?
CALEB RICK (staff writer and supporting cast member): David Gillette,
Nate Perbix and I all went to high school together and we’ve been doing
video projects dating back to high school. When you’ve been doing it for
so long it’s hard to gauge your progress, but it’s amazing how far
the whole thing has come. When I think back to the earlier projects we didn’t
even have editing.
GILLETTE: The big advantage of us all being friends is that we share
a really similar sense of humor so there’s not a lot of the stereotypical
“creative differences.” We all laugh at the same stuff – I
think that helps.
MOHN: There are slight differences in our tastes to the point that we
can refine each other’s jokes.
HARRIS: I met all these guys when I ended up being roommates with David
[Gillette] at the U of M by chance. Then we met John at the station when we
started doing shots at LLMC.
The birth of a comic empire … (room laughs). I know that a lot of
the people who work on the show are also local musicians [Nate Perbix in Cowboy
Curtis, Linnea Mohn in Coach Said Not To, Caleb Rick in Superdanger] so I’m
curious about your perspective on the different artistic communities in the
Twin Cities. It seems like there’s a certain level of awareness that there’s
a great local music scene, but that local filmmakers don’t necessarily
have the same visibility. Or maybe they do and I’m just not aware of it
because those scenes don’t overlap as much as they could. I know that
sort of mutually beneficial cross-promotion of local music and film was one
the Sound Unseen Festival’s big goals. The Fashion Voltage show appears
to be doing the same thing, kind of taking the local music spotlight and using
it to steer some attention towards other vibrant non-music art happening in
the Cities. All of which is I think very exciting, since most local music fans
would be open to these other things happening in town provided they are aware.
Do you see that happening with your show as well?
MOHN: My experience with working on this show and being in a band and
also doing theater in Minneapolis is that it’s a big small city. Everything
overlaps and everybody basically knows each other. I think the way in which
that benefits the various scenes is that we’re all kind of rooting for
each other and have an understanding and appreciation of what each person is
trying to do. Through being in a local band I’ve been able to reach out
to other bands and get them to play on our show so there’s definitely
some reciprocity there.
PERBIX: Linneah summed it up pretty perfectly. I think that whenever
mediums overlap it’s good, because they just help bring greater attention
to each other.
It seems like there are two different schools of sketch comedy. There’s
sort of the pop-culture-of-the-moment parody school with a lot of satire and
impersonations and then the second – and I think much cooler school –
which is weird and quirky and kind of occupies its own universe. It’s
interesting because even some of the parody school comedy that was really good
in its own time, like say “The Ben Stiller Show,” if you were to
look at it now it just ages really poorly. The talent is there, but it ages
in a way that something like one of the really out there sketches from “Kids
in the Hall” or “Mr. Show” doesn’t.
MOHN: That is so true. The more character-driven pieces are just timeless.
That’s the stuff I love. If you can deal more in true tableaus of certain
people that you know, and take your comedy out of that you’re better off.
If you’re stuck trying to impersonate celebrities or put your slant on
something that’s happening currently in the news it’s so limiting
– a lot of the stuff won’t even be funny in a month.
It seems like that’s universal with the material on the show. Everything
is more character-driven and there’s not really any parody or satire.
GILLETTE: I dislike parody so much and I just won’t do it. I think
it’s tired and just kind of easy and boring. I don’t have any interest
in doing it.
PULSE: I’m wondering how unique a situation “Nate On Drums”
is? I can’t imagine there are very many local public access sketch shows
that have made the leap to statewide over the air broadcast. Do you think this
is something that could have happened in a different city? This seems like the
sort of amateur-turning-professional-thing that strikes me as a uniquely Minnesotan
sort of enterprise.
PERBIX: This is a gift – this is extremely rare. Being able to
produce a television show on a shoestring budget and have it air on this level.
MOHN: And to have high enough production values that we don’t
really feel “public-accessy” any more.
PERBIX: I think it’s unheard of and I don’t know where this
would be going on anywhere else.
MOHN: I think in a bigger city it would be kind of impossible.
GILLETTE: We were very fortunate that we had material at the exact same
time that Channel 45 was looking for it.
MOHN: I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this is happening
in the same town where “Mystery Science Theatre” started. Hopefully
we can follow a similar path. It’s possible to do it here because it’s
not too big — it’s not too daunting.
PULSE: So what’s the big goal for “Nate On Drums”?
Obviously you’re not at the beginning of the journey but I would imagine
there’s also still more that you want to accomplish. What would be the
success story in your mind of how things play out from here?
MOHN: “Nate On Drums” feature film (laughter around room
HARRIS: My goal, in the short-term, is just to continue to do it. I
would love to be able to put my full time into the show. This has really given
for me personally a place to learn how to act and how to do comedy.
MOHN: There’s a refining period that’s happening right now.
I would love to see the show have a few solid seasons, like five seasons, and
then maybe try and move outside of Minnesota and see if it can have a life beyond
– a DVD or something. I just want to make something that lasts.
GILLETTE: For me it’s really simple. I just love doing it and
want to keep doing it. I’ve always enjoyed the idea of working with friends
and using your efforts to further advance people you care about in some ways.
The final episode of “Nate On Drums” season one airs at 11
p.m. on Sun, Mar. 6 on KSTC Channel 45.
For more information, go to NateOnDrums.com.
All photos courtesy of “Nate on Drums”.