Don't Everybody Panic, but Online Sketch Troupe Backpack Picnic Has Definitely Gone What They Call 'Viral' and Is Also About to Contaminate the Alamo Drafthouse
The Centers for Disease Control have yet to return our calls
Modern life can be a tricky thing. Sometimes, in order to keep yourself from obsessively contemplating the possibility of a local terrorist attack based on the use of weaponized, airborne Ebola Zaire, you need to clear your mind with a little picnic. Maybe, even better, with a Backpack Picnic. Although, yeah, a backpack: That's just the sort of vessel in which a person could, especially in a college town, covertly but with malicious intent, transport an effective quantity of weaponized, airborne Ebola Zaire.
"Well, I assume you could transport it in any container that was big enough, zippered or otherwise," suggests Mitch Baker, the scriptwriting brain behind Backpack Picnic, the quartet of comedy savants currently wrapping its third season of episodes for Austin's ON Networks.
Austin Chronicle: So, okay, the backpack thing, that's just a coincidence. But you do admit it's a bit unnerving, yes? That your troupe would just happen to be called Backpack Picnic, while the best method for transporting a weaponized, airborne version of –
Mitch Baker: Listen, guy, I thought you wanted to ask about our DVD release party at the Alamo.
And of course we did ask, and we'll be getting to that soon. But first you need to know, if you don't already, who these people are. You also need to know where they came from and why they shoot their episodes in Austin (often employing many of the city's top performers) and what they have to do with local filmmaker René Pinnell, nephew of the legendary Eagle Pennell and epitome of young, square-jawed cineastes everywhere (see "Direct(or) to Video," p.64). You may not need to know there is no known treatment for hemorrhagic fever caused by the virus Ebola Zaire – which, even in its natural, unweaponized form, has a kill rate of 9-in-10 – but we'd suggest keeping this fact firmly in mind, just in case.
Backpack Picnic creates sketches about, among other things, an enigmatic multinational firm called Corpocom, where hunting baby cheetahs is a team-building sport; their own musical incarnation as Eurotrashy New Wave band Splitstream; a neighborhood bakery that sells hate-filled cookies and cakes; transplanted human organs that get rejected – correction: ejected – due to typos on boilerplate waivers; the magical, future-revealing power of the Cyclops Eye; and, yes, so much more. They've been compared to Monty Python and Kids in the Hall and Mr. Show, yadda yadda, but we've also detected a distinct inflection of Ernie Kovacs in their genetic material. They're smart enough to be funny in highly intelligent ways; they're also smart enough to be funny being stupid.
The troupe comprises four main stars – Mitch Baker, David Bewley, Shannon McCormick, and Jeremy Lamb – and is the larger phoenix risen from the MTV-torched ashes of what were the Edmond Bulldogs, Baker and Bewley's surreal sketch-comedy duo.
"David and I started out in Oklahoma," says Baker. "The very first time we got together was in 1995. We'd just graduated from college."
"No," says Bewley, "I was still in college."
"Ah, yeah," amends Baker, "he was still in college. And we and several other friends decided to start a comedy troupe, because we liked being funny onstage."
"So we wrote a show," says Bewley. "And we did that show, and it went over really well, so we decided to do another one."
"We called ourselves One Hit Wonder," says Baker. "It was five guys at the start, then grew to seven. And this was all in Oklahoma – Edmond, Oklahoma. And, long story shorter, we kind of took a break around 2000. We went our separate ways for a while, and then Dave and I got back together here in Austin."
"I didn't want to go back to Oklahoma," says Bewley, "but I didn't want to stay in L.A."
Baker and Bewley had been to Austin before – One Hit Wonder had been a part of the Big Stinkin' Improv & Sketch Festival and had played the (late, lamented) Bad Dog Comedy Club – and they'd liked it. By the time they returned here, improv trailblazer Jeremy Lamb had started the Out of Bounds Improv Festival and Miniature Golf Tournament.
"We missed the first one, somehow," says Baker. "But we went to Jeremy, and we were like, 'Hey, we'd like to do some sketches ...?' And Jeremy said, 'Sure; the festival's in a month.' And so I wrote, I dunno, about seven sketches in a couple weeks. And David and I rehearsed and performed them, and it felt really good again. We were calling ourselves the Edmond Bulldogs at the time. That was our high school mascot – we went to the same high school – so that was our new name."
"And then," says Bewley, "the second time we performed at Out of Bounds, René [Pinnell] saw us. And he liked our stuff a lot and asked about the possibility of shooting something together. It started out that we were just going to shoot a sketch, but it turned into us shooting a whole little homemade pilot, like for a series. This was at the beginning of '05. And then, like the week after we'd finished shooting, Mitch moved to L.A."
"I'd gotten very fortunate here with some feature-film roles that made my résumé look cool," says Baker. "I only have, like, two lines in each one; but I thought, well, I've always wanted to be an actor, so lemme see if I can get more work out there. So I moved to L.A."
"And I stayed here," says Bewley.
"Here" is Austin, where this interview was conducted. Specifically: outside an office building on South Congress, during a break from shooting the latest Backpack Picnic episode.
"Actually, no," says Shannon McCormick, the afternoon sun glinting off his freshly shaved noggin as he leans against a railing with the three other Backpackers, a movie crew bustling around them and arranging props for the next scene. "Right now we're shooting a commercial for a video-game company."
"We've already done this month's Backpack episodes," confirms Baker. "This is a different job."
Ah, right, of course. But so what happened with the Bulldogs' sketch pilot?
"You should ask the director," says Baker, nodding toward the young man walking up with a large video camera on his shoulder.
"It took about six months for me to get around to editing that pilot," says Pinnell. He sets the camera down very carefully. "And I gave it to all my friends and told them, 'Do what you can with it.' And one of them came through – they got it to some obscure assistant, who gave it to her boss, who sent it over to Jackie French's assistant at MTV. And Jackie French eventually saw it. And she sent it to L.A. And some assistant there watched it, and then a bunch of other assistants were watching it."
Pinnell laughs, shaking his head. "It seems like the entertainment industry is managed mostly by the assistants.
"Anyway," he continues, "MTV told us that they loved it, but they wanted us to do another pilot. So we basically reshot what we'd shot before – which, at times, felt like an exercise in futility. But we changed it up enough so that it was a lot of fun for us, as well. And then that new pilot languished for a little while on MTV Overdrive, which is a now-defunct Web video thing that they were trying out."
"MTV liked it; they were very complimentary," says Baker. "But it just didn't, uh, fit their audience."
"It's true," says Jeremy Lamb. "Nobody really argued that point."
"And later that year," says Pinnell, "I was trying to clear some legal thing up, and my lawyer knew about the show, and she said, 'You know, you should take it to these people I'm doing this other deal with,' because she – Keaton Clark – had another client who was doing something with ON Networks. And so she hooked me up for coffee with Jen [Grogono] and Kip [McClanahan], who are the owners of ON Networks. That was in March or April 2007, and by May, we were shooting our first series of four sketches. And we've been doing it ever since."
Austin Chronicle: But you weren't the Edmond Bulldogs anymore, right? Wasn't there something contractual?
Mitch Baker: Yeah, that was kind of a thing. The pilot for MTV was called The Edmond Bulldogs. And I was pretty positive that our lawyer in L.A. had said that the name was our name of our group, and it pre-existed, and we'd retain the rights to it, and all those things. But when it came time to make the online shorts that we've been making, René's lawyer – same project, different lawyer – looked back over the contract, and it looked like MTV might own our name. It was like, "We don't want you, we just want to keep the name." But, no, they were really nice to us at MTV. So, better safe than sorry, we picked a new name.
AC: And how'd you choose Backpack Picnic?
Baker: It was just one of those "Which sounds are fun together?" things, where the first word's sound suggests the next word – kind of like some band names. We were thinking of calling ourselves Fake Cake Cookbook, then it was Fake Cake Cookbook Backpack Picnic. And we decided to go with just Backpack Picnic. For, you know, brevity's sake.
AC: So you're saying that it had nothing to do with the potential for transporting a weaponized filovirus?
Baker: Uh, no. I mean, yes, I am saying that: It had nothing to do with that. [Frowns.] What the fuck?
AC: Okay, then. And how did McCormick and Lamb get involved with y'all?
David Bewley: When Mitch and I started doing the Bulldogs, Shannon was the first guy we met in the Austin improv comedy scene. He was the guy who introduced us to everybody.
Shannon McCormick: I actually met them at a FronteraFest show, when they played the 2001 festival.
Bewley: So when we were doing the Bulldogs shows, if we ever needed a third guy, it was always Shannon. And that evolved into: If we needed a fourth guy, it was Jeremy. And so when we revamped ourselves as Backpack Picnic, we brought them on in a more official capacity.
AC: And what about this DVD that's coming out?
McCormick: That's seasons one and two of Backpack Picnic, with a lot of bonus material. It's almost two hours of material.
Bewley: I think there's actually more bonus material, lengthwise, than there is seasons one and two. There are interviews with the cast and an alternate version of one of the videos; there's a karaoke version of one of the Splitstream songs that you can sing along with ...
Jeremy Lamb: It's got all the sketches, the first 24, which is the first six months that ON Networks signed us up for. And now we've just finished our third season – is that right?
Baker: Well, we've done two of the three shoots for the third season.
AC: And the DVD's going to be, uh, you're going to release it at the Alamo?
Baker: We're having a release party on May 4th. We'll be showing a combination of videos from the DVD and new videos that aren't on the DVD. We'll be doing some of the sketches live onstage, too, and there will probably be some improv and a Q&A.
AC: And you'll be here for that? I mean, you're still based in L.A., right?
Baker: I am. And Jeremy is, too, now. But we fly in for these shoots, and we'll all be at the release party.
AC: So you're still pursuing opportunities in L.A.
Baker: Well, there's auditions for regular things like commercials and TV shows.
McCormick: And he has another video sketch troupe – on SuperDeluxe – called Onesie.
Baker: Yeah, that's me and two other guys from the original One Hit Wonder team.
McCormick: And it's really cool that those guys are coming out to help us make the pilot for Fort Ricky, this new narrative project we're also working on. It'll be a nice merger of the Austin world and the old Oklahoma world into one cool thing.
AC: So when you're out there, Mitch, in Hollywood, with all those movie stars and everything ...
AC: Have you ever noticed how Tobey Maguire has a scar on his right cheek that looks like a close-up of the Ebola virus? I mean, exactly like that? I could see it in all those close-ups in the Spider-Man movies, and it was really freaking me out.
Baker: [Pauses.] You know, I find it strange that you'd happen to mention Tobey Maguire. Because we had lunch together just last week, and I asked him about that scar. And he said he thought it looked more like a loquat.
AC: A what?
Baker: Loquat. It's a type of small citrus fruit that grows out in California.
AC: Are you serious?
Baker: You can check Wikipedia.
AC: No, I mean about Tobey Maguire.
Baker: René, are we ready for the next scene yet? Can we get things rolling here, y'think?
Backpack Picnic episodes are available at www.onnetworks.com/videos/backpack-picnic, and Wikipedia has plenty of information on the Ebola filovirus at www.wikipedia.org/wiki/ebola and on loquats at www.wikipedia.org/wiki/loquat. The Backpack Picnic DVD release party takes place on Sunday, May 4, 9:30pm at the Alamo Drafthouse at the Ritz (320 E. Sixth). Admission is $2. See www.originalalamo.com for advance tickets.