Three’s Company

FOR MOST MINNESOTANS, the phrase “locally produced television” conjures up images of Almanac’s Eric Eskola in his signature scarf or Kent Hrbek, recently roped into doing an outdoors show, in a XXL blaze-orange hunting jacket. For viewers of such sedate programming, Nate on Drums might come as a bit of a shock.

The satirical, semi-autobiographical show, which has run for two years on the Twin Cities station KSTC 45 (and can be seen in re-runs Sunday nights through late March), stands out among home-grown programs simply because it’s a sitcom. It bears none of the hallmarks of locally produced television: no fishing, no politics, no Scrabble (seriously: check out Channel 17 in Minneapolis on Tuesdays at 11 p.m.). Instead, it’s part mockumentary, part reality show, part animation.

Strangest of all, it’s terrific.

In 2004, when Channel 45 picked up Nate on Drums from cable-access, the show was a hodgepodge of sketch comedy, cartoons, and live in-studio performances by little-known Twin Cities rock bands. The show had a cast of four, with Nate Perbix, drummer for the local indie-rock outfit Cowboy Curtis, filling the role of host. Recognized as much for his toothy grin and wispy bangs as for his drum solos, which opened every show, Perbix was the straight man to his three hilarious friends: David Gillette (known as Motion Price on the show), David Harris, and Linnea Mohn. The foursome filmed 13 episodes. Then, citing a need to clear his creative plate (he was drumming in two bands in addition to producing the show and working as a teacher), Perbix left the picture.

Losing the show’s central character, however, didn’t slow the remaining friends. In fact, the program got even better. Gone was the sketch comedy. A new, behind-the-scenes story line reflected the crew’s own Nate-less plight, enacted with the kind of hyper-real situational humor popularized by such shows as The Office and Arrested Development.

As with those programs, Nate on Drums succeeds on the strength of its characters. On this show about making a show, Motion Price is the creative director and resident cynic, a baby-faced redhead whose artistic spirit is constantly colliding with the economic realities of running a media business. Opposite him—philosophically and physically—is the hyperactive Harris, a tall, dark-haired hernia-waiting-to-happen who’s been pushing the dull but practical idea of converting the Nate on Drums gang into videographers for hire. And then there’s Mohn, the lovably mischievous third leg who prevents the precariously balanced Price-Harris relationship from tipping over.

The threesome established their tense creative relationship in the first episode of the second season. In one memorable scene, Price proudly unveils his attempt at illustrating the show’s predicament: an art installation consisting of a mannequin in a kiddie pool, with blood spilling from its neck. “Is this what you’ve been working on all week?” asks an infuriated Harris. “David, it’s very important to me as a leader that we maintain a positive work environment at all times,” deadpans Price. “So, what I’m going to do, I’m going to table that question, if I could. I’m going to table that one and ask, are there any non-judgmental questions from the audience?”

“How did you make the blood?” asks Mohn.

“Great question. The blood is three bottles of Carlo Rossi. David, would you like a glass of wine?”

IT’S AN OVERCAST SUNDAY in November, and Channel 45 has just aired the final episode of Nate on Drums’s second season. Gillette, Harris, and Mohn are sitting at a conference table in space150, the Minneapolis Warehouse District advertising firm where Mohn works, readying the season’s six episodes for DVD release.

Watching the trio interact, it’s readily apparent how thinly veiled their onscreen alter egos really are. Gillette is a natural storyteller, and his thoughtful, angst-ridden conclusions often come at the expense of Harris (a typical closing line: “And that’s why I’m never going out in public with Harris again.”). Harris, the neurotic, fills the resultant pregnant pauses with every textbook nervous tic short of tugging at his collar with his index finger.

Harris: “Oh, tell the Peter Falk story!”

Gillette: “God, the Peter Falk story. Okay, so we’re at this film screening….”

Harris: “Wait. I should give some background first.”

Gillette: “No, Harris, you’re gonna mess it up.”

Harris: “I am not going to mess it up….”

Gillette: “Yes, you are.”

Mohn, the squirmy sidekick, leans back with a devilish glint in her eyes and enjoys the show.

NATE ON DRUMS BEGAN in 2002 as a shoestring video project for the Lake Minnetonka Communications Commission, a 16-city cable-access station serving the western suburbs. Gillette, now a 28-year-old freelance illustrator, had been working on an earlier variety program for the commission called Watch the Show.

When that program dissolved, Gillette and Perbix hooked up to launch Nate on Drums. A year later, looking to strengthen the cast, Gillette tapped Mohn and Harris. Mohn had befriended the group when Perbix briefly drummed for her rock band, Coach Says Not To, in which she plays bass. Harris, a comic magician and commercial actor, had impressed Gillette with his character-acting skills.

With the new crew in hand, Gillette and his team scraped together a five-minute demo from two years’ worth of cable-access episodes and sent it to Mike Smith, programming director at KSTC 45 and its sister station, KSTP 5. Smith says he was impressed with the show’s production values and comedy, especially considering it was a local product. After all, very few TV shows, even those with big budgets, catch on with audiences.

“It’s hard enough for syndicated shows put out by large production companies like Sony and King World,” Smith says. “About 90 percent of those shows fail. So to have a local person come up with an idea and be able to produce it and get it on the air is even more difficult.” Smith gave the team a break, offering up a monthly Sunday night time slot and on-air promotions, but no money.

A show’s format can also be a hurdle to gaining a broadcast berth. Simply put, plot-driven programming is labor-intensive to produce, and its creators often can’t drum up enough advertising dollars to underwrite production costs. Channel 45, for example—the only Twin Cities–based network affiliate with a stated mission to produce local programming—only has one local show with a serialized story: Nate on Drums.

Rich Kronfeld understands firsthand the problems faced by Nate on Drums. Kronfeld is the Twin Cities comedian who co-created and hosted Let’s Bowl, a game-show spoof that in 1999 moved up from regional broadcasts to Comedy Central, where it ran for two seasons. “If you just want to do a local show and do it here, that’s fine,” he says. “But it’s never going to be a self-sustaining business. It’ll always be a means to some kind of end—to get on a network.”

But Kronfeld also knows that, if the planets align, a television show produced in Minnesota can indeed gain a national audience. Before Let’s Bowl became a success, there was Mystery Science Theater 3000, he notes, which aired for 10 seasons (first on KTMA 23, then on Comedy Central and the Sci-Fi Channel) and garnered a rabid and still-active fan base around the world. And all the production was done in a warehouse studio in Eden Prairie. In fact, to hear MST3K head writer and latter-day host Mike Nelson tell it, the show’s Minnesota home actually worked in its favor.

“It was nice because [the studio executives] weren’t around during the shooting,” Nelson says. “It was pure isolation. We went through a lot of regimes of executives, and they would make one token trip to Minneapolis and never come back. I’ve actually been asked by people from New York if we have telephones. You can use that to your advantage. There wasn’t too much monkeying with the show from them.”

Kronfeld believes Nate on Drums can succeed on a national network, if only because of the actors’ versatility and the sharpness of the scripts. In fact, Kronfeld likes the show so much that he co-starred in the final episode, as the would-be Nate replacement. “They’ll get a deal,” Kronfeld predicts. “It’s not going to happen overnight, and maybe not something huge, but something.”

IF THAT DEAL ARRIVES SOME DAY, Nate on Drums may ultimately have Peter Falk to thank. Which means that story has to be told. So, with a little background, here goes.

In August of last year, the cast attended an advance screening of The Thing About My Folks, the Paul Reiser vehicle starring an aging Falk, the one-eyed comedic actor best known for playing the TV detective Columbo. Falk was on hand to speak after the film, and Harris showed up armed with a DVD of Nate on Drums’s first season. He meant to get it into Falk’s hands by any means necessary. Just one problem: the security guard between him and Falk wasn’t budging.

“I’m sorry, sir,” said the guard. “Please stand back. Don’t come any closer.”

“Oh, okay,” said Harris, sulkily turning away. Then, in an inspired feat of acrobatic dexterity, he spun 180 degrees, shouldered his way past the guard, and slammed the DVD into Falk’s hands. “Peter-I-love-your-work-please-take-a-look-at-this” he managed to shout before being hauled away.

“Now, this is the main difference between Harris and me,” Gillette concludes as Harris reenacts his now-famous pirouette. “I would never do this. It doesn’t make any sense. What possible outcomes are there? What in the hell is Peter Falk going to do with our DVD?”

“It doesn’t matter,” answers Harris. “That’s how this business works. You’ve got to get it into as many hands as you can, and eventually the right person sees it.”

Gillette is not convinced. “But Peter Falk?!”

The “right person” has yet to emerge. For now, Harris and Gillette have another struggle: how, when, where, and with whose money will they produce the next season? After all, they better have Season Three in the can when that big call comes from the networks—or Peter Falk