Standing onstage in a near-empty 9:30 club on a winter's day, the members of the Arcade Fire, one of the hottest indie-rock bands of the moment, are tuning up, preparing to do Scott Stuckey a favor. Later that night the Canadian group will play for a packed house, but right now they are waiting patiently as an increasingly frazzled Stuckey herds a group of children and their parents onto the stage. The band members look on, slightly bemused, while Stuckey readies the kids, ages 3 to 11, to play along with the band.
After equipping the tykes with tambourines, maracas and drumsticks, he shouts last-minute orders to a crew of volunteers preparing to film the Arcade Fire performing a couple of songs with the children dancing alongside them.
The cable-access show stages dance parties with hip musical guests -- all tailored for kiddies' consumption. Uri Guttman, 3, rocks during a recent show.
(Hans Ericsson For The Washington Post)
"Do the kids have earplugs?" asks the band's sound woman. "It's gonna be loud."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, they've got 'em," Stuckey replies. "The kids are ready. Are you ready, kids? Let's hear it for Arcade Fire! Okay, okay, that was good. Now let's try it again."
It's just one more frantic moment for the creator of "Pancake Mountain," a thoroughly offbeat cable-access kids' show that might even be more fun for adults. A sort of slapstick "Sesame Street" that combines "Pee-wee's Playhouse" silliness with the inspired lunacy of "Monty Python's Flying Circus," the program also boasts an ultra-hip and ever-expanding musical guest list.
Produced in Washington, the show is a collection of bits and skits that are mostly funny and occasionally flat-out bizarre. For filmmaker and producer Stuckey, "Pancake Mountain" is a response to what he views as dumbed-down children's programming made toxic by an overdose of advertising and product placement. If his low-budget half-hour show can entertain kids without marketing to them, then Stuckey, the 40-year-old father of two teenage girls, will consider it a success.
He also relishes having a local show. A show whose stars are from around the way, like the go-go band UnCalled4, WTOP reporter Neil Augenstein and a slew of neighborhood kids and actors. Stuckey loves the idea that viewers might bump into one of the characters from "Pancake Mountain." "I mean, there's no way a kid walking down the street is gonna see Barney or the Wiggles, right?" he says.
Though the program can be seen only sporadically on DCTV (Starpower Channels 10 and 11 and Comcast Channels 5 and 6) or by purchasing DVDs from the show's Web site, PancakeMountain.com, Stuckey hopes it is intriguing enough for a larger outlet to take a chance on it. The impressive roster of musicians might be one way to help it do so.
With a growing popularity on the Internet and mentions on CNN and in Entertainment Weekly and Spin magazines, the show has increasingly become a playpen for bands looking to do something out of the ordinary. With just six episodes completed since its launch in November 2003, it already boasts appearances by the Fiery Furnaces, George Clinton, Scissor Sisters, Anti-Flag, Steel Pulse, Henry Rollins, Thievery Corporation and Bob Mould.
In one episode, Fugazi singer Ian MacKaye, wearing a jumpsuit no less, deadpans his way through "Vowel Movement," a charming, not to mention educational, song and video he created for the show with Amy Farina from their new band, the Evens. Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty wrote the "Pancake Mountain" theme song (the show actually took its name from the song) and appears with his kids in the title sequence. In another episode, Olivia Newton-John's "Have You Never Been Mellow?" is sung by singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt, who slows it down to an impossibly sad warble. Other bands are now asking to perform on "Pancake Mountain" -- rather surprising, since Nielsen doesn't have a share number low enough to measure its audience and the bands aren't paid a cent.
"No one we have asked to do it has turned us down," says the exuberant Stuckey as he walks through the Glover Park offices of his Monkey Boy Studios, where, in addition to "Pancake Mountain," he produces advertisements and public-service videos. "How unbelievable is that? Bands are writing us and trying to get on the show."
The show's hip credentials and off-kilter comedy are reasons bands cite for wanting to take part. "They sent us a video and we thought it was cool," said the Arcade Fire's singer, Win Butler, following the 9:30 club taping.
One of "Pancake Mountain's" favorite recurring characters is Rufus Leaking, a goat puppet-celebrity journalist who has interviewed everyone from funk-music pioneer Clinton and punk-rock veteran Rollins to former presidential candidate John B. Anderson. At last year's HFStival, Leaking interviewed two clearly perplexed members of the rock-rap group Cypress Hill about their biggest hit, "Insane in the Brain."
"Uh, yes, I have a question for you," said Leaking. "What is my membrane, and how do I know that it's actually insane?"