Make Yourself Uncomfortable
Nate on Drums
Sundays at 6:00 p.m. (first season) and 11:00 p.m.
It's 11:00 p.m. on a Sunday night, an hour commonly ranked among the least funny of a typical week. In a related phenomenon, it's also a time slot with which TV producers will often take chances. Which brings us to Uptown's the Bulldog, where the creators of the local comedy show Nate on Drums have gathered to watch the second episode of their second season. Nearly everyone in the noisy bar and restaurant's little step-down room, appointed with three wall-mounted screens, is connected with the show or friendly with its stars, so tonight is something of a private screening. "This is where I start to get nervous," says David Harris as the show's tinkling theme song begins. Harris, the show's neurotic executive producer, also acts on the program, portraying a neurotic character named David Harris.
This is where I also start to get nervous: I'm watching the show with its creators, and what if I don't think it's funny? What if I never laugh, or laugh unconvincingly? It's all a bit uncomfortable, which I later learn is precisely what Harris and the rest of tonight's audience--David Gillette (who plays Motion Price on the show), Linnea Mohn (an actor who also plays bass in Coach Said Not To), and musical director/co-writer/co-director Caleb Rick--strive for in their work. Gillette sums up the Nate on Drums mission as follows: "People are funny; how do we get that on screen?" And what makes people so funny? "For one thing, awkwardness," says Harris, who also performs around town as a comic-magician. This is followed by an awkward pause of about eight seconds, finally broken by Mohn's laughter. Followed by more awkward silence.
Nate on Drums was originally created in 2002 as a cable access show featuring sketch comedy, animated non sequitur vignettes, and performances by local bands. Harris, Gillette, and Mohn were the key players, along with a bunch of their friends and family and drumming host and reluctant actor Nate Perbix, timekeeper for Cowboy Curtis and Mohn's former bandmate in Coach Said Not To. Perbix has since left the program, which is not scheduled to undergo a name change. Highlights from the first season include "Gravity Head," about a girl whose noggin spontaneously gains 500 pounds at any given moment, and a hilarious bit about a garrulous cartoon lollipop who was raised on the tale of a whale but moves to the big city, where it finds work in a downtown office where blabbermouth candy on a stick is tolerated but not appreciated.
The possibly made-up story of Nate on Drums' leap from public access to KSTC 45 involves colliding with a plate-glass door. Twice. From its first year of shows, the group made a five-minute demo, which Perbix delivered to Channel 45 after smacking into the apparently streak-free plate-glass doors, knocking the baseball cap off his head in front of more than one witness inside the KSTC reception area. Maybe the program director thought Perbix was demonstrating his physical-comedy skills. Either despite or because of the pratfall, the station was intrigued enough to watch the tape and invite Perbix back for a meeting, where he and the glass doors again met the same fate.
"It was really serendipitous," Gillette says. In real life, Gillette is serious and contemplative. He stares intently at the TV screen, never letting a smile creep across his baby face. "The program director wanted to pursue something that had a local feel with the potential to develop a cult following. It fit the vision he had in his head, so he decided to give us a shot." Gillette also plays the acting motivational therapist of the group in real life. "I like how you shuffle the papers," he tells Harris at the end of one scene.
For its second season, Nate is moving away from sketches toward more character-driven story lines, mostly centered on Perbix's departure and the remaining core trio's start-up company, a video-production business. The fictional concept isn't far from reality: Gillette, an illustrator, writer, and designer, is also a video techie who's been tinkering with the form since high school. Perbix, who left at the end of last season, is said to have departed on good terms, though the group, careful not to give away too much of the season's plot, is tight-lipped about details. "Basically, we thought, if we could do any type of show, what would we do?" says Gillette of the format change. "And we all decided that this was it. Something that goes beyond the quick laugh."
Gillette says he's no great fan of most current sitcoms, but does admire unconventional specimens such as Scrubs and Arrested Development. Soon all are musing on the essence of comedy, with Mohn riffing about the comedic "rule of three" (thrice is funnier than twice), and Harris explaining the symbiosis between the smile and the cringe. "[What's funny are] things that are uncomfortable or abnormal," he says. "Things we don't necessarily say because maybe we're too embarrassed. That's one of the things that I've learned, in trying to be more comfortable with everything in my life, is to take some of that and put it into non-reality." He's also referring to his magic act, which he hopes people will see is as much about making a deep human connection as about making things disappear.
"I know you think [the magic act] is silly," he says to Gillette. "But I really like it." Harris admits that he sometimes cares too much about what Gillette thinks, but that he wants his approval because he respects him as a writer and a friend. And, sometimes, this need really bothers him.
"Why?" Gillette asks. "Who cares what I think? I'm cynical. You don't want to be like me. I wish I were more like you," he pauses, looking confused. "You've never told me any of this before."
In keeping with the theme of the night, the whole exchange feels more than a little awkward, like I'm privy to something I shouldn't be. But mostly the revelation is exhilarating, as it touches on the stuff that makes people and life interesting, and, yes, even funny.
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