Web show creators are ready to unleash the 'Beast'

One chapter is ending for the Baltimore-based 'Showbeast,' but its creators have national ambitions for the quirky puppet show

  • These are the makers of "Showbeast," a webseries featuring puppets. Left to right on couch: Stefani Levin, Mason Ross, Erin Gleeson and Ben O'Brien.
These are the makers of "Showbeast," a webseries… (Barbara Haddock Taylor,…)
March 19, 2012|By Erik Maza, The Baltimore Sun

In one video, a chubby guy in a Tony the Tiger costume holds a couple of puppets hostage. In another, sock puppets drive a human to madness. And in yet another video, a puppet's snoring is so powerful that people, puppets, anything in its vicinity, are sucked into his nose and transported to an alternative universe set in a dystopian, frigid landscape.

That is the demented world of "Showbeast," a Baltimore Web series that marries puppetry, absurdist theater, stand-up, children's humor and experimental music, and has slowly acquired a cult following — fans include Dan Deacon and the band Beach House — one short YouTube video at a time.

Six years after its debut, its creators, comic and artist Ben O'Brien and filmmaker Erin Gleeson, have started putting together its last and most ambitious chapter, a 30-minute episode that they're treating as a pilot, a little taste of what could be a series of "Showbeast"-branded skits and videos.

"We want to turn it into Showbeast Productions," says O'Brien. He wants to send the pilot to venues and networks, like the Independent Film Channel, that are taking risks with nontraditional shows.

The plan is to get their creations seen by "more than, like, 5,000 people on YouTube," he says. "It's what I imagine now, but who knows what will happen?"

Showbeast's shift into full-fledged episodes coincides with the evolution of YouTube, which started as a petri dish for amateur video and is now a mature medium, with its own aesthetic, rules and stars. In a bid to attract more advertising, the Google-owned company recently launched a potentially paradigm-shifting series of channels of original content.

On a recent Sunday evening, O'Brien, Gleeson and their rotating band of collaborators, which now includes actor and comic Mason Ross and artist Stefani Levin, prepared to screen their latest episode of "Showbeast" at a Greenmount warehouse.

Gleeson, a slender 27-year-old with Bettie Page bangs and high cheekbones, says "Showbeast" started out of a wish to break with the conventions of their college work — she had studied filmmaking and O'Brien visual art at Purchase College in New York.

"The things I made in film school were standard indie film projects. When I graduated, Ben and I had more freedom to do what we wanted," Gleeson says.

"We thought, 'Let's make this weird children's show,'" says O'Brien.

Out of a shared love for Steve Martin, Jim Henson, and shows like "The Muppets" and "Mystery Science Theater 3000," "Showbeast" was born in 2006. Theirs was a warped interpretation of those shows, something Kermit might have thought of while tripping on LSD.

From the start, the series followed a clueless dreamer, Snow Beast — played by O'Brien, an animated, 27-year-old goofball who has a stand-up's restlessness — and his two puppet best friends and roommates, Mark and Kasey, operated by Gleeson, as they try to live together.

It is both a send-up and a tribute to Henson's creations and the hallmarks of children's programming, featuring wild-eyed characters that relish their creativity and individuality, and also surrealistic landscapes, nightmarish scenarios and absurd plots.

"We were already silly in other things we were making, but with the puppets, I don't know, it feels easier to be absurd," Gleeson says.

Unlike other contemporary puppets — like those by the ventriloquist Jeff Dunham — theirs are more silly than offensive.

"It's really easy for people to do puppets that swear and murder people. We wanted to bring something new to it," O'Brien says.

That neither of them had ever made puppets was irrelevant. YouTube, launched two years earlier, had given amateur filmmakers the license to make low-budget videos, screw up and learn on the fly. O'Brien and Gleeson saw "Showbeast" as a chance to "learn all the things we wanted to learn," he says.

"In college, we weren't able to work with things like a green screen or a set," Gleeson says. "'Showbeast' was a nice excuse to play around and explore."

Watching "Showbeast" from the start, it's easy to see as the two of them picked up skills. The first episodes are charmingly janky — the videos are less than a minute long, they have no cuts, are shot indoors, and feature only above-the-waist shots. They were made using a cheap, still-shot camera and inside O'Brien's single bedroom in Oakland, Calif., where he had painted a wall to serve as a green screen.

After the two moved to Baltimore — O'Brien in 2008, Gleeson in early 2009 — the videos became more polished and the characters a little deeper. They've collaborated on videos with local musicians, including Beach House, the rapper Height, and Dan Deacon, who donned the Tony the Tiger costume.

But still, the cheesy special effects, home-made puppets, props and sets stayed, and they are what give the show its charm. Like the best YouTube videos, they celebrate innovation at the expense of sophistication.

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