Katy Perry‘s slightly scantily-clad performance on Sesame Street may not have flown with Big Bird — or parents — but the singer will always be A-OK as far as Pancake Mountain is concerned. In a 2007 episode of the kids-of-all-ages-friendly cult television series, a pre-Prism Perry strums an acoustic guitar and sings to the show’s host Rufus Leaking, a goat puppet, that she can belch the alphabet on a double-dog dare. When she asks him for a kiss, he declines. Moments like those, among other things, are what make Pancake Mountain so special.
“We were really fortunate early on to get groups that were not big at the time,” says show co-creator Scott Stuckey, who has booked everyone from Danny Brown to St. Vincent to sing, dance, and riff with Rufus. Now Perry’s such a superstar he worries even her tour openers Tegan & Sara won’t have time to hang out when they come through town. But no matter: “That’s another aspect I really like about the show,” he continues. “We can bring people like the Arcade Fire and Katy Petty, and then have Deerhoof or the Melvins.”
Tuesday (Sep. 2) brings a new season of Pancake Mountain to PBS Digital Studios, PBS’ younger, hipper online platform that resurrected it earlier this year as a weekly YouTube series, posting new episodes every Wednesday and archived episodes on Fridays. In its first iteration, Pancake Mountain ran on select cable-access television channels in Washington D.C. and as a self-produced web series on YouTube before being discontinued in 2012. Pancake Mountain is a lot of things, none of them strictly sensical, so it’s best to lead the uninitiated with a few examples; NOFX‘s Fat Mike and his daughter singing about Massachusetts with Rufus, Rufus taking a cross-country road trip in a cardboard box car with his cohort Captain Perfect, and a tour de Germany with Shirley Manson are but a few adventures in the treasure trove available online.
Like the show itself, the origins of Pancake Mountain involve a lot of moving parts somehow sticking together. In 2002, Stuckey had been working on a Minor Threat DVD with Ian MacKaye, and he liked the Dischord Records founder so much he suggested they find something else to work on. “We were talking about how I respected the DIY movement in D.C., where you could do these things that once were prohibited outside of the mainstream,” says Stuckey. “And I’ve always loved the sense of community of a band, but I don’t like the heavy amps and the traveling, so we thought, ‘We’ll start a TV show.'”
MacKaye suggested something like Chic-a-Go-Go, a Chicago-based public-access children’s dance show he recently stopped by (and which will incidentally be the topic of the below episode, featuring American Idol finalist Todrick Hall). He also proposed the name “Pancake Mountain,” formerly “Hamburger Mountain,” a song the members of Fugazi wrote after seeing a Waffle House employee wearing his restaurant’s hat upside-down so that WH looked like HM. Since the band is vegan, the hamburger became a pancake.
Speaking of food, one of the show’s newest personalities is The Jesus Lizard‘s frontman David Yow, who hosts a weekly segment called “Cooking with Yow” in which there is… not that much cooking, actually. “My friends think it’s downright hilarious that you see almost no food porn whatsoever,” says Yow, who so far has made ants on a log and coconut macaroons. “No B-roll shots of the food being prepared.” His girlfriend, who he tells Billboard used to work on reality cooking shows like Cupcake Wars, says, “‘Pancake Mountain’ has done for cooking shows what Breaking Bad has done for regular television. It’s revolutionary.”
Indeed, Pancake Mountain‘s subversion of expectations, however critically respected and cherished by children of all ages, was also part of its (fortunately temporary) downfall. In its 2003 profile of the show, Washington City Paper spotlighted a prescient skit in which some sinister “Board” members — one of them played by Bob Mould — can’t see the merit in such an off-the-wall show. According to Stuckey, that’s not far from what actually happened.
In 2010, he started shopping Pancake Mountain around with J.J. Abrams (Lost, Super 8), who wanted to produce the show while keeping it exactly the same. Two years later, Stuckey hadn’t found a network that understood his vision. “Everyone wanted a demographic,” he recalls. “‘Is it for eight- or nine-year-olds? Or for 22-year-old college students?’ I was like, ‘Can’t it be both?’ They said, ‘No!’ So after about a year we decided to retire it.”
That’s where Matt Graham, senior director of PBS Digital Studios, came in. “We started developing a reputation in the building as doing really fun, fresh content and doing different things,” says Graham. Launched in 2012 as a way to reach audiences that hewed younger and were consuming more media on digital platforms, PBS’ digital platform (which at press time had just broken 100 million streams, according to Graham) was already home to eclectically genius programming like Frankenstein M.D., a reimagination of the classic tale, and “Art Assignment,” an emerging artist-focused vlog. It was a home for shows that you couldn’t find anywhere else; so, basically, it was perfect for Pancake Mountain.
“Someone literally said, ‘You need to meet Scott from ‘Pancake Mountain,'” Graham adds. “‘He has an awesome show and it could be really great for you guys.’ So I called him up out of the blue one day.”
One of the challenges both faced was re-jiggering what used to be a 20-minute program into bite-sized chunks for an 18- to 34-years-old, voracious, multifaceted YouTube audience with fairly limited attention spans towards anything much longer than a cat riding a Rumba. So they added new programming, like “Cooking with Yow,” enlisted Reggie Watts for the inaugural episode, and even revamped the theme song (originally performed by Anti-Flag and Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty, who wrote it with the The Julie Ruin‘s Kathi Wilcox, it’s now sung by The Distillers‘ Brody Dalle). “They’ve been doing really interesting things in terms of breaking the skits apart and tying them back together and creating narrative over multiple episodes,” like breaking up Rufus and Captain Perfect’s road trip into three different videos, says Graham.
“They weren’t afraid to take on the challenges of retooling the show for a totally new platform,” he adds. “The show has got such a great mix of music and comedy. It’s smart, but in a way that works with kids and parents at the same time. It puts so much value on creativity.”