Perhaps the only thing worse than bad improv comedy is bad sketch comedy, and, believe me, I’ve seen enough bad sketch comedy to last a lifetime. Thankfully, when I checked out ON Network’s original series, Backpack Picnic, I was at once relieved and amused. Don’t get me wrong, Backpack’s not for everybody – it’s about as random as it comes – but it’s definitely a breath of fresh air in the sketch comedy landscape where lame writing and tired clichés flourish.
There is no question that head writer, Mitch Baker, is influenced by the great “sketchers” of our time – Monty Python, Smack the Pony, The State, Mr. Show, Kids in the Hall – but Backpack Picnic is also incredibly unique. It runs the gamut from smart and satirical to dumb and weird, with stories and characters that will leave you scratching your head wondering what the hell just happened and why you’re laughing.
When Backpack director, René Pinnell, saw Mitch Baker’s comedy show, the Edmond Bulldogs (named after his Edmond, OK high school football team), perform at Austin’s 2004 Out of Bounds Improv Festival, he was blown away. “I said to them, ‘We’ve got to do something together,’” Pinnell explained in a phone interview. “Two weeks later we shot a pilot and the next day, Mitch drove off to L.A.”
Pinnell spent a good chunk of the next year editing what they shot, and by 2006, it seemed that the Edmond Bulldogs would have their big break when MTV showed an interest in their pilot. But despite a few folks at the network championing the project, the Bulldogs’ pilot lived in limbo on MTV’s then-operational-and-now-defunct video site, MTV Overdrive.
Eventually a friend turned Pinnell onto ON Networks, which scooped up the project, now named Backpack Picnic. Unlike the restrictive environment of MTV, ON provided a laidback platform for Baker and Pinnell. “It’s the most creative freedom I’ve ever had,” Baker said. And it shows. Backpack Picnic is out there. When I told Pinnell and Baker that I had watched the entire first season back-to-back, they were both impressed by my commitment to researching this story and fearful for my mental condition.
The pilot that Pinnell pitched to ON is now the first four episodes of the series available on the site. The premiere five-minute episode, “Suppression Bakery,” tells the story of two men, who I wouldn’t necessarily characterize as gay, even though they both wear dresses and live like a married couple. One goes out to work in his dress and apron with briefcase in hand and the other stays home and bakes cakes made from pure hatred. Eventually, they go with the obvious choice of opening a hatred-inspired bakery, and then things, believe it not, get strange.
Other sketches in the four-ep pilot include “Spin,” about a routine corporate press conference that goes awry, “Misguided Tour,” about the world’s worst walking tour, and my fav, “Huge and Blurry,” an eye-opening glance at near-sightedness.
Today, ON Networks released the premier of Backpack Picnic’s 12-episode third season, with a new episode premiering each week. Today’s opener, “Inside Corpocom,” is another installment in the crew’s alternate universe where corporate fat-cats hunt baby cheetahs for sport and killer robots are as commonplace as ice cream socials.
Backpack Picnic is the collaborative efforts of a whole sketch comedy troupe that tours and performs around the country. Co-starring in the show is the quirky and infectious David Bewley, who went to high school with Baker and who contributes most of the music and sound design to the series. Comedians Jeremy Lamb and Shannon McCormick round out the sketch troupe and artistic director George Morrow is credited by Pinnell as being a huge part of the show’s unique visual style.