It’s Sunday afternoon at Faultline, the east side LA bar where men gather to admire scruffy beards and hairy bellies, and the term “six-pack” comes up only in a conversation about cheap beer. Ryan Kirk is swinging from a pole on a platform near the bar, DJ Shawn Daddy is spinning, and the weekly beer blast crowd is buzzing.
And there, by the door — could it be? It’s Wood talking with his roommate Nelson. Only ten feet away is the murderous Cyril, staring at them and ignoring the cute boy trying so hard to get his attention. But where is Hot Toddy? And where is Reggie? Has Cyril finally done away with them? Is there another murder in the offing, right here in the middle of one of LA’s busiest gay bars?
Fans of “Where the Bears Are” can be forgiven for indulging in such fantasies. That’s because the east side of Los Angeles not only is the setting for WTBA, it’s where the stars of the popular comedy/murder mystery show live their lives. In fact, it’s impossible to have a night out in an east side bar like Faultline or the Eagle without stumbling on one or another of the dozens of stars and extras in the web series.
(By the way, you nervous fans can relax. Cyril (Scott Beauchemin) pushed his way through the crowd that evening for a hug from Wood (Joe Dietl) and Nelson (Ben Zook), who are more than the roommates they appear to be on the show. They celebrate their 20th anniversary on Dec. 15.)
Web video series have been around since at least 1995, when Bullseye Art in New York City produced web cartoons like “Porkchops,” which featured a talking donkey, and “Miss Muffy and the Muff Mob,” about a female rap group. Closer to home, Scott Zakarian produced The Spot, set in Santa Monica and characterized as “Melrose Place on the Web.” But the “webisode” phenomenon didn’t really take off until the end of the last decade, when nearly half of American households had wireless broadband access.
While webisode producers are still struggling to find a business model that works, the ability to distribute content online through channels such as Vimeo and YouTube has opened the door to producers aiming at sub segments of the gay market. Such shows don’t have to have the mass appeal required of LOGO, the gay cable channel that MTV launched in 1995, many of whose shows now are gay-popular (“Absolutely Fabulous,” “Rosanne”) rather than gay-themed.
The concept for WTBA emerged in the late 1990s, when Rick Copp (who plays Reggie in WTBA) had an idea for a gay detective series. An executive at Universal told Copp the “time wasn’t right yet” for that. MTV, however, bought Copp’s pitch for “South Beach Boyz,” but the head of the network wasn’t willing to produce it.
For Copp, whose professional bona fides include writing for “The Golden Girls,” collaborating on a rewrite of “The Brady Bunch Movie” and a number of other feature film writing assignments, the idea faded into the background. Then, on a weekend getaway in Palm Springs, it bubbled to the surface while he sat in a hot tub with friends Dietl and Zook.
Dietl, who has appeared in dozens of television commercials and guest-starred on TV shows such as “Two and a Half Men,” recalled that his partner Zook had just sold a screenplay. “Because of that, we had some money,” he said. “We decided to buy a camera, lights and sound equipment.” With the concept and equipment in hand, the trio set off for a night at SpurLine, the gay video bar. “As we walked in, they were playing the video to ‘Where the Boys Are’,” Copp recalled. “Where the Bears Are” was born.
Season One, which premiered in August of last year, was about three gay bear roommates (Copp, Dietl and Zook) who wake up after Zook’s character’s “fifth” annual celebration of his 40th birthday to find a dead man in their bathtub and Hot Toddy (Ian Parks) happily stretched out in Zook’s character’s bed.
They found Parks, a muscular and handsome young bear, by posting an ad on Craigslist. Parks, a film school graduate who moved to Los Angeles from his native Pennsylvania, is a film editor and sound designer for features, as well as an actor in his off time. Dietl said he was an essential addition to the cast.
“We wanted hot bear candy in every episode,” Dietl said. “The first person to apply was Ian. He had to be comfortable that we were going to objectify him. He had to be willing to take his shirt off, show his butt.” Indeed, Parks does that.
For other performers and extras they turned to friends and put a shout out on Growlr, the gay mobile app for bears. They had no idea how or if they were going to make money, and their friends and acquaintances performed for free. Locations such as the Eagle, Faultline and Sunset Junction Coffee Shop were offered up for free by sympathetic owners. The theme song was written by David Zukofski, a friend of friends who lives in New York City.
Dietl says the production process evolved. “When we started out we had no idea what we were doing. Originally we thought that one of the actors also would do the camerawork and another would do the sound.”
It turned out to be much harder, with each episode shot over two long days, generally on a weekend. A six- to eight-minute segment can take eight to 10 hours to shoot. “The hardest thing about the show is the physicality of it,” said Zook, a fixture in LA’s alternative comedy scene who also has had a recurring role in Comedy Central’s “Reno 911!.” “You know, we’re approaching 40! Carrying all that equipment! And I’m fat. My feet hurt.”
Season One was a success. The team earned back what they spent by selling DVDs of the show, downloads of its theme song and WTBA-branded accessories such as posters, hats and shirts on its website. By the time Copp, Dietl and Zook were ready to produce Season Two, which premiered in June, WTBA had established enough of a reputation to lure guest stars such as Margaret Cho (“Drop Dead Diva”), Becky Thyre (“Weeds,” “Parks and Recreation”) and Chris Lavoie (“The Stephanie Miller Show”). And WTBA was able to pay its cast, albeit modestly. That season, which consists of 23, seven-minute episodes, is a hilarious effort to solve the murder of someone who turns up dead at his own political fundraiser. To date, the two series have gotten six million views. And the WTBA Facebook page has an impressive 31,000 “likes,” an important metric of popularity in the age of social media.
Copp, Dietl and Zook still marvel at the recognition the show has given them. “One of the most rewarding things about the show is when people come up to you with a smile on their face,” Copp said. They also are amazed at how many viewers it attracts from around the world, with large audiences in gay-unfriendly Saudi Arabia and in Australia, Brazil and Mexico. Copp said he also likes that “the show celebrates that it’s okay to be middle-aged, dating, sexual and single.”
So what’s next? There definitely is a Season Three in mind, although there may be some conceptual changes.
“There are only so many times four guys can stumble over dead bodies,” Dietl said. Parks also has other film ideas in mind that he’s not ready to discuss now. That said, he wants to continue with WTBA. “… I’d just like to keep doing them because they are fun,” he said.
Parks said he would “love to see the feature versions get picked up for some kind of syndication … each season gets bigger and better and more polished and more popular, until the networks have to take notice …”
While WTBA is fun for those involved, finding a way to make the series profitable is a challenge they, like all webisode producers, confront. If the group doesn’t realize enough revenue from sales of DVDs and accessories, it may turn to a crowd-sourced fundraising website to fund Season Three. And just maybe a video content pioneer like Amazon or Netflix or a cable channel like HBO, which is launching “Looking,” its gay-themed series set in San Francisco, will stumble upon WTBA and realize what it’s missing.
For more gay web series, visit our gTV page.