Nateless in Minneapolis

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September 19, 2005 // UPDATED 1:58 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Jeremy Stratton
Jeremy Stratton

Award-winning local show "Nate on Drums" launches second season from Downtown -- sans host

It's Sunday night, it's late and you're flipping through the regular doldrums of 11th-hour weekend television when -- wait, what was that? It looks like Downtown. Isn't that the girl from that band, and that magician guy who made your cigarette disappear? Animation, local music, homemade production quality -- what is this?

After a rookie season airing monthly on Channel 45 -- and fresh off a 2004 Minnesota Music Award -- locally produced "Nate on Drums" has left the Minnetonka public access studio to produce season two in the Colonial Warehouse, 212 3rd Ave. N., with Downtown as a backdrop.

For Linnea Mohn and David Harris -- two-thirds of the show's core team -- the move brings them close to work (past and present) on a funny show that already resembles and feeds off their real lives.

February 2004 marked the move to monthly network television for "Nate on Drums," which had aired on public access for two years before then. Season one episodes featured host Nate Perbix -- seated behind drums -- introducing local live local music acts, art-resembles-life sketch comedy and animation bits.

Harris says the show has a following -- Nielsen reports an average of 15,000 viewers per episode.

They must be doing something right. The first of six new now-weekly episodes aired Sunday, Sept. 18 on Channel 45 at 11 p.m., after a "best-of" season one episode showed at 6 p.m.

On Sept. 23, Mohn, Harris and writer/animator Motion Price will bite their nails at First Avenue, 701 1st Ave. N. , in anticipation of a second Minnesota Music Award for Best Produced Audio and Visual Production. A Sept. 8 kick-off party at the Varsity Theater in Dinkytown drew 200 people.

There's just one problem -- there's no Nate. No host. The bespectacled drummer/MC has mysteriously disappeared, leaving little but his first name on the title.

"The resounding question is, 'Why are these people forcing themselves to stay together?" said Mohn of the shows raison d'etre. "They don't really do anything!"

"What do you do when the host leaves?" asked Harris rhetorically. "You'll have to tune in and find out."

I'm not an actor, I just play one on TV

There's "Nate on Drums" the show -- in-studio musicians, animation and sketch comedy -- and then there's the show behind the show, a running chronicle on four (now three) people's attempt to produce a low-budget, homegrown half-hour program.

"Season one is a show about a show," Harris said. "Season two is when you don't have a host and you try to move forward as a production company. Do we tape weddings? Do events?"

"There's definitely an art-imitates-life component," said Mohn, a self-dubbed "utilitarian everywoman" (administrative assistant) at digital marketing firm Space 150 in the Colonial Warehouse. Nate's summer studio was, in fact, the next office over from Space 150 -- largely a coincidence, Mohn said. Harris has a Colonial connection, as well -- the show's production space, now empty, once housed Akerlind and Associates Casting, where Harris auditioned for commercials as a child actor.

"My mom used to drop me off," he said.

"All the dialogue is taken from conversations we've had," Mohn explained. "It's real reflective of what's going on, but taken to the point where it's totally absurd."

Take, for instance, the season one segment titled "How It All Happened," in which Linnea (characters use cast members' real names) stows thousands of dollars in cash -- the show's entire budget -- in her journal for safekeeping. In a well-paced "Arrested Development"-style narrated sequence, infighting, jealousy, miscommunication and a string of comedic errors lead to the slow motion, rooftop moment in which an angry Motion (okay, not his real name) defiantly tosses the journal -- and the show's budget -- into oblivion. The shot fades to the cast, sulking on the front step.

"That's how we got here, sitting in front of the studio, totally broke," narrates Mohn.

Season two will feature more of this character-driven, story-based writing, along with Price's animation. A season one animation points out that the new Walker Art Center looks like an angry robot head, which proceeds to rise out of the ground and join the University of Minnesota's Weisman Art Museum and McNamara Alumni Center to form the "Innovative Architecture Strike Force," which does battle by spewing forth art and suited U of M alumni.

Each show will feature a unique local-music soundtrack, but not the live performances of season one.

And, of course, there's no Nate.

On and off camera, Mohn and Harris prefer to "cultivate a sense of mystery" surrounding Perbix' departure. (Rumor has it he performs in local band "Cowboy Curtis," which appeared on the show last season.) There appear to be no hard feelings.

The real life

Mohn is actually an actor -- the only real one of all the cast members, Harris said. She appeared this spring as a male tango dancer in Theatre de la Jeune Lune's "Maria de Buenos Aires." Mohn also plays bass and sings with Coach Said Not To, which appeared on a first-season episode.

After the Jeune Lune show closed, Mohn threw herself into the three-month production of "Nate on Drums." She worked half-days at her job while writing and acting for the show.

"I would love for it to be the day job," she said.

Harris said he'd like to see the show take off as well. Harris -- who plays the uptight business manager on the show -- currently makes a living performing magic at colleges, corporate events and private parties. He'll perform his sleight-of-hand routine at Le Meridien Hotel for the Guthrie Theater's Costume Ball fund-raiser, Oct. 8. (Check out Harris online at www.davidsact.com.)

"I shouldn't tell people I'm into magic," Harris said. "It's kind of creepy."

How it all happened

Harris said it has been the dozens of sponsors that have made the show possible, especially National Camera Exchange , 930 Hennepin Ave. S., Taco John's and Colonial Warehouse management firm Colliers Turley Martin Tucker, which traded the studio in exchange for a commercial, which the "Nate" crew will produce.

"It's funny," said Colliers' Cindy Arneson of the show. "They brought a bunch of energy to the building. It's been great to have them here. They're very creative."

Editor Joe Martin of Jagged Edge, 311 1st Ave N., did postproduction in his spare time.

Harris said that something has to give, though, for the show to go on.

"I'm hoping it builds momentum," said Harris. "One or two more main sponsors, like a Downtown business."

Mike Smith, program director for both KSTC Channel 45 and KSTP television, said he'd like to see the show continue, as well.

"What I need is more new episodes," Smith said. "If they can find the funding for new episodes, I'll find a place for them on the air.

"I get tapes all the time from people who think they're funny," Smith said. "I think 'Nate on Drums' has come up with a style of their own that brings the audience into the show."

Is there an audience? Smith said the show does "almost a one" rating -- about 15,000 viewers. While even a Vikings preseason game rates a 17, Smith said you can't judge "Nate" like a network show.

"The comedy, behind the scenes, animation and music gave a lot of people an opportunity to find something they liked in the show," Smith said. "You don't find many local productions with that many levels."

Smith said local television stations and buyers found something they liked at this year's Twin Cities Media Network annual luncheon. Stations each present two new shows -- KSTC brought "Girls Behaving Badly" and "Nate on Drums" (since "Nate" was monthly last year, Smith thought they'd give it some exposure.)

"Nate" got the thumbs up and interest from advertisers. McDonald's bought airtime during the show.

While another Minnesota Music Award on Sept. 23 wouldn't hurt, Harris said he's not holding his breath.

"People liked it enough to vote for it," Mohn said of last year's award. "But we have no idea how we won." At last year's award ceremony in St. Cloud, Mohn was "getting ready to clap for the winner" when the award was announced. Her quite-audible response of joy and surprise would have been bleeped on the show.

The hard work of production is over now, and it's back to real life for Mohn and Harris. The day after handing over the Colonial Warehouse keys, Harris was back in the space for a Downtown Journal photo shoot.

"I miss this space," he said.

There was next to no trace of the "Nate on Drums" production in the empty office area -- only a large calendar made out of blue tape stuck to the wall. Above the calendar -- left over from a scene in the show -- were the words "Roadmap to Success." Once again, art imitates real life. Will the on-air production company find success -- and a reason to be -- sans host? Will Nate return? Will the show, for a third season? Will Mohn quit her day job?

You'll have to tune in and find out.

You can see new episodes of "Nate on Drums" Sundays at 11 p.m. on Channel 45, KSTC, and best-of season one episodes Sundays at 6 p.m.