I first met Billy Reid back in 2007, when he worked a few desks away as writer/host for a CBC short film program called Exposure. With music in his blood, and a knack for shooting infectious videos, he has since etched out a career for himself in the wilds of the internet on his website, Very Tasteful, where he posts his music and videos.
Pancake Manor is Reid's latest project. It's a musical adventure featuring feltoids Zach and Reggie, two best buddies who sing songs for kids of all ages. I spoke with Reid via msger about Pancake Manor's beginnings, and Reggie and Zach's upcoming trip to the summer Olympics.
Me: So, I've been meaning to talk to you about Pancake Manor for a while now, really ever since I first watched "Shapes." What made you say, "I know! I'm going to make kids' music with puppets!"
Billy Reid: I've been meaning to make this sort of video for about five years now. I bought some puppet designs online and had my mom help me sew together this really simple puppet to practice. This was in early 2007, around the time I was also making videos for the older set, which had tons of exposure. Then I was hired by CBC to write and host that summer, and the puppet idea fell to the wayside. Shortly after that, I was contacted by a puppeteer in Toronto, and he was interested in me making some theme music for him, so I told him "instead of paying me, let's do a trade: songs for puppets." I designed the puppets and he built Zach and Reggie based on those designs.
Me: Was the plan to do kids' music with puppets from the start, or was the plan to do something more adult-oriented, as in your previous work?
Reid: Well, people have always told me my music has a child-like quality to it. And, even with my more adult-oriented work, I've steered away from offending people. I'd rather just amuse. As for these puppets, though, I wasn't sure. Was it for kids? Was it for adults? That's why they gathered dust for a while.
Me: Adult-oriented was probably the wrong term, but I see what you mean.
Reid: [Laughs] My stuff has always been silly, sweet natured.
Me: And I think that's what is appealing about Pancake Manor. There's a quality of weirdness to it that works for adults and kids. There's plenty of kids' programming out there that is designed to absolutely kill parents.
Reid: That's a big part of what I love about Sesame Street, which is a huge influence. I was raised on the late '70s, early '80s when Sesame Street was much more crazy and clearly my parents enjoyed as well. That had big impact on me, seeing that my dad was just as amused by Grover's haphazard waiter skills, or Ernie making a mess. I find a lot of today's kids' programming is too safe. It's OK to be irreverent, kids don't mind if there are references they don't get. If anything, it makes it more interesting to a child.
Me: Definitely. I think there is a case to be made that kids' programing should possess multiple layers and interpretations.
Reid: I feel like I'm on the right path though, because the feedback from parents has been overwhelmingly positive.
Me: And that's not something you really get with Dora the Explorer.
Reid: I agree. I had always been a big admirer of Jim Henson, Frank Oz and Caroll Spinney, so Pancake Manor is what I'd imagine I'd love to see if I was five and my parents had an iPad.
Me: What were your favourite kid shows growing up, besides Sesame Street?
Reid: It's funny, I want to say Bugs Bunny, but then I remember those were originally made for adults, but as a kid they were shown to kids and we just accepted that Bugs was a kid show.
Me: I've been showing our kids lots of Bugs Bunny and Droopy cartoons. Super inappropriate, but I feel the humour is important and the violence isn't actually as destructive as you see in lots of kids' shows today.
Reid: I think you can get away with that sort of stuff more with cartoons, but with puppets, it's grounded in a more "realistic" world, so I won't be doing anything violent. It's more 'bout imagination, exploration, learning. But that Bugs influence is there [laughs].
Me: Now when you say that, you sound like you're treading dangerously towards "this is good for you" territory, but Pancake Manor doesn't come across that heavy-handed. Take, for example, the episode about finding cookies. Most kids' shows don't show children struggling with the decision to eat cookies they find in between cushions, yet this is probably one of the biggest questions of kid-dom.
Reid: [Laughs] I think that was one of those ideas that really struck a chord because it is an issue parents seem to face a lot. Their kids wanting to eat things they shouldn't.
Me: What about the music?
Reid: I write, record and produce every song. I also do the voices. Zach, the orange puppet, is the character who has most of the lead singing. Reggie, the purple one, he's the more inquisitive one who is always looking for answers. Reggie is much harder on the ol' voice, so he gets less singing time. [Laughs.]
Me: So what's next for these guys? The videos seem to have great reception on YouTube.
Reid: Yeah, so far, so good. It's a funny world, YouTube. "Shapes" has already nearly two million views, which is a great motivator. There is an audience for this sort of thing online that hasn't really been explored by the "small" guys like me. It's really exciting. I'm planning to visit the Sesame Street people in the fall as well.
Me: That's pretty exciting!
Reid: I got the nerve to call up Caroll Spinney a while ago. Caroll has played Big Bird and Oscar since 1969. We chat[ted] for over an hour about everything puppet related.
Me: What did you guys talk about? Was he able to impart any wisdom?
Reid: Well, I just wanted to pick his brain. He's probably my biggest influence in terms of performance with my puppets. I think Big Bird is exactly the way a puppet on a kids' show should be done. He's inquisitive, he's kind and he's not cynical. We also talked about our approach to voices, and he and I both agreed that the performance can't sound too "cute." A little edge, a little music and lot of heart.
Me: And I've heard rumours that you might be doing something during the Olympics?
Reid: Yes! YouTube asked me to be a part of a program they're doing in London. I'm creating six videos featuring the Pancake Manor puppets about English culture, sports and things like that. I'm especially excited because I've been told I'm the only "children's channel " being featured. The first video will feature Zach and Reggie flying in their trusty cardboard box and landing in London, England.
Stay tuned to Pancake Manor's YouTube channel for the first video from Pancake Manor's London vacation on July 16.
Watch some of Billy Reid's other videos
Listen to CBC Music's new kids' stream
Check out Kids CBC on CBC Music
on Jul 13, 2012