Part Golden Girls and part Murder, She Wrote, Where the Bears Are is a mystery-comedy web series that follows the exploits of three bear roommates living together in Los Angeles as they attempt to solve the murder of a party guest who has turned up dead in their bathroom.
Created by and starring former Chicagoan and Second City alum Ben Zook; his partner of 18 years, Joe Dietl; and Rick Copp, a former writer for the popular Golden Girls series, Where the Bears Are has become a hit with bears, cubs, otters and every other creature on the preserve. Not a fan of web-based programming? Bear in the mind the comedy-mystery web series featuring 26, four-minute episodes has racked up nearly 1 million hits since its Aug. 1 debut.
Windy City Times chatted with Zook about casting the show's sexiest member, "Hot Toddy;" working with Jane Lynch at The Annoyance Theatre; and his favorite spots in Chicago to "bear" down.
Windy City Times: You are a graduate of Second City in Chicago. Did your improv training come into play on the set of Where the Bears Are?
Ben Zook: Rick has written several mystery novels, so the script was pretty tightbut we played around with it a little bit. We're all a little bit like our characters: I'm the "Dorothy" in the group, as I am sort of a neurotic in real life, and Rick, with his sexual exploits and a man in every port, is "Blanche." And Joe is "Rose"although he's not as dumb as his character [laughs], but the sweetness of his character definitely applies to Joe.
WCT: I'm guessing your Where the Bears Are co-creator Rick Copp has some hilarious stories from his days as a writer for the Golden Girls. Pretend it's just you and me out on the lanaitell me your favorite Rick-Golden Girls story.
BZ: [Whispers to someone else in the room, asking for approval] OkayRick has a story about Bea Arthur and this security guard. Bea Arthur would drive in her car every day to the studio, and she'd [allegedly] have a big bottle of booze in the passenger seat next to her. So, every day she'd drive in and out of the studio, and one day as she is leaving a concerned guard says to her, "You can't have an open bottle in your car! What if you get pulled over and arrested and put in jailthe show is depending on you!" And she apparently responded, "You're right. Thank you." And she pulled away. The very next day she pulled up to the studio … with tinted windows. [Laughs]
WCT: True or false: The idea for Where the Bears Are bubbled to the surface around Thanksgiving last year while the three of you were hanging out drinking in a Jacuzzi in Palm Springs?
BZ: Yes! The three of us have always wanted to do something together. Rick had always had the title "Where the Bears Are" rolling around in his head, and whenever we are together we talk about the Golden Girls, and somebody asked,I think it was Rick"What if Golden Girls was a mystery?"
WCT: Talk about the decision to feature the series on the web.
BZ: Since the financial crash in '08, it's been tough to get anything financed, so we thought, "Let's just do it on the web!" We put a lot of pressure on Rick to put out the script pretty quickly, and he basically wrote the script over Christmas. We were in production by March first. There was no pre-production work at all. We said, "Fuck it, let's just do this!" Everyone works for freethe biggest cost is feeding people. [That] is the one thing I won't skimp onfood. [Laughs]
WCT: Do you find that people still resist getting invested in web-based programming?
BZ: You know what, it's weird, it's actually the opposite! Everyone seems nuts about it, and we're sort of overwhelmed by it all. We're creeping up to a million views and we just launched on August 1.
WCT: Part of the reason Where the Bears Are is such a monster hit is the cast. How in the world did you find your "Hot Toddy?"
BZ: We didn't want to get a casting director. We couldn't pay them, first of all, and we really didn't have time to wait for them to make decisions. We put an ad on Craigslist, and Ian Parks, who plays "Hot Toddy," was the first person who got back to us. Joe and I were like, "This guy is hot! God, please let him be able to act." He blew us away in the audition. He has a lot of experience, and he knows how to play to the camera.
We were sure to be very clear with Ianwe told him this would be gay material and that he was going to be in his underwear, and he was fine with it. Some actors are still so weird about playing gay. I think when he saw our credentials in the ad, he realized this wasn't some half-assed porn shoot.
WCT: How did you manage to snag Jackie Beat to make a cameo in the series?
BZ: Kent [Fuher] and I go way backwe did sketch comedy together back in the '90s. He is one of the funniest people I know. He is one of the toughest people to keep a straight face around. You laugh just by looking at him! It was great that he gave us time to shoot for an afternoon.
WCT: You are a founding member of the Annoyance Theatre in Chicago, and you were here last month to celebrate the theater's 25th anniversary. Talk about your favorite memory of being involved with the Annoyance.
BZ: When I moved to Chicago in 1987, I was sort of floundering around. I was waiting tables at Houlihan's and sort of trying to figure out what I was going to do. Mick Napier, who started the companywhich was Metraform Theater back thenbrought me in, and it was just a blast! I consider it one of the most wonderful times of my life. Here we were in our 20s, and we were putting up these amazing shows like The Real Live Brady Bunchit was just a huge fraternity house of talented people; it really was.
WCT: Jane Lynch [from the TV series Glee] played Carol Brady, right? Watching Lynch perform and working with her live on the stagewas it pretty apparent that she'd make it big someday?
BZ: Well, it was just that she was so funny! We would all crack up. I think everyone who was a part of The Annoyance was destined to have careersand many did: Jon Favreau and Andy Richter, and many others. With Jane, I always thought 'Wow, she really can do everything' because she was doing Steppenwolf, too, at the time.
WCT: Where are some of your favorite places to hang out in the Windy City?
BZ: I haven't spent any real time in Chicago in 21 years, and there were moments [during my recent visit] that I actually got teary-eyed. The weather was amazing and I did all the things I love! [There was] Sidetrack, obviouslywe went to Sidetrack every night ,and it's grown like a monster! Sidetrack is now like the Wal-Mart of Showtunes! [Laughs] I don't like Wal-Mart, but I love Sidetracks. We went to Bucks and it looks exactly the samewhich was great fun. I used to live at 857 W. Roscoe, so I lived right in the heart of it all. We also spent some time north, in Andersonville, which I didn't really do when I lived hereand it was a blast! We loved SoFo Tap, and a lot of the guys came up to us and told us how much they loved the show. Everyone made us feel very welcome.
WCT: Where the Bears Are ends in October. Will we see these characters again?
BZ: We're hoping to do more seasons. And when this one wraps up, you will definitely know who the killer is!
We're releasing the DVD around Thanksgiving. We're self-distributing it through our website, and the plan is to use that money to do more seasons. It will be a continuous movieeveryone has been telling us they want to see it all cut together. The DVD will have tons of extras, a stand-alone Christmas special, a music video to go with our amazing theme song, outtakes, and commentary. We're also selling hats and T-shirts, and if everyone buys a hat we could probably do two more seasons!
WCT: Talk a little about how bears are portrayed in popular culture. Does Where the Bears Are shatter any stereotypes?
BZ: Joe and I and Rick are heavier, hairy, middle-aged men, as are all of our friendsso we said, "Okaythis is a world we know; let's set the show in this world." We decided we didn't have to do much more than that, as far as referencing the bear culture, because it would take away from the mystery and comedy. We didn't need to comment on ourselves. We thought, "Let's just stick to the comedy of a sitcom and a murder mystery set in the world of bears." It's not a show about bearsbut with bears.
Where the Bears Are is currently available online at www.wherethebearsare.tv .