By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
|Photo by Kevin Abosch|
Pretty Things is the most brilliant show you’re likely to see on public-access TV anytime soon. Part Kids in the Hall, part Ab Fab, the sketch-comedy program is the creation of best friends Amanda Barrett (née Quinn) and Michael Lucid, who play most of the characters themselves. With an overall budget of $500 for their second "season," they have to make the most of their combined talents. There are brief cameos, including those by Aaron Ruell of Napoleon Dynamite, yet most overflow characters are supplied by Lucid’s beautifully lo-fi animation.
The show’s intimate world has the insider/outsider quality of Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson scripts and, at times, French and Saunders. The characters are usually cerebral and neurotic, prone to psychoanalytical monologues and analytical articulations. They reference Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and at the same time might naughtily read teen fiction or other people’s diaries.
"We both grew-up watching Tracey Ullman and Kids in the Hall," says the 26-year-old Lucid, seated cross-legged in front of a plate of Thai food in Hollywood. "A lot of gender-bending entered my life at a really early age. Tootsiewas one of my first movie experiences. Eighties cinema was a strange period in film — I remember being taken to see Staying Alive when I was really young, all those weird-dancer movies."
Pretty Things is often tagged as "camp" and "drag," but that isn’t exactly how Lucid, who generally appears in female roles, sees it.
"Gender-bending started out as an automatic mode of self-expression," says Lucid, who began dressing up in his mother’s clothes at the age of 8.
With a head full of film, post-structural, postmodern and queer theory from his time at NYU, and an appreciation for gore and sci-fi from his dad, a former horror-film professor at the University of Massachusetts, Lucid admits that the show serves as a catharsis for him and Barrett.
Their shared reality goes back to the first grade, when Barrett (who is also half of the eclectic pop duo the Ditty Bops) would make fun of Lucid’s Scooby-Doo underwear, which peeked through his overalls. But it wasn’t until 10th grade at L.A.’s heady private school Crossroads, when their hormones were pumping and their paradigms were shifting, that the two outsiders really connected.
"I was always late, and she would save a seat for me," Lucid explains.
Unlike their classmates, he and Barrett were not über-rich. Barrett’s father was, and is, a professional clown who taught his daughter to eat fire when she was 16, and her mother, who lived in Topanga, is a Wiccan high priestess. Lucid "came out" in 11th grade, and Barrett, who had been discovered in a mall, left high school to model professionally.
The two traveled to Europe together while Barrett was modeling and Lucid was an exchange student in Prague. Later, when they were living in New York, they created Pretty Things, named after the early glam David Bowie song. For Lucid, Pretty Things— specifically a series of sketches about a boarding school called "Mulberry Commons" — became a parallel universe to his isolated experience at NYU. At Mulberry Commons, Barrett and some of his friends who were part of the first episodes — including Barrett’s Ditty Bops partner and longtime girlfriend Abby DeWald and fellow Crossroads alum Adam Greenberg (who gives a mind-blowing appearance as the Reality 101 teacher in the "Mulberry Commons" sketches) — were able to come to school with him.
"It was usually just Amanda and me," Lucid says of the early episodes, which they shot on grainy VHS. "We would shoot each other and hand the camera back and forth. That’s why we use single close-ups. If we were playing three or four people in a scene, we were always changing wigs and makeup."
In the beginning, they shot the scenes straight through, no editing. Lucid aired them on a campus music-video show he hosted, sort of how The Simpsons first appeared interstitially on The Tracey Ullman Show. Eventually there was no room left for the music videos.
Back in L.A., they’re working on their next season and juggling other projects. Barrett’s band is experiencing its first glow of fame, recently touring with the Dresden Dolls as well as Nancy Sinatra. Even so, Lucid, who recently animated a Ditty Bops video, says Barrett is as dedicated to Pretty Things as ever.
"Amanda makes sure that all her scenes are shot before she leaves," he says.
In fact, the new season — which, beginning in March, should air in the L.A. area Tuesdays at 11 p.m on Comcast, Adelphia, Charter and Time Warner Cable — promises to be more elaborate than the last. For "Popcorn," which takes place in an art-house multiplex, they made six new films, which are layered into the scenes like SCTV.
"We made a Peking Opera, an Italian Antonio film, a Jewish-family ensemble à la My Big Fat Greek Wedding and a socially conscious Michael Moore–esque film about corn workers," he explains with a smile.
Lucid, who at one point thought he might direct documentaries, edits the shows on his iMac. He supports himself tutoring learning-impaired students and working Sundays at the Hollywood Farmers Market, selling fresh pasta. He lives in relative obscurity, literally in a cold-water flat. But, for the inspired and optimistic Lucid, his current situation is a step up from the two post-college years he spent sleeping on his parents’ couch.