It seemed ingenious. Two guys, one oven, several cookie tins, a couple business plan mockups, and the unerring conviction that no city bureaucrat could resist a bribe of chocolate éclairs. Unfortunately, young impresarios Scott McCabe and Tory Stanton had no way to anticipate the utter complexity of launching a pastry business in Berkeley. First off, they had to win over Ms. Patty Plumbopple, the red-haired tart in charge of city permits. That meant walking into her office, complimenting the lewd drawings on her wall (supposedly made by a precocious child), and agreeing to pose nude for an art class. Second, they had to secure financial backing. That meant donating blood, cutting deals with their landlord, trying to gigolo a local investment firm, and eventually recruiting an intern. All that was only the beginning of a whole concatenation of horribles: health department inspections, petty fights, bouts with obnoxious customers, misuse of weed butter, a turf war with a local pizzeria, and a slew of incestuous relationships. The whole thing would make for a perfect TV show.
Or a web show, thought the real McCabe and Stanton. They dreamed up the name Copy & Pastry late one night in February, over an order of cookies from Mrs. Munchies, a local delivery service that could easily be Copy & Pastry‘s real life counterpart. The premise came shortly thereafter: Tory and Scott were roommates. They were broke. They had rudimentary knowledge of home economics but didn’t know how to draft a business plan. It fit so well that Scott and Tory, both filmmakers in real life (but not roommates, just close friends), wanted to create the show right away. They had never used the web as a medium, McCabe said, but they liked the fact that it lacked gatekeepers. “We didn’t have to pitch to a network or anything, we could just put it up ourselves,” he said. “You have to hustle and try to find an audience for it, but the opportunity’s there, at least.”
Writing for the web was a hard shift for McCabe and Stanton, who are accustomed to longer, involved stories with character development and multiple locations. A typical web video is different: It takes place in someone’s living room, usually involves two characters, and ends with a snappy punchline. “Four minutes is the standard,” said McCabe. “The assumption is that people are willing to give that much time.” Despite these limitations, the form has become increasingly popular — to the extent that companies such as CBS and Sony are producing their own web content. People are building whole careers just by making two-minute videos and slapping them up on YouTube. Call it a populist alternative to old media power structures: Web shows have low overhead and low production values. The goal is not to get “picked up,” but to “go viral.”
Before launching Copy & Pastry, McCabe and Stanton spent several months researching other web shows to see what worked. They realized that scripts had to be short and pithy, with some kind of payoff at the end. (You have your two guys, then some kind of complication, then a quick resolution.) McCabe and Stanton understood the logic of the form and tried to replicate it. But, ultimately, they were incapable of thinking in miniature. “We wanted something that had a plausible fictional universe,” McCabe explained. “It didn’t just exist in the living room of some apartment.”
Granted, the opening scene of Copy & Pastry does indeed take place in the living room of some apartment. In the first shot we see dimpled, 24-year-old Stanton gluing Skittles on a piece of paper to make a Braille restroom sign. He and McCabe are preparing for a crew of “blind” taste testers. Then we’re transported to the Berkeley city permits office, where the fictional Ms. Plumbopple (Rana Weber) holds court with a bottle of Captain Morgan’s rum. From there, the fictional universe expands. Over the course of seven episodes, Stanton and McCabe would shoot scenes at Virginia Bakery, Local 123 Café, Willard Middle School, Freight & Salvage, Crazy Copy, a church parking lot, and a taqueria that abuts a solar carwash. Unwilling to limit themselves, they wrote scenes that required complex lighting, lots of extras, and elaborate set pieces. They hired Oakland filmmaker Joel Pincosy to direct the project, and he turned it into a mini-movie of sorts. He took up to three days to shoot an episode, and use dollies to capture whole scenes in a single tracking shot.
Even Pincosy was surprised by the scope of Stanton and McCabe’s ambition. Their intent was always to start off screwball and gradually get more involved, he said, “so there would be an arc to the story rather than episode by episode.” Initially, all the humor revolved around one central theme: hubris, specifically, the misguided optimism of two slackers whose aims far outpace their resources. That comes to bear in the second episode, when Scott and Tory discuss their business plan while listening to a news broadcast about the banking crisis. Later, they pitch their idea to some investors, get rebuffed, then set up an online delivery service that seems promising but for the fact that neither knows how to use Google Maps.
But as the show progresses, so does the storyline. Intern Penelope Nicholls (played by Casi Maggio) gets hired to deliver orders on a two wheeler and ultimately becomes Tory’s love interest. Celebrity chef Lesley Lindsay (played by David Weise) introduces Scott and Tory to “the Hungarian Devil Stick” — which, according to him, is a Mount Everest of pastries. The producers also indulged their passion for surreal artistry. In episode four, they had Nicholls do a song-and-dance number on a city bus. Stanton and McCabe wrote the scene without knowing how they would film it, then started cold-calling local transit agencies. Ultimately, they cajoled WestCAT in Contra Costa to donate a bus (and driver) from a line that didn’t get many passengers. In episode five, Scott and Tory hawk pastries in a church parking lot, while a circus passes behind them. (Their first draft of that scene involved an elephant, but they eventually settled for a llama.) By the time episode seven rolls around, financial woes have put a strain on Tory and Scott’s relationship. Penelope Nicholls has absconded. Scott has designs on hosting his own culinary show on the public access channel. You realize that Copy & Pastry isn’t just a show about running a pastry business. It’s actually a bromance.
At this point, though, it’s still a bromance in search of an audience. “It needs that imprimatur of something that’s been vetted, you know?” said McCabe. “Otherwise it’s just another — something.” They publicized the show on Facebook and Twitter, but also went the old-fashioned way by courting local periodicals. (The producers’ reverence for old-school journalism manifests in episode six, when Copy & Pastry gets “discovered” by a newspaper called Your Daily Berkeley — circulation: 12). With a couple thousand page views thus far, they appear to have broken out of the “friends and family” circle. But that hasn’t translated into paper returns. Pincosy — who, like the rest of the crew, donated his services pro bono — said he would consider shooting more episodes if they could recruit some type of sponsor. Web shows are an ungainly business, he said, since no one yet knows how to make money off of them. But it sure beats the pastry racket.