Paul Thomas’ new web series, Ped Crossing chronicles the adventures of a hapless pedophile. Despite the questionable subject material, Thomas is no cheap provocateur. He’s more interested in the psychology behind the character, producing a series with high production value and a rich cast of supporting characters. The show’s arc explores the territory that’s opened once an audience is on board, comfortable spending time with someone with reprehensible urges.
Thomas’ career path is an unusual one, abandoning a PR job with ESPN in Bristol, Connecticut for a Chicago-based life of Second City writing classes and improv troupes. Since then, he’s performed solo and group sketch material at comedy festivals worldwide, joined the cast of Chicago Underground Comedy, and, most recently, premièred Ped Crossing, which is in the middle of an 11-episode arc. The A.V. Club sat down with Thomas to discuss his thoughts on goofy characters, modern taboos, and the importance of the Roadrunner/Coyote relationship when shooting a web series about such a troubling character.
The A.V. Club: What is it about character-based comedy that works for you?
Paul Thomas: Doing characters is my bread and butter. When I first saw a solo performance, I was like, “oh, you could do that?” That’s the way Ped Crossing developed, through character work, as well as solo sketch, which are two variations on the same craft.
With characters, I’m addressing the audience, and in a sketch performance, I’m creating a scene, bouncing off somebody that’s not there. There’s a craft there, this invisible person is setting you up for a punch line. It’s hard to not repeat what this person is saying, “So you say you’re an insurance salesman?” If you’ve gotta do that, just get another person. So that challenge is what hooked me.
AVC: Why did you decide to take Byron, the character Ped Crossing is based around, to the next level with a web series?
PT: In short, Chad Wilson deserves the credit. He co-directed some of the videos I’d done before Ped Crossing, and I liked working with him. I had just started writing and working out the scene featuring Byron when we began working together. When I mentioned it, we were joking around about a reality show following this ped, and he said “let's do it!”
I can’t say this enough, this thing is all Chad, he shoots everything, he does all the editing, it’s really him and me, there’s not a crew. That’s not to pat ourselves on the back, it was a challenge. Chad puts an ungodly amount of time into this.
AVC: So you and Chad decide to shoot a web series around this character, did you set out with a specific game plan right away?
PT: We started shooting almost two-and-a-half years ago. It’s not that it’s been that big of an ordeal, it’s just… lives, getting bogged down. We both have full-time jobs, so logistically, it’s just sort of rangling people and shooting when we had time.
We didn’t have a specific plan. We shot the first three episodes in like, three weeks, and they’re all written a bit differently. We didn’t shoot the next one for about seven months, maybe. They’re written from there, really, you might notice a bit of a change in the flow of how it’s shot, there’s a slight difference.
I’m obviously more anal about these things, but even me as a character, when I look at the early ones compared to later episodes, I think: “ah, you’re talking a little different!” If you watch an early episode of Seinfeld, you notice how different Kramer used to be, and now I get that. You settle into the character.
Either way, every episode can’t hit the same notes, inserting this ped into a crazy situation. Once people are into the concept, then it’s a bit more sitcom-like, going forward. To me, I don't know how else we could have made it, just dropping him into a situation with people going “Eww!” over and over. There’s elements of that, but once it’s established, it develops from there, like, you don't watch ER for the doctor stuff… There’s an old reference for you. [Laughs.]
AVC: Based on the first three episodes alone, as well as the trailer, you’ve got a huge ensemble cast featuring a ton of Chicago-based comics and improvisors. How did you manage to get so many people involved?
PT: Everyone’s game here, that’s what’s great about Chicago. There’s never any talk of “oh, how much does it pay?”, almost everyone I asked got involved. There was one person I didn't know very well that didn't feel comfortable with the subject matter, but I probably didn't pitch it very well, looking back. “Yeah, it’s a reality show following a pedophile! But it’s not what you think!”
AVC: Was there a lot of ad libbing, playing off of these funny people?
PT: The ad libbing was kind of tough, if it was specifically scripted. A lot of these locations we only had a short time to shoot, so we didn’t have much time to improvise. A lot of the testimonials, though, we just let people go off.
AVC: Most people, after hearing the short pitch of “it's a fake reality show about a pedophile,” will recoil, assuming the worst…
PT: Comics laugh, [and] people who aren’t usually just go, “oh…” and look uncomfortable.
AVC: Why that reaction, though? What are your thoughts on taboos in modern pop culture and how does Ped Crossing fit into that?
PT: There are few things with that, number one, I hate reality shows; American Idol, Survivor, those are contests, I get that, but Pawn Stars? Jersey Shore? You’re gonna follow these people, but how far is it gonna go? For it to stay compelling, it has to keep going towards the worst stuff these people will do. To me, I figure a show like this would eventually happen, we could get there.
Take a show like Dexter, he’s a serial killer, but he’s okay. Same thing with Breaking Bad, these are great shows, these things based around an anti-hero. What was the first modern show like that? The Shield? The main guy in that was morally ambiguous, and I’m just fascinated by that; so it’s that and my hatred of reality shows.
All that said, knowing what we had to do with this, I have come to respect reality shows in a way. [Laughs.]
AVC: That reality format is part of fictional TV too, with shows like The Office and Parks And Recreation, the characters can communicate what they’re feeling directly to the audience during the testimonials, which can make for really interesting for character development…
PT: And also really lazy storytelling! [Laughs.] It does make editing easier, though, if something doesn’t fit with the scene? Throw a testimonial over it! “Oh, uh, this is why I did that!”
AVC: Were there ground rules when you started production? A way to avoid cheap jokes? Obviously the show isn’t about pedophilia.
PT: If it were, I’d be worried about myself! It can’t be about that for the comedy to work. A lot of times when I hear something described as “dark comedy” it just means “unfunny” to me. The first episode is definitely the most cringeworthy in the series, and even that quickly changes.
It’s not about that, he never mentions the ped stuff to camera. I made that a rule for myself, he’s not gonna do that. That was important, too. The show’s about this guy’s life, and you’re following what he does, it just so happens that’s part of his rounds.
It had to be a Road Runner and Coyote thing from the start, you don't ever want people thinking “oh, is he gonna get a kid today?” I’m not a cringe comic. It’s all about protecting the audience.
AVC: That’s interesting that you’re not into dark comedies. The show, or at least the concept, has been compared the films of Todd Solondz.
PT: Someone mentioned him in a review of one of my sketch shows, and I actually had to look up his name. They don’t seem like my thing.
AVC: What has the reception been like thus far?
PT: It’s all word of mouth right now, with friends. Normally when I send videos around to friends, I get a lot of feedback right away, like, “Oh, this is great!” This time around, not as much, except from other comedians. [Laughs.] If somebody’s offended, they’re not watching it.
AVC: Is there a reasonable way to explain the show without immediately turning off a good percentage of the people listening?
PT: That’s why, when I explain it, I stress that he’s a “hapless ped.” Early on, I tried to think of a way to say it without saying “pedophile,” like, “someone with inappropriate desires,” but you don’t want to beat around the bush too much. So “hapless ped,” that’ll work. And again, there’s that Roadrunner/Coyote thing, you have to know that nothing’s going to happen, I wouldn’t want to watch that.
AVC: Will there be a second season of Ped Crossing?
PT: No, I think it is what it is. You’d have to have money and time for that [Laughs.] We’ve built a lot of muscles during the production, we’ve got like 65 to 70 minutes of finished material, spread out over 30 locations. It’s a show piece, at the end of the day, you can point to it and say “Chad and I did this.”