Arts & Entertainment
4 min

Golden bears

Where the Bears Are creative team 'never anticipated' web series' popularity

Where the Bears Are is putting bearded double chins, hairy pot bellies and muffin tops in vogue. Season 1 of the web series described as part Golden Girls and part Murder, She Wrote launched quietly last August and concluded, 26 episodes later, as an award-winning success. With steady DVD sales and viewers from across North America, the United Kingdom and Australia, the show’s popularity exceeded expectations.

The creative team behind the series – Rick Copp, Joe Dietel and Ben Zook – is both elated and exhausted. “We never anticipated this,” Zook confesses.

This Xtra reporter arranged to meet Dietl and Zook at a Los Angeles diner in their Silver Lake neighbourhood. They do not meet my expectations.

As we sit down, Dietl scans the menu, considering the calorie count of each entrée. He wants to eat light in advance of a volleyball practice later that afternoon.

Meanwhile, his partner, Zook, settles on a glass of water. “I’m not that hungry,” he says.

“I can share my Rueben with you,” Dietl happily compromises. When the order arrives, Dietl picks at the fries and eats most – but not all – of the average-sized sandwich.

This is not the messy feast I was expecting to witness from two bears looking to satisfy their appetites.

“Right now, we both want to lose weight and be in better shape,” Zook explains. I scratch my head. Are these West Coast bears victims of the LA aesthetic? I wonder.

“I think there is a movement within the bear community to be more health conscious and watch your cholesterol,” Zook says. “You don’t have to be a muscle bear, but be aware of health issues. You may not think about heart disease in your 30s, but in your 40s, you start thinking about it.”

And neither claims to authenticate the bear community. “We don’t feel any pressure or responsibility to represent bears,” Dietl says. “It’s a show with bears but not necessarily about bears. We have some bear references, but we’re just us.”

And for Copp, Dietl and Zook, filming a series that attempts to capture the bear and Silver Lake neighbourhood lifestyle in a city known for artificiality, their friendship – both on and off camera – rings purely authentic.

The idea for the series bubbled up in a hot tub at Copp’s Palm Springs home last year. With script-writing credentials aplenty – Copp wrote for The Golden Girls and The Brady Bunch Movie, Dietl wrote The Thin Pink Line and Zook wrote Jack and Jill, starring Adam Sandler – the three had grown weary of the business of pitching.

“Working in the industry can be soul killing,” says Zook, who has been working on countless drafts of a script for a production company for over a year. “Every single joke has been picked apart and drained of the funny,” he says, rolling his eyes.

“We were tired of being told no and thought, ‘Let’s do a project where no one can say no,'” Dietl says. “And it’s common wisdom that you write to what you know.”

And so a series that revolved around the friendship of three bears in Silver Lake was born. Given his interest in the genre, Copp introduced the murder mystery angle. A democratic decision-making process was agreed. Impasses go to a vote and a two-thirds majority prevails, but with one caveat to satisfy each member’s vanity: “In editing, we each get to pick our own take,” Zook says. “So essentially, if I look like Shamu in one angle, I can pick another more flattering take.”

Public reaction has been hairy. As the series kicked off, the trio watched in amazement as their Facebook page averaged 30 to 40 new friends per day.

Their satisfaction extends beyond metrics. “We’ve gotten emails from people that would make you cry,” Dietl says. “They tell us that we’ve touched their lives or that they’re having a hard time and our show has cheered them up.”

The public recognition has been unfamiliar. “We’re recognized all over the place,” Zook says. “It’s bizarre.”

The bear community has embraced the show, validating its success. Dietl says the support of fellow bears is galvanized by the series’ respectful portrayal of large men. “Guys see themselves reflected in us, and we’re not the butt of the joke,” he says.

The handling is deliberate for Dietl, who came to Hollywood in his 20s and felt out of place. “I was embarrassed about my size and being hairy and then found Silver Lake and the bear community, who said, ‘You don’t have to feel bad because you don’t have the perfect body, perfect hair or no body fat.’ I just had to find the bar where I was popular.”

Fan feedback has bolstered their positive self-image. “We realize we’re funny, but we didn’t think we were what people would want to see, so we got hot muscle bears in the series,” Zook says. “But, the irony is that we’ve gotten fan letters saying, ‘You are hot!'”

With a minimal production budget, Zook and the others are humbled by cast and crew members willing to work for free.

Goals for Season 2, which will soon begin production, include going big. Bear big.

“We’re toying with bigger sequences, larger party themes with more people, star cameos like Margaret Cho, just more ‘oomph’ overall,” Dietl says. To deliver this, the gang has kicked off a fundraising campaign.

They say the planned bells and whistles won’t detract from the core of the show: the plot and characters. “The next murder mystery creative juices are flowing, and we have some ideas brewing,” Dietl says. “But, the heart of our show is the friendship between these characters, just like The Golden Girls, so that’s something we’ll come back to.”