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Constructing Joe 

State of the Arts

Lots of classic TV started out on the radio. Think "Dragnet," "Ozzie and Harriet," "Superman," "Joe Destruction." Joe who? The name might not ring a bell unless you were listening to Vermont radio in the early 1990s. The farcical noir serial was one of several weekly, two-minute programs broadcast on WNCS in the days before it became The Point. The same company that produced the original audio mini-drama unveils its first animated DVD, "Joe Destruction and the Case of the Exploding Cats," at a semi-private showing Wednesday at Burlington's Wyndham Hotel.

For the folks at Shadow Productions, the Wyndham event celebrates a milestone. The Burlington outfit has been creating radio and TV advertisements, music, animations, radio drama and comedy for 16 years. They've spent the last five building the 45-minute pilot, which they hope will eventually find its way to the small screen -- either via television or, more likely, the Internet. If that doesn't pan out, claims writer and company founder Matt Dugan, "Exploding Cats" will demonstrate Shadow's ability to produce full-length features.

On a recent afternoon, Dugan and most of the other players behind "Joe Destruc-tion" are meeting at company headquarters: a converted apartment in a North Willard Street Victorian. Besides its low-key location, the gathering is notable because so few are involved. Dugan is joined by Steve Clem, one of the two artists who rendered the characters; Shadow co-owner and technical director Doug Lang, who animated the still images and produced the score; and event coordinator Alex Bell, who provided a number of the voices on "Joe Destruction." The only principals missing are Tanya Fletcher, the project's second artist, and Joe Egan -- the voice of Joe Destruction.

"Personally, it amazes me that such a small group of people was able to do it," Clem comments. A sign-maker by day and the creator of a comic book called The Burning Man, Clem says he and the others worked on "Joe" between other projects, "grabbing odd minutes here and there."

And learning on the job. Not surprisingly for a project that started out on the radio, it was originally dialogue-heavy, Lang says. "The visuals got more sophisticated as we got better at using the technology." But "sophisticated" is a relative term. Compared to a classic Looney Tunes, the animation is stiff and primitive. "That's part of the charm," Lang suggests. It helps, he admits, that the lead is "not a really expressive character."

Joe is a dead-pan, uni-browed, stubble-cheeked, sad-sack private eye with one distinguishing talent: He cannot be blown up. In "The Case of the Exploding Cats," the CIA recruits him to herd some nasty, steroid-popping felines who have chowed on kibble laced with explosives. Aiding Joe in his mission are a decoy ice-cream truck, a whisky-guzzling mutt and Joe's wildly loyal assistant Billy, who wields a mean lasso and dresses in color.

That's not insignificant, given that the visuals are all in gritty black and white -- except for Billy's plaid vests, various explosions, the happy faces on the ice-cream truck's hubcaps and other select details. Characters move against backdrops built from digital photographs that were taken in Burlington and assembled to simulate a big city. Local viewers might recognize the tiled façade of Bove's. In Joe's run-down office, the cracked plaster wall is borrowed from beneath the Winooski Bridge, the furniture comes from Recycle North, and the newspaper on the desk is Seven Days.

Lang's mix of drawings and photography gives "Joe Destruction" a cool, collaged look. His loungy, acid-jazz soundtrack fuels the pseudo-urban feel. What stands out most, though, is the writing. It's dry, PG-13-rated, and laced with self-referential shtick.

"Al was my resident heavy," Joe divulges in one scene. "You know, the guy in private-eye stories who comes out of dark places and beats you up. When I went into this business, a heavy was one of the things I needed to get. Like an ex-wife. But I couldn't afford one of those."

"Quit your narrating, Destruction, and get ready for your beating," Al interrupts.

It's not exactly "The Simpsons," but it's not bad. And as Dugan points out, it's a lot more economical to produce: around $100,000 per episode, compared to a million. That lower price tag means a single show could be funded by a single advertiser. If "Joe" were distributed via broadband, rather than traditional broadcast, its sponsor could market to a more defined niche. And the PI wouldn't be vying with Homer Simpson, but, say, Homestar Runner -- the armless, baby-talking, propeller-hat-wearing hero of a popular Web-based cartoon.

Will Joe's fame explode? In what medium does he stand the best chance? And who, exactly, is his target audience? Dugan and his crew hope clues from Wednesday's premiere will help solve the case.

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Ruth Horowitz


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