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A Glorious Era of Sketch Comedy Comes to an End with Tragedy and Lots of Doll Licking in ‘Mars’

Tribeca: Zach Cregger and Sam Brown tell IndieWire about closing the door on "The Whitest Kids U'Know" and letting its heart and soul, the late Trevor Moore, make them laugh one last time.
Tribeca Film Festival

“Do you have any idea how expensive it is to hire a twink?” Zach Cregger asked with mock exasperation during a recent Zoom call with IndieWire. “We have like nine twinks in our movie! That’s crazy! You couldn’t do that in the real world.”

The twink-filled topic of discussion was “Mars,” the new animated film that sees the cult sketch troupe “The Whitest Kids U’Know” reuniting one final time. Over the course of their eponymous show’s five-season run on IFC from 2007-2011, Cregger, Sam Brown, Trevor Moore, Timmy Williams, and Darren Trumeter built a passionate fanbase with their darkly absurd sketches, many of which centered around ill-advised advertising pitches like “The Grapist,” convoluted schemes, or lengthy debates between straight men about whether their homoerotic behavior was technically “gay.” Fans will be quick to tell you that the show’s lo-fi production value was part of its charm, but “Mars” is what happened when they decided to apply their sensibilities to a massive sci-fi epic.

The Tribeca premiere didn’t arrive a moment too soon, as the film had to withstand a decade-long development process, financing stumbles, and Moore’s tragic death in 2021 before audiences could see it. Ahead of the premiere, Cregger, Brown, and director Sevan Najarian spoke with IndieWire about their passion project and the end of the road that it represents.

“Mars” follows a young man named Kyle Capshaw (Cregger) who, despite being engaged to the hottest girl from his high school and gifted her father’s dental practice that should set him up for life, begins to dread the predictable suburban existence that he fears is ahead of him. Seeking adventure before he locks himself into a life of quiet domesticity, he enters a sweepstakes to join the first civilian trip to Mars, funded by an eccentric billionaire named Elron Branson (Moore). But as he shirks his responsibilities amid the stars, his unreliable friend Cooter (also voiced by Moore) is left to clean up the mess on Earth while balancing his own crystal meth addiction and a newfound fascination with twinks that definitely isn’t gay.

The film takes plenty of brilliant turns that will remain unspoiled, but the finished product is a far cry from the small-scale live-action film that the friends thought they were writing when they started on it in 2011.

“When we first started, the idea was we would shoot a sci-fi thing that took place on a space base, to make it something we could shoot all in one place,” Brown said of their early attempts to make the film right after their show ended. “But as we wrote it, we found that there were elements we just couldn’t do with a small budget.”

The collaborators tried to develop a variety of film projects while their individual careers took them in different directions, but no idea entrenched itself in their psyches as firmly as “Mars” did.

“We wrote all these other movies in the time that passed after our first draft of this. But we just kept coming back to ‘Mars’ because it was our favorite thing,” Cregger said. “Just for fun, Sam and Trevor and I would pull out ‘Mars’ and just punch it up. Then, a year later, we’d get together and do another month of work on ‘Mars.’ We realized that this was the thing we all kept coming back to. Usually, we’ll get really excited about an idea, and then a little time will pass and we get over it. And we just never got over ‘Mars.’”

As the plot evolved and new locations were added, it became apparent that “Mars” could never be filmed as a live-action project at a budget that would be remotely viable. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the five friends had a new idea. They decided to turn the project into a cartoon with the help of animation veteran Najarian, financing the entire project themselves by streaming on Twitch and soliciting donations from their loyal fans.

“When the pandemic hit, we were all getting together all the time virtually, and we just had the idea, ‘Dude, we can make ‘Mars’ as a cartoon.’ And then we wouldn’t have to compromise this script that has ballooned into this huge, vast, totally unshootable thing,” Cregger said. “But if we do it animated, we can keep hanging out online and raise the money on Twitch — because we were getting together anyway, so we may as well invite people to join us and give us money — and then we could make it exactly what we have in our minds.” 

“We didn’t have to compromise the script in the animation because we said, ‘We’ll just draw that!’” Najarian added. “There’s no budget on locations or explosions when you’re drawing.”

The troupe spent the first year of the pandemic engaging with their fans through a series of constant Twitch streams. In addition to flagship weekly shows that featured all five friends hanging out, each member hosted their own individual streams that covered their individual interests like cooking and gaming. All streaming proceeds went toward the film’s budget, and the endeavor came with the added benefit of allowing the men to develop an even closer relationship with their already passionate fans.

SANTA MONICA, CA - FEBRUARY 23:  Actors from "The Whitest Kids U Know" pose in the press room during the 2008 Film Independent's Spirit Awards held at Santa Monica Beach on February 23, 2008 in Santa Monica, California.  (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)
Actors from ‘The Whitest Kids U Know’ pose in the press room during the 2008 Film Independent’s Spirit Awards held at Santa Monica Beach on February 23, 2008 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)Getty Images

While they kept many details about “Mars” under wraps, they took great pleasure in taunting their patrons with the fact that the word “dolllicker” appears prominently in the film. Any time a fan asked them to elaborate on what the doll licking could mean, it became a ritual for the hosts to quickly respond, “Go fuck yourself!” The communal bonding only fueled the group’s passion for the movie and allowed them to make an unapologetically strange movie without regard for anyone’s opinions except their own.

“The cool thing about ‘Mars’ was that we got to write this script that made us laugh in our living rooms, and that we knew, correctly, no self-respecting media organization would ever fund,” Cregger said. “And so we just got to get the money in the new way and compromise zero. So it’s exactly what it was when we wrote it, and that’s really hard to do these days… Maybe some super smart development executive would have said, ‘Guys, you have a major third-act problem,’ and would have made the movie better. I’ll never know!”

But it wasn’t long before the joyful production process was derailed by tragedy. On August 7, 2021, just hours after completing a stream with the rest of the troupe, Moore died in a freak accident after reportedly falling off his balcony. He was 41 years old.

Moore was regarded by many as the heart and soul of “The Whitest Kids U’Know” during the show’s run, and was one of the primary driving forces of both “Mars” and the group’s streaming output. His unexpected death devastated his friends and their fans, and the Twitch channels went silent for weeks. But after regrouping, it became clear that the film could still be finished. The comics had finished recording all their dialogue — which they call “the radio play” — and were preparing to begin animation. All of Moore’s lines were completed, so they plunged ahead on the film, knowing that their late friend could enjoy one final acting role in his longtime passion project.

“If you think about the course of the movie, we were just past the precipice,” Brown said. “If we were just a little bit behind where we were, if we hadn’t got the radio play done, it feels like this would have been a lost project. And it was just enough that it was really hard to go back to, but enough that you could say, ‘We have it here. This has to be done.’”

They soon returned to Twitch, albeit in a reduced capacity, and kept raising funds to bring their vision to life. In one of the group’s first appearances back, they announced that Moore had died while fulfilling his lifelong dream of sucking his own dick — a legendary moment that reassured fans it was still OK to laugh at the “Whitest Kids” they knew and loved.

“It was one of those things where the last thing we wanted to do was get back on Twitch and song-and-dance and try and get more donations, but there’s no universe where we set this thing down,” Cregger said. “We owed it to him, and we owed it to the people who donated. I feel comfortable that I know he would be really proud of this movie. He was a big, big fan of this movie. Thank god we got to finish his recording before he passed.” 

“Mars” is the product of the singular countercultural phenomenon that was “The Whitest Kids U’Know.” It wouldn’t have happened without the group’s lightning-in-a-bottle comedic chemistry, their years of disillusionment with pitching movies through conventional Hollywood outlets, their boredom during the early days of the pandemic, and the community that rallied around them at their lowest point in the days after Trevor’s death.

All the group’s members maintain that there will never be another project under the “Whitest Kids” branding now that Moore is gone, so the Tribeca premiere was a bittersweet finish line for a project they worked on for half of the 21st century. Brown and Cregger both said that they were hesitant to lock the final cut of the film, because it meant that they would officially be done working with their late friend forever. But the opportunity to share it with the world comes with an even sweeter consolation prize: letting Trevor Moore make people laugh for 84 final minutes.

“Turning this one loose, letting go of the tricycle, and watching your kid pedal off is especially bittersweet,” Cregger said. “Because this is the last time. Ever since we met when we were like 20 years old, we always were like ‘We’ll do this forever.’ We’ll always come back, and even if ‘Whitest Kids’ breaks up and we go off and we do other things, we’ll always come back and do something. But now, this is it. And it’s really hard.” 

“Mars” premiered at the 2024 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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