A few years ago, Ben Sargent gained a little New York notoriety for his Underground Lobster Pound and the kooky lengths he went to in peddling his lobster rolls. After going public, Sargent introduced the gonzo Dr. Klaw, a name fit for a devious character in a comic book about a New England beach town, and was eventually shut down by the Fire Department. Things worked out, though. He parlayed Dr. Klaw into a gig hosting a Cooking Channel show called Hook, Line & Dinner, which had him road-tripping through coastal towns and eating lots of fish. Now, two years after the show’s run ended, Sargent is angling to bring Dr. Klaw back. This time, though, he’ll do it through Periscope, the livestreaming video app, with “The Hunt for Dr. Klaw,” which he bills as the first live-action, audience-directed show broadcast on the medium. It will also, undoubtedly, be the first show broadcast from a motorcycle retrofitted to look like a lobster. Grub Street spoke with Sargent about food television and his new project, which is currently in Kickstarter mode. (If Sargent doesn’t reach his goal, he says, he’ll still do the show, just with less help.)
Where’d you get the idea for the show?
When I was doing TV, I was always feeling like by the time we got to actually pulling out the cameras and getting everyone set up, we had sort of missed the moment. Periscope had popped up around this time, and I was like, Well, there’s my solution. I understand there’s obvious problems with live TV, that you can tune in and it can be boring. But I feel like that’s sort of the wonder of it all, you know?
Then, also, I was never a big reader as a kid, but the one thing that I would read, much to my mother’s displeasure, were those Choose Your Own Adventure books. I was hooked on them. This is sort of that. It’s a way to do my thing and then the audience, however big or small — it can be 5 people, but it can also be 500 people — they get to make the decision for me. They’ll be able to chime in by just clicking their screen, so I can see collectively what the vote is.
Then the third little piece to it was just that I always wanted to bring back Dr. Klaw in some fun way. I thought it would be really cool to weave in the salty characters, these fishermen, and we’re just finding out about who they are and the perils of fishing these days. But then at the very end they’re gonna have a little clue as to where Dr. Klaw is and they’ll help guide me along the way.
Yeah, it’s just interesting that you’re, rather than doing a micro-version of a television food show, you’re doing something that’s actually taking advantage of the medium that you’re using.
Honestly, we’ll see how it works. There have been times when I was like, “Oh my God, this is just not gonna work when it cuts in and it cuts out.” But there’s other times when I was on an island recently, and it was so crazy.
I was testing out the idea, and I had only a few people — one was from Russia and another was from Japan, like I didn’t even know these people who were watching. But I legitimately got my boat stuck and I was like, “I can’t believe I’m literally a mile from home in safe New York,” like the last place you would think you’re gonna have a survival night. And basically I pulled my boat up on the shore of this little island near JFK Airport. I came back and the tide had gone out, so the boat was up ten feet on dry sand, whereas before it had been in the water. I’m like, “Oh my God, I’m gonna spend the night out here, this sucks so bad.”
There’s potential in having those moments where something breaks down.
It’s so great. I always said this when we were shooting real TV, every time you go to press that red button and record, just do it when you think you shouldn’t and don’t when you … you know what I mean?
What’s hard is when you’re broken down, you really are fucked. It’s kind of hard to remember, like, “Oh, I really should be shooting right now.” Because you really want to turn it off, because you’re like, “No, no, no, this is no longer a game anymore, this is serious.” And those are of course the interesting moments, but it’s when you least want an audience.
Yeah, for sure. Have you spoken with other people from food television about working in this format?
Not so much, no. You know what’s so weird about TV is they’re just so old-school and behind the times. Everything that I’ve ever done is like, it’s just so overproduced and there’s so many people who need to have a reason to be getting paid. And I’m often thinking, I could do this with one of my buddies, with one camera and a lavalier mic, and this would be just as good if not better, you know? It’s not gonna look as good, but to me it looks cooler and realer, you know?
Do you think that the layers and layers of people and perspectives and edits are part of the reason why food television feels really boring and formulaic at this point?
Well, yeah, for me, it’s just so scripted. I know that the person is gonna say the real thing, but the problem is, by the time they say it, like when everyone is rolling and ready for them, it’s no longer them, basically. And as soon as they’re like, “Okay, that was great, good job,” and they put the camera down, then the person is like, “Ah, because you know I really love this— ” and you’re like, “Dude, that’s what we needed.”
Why do you think this format works for a food show?
Again, in some ways it will work not as well, and in some ways it will work better. It’s so hard to get into a tight kitchen and cook with multiple cameras, and get all those angles, and it’s always like, “Do it over again, okay, save a plate that you didn’t eat,” and like, “Okay, we need to reshoot the sugar going in,” and it’s so silly.
This is not a stir-and-smile show, where someone is sitting at home taking notes, being like, “Oh, was that a — ” you know? “What measurement was that?” It’s more just entertainment, I think. And the same for the fishing. You’re always gonna miss hooking a fish when you’re shooting, because nobody wants to shoot for four hours while nothing happens.
What was that show with that famous actor who would take his famous friends, like Willem Dafoe and Dennis Hopper, and they would just go fishing and sit around? It was so absurd.
John Lurie. Fishing With John. It was one of my favorite episodic shows. It was amazing, it was so good.
Do you consider that an inspiration for this at all?
I think so. I sort of, what I liked about that was that it had nothing to do with the fishing. The fishing in some of these shows gets so nerdy that, unless you’re a total dork on fishing, you’re not really gonna be interested. I kind of think there’s something in between the two.
What other shows — if any other than that and the Choose Your Own Adventure books — do you consider inspirations?
I’m not a TV watcher, but I think that, I will say that the guy who does — what’s his name? The guy who shoots all his own stuff? The survival guy. Bear Grylls.
He does set up his camera, and I always thought that was awesome because you’re looking at what a pain in the ass it is. I don’t think most people notice this, but all photographers must. Which is that, like, he just got that really cool shot of him walking away, and then you’re like, “Oh my God, how annoying, he has to go back and pick up that camera and his tripod.” That’s gotta be the last thing you wanna do when there’s torrential rain and you’ve got this sweet shot — you just wanna keep walking.
So you’ll be eating along the way, right?
Yeah, so my thing is I just wanted to do something super, super pared-down. I think, this is a weird thing, like I’ve always been really nervous about my actual lack of skills. Then I realized that nobody really wants to watch someone who’s just sort of asking rhetorical questions, because that makes the person you’re working with look like an asshole. It’s way better if you actually don’t, and you’re curious because you don’t know the answer. So for me I just thought, well, let’s make it really like — it has to be something that I’m genuinely interested in, not like, “Oh, I’m showing you guys how to do this at home, but I already know how.” It’s more like, I don’t know … Does that make any sense? The lessons that I’ll be getting along the way are as much for me as for anyone else.
Do you think that something like this is replicable?
I don’t know. I sort of [think] that maybe it isn’t. That you do it, and then it’s gone. It’s not to go back and watch. That’s why I thought Kickstarter was a good home for this because I’m like, “Look, my friends will watch it, and it will happen, but I don’t want to worry so much about archiving it,” you know?
But it’s a super-weird thing because I’m this mix of super private and not at all. So I guess the wonder of TV is that you can just put your best moments forward, and then this is who I really am. So it’s hard to sometimes just be yourself. I think Periscope is one of those things where you’re like, “No one is gonna want to pay attention to me just really being me,” and so it’s a little hard because it’s a kind of privacy invasion. I mean, there’s times when I’ve left the camera and then been like, “Oh my God, what did I just do for the past five minutes?”
How much of the day will the camera be on?
That’s going back and forth in my head because at first it was like I was thinking … sorry, I just watched someone raise a taco out of a cart, but it’s raining so hard that it came out soggy in 15 feet. Um … sorry … what was the question there?
How much of the day will be filmed?
So, at first I thought I would do all day, every day. And then I felt that’s really not interesting. So then I started thinking, well, I’ll just inform people once or twice a day when I’ll be on, basically.
Do you know what places you’re going to, or is it going to be spontaneous?
No, I think for me it was much more based on the fishermen, like I don’t even want to really do the restaurant thing. I was definitely doing the sea-to-plate kind of experience; sometimes I felt like it was a little forced, and I didn’t really want to be as foodie as that.
Sometimes you meet these fishermen and they’re like, “Dude, I don’t eat this shit, I just catch it.” I was on a boat when we were shooting Hook, Line & Dinner and we had this whole thing. We were gonna bring shrimp back and we had this chef who had this Japanese fish he was gonna do it with, blah, blah, blah. And it was gonna look awesome, but in the meantime the guys just boiled up some shrimp with some Old Bay — they just threw it right into the boiling water — and they would just munch on shrimp while they were fishing for shrimp. And I thought that’s kind of what this is about. I don’t know if you’re learning anything, per se, about cooking, but you’re learning about what fishermen do while they fish. Which is much more interesting to me.