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His slacker creation is keeping him busy

'Powerloafing,' a Web sitcom, has given an Emmy-winning writer a chance to take his talent to another medium.

September 16, 2007|Dawn C. Chmielewski | Times Staff Writer

Mike Upchurch has elevated slacking to an art form.

The Emmy Award-winning writer is the creator of "Powerloafing," an online comedy about a world-class slacker, Cubicle Carl, whose adroit avoidance of work makes him a role model for aspiring office slugs.

"That's part of the definition of powerloafing," Upchurch said. "You're not just goofing off, you're getting away with it and you're convincing all the right people that you're a top worker."

Upchurch creates what he calls the world's smallest sitcom on what may be the world's smallest set -- his Los Feliz district apartment.

Everywhere are props for his comedic endeavor: Carl's cubicle, folded and stored on the porch; a singing fish modified to deliver dialogue via remote control; a mummified corpse in a shirt and tie.

A corpse? The disturbingly realistic prop is the centerpiece of Upchurch's latest sketch, "Department of Doom," in which actor Neil Patrick Harris (of "Doogie Howser" and "How I Met Your Mother") plays a malevolent, Canadian-accented co-worker who joins Cubicle Carl on a morbid misadventure. Think comedic horror, a la "Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein."

Upchurch developed "Powerloafing" before the last season of "The Chris Rock Show," which won an Emmy Award in 2000 for outstanding writing for a variety/music show. But he's not one to rest on his laurels; the gold statue sits on a bookshelf near the front door, covered by a baseball cap.

"I might be a little superstitious about displaying the Emmy," he explains. "I'm proud of it, but I'd feel weird building a display case with a rotating disk and spotlights or something. I hope to be in a position to win another Emmy someday, but if I had one up there spinning I might change my mind because two spinning Emmys would be stupid."

Upchurch pitched the "Powerloafing" idea in 2000 to Pop.com, a high-profile Internet entertainment venture bankrolled by billionaire Paul Allen, whose partners included two of Hollywood's hottest film companies -- Ron Howard's Imagine Entertainment and DreamWorks, which brought director Steven Spielberg into the venture.

He figured the pedigree ensured the start-up a better shot at surviving than, say, the Digital Entertainment Network, which by that time had already imploded. Even if the sight of people playing foosball in the middle of Pop.com's Glendale warehouse in the middle of the day was a bit disquieting.

Upchurch proposed a four-minute sitcom set in an office, which is where people would most likely view the episodes, because speedy Internet connections at home were relatively rare. Killing time watching Carl kill time was the kind of conceit that no comedy writer could resist.

"You're sitting in your cubicle goofing off -- and he's doing it far better," Upchurch said.

The network bought an initial run of six episodes. They were shot in a frenzy, over the course of a June weekend, and edited when Upchurch returned to New York to work on "Chris Rock."

But then Pop.com went bust, leaving "Powerloafing," like many a new media play from that time, dangling in limbo.

"I had a lot of episodes I still wanted to do, purely as a passion project, just a labor of love," Upchurch said. "I work in television and it's something I love to do. But sometimes, you can't always do it. When you're trying to get a job, this is something I could do as a side project."

Upchurch bought back the rights to "Powerloafing" in March 2001 and recast a new actor, Paul Greenberg, in the role of Carl. He continued to work on it as a side project, between stints on "Chris Rock," "MadTV," "Downer Channel," "The George Lopez Show" and "Blue Collar TV."

He updated the website four times and converted his apartment into an ersatz office space. He fabricated cubicle walls and mounted fake fluorescent lighting on the ceiling, then lined the walls with mirrors to create the illusion of a vast space.

In 2005, Upchurch took a yearlong break from TV to work exclusively on "Powerloafing," shooting new episodes and stockpiling them for the relaunch in January 2006.

"My agent kind of freaked out because I declined to pursue a couple jobs, but they were shows I didn't like much and I was in the unique position -- for me -- of not being broke," Upchurch said.

A February 2006 "Star Trek" parody, "2 Boldly Loaf," in which Carl kills time by leering at interstellar porn, attracted about 55,000 views and the notice of another established entertainment industry player, Turner Broadcasting System.

TBS paid a high five-figure sum for the 20 episodes of "Powerloafing" and is running the series on Super Deluxe, the TV network's comedy website.

"He struck me as exactly the kind of industrious self-starter that Super Deluxe wanted to be in business with," said Dan Pasternack, the site's vice president of content.

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