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Web show creators are ready to unleash the 'Beast'

These are the makers of "Showbeast," a webseries featuring puppets.  Left to right on couch:  Stefani Levin, Mason Ross, Erin Gleeson and Ben O'Brien.

In one video, a chubby guy in a Tony the Tiger costume holds a couple of puppets hostage. In another, sock puppets drive a human to madness. And in yet another video, a puppet's snoring is so powerful that people, puppets, anything in its vicinity, are sucked into his nose and transported to an alternative universe set in a dystopian, frigid landscape.

That is the demented world of "Showbeast," a Baltimore Web series that marries puppetry, absurdist theater, stand-up, children's humor and experimental music, and has slowly acquired a cult following — fans include Dan Deacon and the band Beach House — one short YouTube video at a time.

Six years after its debut, its creators, comic and artist Ben O'Brien and filmmaker Erin Gleeson, have started putting together its last and most ambitious chapter, a 30-minute episode that they're treating as a pilot, a little taste of what could be a series of "Showbeast"-branded skits and videos.

"We want to turn it into Showbeast Productions," says O'Brien. He wants to send the pilot to venues and networks, like the Independent Film Channel, that are taking risks with nontraditional shows.

The plan is to get their creations seen by "more than, like, 5,000 people on YouTube," he says. "It's what I imagine now, but who knows what will happen?"

Showbeast's shift into full-fledged episodes coincides with the evolution of YouTube, which started as a petri dish for amateur video and is now a mature medium, with its own aesthetic, rules and stars. In a bid to attract more advertising, the Google-owned company recently launched a potentially paradigm-shifting series of channels of original content.

On a recent Sunday evening, O'Brien, Gleeson and their rotating band of collaborators, which now includes actor and comic Mason Ross and artist Stefani Levin, prepared to screen their latest episode of "Showbeast" at a Greenmount warehouse.

Gleeson, a slender 27-year-old with Bettie Page bangs and high cheekbones, says "Showbeast" started out of a wish to break with the conventions of their college work — she had studied filmmaking and O'Brien visual art at Purchase College in New York.

"The things I made in film school were standard indie film projects. When I graduated, Ben and I had more freedom to do what we wanted," Gleeson says.

"We thought, 'Let's make this weird children's show,'" says O'Brien.

Out of a shared love for Steve Martin, Jim Henson, and shows like "The Muppets" and "Mystery Science Theater 3000," "Showbeast" was born in 2006. Theirs was a warped interpretation of those shows, something Kermit might have thought of while tripping on LSD.

From the start, the series followed a clueless dreamer, Snow Beast — played by O'Brien, an animated, 27-year-old goofball who has a stand-up's restlessness — and his two puppet best friends and roommates, Mark and Kasey, operated by Gleeson, as they try to live together.

It is both a send-up and a tribute to Henson's creations and the hallmarks of children's programming, featuring wild-eyed characters that relish their creativity and individuality, and also surrealistic landscapes, nightmarish scenarios and absurd plots.

"We were already silly in other things we were making, but with the puppets, I don't know, it feels easier to be absurd," Gleeson says.

Unlike other contemporary puppets — like those by the ventriloquist Jeff Dunham — theirs are more silly than offensive.

"It's really easy for people to do puppets that swear and murder people. We wanted to bring something new to it," O'Brien says.

That neither of them had ever made puppets was irrelevant. YouTube, launched two years earlier, had given amateur filmmakers the license to make low-budget videos, screw up and learn on the fly. O'Brien and Gleeson saw "Showbeast" as a chance to "learn all the things we wanted to learn," he says.

"In college, we weren't able to work with things like a green screen or a set," Gleeson says. "'Showbeast' was a nice excuse to play around and explore."

Watching "Showbeast" from the start, it's easy to see as the two of them picked up skills. The first episodes are charmingly janky — the videos are less than a minute long, they have no cuts, are shot indoors, and feature only above-the-waist shots. They were made using a cheap, still-shot camera and inside O'Brien's single bedroom in Oakland, Calif., where he had painted a wall to serve as a green screen.

After the two moved to Baltimore — O'Brien in 2008, Gleeson in early 2009 — the videos became more polished and the characters a little deeper. They've collaborated on videos with local musicians, including Beach House, the rapper Height, and Dan Deacon, who donned the Tony the Tiger costume.

But still, the cheesy special effects, home-made puppets, props and sets stayed, and they are what give the show its charm. Like the best YouTube videos, they celebrate innovation at the expense of sophistication.

Though its page views are small compared with the likes of YouTube stars like Rebecca Black — 25 million and counting — "Showbeast" has acquired a following in Baltimore. Andrew Laumann, the frontman of Dope Body, accepted an invitation to join the crew's latest because he was a fan of the early music videos.

"They're not big, but they're respected. To be chosen was definitely an honor," he says.

In recent years, "Showbeast" has become more of a challenge as O'Brien and Gleeson got involved with other projects — she's been producing radio shows, and he has started doing more stand-up and managing Wham City comedy nights and a traveling tour.

Rather than just call it quits, they successfully launched a $2,300 Kickstarter campaign last summer to fund a final blow-out, one that would look like the full-fledged children's show they'd always envisioned. Called "Something Big," it should be released by the end of the summer.

"When we started, it always came out as short videos that felt like they were part of something longer and something bigger and a complete episode with commercials and all these other elements," O'Brien says. "The last episode is going to be for me the swan song, what we've always wanted it to be."

Though they'll retire the characters after the episode, O'Brien and Gleeson want to help launch other similarly irreverent Web shows and skits under the "Showbeast" banner.

They are doing this at an auspicious time, when Internet videos have also reached the end of their precocious phase.

In October, YouTube launched over a 100 channels of original content with established partners — Madonna and The Wall Street Journal are among them — that take direct aim at traditional television.

Along with other content providers, the producers of these channels want to move away from amateur viral creations and develop professionally made, scripted productions.

After the pilot wraps, O'Brien says he'll pitch Showbeast Productions to them and other risk-taking venues, like the IFC Channel, Cartoon Network's "Adult Swim" and Hulu, that want to cultivate creative, even unconventional filmmakers.

"Any kind of bigger audience is one aspect of where I want to go with it," he says.

If someone bites, the creators of "Showbeast" say they're prepared to tackle bigger projects.

"Before, I would have made an excuse that something was impenetrable," Gleeson says. "'Showbeast' made me less afraid to just learn something."