‘Behind the Mask’ Uncovers the Humanity Behind Sports Mascots

/ Nov 12, 2013

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Up until watching Hulu’s original documentary series, “Behind the Mask,” my experiences with sports mascots consisted of the following:

1. At a hockey game, I once caught a t-shirt shot out of a cannon by the home team’s mascot.
2. At a college football game, I watched my friend, who was one of the school’s two mascots, get punched in the face twice by an alumnus who also happened to be a star NFL quarterback (he still is).

This is all to say: I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about mascots. I recognize they are part of the game, and they’re meant to excite the crowd. But they exist in my periphery, and if it wasn’t for “Behind the Mask,” they probably would have stayed that way.

This is a terrific show. Created and directed by Emmy-winning filmmaker Josh Greenbaum, “Behind the Mask” follows four sports mascots doing their thing at every level of the game: high school, college, amateur, and pro. And without trying to sound too cheesy, the show offers a window into who these men really are, not just what they do.

There’s Michael Hostetter the shy, awkward, but remarkably resilient high school kid, who you would never guess was the dancing, zany tree mascot of a high school that never wins at anything, ever (seriously, in the second episode, Hostetter’s football team gets trounced by a rival 69-7). But does that stop him from asking a cute cheerleader out to the Homecoming Dance? Nope. When she says she’s “not going,” does he get down in the dumps? Nope — he ends up taking two other girls.

There’s “Jersey” Goldman, the mascot for UNLV, who is a real-life version of Bluto and Van Wilder. It’s the dude’s sixth year of college, and he plays that part to a T. Seriously, he’s everything you imagine a National Lampoon character to be. But to his credit, he recognizes he needs to, you know, graduate. And though he’s the least likeable of the four leads, you can’t help but root for him.

At the amateur level, we have Chad Spencer, who is Tux, the mascot for the Pittsburgh Penguin’s AHL team in Scranton-Wilkes/Barre, Pennsylvania. If Spencer was a minor-league baseball player, Ron Shelton would have written a movie about him by now. The man is passionate about what he does, hoping to one day become a mascot for an NHL team — specifically the Edmonton Oilers, so he can live closer to his kid.

And at the pro level, we have the other star of the show, Kevin Vanderkolk, aka Bango, the mascot for the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, who in 2010 won the NBA’s Mascot of the Year award.

I can point to the moment I got hooked on this show, and it was in the first episode. Vanderkolk/Bango talks about one of his most famous stunts — when he climbed a really tall ladder, backflipped off, and dunked the basketball on his way down to the mat. It’s an insane stunt to see, and Greenbaum captures it perfectly, building up to the moment by intercutting interviews from Vanderklok and his family with footage from the night. Then, just as Vanderklok crouches to jump off the ladder — Greenbaum cuts out. We’re at a commercial. It’s the oldest trick in the TV book, but when done effectively, it still works. And it did with me — I actually didn’t have to sit through an ad-break (press pass!) and I still screamed. I had only known Vanderklok for a couple of minutes, and I already cared about him.

This is a terrific show in the hands of a very capable documentarian.

If I had one gripe with “Behind the Mask” — and it’s an incredibly small one — I don’t think Greenbaum does enough to mine the pathos so inherent in these men. There’s a reason Hostetter, as resilient as he is, can only allow himself to loosen up when behind the mask; there’s a reason why Goldman hasn’t graduated college; there’s something dark about grown men dressing up in fuzzy animal outfits trying to entertain thousands of people. The show addresses this, but in quick bursts, before cutting away to the next mascot, the next segment, which is usually more lighthearted.

“Behind the Mask” is worth every minute of its running time, and then some. Which is good, if Hulu has any intention of challenging the likes of Netflix and TV, it’s going to need more shows like this.

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