Drinking On Trains: Q&A With Zane Lamprey

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If there’s a competition for most enviable person on the planet, Zane Lamprey might be one of the favorites to win. For the better part of a decade, his job has entailed two basic charges: travel and drink. With his mascot Steve McKenna, and his stuffed monkey/best friend Pleepleus in tow, Lamprey traversed the globe in an effort to help viewers experience drinking cultures and customs through the eyes of locals.

Chug is Lamprey’s latest project, and it continues in his grand tradition of finding the best local ways to get hammered. Despite the success of Three Sheets and Drinking Made Easy, it still wasn’t the easiest project to get off the ground. Before the premiere (Monday, November 24 at 10:30 PM/9:30 Central on National Geographic Channel), Zane Lamprey took a few minutes to talk about the show, the state of drinking in the United States, and why you should listen to your mother.

Paste: First things first, what can people expect when they watch an episode of Chug?

Zane Lamprey: I travel around the world, and I learn about drinking cultures by drinking with a local. At some point in each episode, I take a trip on a train to justify the whimsical name of the show. It’s not about chugging drinks, it’s about chugging along on a train, but it’s definitely a play on words.

Paste: Were you planning on the show being focused on trains?

ZL: We were kicking around titles for the show. Three Sheets wasn’t available, Drinking Made Easy obviously wasn’t available, and I wanted something that was concise, to the point, fun and yet it would immediately let you know what the show was all about. There are a lot of great names for shows out there, and we came up with Chug, and we said to ourselves “gee, if you can make a four-letter word work as the name of your show, that’s pretty good.”?? We were going around shooting, we told venues that we were shooting a show called “Country Hopping Ultimate Guide,” (C.H.U.G.) because if you call and tell people “we have a host who’s a comedian, and he wants to drink with you for a show called Chug,” people are usually like “yeah, we’re not so sure that’s a good idea.” Everyone who we shot with was happy, and we left good tidings-and some hangovers—in our wake.

Paste: What led you to finance the show via Kickstarter?

ZL: We were going around town pitching this show called Chug, traveling by train and learning about drinking. Every network said no, saying things like “we don’t really want to do a drinking show, we don’t get it,” that kind of thing. I was talking to my mom one day, and she said “oh, why don’t you do a Kickstarter like they did for Veronica Mars?” I said “Mom, that’s not how the world works. I’ve been out in Hollywood for 20 years, and I think I’ve got it figured out.”

Of course the first thing I did after we hung up was go to Kickstarter to check out the Veronica Mars campaign. They were a few days in, and they were several million dollars over their initial goal of $2 million. So I said to myself “oh…I guess Mom was right.” That night I sent an email to my staff saying that the next day we’d begin working on a Kickstarter campaign, and two weeks later we launched it. We were kind of clawing and scraping the whole way, but we ended up hitting our goal, and we went out to shoot the show. Initially they were going to be half-hour shows, but before going out to shoot, we decided to make them an hour long, so we shot six one-hour episodes.

After we finished post production, I no longer had to describe the concept to people, since we had an actual episode to show. We showed it around, and there were a lot of networks that were interested, but because I already had a relationship with National Geographic, they were already at the top of the list. They were actually the most excited about it, so that’s what made me go with them. I love National Geographic as a brand, it’s a great channel that was excited about the show, and at the end of the day, my goal was to get a second season.

Paste: There’s still a lot of romanticism associated with train travel. Did that come into play at all?

ZL: Our goal was to shoot on trains, but that proved to be very difficult, logistically. You get on in one place, and you end up someplace else, they’re tight and people are on a schedule. Getting people to get on a train to drink and be interviewed ended up being pretty difficult, especially because we were working within our Kickstarter budget. We did get on some very interesting trains, but we didn’t ride on the Orient Express or the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, like I was thinking we’d be able to do. It turned out to be more like going to a place like Rome, learning about it, and then taking a train out to a smaller village and learning about that.

Paste: Were there any advantages of using train travel for the show?

ZL: In a lot of countries, trains are the most efficient and quickest mode of transportation. It’s so much more common in other countries to take a train someplace, whereas in the United States, we don’t really think of that first. There were a lot of routes that made sense for us between major cities or going out to tourist attractions, so the trains worked out for us in that sense.

PM: What was your favorite moment filming Chug?

ZL: I shot 51 episodes of Three Sheets, and 61 episodes of Drinking Made Easy, and the fact that we’ve only shot six episodes of Chug, doesn’t make that an easier question to answer. Everywhere we went had that moment where I tried to look outside of myself and memorize the moment so I could transport myself back to that moment at any time. That’s difficult, but thankfully we had the advantage of having cameras with us at all times.

We went to a village in Italy called Sant’Angelo Romano, which is about 45 minutes outside of Rome. We sat in this village with these locals and we drank wine. We ate and laughed and talked and sang, and it was just amazingly perfect. What was funny about it was me, doing my job, asking them what kind of wine we were drinking. They just looked at me and said “it’s a red wine, what are you talking about?” The drinks are interesting, but the people are what makes the moment so amazing.

Paste: On this show, will we see Pleepleus or Steve McKenna?

ZL: National Geographic said that they loved the show, but they had a half-hour slot for it, so would it be ok if they trimmed the shows down to a half-hour? I loved that National Geographic took something that we made, and put their spin on it and took ownership. They spent time, energy and resources to cut it down to make it fit their needs instead of just airing the six episodes and seeing what would happen. When we were filming, Pleepleus always made an appearance, and I always made sure to mention Steve at least once, so I was a little worried that those things wouldn’t make it into the finished show.

It turns out that the editor and producer who edited down the show were big fans of Three Sheets,, so they knew who Pleepleus and Steve were, and they made sure to keep all of that stuff in. There was one guy in Sydney who reminded me so much of Steve McKenna. He had a beard, he liked to drink and he wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, so it inspired us to put a 30-second montage of Steve from previous shows. They ended up keeping that in, which is impressive, considering how big a chunk of an episode 30 seconds is. It made me realize that these guys get it, they appreciate the fan base and heritage of the show, and I feel really good about that.

Paste: You’ve been drinking around the world for nearly a decade. Which country parties the hardest?

ZL: In my travels, overall, I would say that it was South Korea. That was a very fun, amazing experience, and they don’t mess around. The countries that are the most regimented in their daily lives are the ones that unwind the most when they’re drinking, and they do it in fun ways. Usually you’re drinking soju, and little cups of beer, and every time you put your cup down, someone would fill it. The rule is that you never sit there with an empty cup, and they want you to drink it again. I asked someone what I was doing wrong that they kept making me drink, and he said “well, you drink it, but you don’t have to finish it.”

Paste: You recently launched your own brand of rum called Monkey Rum, how are things going with that?

ZL: We did a test run in San Diego, about a year ago, and it went too well. We sold out 240 bottles in less than two hours, which made me reevaluate whether I was equipped to lead the charge on a national spirits brand. I partnered up with a guy who used to run product development and marketing for Absolut and Malibu, and we’ve been working together for about seven or eight months. We launched in New York a few months ago, and we’re getting ready for our national launch in early 2015.

Paste: How would you describe the state of drinking in the United States?

ZL: I think people are more discerning about what they’re drinking. People today are more inquisitive about it, whereas two decades ago people just went out and drank rum and coke or a beer. Now people differentiate between ale and lager when they’re ordering a beer, or they want to know what kind of spirits and ingredients are in the drink. Craft cocktails and craft beer are neck-and-neck in leading us into a new era of drinking.

I went to a brewpub in Vienna, and I thought it was pretty cool, so I asked someone about the style. They actually called it an “American-style” brewpub, which is amazing. Europe is following the lead of the United States as far as craft beer bars are concerned, and that’s just starting right now. It used to be in France, the only beer you could get was Kronenbourg 1864. It used to be solidly wine country, but now you can get craft beer in France, and that movement started in the United States.

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