The Men Who Play Mascots

Gary Dineen / NBAE / Getty Images

Mascots are selfless creatures. Their sole moments of glory come in fleeting bursts of adulation from fans, and the sincere (if irrational) belief that maybe, just maybe, their frantic waving and clapping and falling helped boost their team to victory. Yet all the while, the men and women sweating it out beneath those costumers are a showbiz anomaly: center-stage performers who work anonymously. Hulu’s new original 10-episode series, ‘Behind the Mask,’ premiering October 29, takes a look at men underneath the comically oversize heads and reveals the passion, pride, and sometimes pain that motivates them.

Executive producer Josh Greenbaum says his motivation for the series was to explore “the lifespan of a mascot,” and so he reached out to hundreds of performers before finally deciding on his four stars, who range from a high school-level novice to a seasoned pro from the NBA. Greenbaum says that getting a professional mascot to participate was almost impossible because of the profession’s strict commitment to maintaining anonymity. “Perhaps the reason why there hasn’t been a show done on this before is because these guys really do live by a code,” he says.

In the pilot episode, there are loads of yucks, big dance numbers, and stunts, but Greenbaum also digs in to give us a look at how the performers struggle with their otherwise unglamorous lives. “There’s an interesting thing where they are trying to merge their personalities,” Greenbaum says. “When they are in their human form, they are quite shy or introverted and lack confidence. But when they put their suit on, it literally, like a superhero, gives them power.”

Kevin Vanderkolk represents the pinnacle of mascothood as “Bango,” the daredevil for the Milwaukee Bucks, who one fan calls “the LeBron James of mascots.” In one scene, a death-defying backflip dunk off a ladder – attempted, we learn, without ever having practiced it – is a jaw-dropping feat. His foil is Chad Spencer, who plays “Tux,” a goofy, farting, 6-foot-5 emperor penguin for the minor league Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Spencer’s struggles are the familiar ones of the striving minor leaguer, chasing the slim odds of one day actually making it to the big game.

The series is a comedic documentary first and foremost, but plenty of more affecting moments bubble up, especially from the younger characters. Jon Goldman, aka “Hey Reb,” is the famously buff mountain man with the gigantic mustache at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV). Goldman, who’s currently finishing up his sixth year of college, admits that he’s held onto his mascot identity as long as possible. His Van Wilder-esque college experience seems ideal until we see him alone in his suit, tearfully reflecting on his rapidly dwindling time in the cocoon of college. “It feels like me and Reb only have one year left to live,” he says. “I’m a weirdo for crying about a mascot.”

In stark contrast to Goldman’s frat-boy fantasy is 16-year-old Michael Hostetter of Lebanon, Pennsylvania, who plays “Rooty” the cedar tree, the mascot for the Lebanon High School Cedars. Viewers are encouraged to have a laugh at Hostetter’s patently left-footed dancing and antics at a football game, only to learn that his social life is a tragic mess and that he’s been routinely bullied. “Sometimes I wish I was actually Rooty,” he says. “Rooty seems to have more fun.” It’s earnest, challenging, even heartbreaking stuff, far more than we expected from a show about adults playing dress-up. And it’s why we’ll keep watching for more. ‘Behind the Mask’ premieres Tuesday, October 29. []

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