Reviews — From the March 2013 issue
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Reviews — From the March 2013 issue
In 1994, Cheers was still the dominant model for sitcoms. Friends — pretty people declaiming safe, snappy lines — was the kind of show guaranteed to get a push. But mainstream entertainment was at the same time playing with an ever more expansive and elastic self-reflexivity, thanks not only to The Simpsons but also to The Larry Sanders Show and, of course, that film in which John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson banter about what you call a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris. More animated comedies were being green-lighted, many of them also revolving around pop culture: MTV’s Beavis and Butt-Head offered cynical metacommentary on an MTV-spawned generation of morons, Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist juxtaposed a middle-aged shrink’s sessions treating comedians with his relationship with his adult son. Animated movies traditionally had been made with enough grown-up laughs to save parents from aneurysmal boredom; these new shows appealed squarely to that all-important demographic of twelve- to seventeen-year-olds and its disproportionate spending clout, to knowing undergrads and exhausted grad students, to untold numbers of fully grown men and women (but mostly men) stuck in perpetual or arrested states of development.
South Park, which debuted in 1997, took aim — as had The Simpsons — at the idiocy of a popular culture that its creators were (and are) nevertheless obviously in love with. But The Simpsons was essentially good-natured; the wonderfully specific dynamics of late-Nineties suburban childhood and the looser rules of basic cable, on the other hand, empowered South Park to go for broke, as when fourth grader Eric Cartman tricks an older boy, Scott Tenorman, into eating chili made from Scott’s freshly killed parents (“Oh, let me taste your tears, Scott! . . . The tears of unfathomable sadness! Mmm, yummy!”). While South Park’s main characters remain, like The Simpsons’, essentially static, the show’s creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, have adjusted, as The Simpsons did, by introducing and fleshing out supporting characters. With age, South Park also has unavoidably begun to give off the odor of a known quantity — though Parker and Stone still come through with the occasional thoroughly brilliant episode (e.g., Season 10’s “Make Love, Not Warcraft,” a pitch-perfect satire about online role-playing adventures, as well as a father trying to connect with his preteen son). Moreover, the show has managed to maintain its lewd, if whimsical, integrity; during Episode 1 of Season 7, a version of the Rake Scene revisits the series’ inaugural show, in which aliens implant Cartman with an anal probe: the bare-tushed Cartman lies prostrate on an examination table, with the other boys, the elementary school’s chef, and a scientist standing nearby. Cartman urges his friend Kyle to activate the probe with his finger; every time Kyle gets close, Cartman farts on him. For nearly ninety seconds this goes on, and those assembled provide a running commentary, including explicit acknowledgment of the scene’s mechanics (chef: “It stopped being funny forty seconds ago. . . . Okay, now it’s funny again”). The routine is base, childish, and repetitive — but also disciplined, shrewd, and aware.
Around the time of South Park’s debut, the suits at Cartoon Network were trying to find a use for their back stock of aging Hanna–Barbera reels. How they settled on reanimating the Sixties Saturday-morning cartoon Space Ghost, your guess is better than mine. (Mine: Their execs figured anyone watching Cartoon Network in the wee hours had to be baked.) Space Ghost’s body and actions got culled from the original animation cels, placed against new computer-generated backdrops, and voiced with new dialogue. Our cartoon hero became a delusional, narcissistically standoffish talk show host, his sidekicks and staff conscripted from among former nemeses. He asked clueless questions — via space video phone — to celebrity guests whom stoned young men might get excited about (Bob Denver, a.k.a. Gilligan) or with whom a Turner affiliate could finagle an interview (Susan Powter). Built around those interviews were loosely plotted animated segments jammed with non sequiturs, inside jokes, tangential thoughts, squabbling. Space Ghost, Coast to Coast ran on and off for ten years, and its best moments were truly original.
space ghost: Satan? Did I meet him? At the open house?
moltar:Yeah, he was that guy who was trying to get you to kill that girl.
zorak:Yeah, with the necktie, and the crown made of femurs.
space ghost: I don’t remember him.
The budget for that episode reportedly ran out before animation was completed, so the writers decided to use old Yogi Bear footage for Satan, putting that crown of femurs around Yogi’s head and providing him with a deep, menacing voice. Lore has it that Joe Barbera saw the episode while in hospital and sent a note that was anything but amused.
Such was the formula that built a programming block, and then a network within a network (after 11:00 p.m. Cartoon Network became Adult Swim, a distinct entity for ratings purposes and composed entirely of animation for adults). Short episodes (eleven-plus minutes of comedy, three or so of commercials) were made on the cheap — for as little as $50,000 per episode, as compared with the reported $1 million ceiling for The Simpsons — all of them in some way recycling or playing with forgotten cartoon footage. Sealab 2021 provided a continuation of the life of the underwater lab at the center of 1972’s Sealab 2020, only now the habitat’s captain was in love with his Happy Cake oven, a plucky blonde crew member constantly flashed her breasts, and every episode seemed to end with Sealab being blown up. Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law gave a forgotten superhero (Birdman) a first name (in seeming tribute to a key figure in underground comix, Harvey Kurtzman) and put the masked, winged lawyer in court, where he prosecuted cases whose events had transpired inside the Saturday-morning-cartoon universe (a relative unknown named Stephen Colbert served as a voice-over regular). As the late-night lineup filled out around Space Ghost, the surreal potential of cartoons began to show a natural chemistry with alternative humor. And since no one had to worry about a viewer feeling sorry for drawings, the cartoons could say and do just about anything to one another. When heavyweights from the nascent alternative-comedy scene — Louis C.K., the late Mitch Hedberg — did voice-overs, their highly refined vocal control and interest in generic and formal subversion provided a cachet of hip legitimacy that’s only grown with time’s passing.
In retrospect, the only way a happening this postmodern, this self-aware, could incubate on American television was in a context where the expectations were low, the risk inconsequential. Were ratings at 2:00 a.m. on Cartoon Network going to go down? It would be funny to report that, yes, the ratings went down, but instead, in another subverted expectation, an original program — about a milk shake, a burger patty, and a serving of fries who fight crime, but mostly just sit around their dilapidated shared house in semi-urban New Jersey — gained a following. Then came the game changer: a broad, shtick-happy knockoff of The Simpsons that had been canceled after three seasons on Fox. Reruns of Family Guy on Adult Swim became the channel’s biggest draw and pushed DVD box-set sales of the show’s original seasons into the millions; Family Guy has since been revived by Fox, for which it is now both mainstay and syndication cash cow.
Ten years after Family Guy’s coup, two decades after the Rake Scene, animation’s pop-culture satires are not just successful but institutional, and the lines between what’s mainstream and what’s fringe — always fuzzy to begin with — have been further smudged, sometimes to the point of disappearing. Side by side with the aggressively juvenile appeal of Family Guy, Adult Swim now loads up on narrowly targeted animated comedies (Metalocalypse, The Boondocks), and has even branched into live-action shows (Childrens Hospital, Eagleheart), all working with a design-heavy mind-set and a viewership assumed to possess both new-media savvy and Internet-quick attention spans. In quantifiable ways, this formula works: in 2010, the Los Angeles Times ran a feature labeling Adult Swim “cable’s go-to spot for smart, off-kilter late-night comedy,” and business magazines such as Forbes and Fast Company have run slobbery profiles about the “rise of a late night network” and how Adult Swim “stays edgy and creative.” Indeed, for the past eight years, from 11:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. six nights a week, Adult Swim consistently has been on top of basic-cable programming, as far as eighteen- to thirty-four-year-olds are concerned — meaning more young men watch it, and for longer stretches, than watch SportsCenter.
But there’s a trade-off: like so much that is amusing in pop culture, like so many of the shows from which it is descended, Adult Swim programming, despite “edgy” and “creative” media labels, is so damned disposable. Metalocalypse is awesome so long as you are versed in the culture of black metal; The Boondocks is amazing if you love hip-hop culture (and have had your sense of humor surgically excised). Then there’s Family Guy, which often waters down the tropes of better, groundbreaking shows, then thrusts them on viewers with a manic tap dance and open arms — sometimes literally, as in one deeply unfunny vaudeville about AIDS. The show also has a curious affection for variations on the Rake Scene, which will subject viewers to two and a half interminable minutes of Osama bin Laden hamming it up in outtakes from one of his cave videos, or titular dad Peter Griffin in an equally interminable wordless fistfight with a giant chicken. Well before reaching the white-light part where they can start being funny again, these jokes are beaten into the ground, with a rake, long outlasting the viewer’s taste for tedium. (Naturally, Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane is the host of this year’s Oscars.)
The more one watches Adult Swim, the more one wonders: Is there an answer to both the ephemera and the pabulum?
More from Charles Bock:
Perspective — March 4, 2013, 1:00 pm