Case Study 74: Wonder Showzen, Episode 7–“Health”

Original Airdate: April 22nd, 2005 on MTV2

Wonder Showzen was the first major TV production from PFFR, a curious alt-comedy concern that Wikipedia characterizes as a “production company/art collective/electronic rock band.” Art collectives don’t usually have TV shows, so the relative success of PFFR is notable: they’ve had five other TV shows get past the pilot stage, mostly on Adult Swim. Adult Swim has proven over the years to be the premier showcase for avant-garde, experimental comedy, with other outlets like IFC, Netflix and Comedy Central struggling to keep up. Showzen would have fit in nicely alongside Tim & Eric, Eric Andre and Scott Aukerman, not to mention the vast world of bewildering YouTube videos. I’ll leave the question of whether or not PFFR has communicated a coherent artistic message in their body of work for others to answer, but for now let’s see how an individual installment holds up.

Strengths

  • Gleefully bizarre. It’s always refreshing to see something no one else is doing, and while alt-comedy might be on the upswing now, Showzen was definitely the only place where you’d see an electric chair electrocuting a smaller electric chair, followed by a smash cut to children threatening to “tear your soul apart” while dressed as Uncle Sam, the Statue of Liberty and a hot dog. I have to give them points for the chutzpah to put something so insane on television. In fact, a more austere network took a hard pass on Showzen: after ordering a pilot, the USA Network called the result “immoral and antisocial.” I guess it just wasn’t up to the high standard set by La Femme Nikita.
  • Funny. Of course, all the gonzo trappings wouldn’t be worth much if this comedy show wasn’t actually funny. Thankfully, it’s hilarious. Dave Chappelle and Peter Jackson might have had the idea earlier, but Showzen is a pitch-perfect deconstruction of children’s variety programming in the vein of Sesame Street. It gets a lot of its comedic oomph out of being wildly inappropriate for children despite having a cast of child actors. If you like absurdism, you’ll also be delighted. Highlights include a character called “D.O.G. O.B.G.Y.N.,” a genius “man on the street” segment where a child dressed as Hitler asks a man in a cowboy hat whose hat represents more oppression and receives an equivocal answer, and a segment where children are asked “When is it okay to lie?” and respond with things like “Accepting Jesus on death row.” One little girl takes so long to answer that she turns into an identically-dressed old woman. The show’s humor is equal parts unrestrained silliness and pointed leftist satire, which makes for a pretty intoxicating blend, especially if you’ve been raised on The Onion.
  • Special guest star Christopher Meloni. Anyone who’s seen Wet Hot American Summer knows that Christopher Meloni (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit) is capable of leveraging his stern TV persona into absurdist comedy. When you also consider his magnetic performance on Oz, you realize we may have been underestimating Meloni all along. Hopefully he isn’t typecast for all eternity as a police detective who is Taking! It! Personally! Anyway, he shows up here in a public service announcement about the profound dangers of cooties, warning you that cooties could turn your nipples into lips. Well done, Showzen. Well done.

Weaknesses

  • Gross. So the main plot of this episode involves a character named Wordsworth (John Lee) who comes down with a case of the cooties, which takes the form of a highly debilitating disease where the body is covered with oozing sores. A character named Him (Lee) then decides to make a profit by peeling off Wordsworth’s scabs and selling them as a delicious snack treat. This is hardly the only gross thing that happens, either—that dog OB/GYN segment ends in the most disgusting way imaginable. Suffice it to say that whatever you’re imagining right now, the dog segment is more disgusting than that. Among other things, a “dancing animal” segment entails close-ups of a mouse with an enormous tumor. It’s so edgy and in-your-face, man! I like to think that the art world would have held these guys to a higher standard. And, yes, that’s the same art world with Piss Christ and the Virgin Mary/elephant shit combo that got Giuliani so exercised.

Final Episode Judgment: 8/10. There’s plenty that’s deliberately alienating about this style of comedy, but I still feel tempted to binge-watch everything these people have ever made. That’s gotta count for something, right?

NEXT TIME: Get ready for another angry rant about racism as I review Kung Fu!

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Case Study 74: Wonder Showzen, Episode 7–“Health”

Case Study 34: Married…With Children, Episode 102–“You Better Shop Around, Pt. 2”

Original Airdate: April 21st, 1991 on FOX

When the FOX network launched primetime operations on April 5th, 1987, it had two programs: Married…With Children and The Tracy Ullman Show. Of course, Ullman eventually led to a megahit in the form of The Simpsons, but that wouldn’t happen for another two years. Married made a big splash right out of the gate with its controversial content and decidedly unique outlook. In the context of a fledgling network without a large affiliate base, Married was a tremendous hit and it eventually ran for 11 years. It’s a nice complement to Simpsons: it’s also a deconstruction of the traditional family sitcom with a cynical outlook and a satirical bent, telling the story of a family headed by an oafish buffoon with a ne’er-do-well smartass son. It’s also clearly got some of the DNA of TV classic All In The Family, with an unblushing look at the seamier side of family life and a crude loudmouth in the role of the patriarch.

Strengths

  • Genuinely funny bits. It passes the first test—there are quite a few amusing moments. This two-part episode has the Bundys try and beat the heat on a scorching summer day by setting up lawn chairs in the freezer section of a supermarket. Naturally, the staff dislikes this, but father Al Bundy (Ed O’Neill, Modern Family) manages to throw a hapless stockboy off the track by claiming to be an anti-shoplifting officer. He shows the stockboy his credentials in the form of his unadorned open palm–and the stockboy is totally convinced. The store is called Foodie’s Supermarket, and who’s the owner? Why, Mr. Foodie (Alan Oppenheimer, He-Man And The Masters Of The Universe), of course. The second half deals with a shopping spree contest between the Bundys and their despicable yuppie neighbor Marcy Rhoades-D’arcy (Amanda Bearse), and Al cheats by using a souped-up shopping cart, complete with built in traps. While bragging about the cart to his family, he accidentally sets off a hair trigger and lodges an arrow in a nearby watermelon, which we later see Marcy hustling to the checkout line. At another point, dimwitted daughter Kelly Bundy (Christina Applegate) is legitimately terrified when Al pretends to be a sea monster menacing her from the depths of a kiddie pool. There were clearly legitimate comedy chops at hand in the writer’s room and in the cast.  
  • Al Bundy. Protagonist Al Bundy is also a charming character. He’s a schlub and a total loser—he’s got a demeaning, dead-end job and a family that disrespects him at every turn. He has absolutely no luck and he’s always broke. Every episode he manages to find himself in a degrading and humiliating situation. But he seems to take everything in stride—he’s always got a scheme to try and turn things around. Every time his acid-tongued wife Peg (Katey Sagal, Sons of Anarchy) insults him, he shoots an insult right back. It would be easy to be repelled by a hero as gross and ignominious as Al, yet he’s immensely likable nevertheless.
  • Class war. The class politics of this show are fraught. It would be easy to claim that this show mocks the impoverished Bundys for their complete and total lack of class. Twice, Al crows, “I wonder what the poor people are doing!”—once when trying to beat the heat in his kiddie pool, again while lounging near the freezer cases. Of course, the joke is on Al—his family are the poor people. But by even acknowledging the realities of class in the first place, Married takes a big step. After all, this entire episode is driven by the fact that the Bundys can’t afford air conditioning. The upwardly mobile Rhoades-D’arcys are frequent antagonists, and they’re depicted as grasping fools just as much as the Bundys are depicted as oafish louts. They also try to secure a better shopping cart–by stealing one from a homeless lady. Of course, Al tries to prolong his stay in the grocery store by framing an old woman for shoplifting, so he’s not exactly a moral paragon either. But the real villain here is Mr. Foodie. He sells expired milk. He lets Al cheat because he put a pandering, pro-Foodie’s message on his obviously non-regulation cart. The shopping spree only comes into things when the Bundys cut Marcy in line at the register and wind up as the store’s one millionth customers. Marcy claims the prize is rightfully hers. When asked how he plans to resolve the issue, he says, “Well, there’s only one fair way.” Peg suggests he could give them both prizes. “No, I meant fair for Foodie’s!” Even if the show has some laughs at the expense of its “white trash” characters, it’s still got a sharp eye when it comes to observing what it’s like to be poor in America.
  • Supermarket Sweep parody. When I was six, my favorite show on TV was Supermarket Sweep. I’m not sure why that was. Maybe it’s because when you’re a little kid, you don’t know much about the wider world, but chances are you’ve spent many long, boring hours in the supermarket. Everyone needs to go to the grocery store and chances are if you’re too young to be left on your own you’re going to get dragged along for the ride. There was something entrancing about the disruption and gamification of that staid, mundane place—something about the anarchy of sprinting down the aisles, throwing everything you can into your cart, grabbing gigantic inflatable Ms. Butterworths and hauling them off to the promised land. The writers of Married saw Supermarket for the ridiculous farce that it is–a paean to the joys of consumerism and illusions of plenty. So as the Bundys rampage around the supermarket, shit gets knocked over. Elbows get thrown. Feminine hygiene products get sprayed in people’s eyes. Sprinting through a grocery store with butcher knives affixed to the front of your souped-up shopping cart—it’s a beautiful thing.

Weaknesses

  • Profound misogyny. The misogyny in Married is not casual or passing. It’s the bedrock and the roots of the entire show. The central premise of the show is that marriage and children are a life sentence in prison for an average blue-collar American like Al Bundy. The central jokes at the expense of the main characters are all gendered in nature—Al is powerless at work, home and in the bedroom; Peg is profoundly bad at cooking and cleaning; Kelly is dumb, blonde and promiscuous; Bundy scion Bud (David Faustino) is perpetually horny and perpetually terrible with women and Marcy is the worst thing a woman can be—not traditionally attractive. At least three times in the course of these two episodes jokes are made in which Al refers to women as things. There’s an excruciatingly long set piece about Al sexually harassing a woman in the supermarket who is too dumb to realize he is harassing her (those blondes, you know) and it culminates in Al giving Bud a high-five after discovering that Bud has made a habit of rubbing himself up against women at bus stops. Even the live studio audience is in on the act, judging by the lascivious hooting when we see Peg and Kelly in bathing suits. I find it somewhat interesting that despite Married’s sharp satire of the politics of class, family and the American Dream as seen in 50s stalwarts like Ozzie & Harriet or Leave It To Beaver, it’s even more reactionary about gender than those icons of mid-century conservatism.
  • Corny, cartoonish humor. The memories I had of this show from my youth were recollections of bleak nihilism and cutting-edge comedy, but some of the bits on display here are groaningly silly. It starts in the opening credits sequence–every Bundy comes to Al in turn for money…including the dog! Wamp wamp. When Al buys a WWII-era German air conditioner for $17, the settings are “Der Low,” “Blitzkrieg” and “Der Freezin’ My Hiney Off.” Even the frequent outbreaks of violence are cartoonish. When Bud connects the air conditioner to a telephone-pole-mounted transformer and falls off the pole, he merely gets covered in leaves and clumps of grass. Marcy gets run down with a shopping cart and appears flattened on the ground with tire treads on her clothes. The grand finale has Al getting stabbed with the knives from his own cart, and in the last scene we see him drinking water and having it spray out of holes in his side. I suppose I would rather this sitcom not stray into gruesome territory, but the better option might be not including these interludes at all instead of filing down the edges with Bugs Bunny style antics.
  • Jerry Mathers. Yes, you read that correctly: Mathers of Beaver fame makes an inexplicable appearance here. In fairness, the show is mercilessly mean to him. He’s a token celebrity at the Foodie’s shopping spree event. He’s mistaken for Ron Howard and he was the store’s second choice after Gary Coleman. Bud asks if he frittered away all his money on booze and cheap women or donuts and cheap booze. It’s also in keeping with the show’s overall target of satire to have a washed-up relic of a classic family sitcom come in for a drubbing. It turns out, though, that there’s a reason you haven’t heard much from the adult Mathers. He’s a terrible ham. Like many child stars, his fame was predicated on his cuteness, not his acting chops. He adds nothing here except padding.

Motivation: Money. The Bundys and the Rhoades-D’arcys scramble over each other like crabs in a bucket for $1000 worth of free food in a chain of events incited by the Bundys lack of air conditioning.

Final Episode Judgment: 5/10. There’s a lot to recommend here, but it’s marred by some seriously fatal flaws. Watch The Simpsons instead.

NEXT TIME: Read my review of The Shnookums and Meat Funny Cartoon Show so you can find out what the hell that even is!

Case Study 34: Married…With Children, Episode 102–“You Better Shop Around, Pt. 2”