The Whitest Kids U'Know, Fighting to Offend
The Whitest Kids U'Know is a New York-based comedy group of five guys — guess what color — who are yet another 21st-century DIY success story, having taken their act from campus to the back of a downtown bar to the home-video bulletin board called the Internet to Aspen Comedy Festival acclaim and now to a full-on cable series. The music channel Fuse was the troupe's TV home last year, but its second season of 10 episodes — coinciding with the DVD release of the first season — is being launched on IFC. The new batch premiered last weekend with a bit about a poor guy who can't seem to keep his scrotum from falling into public view, which is as serious a sketch-universe affliction as I've ever seen.
Whether this is funny to you or not, sketch comedy usually benefits from being willfully disreputable, requiring a gang anywhere from two to four or five strong to push hard against the boundaries of mainstream comedy taste. The generally cited masters of this humor format — the legendary writer/performers behind the 45 episodes of Monty Python's Flying Circus — were Oxford and Cambridge types never above a well-timed, well-placed reference to naughty bits. In a 1974 entry from his recently published, must-read diaries, Michael Palin describes a fight with BBC censors over the mere mention of "balls" in one of the group's season-four sketches. "Do we let the BBC change Python into a soft, inoffensive half-hour of pap?" he writes. "Or do we fight to keep its teeth, its offensiveness, its naughtiness? Do we have to conform or disappear?"
This is perhaps not a burning cause in a less restrictive age, when a cable channel can casually offer up the visual gag of someone's loose testicles. But the Whitest Kids — gangly ringleader Trevor Moore, Sam Brown, Zach Cregger, Darren Trumeter and Timmy Williams, who has a pasty, wide-eyed, boyish blubberiness that amounts to a genetic jackpot for rude-boy humor — definitely see themselves as slacker provocateurs, as proud of their filthy mouths and shock tactics as their still-evolving taste for pointed absurdity and love of old-fashioned skit standbys: the date gone wrong, the song parody, the tweak on history.
When the Kids work it out the best, they merge the obscene with keenly observed human behavior in truly funny ways, as in an episode-two sitcom spoof that has Moore and Williams playing teenagers shocking their mother with the latest face-adorning trend: surgically grafted animal genitalia. It isn't so much the gross-out effect of the props that work but the fact that Moore and Williams play their adolescents as if they'd already grown bored with their horrifying appendages. And a military enrollment bit in which a recruiter doesn't dissuade two adrenaline-pumped action-movie freaks from their insanely heroic fantasy version of combat is both funny and stingingly true.
But I'm less impressed by the current of misogyny that runs through a lot of the Kids' comedy — profane descriptions of aggressive sexual acts toward women and depictions of them as less than human, usually — which seems to have ebbed a bit in the new episodes but still occasionally gives the show a frat-house, petri-dish quality instead of something entertainingly transgressive. Maybe they're all in bad relationships. Maybe they're not around girls enough. To which I advise, one or two Caucasian women could be added to their merry band of wackos and they could still keep the name.
In this country, outside of an institution like Saturday Night Live, sketch comedy has pretty much been relegated to cult status in cable-land, which, of course, a group with indie cred like the Whitest Kids thrives on. Over in Britain, however, sketch comedy is still a vital and popular comedy form, and a not uncommon way for the major channels to showcase the funniest performers in the country. The latest hit sketch series over there is That Mitchell and Webb Look, a hilarious half-hour that just began airing on BBC America and, for all aficionados of the form, shouldn't be missed.
If you keep up with British comedy, you'll recognize dark-haired, lumpen David Mitchell and thin, punkish-looking Robert Webb as the stars of the first-person-camera sitcom Peep Show — about unlikely roomies who are magnets for humiliation — which has been running for four years now in the U.K. and has also been seen here on BBC America. Mitchell and Webb were a duo before Peep Show, however — they met at Cambridge, through its famed amateur theatrical club Footlights, whence everyone from Eric Idle and John Cleese to Emma Thompson and Hugh Laurie have sprung — and That Mitchell and Webb Look is a prime venue for the pair's gift for all ideas and characters silly, clever and conceptual: Nazi officers who fear their skull emblem means they're the bad guys, boozing snooker commentators with bizarre conversational digressions, the new doctor in a bawdy 1970s English hospital whose sexual frankness upends everyone's carefully timed double-entendres. In the grand trajectory of two-man British sketch humor, I'd say Mitchell and Webb fall somewhere between the garish personality parade that is Little Britain and the baroque linguistic fencing of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore or A Bit of Fry and Laurie.
As with any well-oiled comedy team, Mitchell and Webb complement each other perfectly — as physical types, actors and verbal sparrers — but unlike a lot of other matchups, they don't easily fall into pigeonholed roles. In other words, they both get equal cracks at being the loon and the straight man, and they're both awfully good at it. It means they're particularly funny at showing where partnerships fall apart.
One of my favorite running gags from the first episode (which can also be seen on YouTube) follows the adventures of the woefully imbalanced superhero duo of Angel Summoner, a bearded elder who can call up invincible celestial beings at will, and BMX Bandit, a brash youngster who can do wheelies really well, and ... that's about it. Thankfully this isn't reflective of the talent breakdown of David Mitchell and Robert Webb: These two are in no way the George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley of sketch comedy.
THE WHITEST KIDS U'KNOW | IFC | Sundays, 11 p.m.
THAT MITCHELL AND WEBB LOOK | BBC America | Fridays, 6:20, 9:20, 11:20 p.m.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.