I distinctly remember as a young boy thinking it’d be cool if one of those
kids on Sesame Street just hauled off on a Muppet. Just because
it was there, and vaguely unreal, and soft-looking, and because those fuzzy creatures
were there to make you laugh anyway. It wasn’t hatred toward the show. I loved
those bug-eyed, candy-colored bastards with the funny voices. But after a while,
the rough-play side of my kid brain — which any good children’s show knows how
to tap — started fantasizing about disrupting things.
So when I watched a tyke in a sweater repeatedly punch a blue puppet called Clarence in an episode of MTV2’s taboo-busting, put-on kid show Wonder Showzen, it was both hilarious and weirdly nostalgic, like seeing something new and something I’d seen before (if only in my imagination). But that pummeling may be the cleanest gag this trippy series has to offer; the show is so off-the-charts sick that it forces you to gauge — minute by minute, practically — what you consider appropriate for comedy. Not for nothing does each installment begin with an ominous chord, faint screams of mental anguish and a poison-label “WARNING” message calling its content “despicable,” “too controversial” and, in a nice writerly touch, “too awesome” for real children. “The stark, ugly, profound truths” in the program, it reads, “may be soul-crushing to the weak of spirit. If you allow a child to watch this show, you are a bad parent or guardian.” And yet John Lee and Vernon Chatman’s whip-crack clever hodgepodge — a kind of comedy-porn that’s been something of an open secret on MTV’s twisted-sister channel since March — is great, cathartic stuff, and maybe the perfect antidote for a mom or dad driven nuts by their child’s more infantile programming tastes. (The first run of eight episodes is still in rotation on MTV2, and new ones are slated for the fall.) The Showzen’s hosting puppets — which include a red thing with his brain exposed and what appears to be a talking testes called Him — spew profanity, shed blood, get diseases (namely cooties, portrayed as a scabby, debilitating outbreak in the episode called “Health”), copulate, and have absurdist interactions with children. And like a perverse version of a sharing game, actual boys and girls get to participate in the dirty fun, too. There’s the “Kids Say the Darndest Things” parody that Bill Cosby would be apoplectic about, in which we see a lisping kindergartner answer the question “When is it okay to lie?” with “Accepting Jesus on death row,” and a ponytailed girl say her greatest wish is to have her parents back together. Pause. “In Hell.” And in the best tradition of Howard Stern and Punk’d, the show sends little ones out for on-the-street ambush interviews with unsuspecting adults. “Who did you exploit today?” a trenchcoated little girl asks Wall Street employees. When one walks away without answering a question asking when he sold his conscience, the girl runs after him yelling, “Your money doesn’t make you better than me!” There’s a Village of the Damned undercurrent to the humor, with Lee and Chatman getting the most mileage out of the notion that children are empty vessels until filled with the polluting rot that comes from simply growing up and engaging with the world, which could be anything from eating meat to contemplating the existence of God. That makes it a brother of South Park, sure, but the way Ted Kaczynski is a brother: You’re fearful for what comes next, and whether it’ll touch that nerve in you that says, “Hey!” I didn’t care for the animated clip with the canine OB-GYN performing a cesarean birth, but I loved the Powerpuff Girls spoof called “Finger Force,” about four nerdy lemonade-stand girls who transform, through puking, into supermodel capitalist queens. Some of the most pointed bits edit together stock footage of children from old educational films into unnerving video art, turning repeated images from a short on hygiene into a narrative of OCD: “And then I wash and wash and wash my hands . . . and I never get clean. The shame never seems to scrub off.” The segment ends with a nanosecond sound effect of howling wind — almost subliminal — that shows the strangely spiritual rigor with which Chatman and Lee piece together their psychotropic collage. The Swiftian horror-comedy of Wonder Showzen is hit-and-miss, like any sketch show. But its exhilarative powers are substantial, its finger on the pulse — or in the throat — of danger-humor. As the yellow, top-hatted puppet Chauncey druggily intones after impulsively guzzling an entire crystal chalice of pure liquid imagination found in a treasure chest: “I’ve suckled from the teat of cosmic truth. I want to do it again.”
The male triumvirate who make up Stella, Comedy Central’s newest
half-hour, is Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter and David Wain, and they play
themselves, but not in the eponymous sitcom way Jerry Seinfeld did. Instead of
portraying show-biz folk in a comedy trio, Black, Showalter and Wain are same-named,
but jobless kooks in a self-contained surreal world where they always wear suits
and seem unable to carry on normal relations with anybody else.
Stella is the TV version of a live act that the three — all former members of the troupe The State — have kept up since 1997. The comparison to the Marx Brothers, which the network touts in press releases, is cosmically apt, but these guys are more closet anarchists than Groucho and his brothers, even at times given to politeness when making their bizarre points. When asked by an apartment co-op president why the boys — sporting black-and-white tails for their crucial evaluation meeting — are dressed as skunks, Black softly corrects him: “If I may, sir, we’re not dressed as skunks. We’re dressed as skunk people.” Black, who is decidedly more gopherish in looks than skunklike, has become a snark star of late for his deadpan pop-culture musings on VH-1’s decade-by-decade I Love the . . . series. He transitions to dumb humor nicely here, but there’s a postmodern parodic intelligence behind the scenes. It allows the three to use the show’s sketch/story mixture to send up all manner of narrative convention in movies and television, from impassioned line deliveries and crazy plot twists to, in one episode, the character dynamics in a political campaign story. It’s also a micro-lampoon for a trivia-savvy audience, so when the previously mentioned co-op meeting turns into a goof on the dance-audition climax of Flashdance, it references what we know about the making of that classic scene: that the star obviously didn’t do the more rigorous moves. This may become one of those shows where certain gags are caught only on repeat viewings. My second time through the pilot, I noticed that when Wain says, “Hey look!” and leads his buddies to a sign on a wall, it’s around a corner, clearly outside his line of vision. My favorite Stella — assuming that becomes the characterized term for a cast member,
the way “Python” did — is Michael Showalter, who has an appealingly dazed dumb
guy’s face, squeaky-voiced delivery and unfettered approach to random acts of
silliness. Will the Stella men become Marx Brothers for the 21st century?
Maybe, maybe not, but in Showalter at least it feels as if the Office Space
generation has its own Stan Laurel.
WONDER SHOWZEN | MTV2 | Fridays, 9:30 p.m.
STELLA | Comedy Central | Tuesdays, 10:30 p.m., with repeats throughout
I distinctly remember as a young boy thinking it’d be cool if one of those