There’s an old racist joke that goes something like this: ”What‘s the difference between an ’X‘ and a ’Y‘ who pisses in the sink? ’X‘ takes the dishes out first.“ I was reminded of it while watching Greg the Bunny, the nasty-but-clever new sitcom (Fox, Wednesdays) about the life of puppets (known as ”Fabricated-Americans,“) living in the United States. There’s a scene in which we see the titular character, a fledgling puppet-actor on a children‘s TV show (a Sesame Street knockoff called Sweetknuckle Junction), bathing in the sudsy kitchen sink of his human roommate and pal, Jimmy (Seth Green). Potentially this is a cute scene, a quirky take on domesticity, and it makes sense that a puppet would bathe in a sink, since he’d probably drown in a bath. Then Greg deliberately lets rip with a loud fart. ”Dude,“ protests Jimmy, ”my dishes are in there!“
Here‘s the kind of thing that passes for wit on a show lovingly written up by The New York Times : ”What do people see in [dogs], anyway? If I wanted someone to lick my face and poop on my lawn, I’d get back together with Farrah Fawcett.“ An old man (actually a puppet, Count Blah) talking about his testicles: ”Mine hang so low I need a cold shower before I can get on an escalator.“ Two girls talking about not being invited to the office paintball game: ”Guess they didn‘t invite anyone with boobs,“ says one. ”Except Mickey, the fat grip,“ replies the other. This is what aging television reviewers, dancing frantically to the Zeitgeist, like to euphemize as ”mature subject matter.“ Sweet, isn’t it?
Greg the Bunny, which was created by two NYU film grads, Dan Milano and Spencer Chinoy, is undeniably smart and inventive in certain ways — the puppets are brilliantly done, there are lots of deft, amusing send-ups of actors and the television world, and the writers know their way around plot and characterization — but it‘s often staggeringly jaded and cynical. Lack of talent isn’t the problem here; it‘s lack of soul. Like a lot of contemporary cutups, the writers think that the opposite of being P.C. is being gross. One episode, in which the friendship between Greg and Jimmy is threatened, centers on a vicious paintball game and the castration of a dog. But it all ends up sweetly enough, with Greg and Jimmy reunited at last. Even at its most rebellious, Hollywood won’t forsake the happy ending: It‘ll just make you swim through a sewer to get there.
The best comedy is liberating, but the brand on display here is more like a pop-culture prison. Almost everything feels like joyless parody, almost everyone is condemned to being a jerk. Thus Gil Bender (Eugene Levy), Jimmy’s father and the producer of Sweetknuckle Junction, is a pompous ass; Alison, a female executive (Sarah Silverman), is a conniving vixen; puppet Warren ”The Ape“ Demontague is a self-important thespian — and so on. In one episode, the entire puppet race (or ”Puppish community“) functions as a caricature of Ebonics-spouting black nationalists, complete with a Puppish leader who‘s an obvious takeoff on Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. The result is demeaning to everyone. The creators of Greg the Bunny think they’re satirizing television, but they‘re in love with its worst aspects.
As a cautionary tale about the folly of parents who prefer to befriend their children rather than act like boring old moms and dads, Small Town Ecstasy, the forthcoming documentary on HBO (Sunday, April 28, 10 p.m.), could hardly be bettered. Filmed in Northern California, it’s the story of a once upright citizen (Scott) who, at the age of 40, leaves his wife and starts hanging out with his 18-year-old son (Craig), a college dropout with a crash pad in Sacramento and a taste for Ecstasy. In the throes of a midlife crisis, Scott imitates his son‘s lifestyle: He gets into Ecstasy, dyes his hair blond, attends raves and starts acting like a goofy teenager with an abnormal number of wrinkles.
If that were the extent of it, Scott’s case would amount to no more than an unusually extreme version of middle-aged angst. What makes him so singular is that he enlists his other children (13-year-old Sam and 15-year-old Heather) into his new pill-popping lifestyle as well. Scott isn‘t a guy who just wants to break out of his marriage and live it up for a while; he actually wants to look, think and behave like his own kids, and he won’t stop even when it‘s revealed that son Craig has already suffered significant brain damage from the drug. There’s plenty of grisly stuff on television, but I‘ve seen few images more weirdly disturbing than that of Scott, dressed in moronically bright yellow and wearing a backward sun visor, walking down the street with his similarly attired offspring on the way to a rave.
His actions may be evil, but Scott seems like a perfectly nice guy — it’s The Banality of E — as do his wife and children and just about everybody else in this documentary, even if his wife is forced into playing the scold. Scott may not care about his wife, but he does seem to care about his children, and his children care about each other. (Eventually, they care about their mother as well, though they initially side with their dad — hardly surprising, since he gives them money to buy drugs and encourages them to go to raves.) So, other than the fact that they‘re so willing to air their dirty laundry on TV — a form of pathology in itself — what’s wrong with this family and how did this happen to them?
It‘s a hard question to answer, if only because the glaring weakness of Small Town Ecstasy is that it provides no context for Scott’s story. Of Calaveras County, where all this takes place, we see little and learn less. Although we‘re told that Scott is a preacher’s son who led a model life until he started taking Ecstasy, it‘s hard to tell whether he was ever deeply religious himself. Yet, watching him, one feels that Scott is a guy for whom society has more or less ceased to exist except in a purely technical sense — paying taxes, staying out of jail, being friendly to people. In terms of a larger vision of how life might be lived, it has no meaning for him. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to have much meaning for the filmmakers either, or they would have looked into it. Nonetheless, on a micro-level, this is gruesomely riveting TV.
Although it‘s rarely as amusing as you’d like, Dinner for Five (Independent Film Channel, Mondays), the new series created by Jon Favreau of Swingers fame, is at least halfway interesting. The idea, which is to film a bunch of film and television stars (a different group each week) talking shop over dinner, is a good one — provided, of course, that the conversation is up to snuff. In the first episode, Favreau‘s guests were Peter Falk, Gary Shandling, Vince Vaughn and Cheri Oteri, and the 25 minutes (edited down from the three-hour dinner) went by pleasantly enough. Falk and Shandling were both genial, oddly fascinating presences — they looked like raconteurs, even if they didn’t act like them — and there was a memorable moment where Shandling recited a New Age suicide note: ”I‘m not mad at anyone, this is just something I want to do for myself.“
As the host of the show, Favreau is obviously intent on putting his guests at ease. He laughs reliably at their jokes and agrees in advance to edit out anything they find embarrassing. No doubt this is a necessary proviso, since the last thing a celebrity wants to do is go on an unscripted television show and make an ass of himself. But the effect is to make the show seem tentative and overly self-conscious. Until the fourth episode, anyway. That’s the one in which guest Michael Rapaport cancels at the last minute, leaving Favreau and lovely, soft-spoken Daryl Hannah to field the uncensored charms of Marilyn Manson and Andy Dick. Self-conscious it isn‘t — self-incriminating is more like it, especially when Manson regales us with descriptions of a raucous party with a teen- or possibly under-age girl. A beauty among beasts, Hannah smiles gamely through discussions of masturbation and pornography, and waits for the bill.
Speaking of bills, there was some real comedy on TV last seek when Steve Harvey, dressed like a dapper gentleman-gangster, appeared on a Dennis Miller Live repeat. He was talking about debt collectors back in the day when they would phone his house. The first question they’d always ask, he explained, was ”Mr. Harvey, when can we expect payment?“
”Hell, you can always expect it,“ Harvey would tell them. ”You can start lookin‘ for that payment as of right now. Gettin’ it is gonna be your damn problem.“