On this installment of The Good, The Bad, and the Deeply Strange, I’ll be expanding my examination Comedy Central’s large quantity of television parodies. Having previously tackled their multitude of short-lived reality parodies and sketch shows, this time it’s all comedy versions of news and warped versions of sitcoms. First up: Sitcoms.
Frank Leaves for the Orient
Six episodes in the summer of ’99, and the only video left is the first five minutes of the first episode, which makes me want to see how this level of surrealism played out.
That’s My Bush
Trey Parker and Matt Stone were certain that Al Gore was going to win in 2000, and they created a show called Everybody Loves Al as a South Park side project. It was to be a parody of crappy sitcoms, where heavy-handed political moralizing mixed with trite plots, so every episode would be a Very Special Episode, with the twist that the main character was the sitting President. But Al didn’t win, of course, so the show was quickly reconfigured into That’s My Bush, which premiered in the spring of 2001.
This proved serendipitous, as George W. Bush’s public persona required only slight parodying to become a dopey sitcom husband. This Bush is a buffoon in the Homer Simpson mold: he loves his family and means well, but his harebrained schemes and bad decision-making keep getting him in a pickle. Other stock characters include the put-upon wife (Laura Bush), the sassy maid, and the wacky neighbor. Karl Rove is characterized as the best friend, but he’s evil on the sitcom, just like he is in real life.
In the pilot, where Bush tries to have dinner with Laura while simultaneously hosting an abortion summit in another room, the fact that this is a Parker/Stone production becomes evident. The head of the pro-life faction is a fetus that survived being aborted, and played by a grotesque six-inch tall puppet (whose creators Parker and Stone would work with again on Team America) that looks like the baby from Eraserhead with a voice and attitude like Cartman’s.
That’s My Bush was a ratings and critical success, but was cancelled because it cost about a million dollars per episode. The cancellation was announced on August 3, 2001. The George W. Bush-as-buffoon joke stopped being funny a month later, so the show would have ended even if had been cheap. And it currently is available for very cheap on DVD.
Stella is the ultimate Comedy Central one-season wonder. It has all the trappings: comic visionaries who can’t break through commercially, a deep strangeness, and cultists who carry the torch for “gone too soon.”
The Wain/Black/Showalter comedy partnership lives in the stupid/smart pocket. Stella is extraordinarily silly and dumb, but completely by design. Every weird decision seems carefully considered. When the president of the co-op board asks the Stella guys why they’re dressed as skunks during their application interview, Black responds, “we’re not dressed as skunks, we’re dressed as skunk-people.” Then there’s an inspirational dance break, a recurring theme in Wain/Black/Showalter comedies.
In fact, if Stella is about anything, it’s about taking clichés as far as they can go. When the boys are evicted from their apartment, they’re hobos by the next day. When David Wain runs through the rain to win back the love of his life, the rain follows him inside, all the way to her apartment door. Their mean old German landlord is secretly Josef Mengele. And this is all just in the pilot. It’s like a live action Looney Tunes cartoon, but weirder and dumber.
Stella, even when it was on in the summer of 2005, seemed like a show that was not going to last, to the disappointment of its fans. It’s not for everybody, but resolutely for the handful of nerds who got it. As long as David Wain has a directing career and the Michaels keep plugging along, the cult of Stella will survive. The show was available on Netflix Instant until relatively recently, and it’s one of the few one-season wonders that’s available on DVD.
The above clip is from the sketches the troupe made before they landed the show, but it’s a nutshell example of what they do.
Kröd Mandoon and the Flaming Sword of Fire
Kröd Mandoon and the Flaming Sword of Fire is the most ostentatiously expensive show Comedy Central has ever broadcast. A joint production between Comedy Central and the BBC, the 2009 sword-and-sandal fantasy parody featured special effects, stunts, a multitude of extras, and on-location filming in Hungary. It had an American version, narrated by Chris Parnell, and a British version, narrated by Michael Gambon, of all people. What Kröd Mandoon and the Flaming Sword of Fire didn’t have was funny jokes.
Sean Maguire’s title character is a vain, whiny swordsman who is the supposed chosen one to lead an uprising against a tyrannical-but-fey despot played by Little Britain’s Matt Lucas. He leads a typical ragtag band of misfits that includes phony warlock Kevin Hart, in a thankless supporting role the likes of which he will never be seen in again, and archer/girlfriend India de Beaufort, whose sluttiness is the show’s B-story. Screen time is mostly split between Kröd trying to save the world and worrying about controlling his girlfriend’s sexuality. Most of the show’s jokes are either about hypersexuality, gay panic, bestiality, or murder. It’s exhausting. The cleverest aspect of the show is that it’s a stealth workplace comedy, where even swashbuckling freedom fighters are subject to petty bureaucracies of dress code and job interviews.
Perhaps Kröd Mandoon would have been able to justify its budget if it had been good. But it just wasn’t very good. It’s available on Amazon Instant. Now, I’m going to contradict myself in a moment when I complain about the sexism of Secret Girlfriend, but first, I would like you to ogle this very sexy clip of India de Beaufort doing a striptease:
Secret Girlfriend was a pretty gross show that ran for six episodes in the fall of 2009. It’s most notable for being one of the earliest shows to make the transition from web series to TV. It was an early experiment in a form that Comedy Central wouldn’t get right until Broad City almost five years later.
The show was created by Jay Rondot and Ross Novie, the latter of whom has a prolific career as an assistant director on shows including Arrested Development and The Office. The duo started Secret Girlfriend for Atomic Wedgie to showcase their own work. The YouTube videos are very confusing plot-wise, and it’s a good thing that the premise was simplified for television.
The show’s novel concept in both its web and TV forms was its second-person perspective. The actors speak directly to the camera and address “You,” like Bright Lights, Big City, a novel that could also have inspired Secret Girlfriend’s debauchery.
Novelty does not excuse the show’s grueling, unfunny sexism. The show is about three dudes (the unseen, unheard You, and LA improv veterans Derek Miller and Michael “Mookie” Blaiklok) who make viral videos and try to get it wet all day every day. You have a crazy ex-girlfriend whom You still sleep with and a “secret” girlfriend who You’re trying to hide from Your ex. In between, there are dozens of hot LA girls who appear to wiggle their butts and make eyes at the camera. The women are all either crazy or ‘cool girls’ down to play video games rather than go out. The show sometimes tries to fit jokes around the constant parade of eye candy, but mostly doesn’t bother. The attempts at humor are of what I call the “Chicks Are For Fags” genre, where women are annoyances to be tolerated in exchange for sex, and the only real people are your buddies (see also: Entourage, frat culture).
The novel second-person point of view ultimately undermines the show. Since we never see You or hear you talk, how are we supposed to believe You as such an irresistible ladies’ man? Especially when Your only friends are these doughy chodes? Unless they’re some kind of meta-satire of pickup culture, they don’t do a good job of presenting your case.
I’m making Secret Girlfriend sound less tolerable than it actually is. Something amusing happens every now and then, and there are a lot of hot girls to look at, if you’re into that. See for Yourself.
Looking at the names involved with Big Lake, the show’s failure seems surprising. The talent involved is impressive: creator Lew Morton wrote for NewsRadio and Futurama; the cast included Chris Parnell, Horatio Sanz, Deborah Rush, and the late James Rebhorn, and starred then-unknown Chris Gethard, who was New York’s best improviser but had never landed a major role before; and was produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s Gary Sanchez Productions. It was timely and had a solid premise: disgraced financial whiz kid Josh Franklin moves back in with his parents, whose retirement money he lost when he caused his bank to collapse. The show also had a “10/90” deal, which gave Comedy Central the option to renew the show for 90 episodes after the initial 10 and eventually reap the enormous profits from syndication. But the show didn’t make it past the summer of 2010.
Behind the scenes, the production experienced troubles that ended up being insurmountable. Original star Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite) dropped out a few months before the premiere, leaving the producers to scramble for a last-minute replacement, and they gambled on Gethard. It didn’t work out, and Gethard honed his show-carrying skills with his cult hit public access show The Chris Gethard Show, which he started in 2011.
It’s still a little early to tell, but Chris Gethard may end up with a career like Norm Macdonald’s: dearly beloved by a few, but whose eccentricity leaves him an outsider to the mainstream. Gethard is still one of the funniest improvisers in New York and a startlingly poignant writer whose book A Bad Idea I’m About To Do is wonderfully encouraging book for depressed weirdos, the demographic that Gethard’s best work is for and about. Comedy Central passed on a pilot version of The Chris Gethard Show, and the show is on indefinite hiatus while Gethard ponders his next move, which will surely be exciting, whatever it is.
Big Lake never reached its potential. It wasn’t bad, but the satirical combination of the dark subject matter and peppy multi-camera format (with laugh track recorded during screenings at the UCB theatre) never alchemized. If it had been picked up for the full hundred episodes, perhaps the kinks would have been worked out, but as The A.V. Club’s Erik Adams noted in his recent write-up of the show, if that had happened, there would have been no Chris Gethard Show. That show Big Lake’s real legacy, because it’s beloved, and Big Lake is not available online.
Irreverent news shows The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are Comedy Central’s golden children. These are the siblings that didn’t make it.
Matt Besser is a vicious prankster. His willingness to lean in to confrontation has led to beef with another podcast on the same network and released an entire album of reverse prank calls. His most confrontational moment, though, came in 2004, when he made an entire show devoted to fucking with unsuspecting guests. That show was Crossballs, which doubled as a parody of shouty cable news shows (specifically Crossfire and Hardball, as you can tell by the title).
The premise is that it’s a debate show between four experts on opposite sides of an issue like “should drugs be legal” or “should women be allowed to drive.” However, two of the four panelists are comedians, and the actual experts are being Punk’d. Occasionally the guests catch on that it’s a sham, but usually they’re antagonized to the point of outright hostility toward the comics. They’re egged on by host Chris Tallman (who will later appear as the token white correspondent on Chocolate News), who takes the guests’ reasonable position against the comics spouting offensive nonsense. This creates moments like a frat guy defending Greek life by mentioning that his frat does blood drives telling Besser’s anti-frat activist “I wouldn’t give you my blood, I’d let you die.” It’s insane. The show could be used in psychology classes to demonstrate how far normal people will go when a supposedly impartial authority figure is on their side.
The comics featured generally rotate between Besser, Mr. Show’s Jerry Minor, The Mighty Boosh’s Rich Fulcher, the great Andy Daly, and Contest Searchlight’s Mary Birdsong, whose condescension voice is exquisitely bone-chilling. I can’t imagine how anyone could believe the outlandish things they say, but I can imagine the environment on the Crossballs set working people into a frenzy.
Crossballs filmed 24 episodes but only aired 23, as one of the duped panelists threatened to sue Comedy Central. It’s pretty amazing that that only happened once, because supposed experts are made to look like fools. Crossballs probably couldn’t have lasted forever, once its cover was blown. But fools still appear on The Daily Show, so maybe it could have lasted as long as people stay gullible.
The entire series is available on YouTube.
Dog Bites Man
The same year that Borat high-fived his way to cinematic glory, Comedy Central sent their own crew of pranksters out into the world to scandalize unsuspecting civilians. Dog Bites Man followed a local news team from Spokane as they tried to make a show while being completely incompetent. Borat and Dog Bites Man had Dan Mazer in common, Sacha Baron Cohen’s writing partner who created Dog Bites Man.
Dog Bites Man shows that Sacha Baron Cohen isn’t a one-man show, as this show uses the same technique as Cohen’s projects with scripted connective scenes in between the improvised sketches with baffled guests.
Dog Bites Man had an excellent cast of Matt Walsh, A.D. Miles, Andrea Savage, and Zach Galifinakis, who played a character with the same first name as the character that would make him a superstar three years later. Alan is just a funny name (sorry, any Alans reading this). Galifinakis brings his vaguely threatening weirdness, and in retrospect it still seems unlikely that he crossed over in such a big way.
The secret star of the show, however, is A.D. Miles, whose pathetic production assistant is as cringe-inducing as any Ricky Gervais creation. He’s the worst of the worst, and it’s only fitting that Miles would go on to create Horrible People.
Dog Bites Man ran for nine episodes, and is one of the few shows that weren’t super-successful that still can be seen on Comedy Central’s website.
Chocolate News premiered three weeks before Election Day in 2008, and was over a month before Obama was inaugurated. In between, David Alan Grier and company gave the world a show that was “the only source for pure, uncircumcised realness from an Afrocentric perspective,” as DAG described it in the show’s intro. “Be it sports, politics, or human interest, as long as there is a brother involved, we gonna kick it to you raw.”
Chocolate News filled the Black black hole that had been missing from Comedy Central’s lineup since Chappelle’s Show went off the air. Chappelle’s Show is the clear antecedent of Chocolate News. Director Rusty Cundieff worked on both shows, and it shows. Sketches like “The N-Word Commission,” where black and white delegates negotiate a deal to allow white people to use the n-word, are in the same lineage as Chappelle’s Show sketches like “The Racial Draft.” But Chocolate News is not a crossover show. DAG’s reference to Afrocentrism is no lip service. The show’s logo is the Pan-African flag. There’s a brown paper bag test joke.
In 2008, white Americans were ready to vote for Barack Obama, but white network television wasn’t ready for a black Colbert Report. As of 2014, it’s still not ready, as seen in the cancellation of Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, which the A.V. Club called “a better version” of Chocolate News. I agree with that, but Chocolate News is pretty good. The show takes black and white people to task equally, with Republicans targeted for extra criticism. Most telling, though, is the presence of Jordan Peele as a correspondent. His Comedy Central show is the current gold standard for social commentary from a black perspective, but not an Afrocentric one.
On January 11, 2011, America’s Finest News Source premiered two different shows on two different networks: Onion News Network on IFC and Onion SportsDome on Comedy Central. ONN lasted two seasons and continues in video clips online, but SportsDome lasted just ten episodes before it was replaced by Sports Show with Norm Macdonald. Comedy Central tried out two different SportsCenter parodies, and neither of them lasted.
Onion SportsDome was funny, but never reached the extraordinary heights its newspaper parent reaches on a regular basis, which was too bad. The premise and platform couldn’t channel the anger and sadness of The Onion’s headlines. Perhaps it would have fared better if the Onion name wasn’t attached to it. But maybe the ratings weren’t good enough. Some clips are still available on The Onion’s website.
Onion SportsDome and Sports Show With Norm Macdonald were officially cancelled on the same day, and Comedy Central’s attempt to find an ESPN to Colbert’s Fox News and Stewart’s CBS ended with them.
Sports Show with Norm Macdonald
Where does Norm Macdonald belong? He’s the funniest comedian whose comedy gifts are completely unmarketable. He was arguably the best Weekend Update host, but that was a long time ago, and his comedy has gotten so idiosyncratic since then that such a high-profile position now seems impossible (see his quixotic quest to become the next Late Late Show host). Norm is hilarious in our dimension, but he’s a superstar and a prophet in a dimension that’s accessible only by him.
Sports Show, which ran from April to June in 2011, was a concentrated dose of Norm. It was rare for anyone else to appear onscreen, and those who did were usually athletes like Blake Griffin and Ron Artest, the latter of whom costarred in a completely nonsensical sketch where he and Norm are Old West gunslingers. Other than that, though, it’s mostly Norm at his desk spouting whatever nonsense comes to mind. In the pilot, he does almost 10 minutes of deskbound material before going to a sketch. It’s an unconventional way to go about hosting a late night-style show, but Norm gives not a single hoot about convention. There are long pauses between jokes, which seem like an eternity when the jokes don’t land, and Norm lets the quiet parts simmer. There’s always a very silly sketch, like Norm playing mundane pranks on confused tourists while walking around LA with a Pau Gasol lookalike. The last two minutes or so of the show is given over to a segment called “Garbage Time,” which is rapid-fire jokes that would be tweets if Norm didn’t mostly tweet non-comedic play-by-play of golf. A lot of the jokes in Garbage Time aren’t even about sports. It’s just unfiltered Norm.
Thus, it’s not too surprising that the show didn’t last very long. Sports Show just isn’t a show that screams “longevity.” The show mostly just feels like Norm messing around on someone else’s dime, which is great for fans like me, but not for people who actually want a sports comedy show. It’s also by nature immediately dated, so it’s kinda funny that the show is still available on Amazon Instant.
Liam Mathews is an underrated writer and comedian.