Inside Cartoon Monsoon: An Animated Variety Show

monsoon1Past the friendly forest, through the swamp of snacks and sweets
Stands a paper-mache clubhouse, by the beach of poison treats.
Follow the smell of fun and games, by the light of the smiling moon,
Cuz boys and girls, the forecast calls for a big cartoon monsoon!

When I look back on my childhood, cartoons loom large. I’d wake up before dawn on Saturdays to catch the FOX Kids seven to eleven bloc. I instituted the practice not because I enjoyed all their programming, but because a tragic sleep-in caused me to miss an episode of the X-Men animated series, perhaps the most serialized cartoon of all time. In an age before on-demand viewing and mass syndication, this was cause to quit a show altogether unless you had parents willing to shell out for VHS collections. So I watched everything. Out of habit, I later applied this doggedness to the Disney Afternoon lineup, Ren and Stimpy on Nickelodeon’s SNICK slate (after my parents had gone to bed), and then to The Simpsons on Thursdays and later Sunday nights.

I’m far from unique: most of us were first exposed to humor through cartoons. Whether it was old episodes of the Looney Tunes, the Disney big screen escapades, or whatever came on Cartoon Network after 10 P.M. (I watched a lot of O Canada), celluloid characters provided those first comedy lessons. For most, the instruction ended around adolescence and we moved into more “grounded” sources of mirth, leaving cartoons to the juvenile. The reward for those who stay are shining stars eclipsed by crap: for every person watching Bob’s Burgers, nearly three times as many tune in for Family Guy. Cynicism greys our nostalgia, as we bemoan the constant decomposition of The Simpsons and how even Sesame Street seems to have lost its touch. The world has moved on, and we may wonder if those hours in front of the television were quite as magic as we remember.

monsoon3Comedians Mary Houlihan and Joe Rumrill think so. They’re curators of the Cartoon Monsoon, a weekly variety show at the Annoyance Theater in Williamsburg, Brooklyn that features offbeat cartoons and silly hijinks reminiscent of PeeWee’s Playhouse or Welcome to Weenerville. Aided by a volatile puppet named Puppet (performed by Tim Platt) and “music-man” Steve Desiena, Houlian and Rumrill take the audience an exuberant, nostalgic journey, which makes sense as the show was born of their mutual admiration for old-school animation. “We really bonded over cartoons. If you have ever met Joe, you know that he always has a Bugs Bunny or Mighty Mouse sewn onto some article of his clothing,” Houlihan says, “we talked about how it would be cool to do some kind of screening where we show some of our favorite old cartoons, like stuff from the 1960s and earlier, and just talk about how weird some specific shorts are.”

“I remember joking with Mary that we should do our own show, based on our mutual appreciation for cartoons,” Rumrill told me, “then Mary submitted that idea for a festival in Philadelphia, and it got in. So that joke VERY quickly became a reality.” After their Philly venture, Houlihan and Rumrill decided to continue the series. They performed at Over the Eight, then did a Spank at the Upright Citizens Brigade, but ultimately came to the Annoyance this past May.

monsoon2“We write a script for each episode, and we leave spaces in the script for a neighbor or a mailman or the mayor to visit,” Houlihan tells me, “and then give the guest free reign to do whatever they want.” Last Friday, Mary and Joe anticipated the arrival of Nemo Primavera, a “bubblegum Italian pop heartthrob teen sensation” whose diabetes-inducing hits include “Pies And Cakes” and “Ice Cream for Breakfast.” “And he has so many Twitter followers!” the hosts squeal.

Sadly, Nemo’s lost his spark due to a case of “butthead brain,” and can only perform terrible songs about “gross” vegetables. Mary and Joe try to motivate him with assistance from a smattering of cartoons and guest performers. The lineup that night features animation by Houlihan, Mikey Heller, and Above Average, and performances by Joe Pera, Hallie Bateman, and Ike Ufomadu. Ufomadu has one of the most memorable bits of the evening, a Mr. Rogers type instructor focused on the minutiae of the word “hello.”

As for the cartoons, they’re simple, rough presentations, the cleanest being an Above Average Flash short by Ben Warheit about a dinosaur with a bucket list. Houlihan’s presentation, a music video she animated for the band The Yellow Dress, is a simple piece with humor in the style of Scooby-Doo. Houlihan created the piece using AfterEffects, with the shapes drawn by Illustrator. Houlihan, who studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute, notes the difference in the cartoons of today to those of yesteryear. “Something that I think is so cool and weird about classic animation is that it’s so financially unfeasible to make anything of that quality today,” she says, “they made these 2d, hand-drawn, frame-by-frame masterpieces, scored by orchestras, all made by middle class U.S. workers – it’s so lavish when you think about it. The history of animation has been kind of a story of people making due with smaller and smaller budgets, like most other industries.”

My favorite is Heller’s piece, about an errant football quarterback in search of a team. Heller, a cartoonist and stand-up comedian, moved from New York to Los Angeles last November when his webcomic Time-Trabble came to the attention of Cartoon Network. Heller now writes for the upcoming animated series We Bare Bears, which will air on in July. His inspiration for Trevor Knight came from a chance encounter with a radio commercial. “My comedy-partner/best friend Colin Burgess and I were getting some late-night sandwiches when we overheard a radio commercial that mentioned “football quarterback, Trevor Knight,” Heller tells me, “we thought the unnatural aggression in the announcer’s delivery was so funny and we kept imagining a delusional football player who spoke that way.” Heller emailed Burgess the script, which he recorded on his phone with Lorelei Ramirez, then Heller animated the short on Adobe Flash over the weekend to send to Houlihan. “I’m weirdly proud of it,” Heller says, “it’s satisfying to go to Cartoon Network to work on a cool TV show, then go home to work on something insanely dumb for my friends, and end up being loving both.”

Despite the cartoons and the performers’ attempts at inspiration, Primavera remains a butthead, prompting Puppet to repeatedly suggest an “Old Yeller” solution.

“We are not going to shoot Nemo Primavera in the head!” Rumrill declares.

“But that’s what I WANT!” Puppet stammers out.

Eventually, Primavera’s agent, Barry the Bigshot, enters and solves the problem by appealing to modern audiences’ appetite for “gross out comedy.” “Who cares if he’s a damn butthead,” Barry booms, “he’s in the comedy community now!” With that, Primavera leaves, his purpose found again, and Houlihan and Rumrill say goodnight to the audience, promising more adventures every Friday through July, when their run is currently set to end. After that, the duo hopes to further develop the show, whether for web or television, perhaps even public access. “It’d certainly be cool to do an actual Saturday morning show with sets and stuff,” Rumrill says, “but, then we’d have to convince Puppet to sell out.”

Photos by Erin Cesaro.

Alex Estrada is a sketch comedy writer at UCB. You can read his passive-aggressive tweets @thealexestrada. He’s also licensed to practice law in three states, but he doesn’t like to talk about that.

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