‘Jon Benjamin Has a Van’ Makes a Lot of Noise by Muting Itself in Its Fearless “Breakdown”
‘Structurally Sound’ is a recurring feature where each week a different structurally unusual, rule-breaking anomaly of an episode from a comedy series is examined.
It’s hard to believe that there was a time when Jon Benjamin wasn’t seemingly on every show in television. While his voice work had made a strong impression, his entire persona was given a shot in 2011 when he was given a series on Comedy Central. Jon Benjamin Has a Van was an ambitious, ultimately failed show (although with Benjamin’s current star power, and Comedy Central’s more open attitude this show could have thrived now — it’s easy to picture this airing alongside Nathan for You), and while it went too far in some areas, a few episodes were inspired, magical pieces of television unlike anything else on TV.
Other episodes of the faux docu-news style Jon Benjamin Has a Van were split up into several segments, with a few shorts splitting up the runtime. Here however, in “Breakdown,” we (mostly) stay with one story as a means of accentuating the episode’s structural shift. Granted, a separate segment begins the episode, but almost as if to make you think you’re getting a regular installment and then only underscore the change that’s happened. Cutting to smaller bits after the shift, or even sharing this story with another ambitious one would ultimately rob it of its impact. It’s essential here that the audience stays in this place of silence, never getting a reprieve, and the episode knows how to capitalize on that.
The structural shift in question here that “Breakdown” indulges in is the episode being mostly silent. This is an incredibly bold feat, especially in this increasingly loud age that we occupy, but this ambitious, muted episode of television is something truly different and inspiring. Silent episodes of television are certainly not totally unheard of, with programs like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the British Inside No. 9, and even Two Guys, A Girl, and a Pizza Place tackling the format, but “Breakdown” operates above the rest of its ilk with a more complicated circuitry in place.
The offering physically removes the technology that provides the episode its sound, and then cleverly works around and subverts that idea for the rest of the installment. This isn’t just the show choosing to be silent, some homage to silent cinema, or some silly set of coincidences that have our cast remaining mute for stylistic effect. This is them desperately trying to bring back their sound, in a plot line that works both literally and stylistically. To say that the plot here is “Jon Benjamin and company trying to save their sound” sounds like a very ridiculous, Futurama sort of storyline, but it’s 100% accurate.
This madness innocuously begins with the JBHAV team investigating a story on a “Poor Farm” that sees them driving into the desert and their titular van breaking down. When a trucker stops by and offers to take one of them to a nearby rest stop for help, it’s Jon Benjamin’s sound guy, Nathan Fielder (in his pre-Nathan for You days and largely before he was on the public’s radar), who is sent to go on the mission. Nathan leaving for help, along with the audio equipment, is the catalyst that robs the show of its sound, and it shows its hand so subtly that you almost don’t realize what’s going on at first. As Nathan heads away in the truck, the audio track on the episode begins to stutter and static before ultimately going to the white noise of silence. It’s a terribly smart bit — every piece here is thought out very, very meticulously. The same sort of magic is seen as the audio just as sporadically cuts back in as the truck and Nathan return to the crew at the end.
If such an idea sounds intricate, it is, and the episode losing its sound guy and sound equipment is just the first piece of this silent Rube Goldberg machine. Removing Nathan and the sound equipment is significant, but it wouldn’t mean that Jon Benjamin and the rest of his team wouldn’t be able to communicate or at least hear each other (even if we’re not able to hear them). What instead imposes the silence that plagues them is a number of events that render them without hearing, whether it’s a noisy bar, barking dogs, or the fact that Nathan doesn’t have a cell phone (he Skypes), they’re just as encumbered as we are. This is pushed to hyperbolic levels when we see that people are also operating power tools and doing woodworking in the bar that the crew goes into, adding to the deafening cacophony in a hilarious way. In an example of the sort of storytelling that the episode resorts to now that it’s audioless, the stranded Jon Benjamin and company encounter a man who can help them. He’s deaf, however, so they have to communicate through notes and messages. Once again, the characters and the audience are cleverly being made deaf simultaneously, as the episode continues to find new ways to explore its silent structure.
It’s also fascinating that in spite of the episode removing one of its senses, the episode doesn’t feel like it’s lost anything. It even makes up for the removal of this one component. As crazy as it sounds, you almost forget that the episode is silent because of how much mileage the episode gets out of the idea.
It’s worth mentioning that other Comedy Central projects at the time were certainly doing different, out-of-the-box ideas — let’s not forget that South Park is consistently breaking the rules and bending form — but this remains a standout piece of programming on their behalf. Even as bonkers as Stella, Nathan for You, and the extremely daring Review could get, none of them stripped themselves of such a crucial aspect of filmmaking in this way.
This situation ends up transforming into a ticking clock hostage situation (with a brilliant ATM withdrawal gag) to get back Nathan from the trucker, but also more importantly, to get back their sound. It’s very telling that the moments where the trucker calls Jon Benjamin with ransom demands, he is able to inject audio back into the episode and communication is allowed. It’s because he is calling the shots and the one in possession of the sound that he’s able to break through the silence like this, and it’s why it’s just as crucial the team gets Nathan back. This may feel like an awfully deep reading into what the episode is trying to say, but these decisions are very deliberate and it’s why this product does feel so special as a result.
Jon Benjamin Has a Van would continue to rock the boat and try to do new things with storytelling, seeing various degrees of success in the process, but this remains the highlight of their achievements and how to make your mark even if you don’t have a lot of time to do so.