When ‘Duckman’ Paid Respect to Classic Comedy Duos
‘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.
“Well I guess we’re off on another crazy trip!” “That’s a logline if I’ve ever heard one!”
Duckman was way ahead of its time. The cantankerous animated Jason Alexander comedy was not averse to mixing things up stylistically, creating homages to Russian literary titans like Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, or film noir classics like Chinatown, The Maltese Falcon, and Touch of Evil. This was a show that really committed to its high-concept episodes.
While Duckman would buck the norm a number of times, “The Road to Dendron” and “Duckman and Cornfed in ‘Haunted Society Plumbers’” very much feel like companion pieces that go the extra mile. For starters, they both have the same writing teams assembled for the entries, with both episodes pointedly taking on the buddy pictures of yesteryear as their targets. “The Road to Dendron” lampoons the Bing Crosby and Bob Hope musical road comedies that were so popular in the ‘40s and ‘50s, with “Haunted Society Plumbers” being a perfect recreation of the Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello slapstick romps from the same era.
Right from the start of “The Road to Dendron,” the differences from a typical Duckman episode are felt. Gone are the usual opening credits in lieu of an old fashioned Paramount logo and title card setup that’s more reflective of Hope and Crosby’s work. “Haunted Society Plumbers” carries out the same tactic, only with a more theremin-heavy supernatural title card evocative of when Abbott and Costello met such monsters as the Wolf Man. Both episodes also feature fictional vanity credits, with very in-jokes like “Gowns by Edith Head,” who was a famous Hollywood costume designer from the ‘40s to the ‘70s, yet not a single gown appearing in the episode. Other gags that are just as deep of cuts are things like Makeup by Samuel L. Westmore, and Wigs by Adrian. Even Color by USACOLOR is a clever jab at the network that airs them, too. “Haunted Society Plumbers” continues this gag with things like Ashicultumal Light and Magic, and a lengthy joke where credits for Mrs. Worthington-Ford’s Gowns, Hair, Left Arm, and Internal Organs all receive notable inclusions. Right from the start you can see that these entries are going for the humor of a bygone era.
It’s also kind of crazy seeing “The Road to Dendron” nailing this “Road to…” parody over a decade before Family Guy would turn it into a fan favorite trope involving Stewie and Brian. Duckman goes to all of those places first, including the lavish musical numbers indicative of these pictures. “Road to Dendron’s” first song is a deeply meta endeavor that more or less telegraphs the entire episode, including Duckman and Cornfed resorting to drag later on and the show wanting to hit syndication numbers. It even ends with the self-aware line that this is all going to last for 23 minutes and 19 seconds. In an even more brilliant move, the song that closes out the episode is entirely silent, as roving text explains, “Due to a limited musical budget, we have used our allotment of one song per show.” The episode goes as far as listing the song as “Silent Farewell” in the credits, which is almost too smart.
“Road to Dendron” begins in Sudan of all places, with Duckman chaperoning on a field trip for Ajax. Ajax is soon kidnapped by the Sultan of Dendron, which sparks this whole misadventure. The episode capitalizes on the exotic locales so often turned to for these buddy romp pictures. On the other side of things “Haunted Society Plumbers” sees Duckman and Cornfed inexplicably as society plumbers (with a flimsy explanation for it, at that) aping the constant premise repositioning of Abbott and Costello and Three Stooges flicks. You also have to wrap your head around the nonsense of what “society plumbers” even means.
Another big difference for this pair of episodes is that they both feature Duckman and Cornfed as the only main cast members that appear in the episodes (excluding Ajax in “Dendron,” who disappears pretty early). This too makes the episodes feel a little extra special and like they exist outside of the usual continuity of the series. It forces more “buddy comedy” moments, a lot of which feed off of puns and repartee. “Haunted Society Plumbers” even sees a case revolving around the missing Sharon Stone diamond, which is maybe as punny as you can get.
“Haunted Society Plumbers” really embraces this classic comedy by performing many touchstone jokes of the era. Duckman and Cornfed’s plumbing agency is named “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA-1 Plumbing” which is repeated five times in succession before being interrupted with, “All right, let’s get on with it! We don’t even have a plot yet!” In fact quite a bit of mileage is gained from accent humor and words being mispronounced throughout the episode. Archetypal “Who’s on first?” type word play is turned to, as well as cartoonish sound effects that were traditional in these films. Those slapstick-y revolving door bits where inexplicable ghosts and monsters are featured get a spotlight. Even those hackneyed “walk like this” gags get serviced. It really hits all the bases.
The episode even manages to hit the gratuitous celebrity cameo aspect from these famous films, where the “ghost” ends up being Homer fucking Simpson of all people. He even shouts Duckman’s patented catch phrase and gets an extended credit sequence, at that. It’s truly the perfect modern update of what these old fashioned films were going for. “Road to Dendron” does have an “appearance” by Bob Hope, which should also count for something, but the Homer cameo is a pointed reminder of Duckman never hitting the same appeal that The Simpsons did (although this episode would end up being nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Animated Program).
“Haunted Society Plumbers” is actually more concerned with respecting these classic gags than anything else, while still managing to maintain Duckman’s wry, perverse sense of humor. If anything this functions as an example of how versatile the show could be, embracing the series’ oft used detective premise to service the greater stylistic change to an inspired degree. To rub this in even further, the stakes here are super low, with Duckman and Cornfed’s price tag for the case being a mere (or impressive, depending who you ask) $25. There are zero stakes; it’s all spectacle.
As these episodes build to their conclusions, “Road to Dendron” turns to a lot of grifting and cons in order to advance the plot. The episode consistently leans on tropes and clichés of the genre to move things forward, and it absolutely works with Duckman’s acerbic tone. A huge piece of showmanship very typical of comedy teams closes out the episode, and “Haunted Society Plumbers” follows much in the same suit. It turns to an on the nose “talent show” performance that has the exact rhythm of these old duo routines, right down to the staggered audience laughter.
While some modern series have tried to take on these classic styles, it’s nice to see their spirit still being kept alive to some degree, even if it’s dwindling. Few have gone as far as Duckman though, and it’s their staunch commitment to the genre that makes them work as well as they do. “Road to Dendron” might feature the pointed line, “Thank Allah comedy teams are now dead,” but if they all worked as well as Duckman’s did, then I couldn’t disagree more.