25 Years Later: Was ‘Herman’s Head’ Any Good?

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Before 1989 there were three big television networks and none of them were Fox. Then came The Simpsons and by gum, that put them on the map. Then came Cops, America’s Most Wanted, Beverly Hills 90210, and then suddenly people talked about the Big Four television networks. But with every successful show they made, there were a number of programs that didn’t make it. Shows like Woops! about the survivors of an atomic bomb, The Ben Stiller Show, and the subject of today’s article, 1991’s Herman’s Head.

Today Herman’s Head’s legacy may be the multiple references made to the show on The Simpsons, which shared the cast members of Yeardly Smith (Lisa Simpson) and Hank Azaria (Moe, Wiggum, and hundreds more). Despite being the butt of a few jokes and kind of being associated with the idea of a long-gone show, Herman’s Head ran for three seasons (which is just as long as Arrested Development lasted on the same network). The premise of the show was simultaneously high concept and simple. Herman Brooks works as a magazine fact-checker. We see his day-to-day life at the workplace and at home, and in many ways, the show is a very traditional sitcom. However, this is not all the audience sees. We are also privy to a view inside of the titular Herman’s head where four elements of his personality, Angel, Animal, Genius, and Wimp, are in control. (And no, I would not be the first to mention here that the Pixar film Inside Out totally made this into a movie.) Like many sitcoms of the 90s, the opening credits do a great job of laying out the whole premise:

The pilot episode of Herman’s Head does not take much time before jumping into its premise. Herman gets into an elevator at work with a large crowd of people and says to a stuffy-looking older man, “Good morning, Mr. Crawford.” Immediately we jump into his brain, which looks a bit like a cluttered attic, decorated with books, neon signs, college memorabilia, and filing cabinets where the stuffy Genius is rounding up the troops. As he attempts to figure out the next move we learn from the three other components of his brain that he’s new to New York City, and we get our first clash between the hippy Angel and the party guy Animal. This is all interrupted when every component of Herman’s head breaks into a sneeze.

As Herman makes his way into the office, the structure of the show begins to show itself a little more clearly. What begins to emerge is a prototype version of Family Guy: as the actual workplace sitcom unspools, the brain emerges as a location for a quick cutaway gag. For instance: we are introduced to Heddy (which seems like a really strange choice for a character name when it’s so close to one of the two words in the title of the show) who is a workplace rival and potential romantic interest (?!). Internally, Animal comments on her: “I don’t like her. She’s a snake, and she’s trouble. But I bectcha she’d be great in the sack…”

Herman is given a big assignment by his supervisor that puts him into direct competition with Heddy. As a result, late that night, he’s burning the midnight oil in his apartment when there’s a knock at the door. It’s Connie, whom we’ve briefly heard mentioned as the girlfriend of Hank Azaria’s character Jay, a co-worker of Herman. She’s learned that Jay has been going out with another girl and is distraught. Herman is torn. Animal wants to use this moment to lead to sex, while every other part of his brain is against the idea, wanting to focus on either consoling her or getting back to the work. Ultimately his better Angel wins out and he listens to her talk. As a result, when he arrives at work the next morning he reveals to Jay in the hallway that he fell asleep and only checked one of the multiple articles he was supposed to fact-check. When it’s time to hand them in there’s a brief debate (“honest is the best policy” vs “not in this case”) before Herman lies and says they’re all completed.

The next night as Herman prepares for Connie to come over to his apartment for dinner, we see a new storytelling device within the psyche. Animal announces that he’s been working on a little fantasy over the past few days about how the night is going to go. Then, with a red tint over the scene, Connie, dressed in lingerie, enters the apartment and tells Herman to “come and get it.” From a set of movie theater seats, all four parts of the brain cheer, except for the Wimp who interrupts. “Wait. Have any of you thought of this?” Suddenly the fantasy has a blue tint and Connie breaks away, and slaps Herman across the face. Back in the real world, Connie has arrived and Herman aborts his original plan. He throws out the flowers, blows out the candles, and hides his bikini briefs in the microwave. (I’m assuming wearing these was considered a sexy move for guys in the 90s, but seems to go against the otherwise incredibly baggy fashion I’m seeing everywhere else in the show.) Before long, Connie notices the flowers in the garbage and realizes that Herman was planning a different type of evening. He initially tries to deny it, but apparently he has an insanely unsafe microwave because it randomly opens at that moment, revealing his bikini briefs.

He tells Connie how he feels, they begin to make out, she excuses herself to the bathroom for a moment, and he begins to scour the apartment for condoms just as Jay shows up at his doorstep. He’s been looking everywhere for Connie because he realizes he’s in love with her. Herman manages to ditch him by promising that if he sees her he’ll tell her that Jay is truly sorry, sending him into another emotional crisis. When she emerges, dressed only in a button-up shirt, he does the right thing and tells her what happened. She feels bad for Herman, but admires his honesty. “You know, you could have waited to tell me… after.” “It crossed my mind,” Herman responds. Meanwhile, in his brain we see a gagged Animal crying and screaming “No” as the other three restrain him with enormous ropes.

At work the next morning, Herman arrives as a major fight appears to be happening in his supervisor’s office. It would appear that a mistake went to print from one of Herman’s articles. But wouldn’t you know it, it was from the one that Herman actually did check and he had it right in his version: the mistake came from the magazine’s printing department. The Genius in his brain is astounded at this turn of events as the odds were staggeringly against him. Angel on the other hand is not surprised. She believes it’s the universe rewarding Herman for doing the right thing with Connie. Animal on the other hand just wants everyone to know he’s hungry.

It’s hard to judge Herman’s Head against the comedies of today as the standard for television has shifted so far away from the kind of show this one is. Our most lauded shows are shot with just one camera. There’s no audience laughing over it. Comedies are more personal, about real people with dealing with real struggles; not attached to giant, high-concept gimmicks. However, this sitcom does share some DNA with the popular comedies of today. Giving voice to the inner workings of the mind of a modern man is not that different from having Louie perform standup to comment on the terrible experience he just went through. And, yeah. I recognize that that’s a bit of a stretch, but Herman’s Head is a lot closer to Louie than other shows of the nineties like that one about the teenage angel that only his best friend can see who died from eating a six-month old hamburger, or the 1950s sitcom family that moves into a 1991 New Jersey suburb.

But no matter how you slice it, Herman’s Head will always have it’s moment in the sun:

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, podcaster and a guy on Twitter. Check out his webseries “Ramsey Has a Time Machine” featuring Chris Elliott!

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