When ‘Sealab 2021’ Devoted Nearly an Entire Episode to a Single Joke
‘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.
The luxury of 11-minute programming is that filling that runtime with an insane, impossible idea is actually plausible. It’d be mighty hard to pull off an episode of a 44-minute drama where a power outage renders the screen black for the entire installment, but it’s certainly an experiment that a series that’s a quarter of that length can take on. In that regard, Sealab 2021’s “Vacation” — or as it’s more colloquially known, “The ‘Uh Oh’ Episode” — essentially fills the entire episode with one stupid, endless one-note joke. There’s beating a dead horse, and then there’s “Vacation.”
Maybe an idea like this might have been inevitable for a show like Sealab 2021. It is a series after all that was formed by simply re-using old assets of an actual cartoon that was collecting dust. It’s a series that seems to go out of its way to be frugal at times, with “Vacation” being one of the better examples of it making a lot out of a little. There are a ton of old assets returning in this episode that fill the left turn that it takes. It truly feels like as many former elements as possible are brought back here in whatever means necessary to keep this crazy plate spinning for as long as possible. There’s a very basic premise in place with Quinn wanting to go on a long-awaited vacation while Murphy simultaneously places a lockdown on Sealab, cancelling any departures. This change of plans causes Quinn’s “girlfriend”, Debbie, to check up on him, to which Marko insinuates to her that he’s with a hooker.
Marko’s slip of the tongue launches perhaps the most epic chain reaction to ever hit Adult Swim. A simple Sealab worker remarks, “Uh oh!” at the drama that’s about to ensue, with his sentiments dominoing throughout the underwater base and far beyond. The staggering sequence goes on for a minute and a half, hitting the far reaches of space and communist Russia in the process, before returning back to Debbie and Marko. At this point clarifies that Quinn was simply watching T.J. Hooker…but with a prostitute. The solid punchline however then re-launches the avalanche of uh ohs that we just finished watching, taking each set piece to even crazier heights. For example, in the first run through a helicopter pilot, Chopper Dave, remarks uh oh. In the second run through things Chopper Dave transforms into a werewolf with his helicopter exploding shortly after. Uh oh, indeed. There are even overarching subplots going on between the uh oh mouthpieces that are trackable through the various detours. On top of all of that this second uh oh sequence inexplicably turns into a commercial for Bebop Cola — with a bear as its star — with its message truly falling off point. It’s just nonsense by the end of the six-minute detour.
What’s even crazier is that “Vacation” effectively fakes you out by attempting to go through the uh oh exercise a third time, before it abruptly cuts itself short. After everything that’s happened at this point, you fully believe that another run through it all isn’t just possible, but likely. Sealab 2021 is a show that always would have one foot in the insanity pool, but “Vacation” acts as a sterling example of when the show’s craziness and ambition come together in the best possible way. With the series only in its second season at this point, the episode would not only act as a strong tool in Sealab continuing to perfect its absurdist voice, but also in the joke mechanics of Reed and Thompson.
The sheer joy of watching this episode for the first time, unable to believe what you’re seeing, is really incredible. It’s nuts just how far the episode hammers this thing into the ground. Sure, something like this could be chalked up as laziness. A situation where the Sealab crew didn’t have anything ready on time and instead tried to stretch out a sole gag. That’s not to say that the show never operates under that mindset, but “Vacation’s” impetus feels like a much more deliberate move. A case of “Wouldn’t it be crazy if…” rather than a last-minute panic attack.
Curiously, the closest that Reed and Thompson have come to emulating this sort of elongation of a single joke would be in the latest season of Archer, where the running joke of Archer’s answering machine message becomes the center of an episode. Even then, nothing within Archer or out of Reed and Thompson’s more untethered series, Frisky Dingo, would have the same degree of tunnel vision. It’s the sort of “urban legend” style of programming that Adult Swim prided themselves in during their infancy where it was almost their prerogative to “insult” the viewer. Minus the episode’s opening and closing credits, a mere four minutes of the episode are not part of the uh oh avalanche.
Sealab 2021 would continue to be a show that would be endlessly entertaining to watch simply because you wouldn’t know if you’d be getting an entry like this. Even when it was misfiring, it was doing so in an interesting way and continuing to hone Reed and Thompson’s abilities. Perhaps with Reed’s latest extended gag in Archer he’s hinting that he misses these sort of over the top tangents. Just prepare yourself if you ever see an episode that has Archer planning for vacation with Lana crashing his romance.