Freshly out on DVD: The short-lived 2000-2001 television series TV Funhouse. This isn’t the Saturday Night Live episode that was released a while back collecting a bunch of the best SNL TV Funhouse cartoons, although that was great. I’m talking about the eight-episode run of completely insane genius that played on Comedy Central all too briefly. [See clips here to either refresh the memory or to receive an abbreviated introduction.]
Both TV Funhouse incarnations share the same common denominator: Robert Smigel.
I will try not to repeat myself annoyingly, since I spent a fair amount of a previous essay extolling Smigel’s unique genius. In brief: Smigel is the man whom future generations will remember as the long-running SNL writer and Conan O’Brien show-runner whose best-known creation is probably Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. Triumph being the Russian-accented insult comic German-Shepherd-looking puppet who smokes cigars [clumsily], berates everyone who crosses his path, and proudly behaves awfully, like a member of the original Rat Pack. This is the definition of the rule wherein comedy is subjective = either you find the idea of an animal puppet whose vocation is to pick up the mantle of Don Rickles to be completely hilarious, or you don’t. For some reason, it kills me.
TV Funhouse, which Smigel executive-produced along with a comedy writer named Dino Stamatopoulos, has its own special episodic structure. It’s a mixture of live-action segments and cartoons introduced by the characters, like Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood or Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, only taken several paces over the line of propriety and decency.
A joyfully odd human being named Doug Dale hosts the show. Doug is an unusual presence; overly positive, blissfully unaware, and disturbingly vulnerable. He always seems about a minute away from something terrible happening to him, and in this show it often does. I’m not sure what other roles Doug could be suited for, although I can somehow see him as decent alternate casting for the role Leland Orser played in Seven. I haven’t seen him in anything before or since, I know that for sure. But it’s not like Smigel could have gotten Sandler, Conan, Andy Richter, or even Horatio Sanz to host this lawless show, so Doug is definitely a solid choice.
Anyway Doug starts off every episode looking for his friends, The Anipals, a small group of various animals with extreme personalities. Doug always has activities planned for the gang, relating to specific holidays and cultural themes, such as Hawaiian Day, Safari Day, Christmas Day, Chinese New Year’s Day, or Mexicans Day. But the Anipals never have any interest in hanging around the brightly colored clubhouse, and so they begin every episode by sneaking out on Doug and having their own adventures in a much darker world.
The Anipals have completely arbitrary names like Whiskers The Cat, Chickie The Rooster, Hank The Lobster, Jeffrey the Duck, Fogey The Dog, Zabu the other Dog, Gary the Mosquito, Rocky the Fish, Terence the Python, and my personal favorite, Hojo the Turtle à . I love that apparently no thought went into the character names. The writers must have wanted to go straight to the insane antics.
Some of the destinations favored by the Anipals are Tijuana, to check out a cockfight; a cult demonstration to rescue Chickie’s 148th son Jason; Sames Restaurant, where animals “eat what you are”; the Sally Jesse Raphael show to find a love partner for Dave the rare single African lizard (and to argue with the audience); and Atlantic City to gamble with Robert Goulet and indulge in chimpanzee strippers. That last one is probably the best episode, as it’s a dramatic two-parter.
I like this show because it entirely perverts old cartoon clichés and at the same time, gets insanely specific with the animal in-jokes. For example, remember how when Woody Woodpecker was starving, he used to look at Buzz Buzzard and see a T-bone steak? Well, on TV Funhouse, Fogey is a dog, so one thing he likes to eat is his own poop. When he goes on a poop fast, he starts to look at his friends and see giant turds. I laughed when I wrote that.
I also like this show because it goes way, way too far. One example is the way that over the course of the series, we learn the bedroom habits of each and every Anipal. [Spoiler Warning: No matter their species, all of the Anipals like to do it doggy-style.] Another example is a joke that passes by very quickly, and without comment, but can be described only as, The Lobster Christ. That is so far beyond subversive, I’m not sure what the terminology is.
Probably the masterstroke of the show is to have the animal puppets interact with real live animals. On the rare occasions where the real animals perform the choreography as expected, it’s stunning in its hilarity. Nearly as funny is when they behave exactly in the wrong direction. Again, just you wait for the
Also, as mentioned earlier, the Anipals often take to the streets and stick their snouts in the faces of unsuspecting passers-by who I find it hard to believe were willing to sign release forms. The look on the faces of these people as the puppets yell at them or attempt to interview them is an effect that cannot be created by science and technology. It’s not right, but it is funny.
Animal puppets interacting with people who didn’t ask to be bothered is one of the funniest things on earth that I am absolutely unable to explain. My cousins Andrew and Charlie taught me this universal truism when we were younger. I am so glad that Robert Smigel has near-singlehandedly carried that torch into twenty-first century popular culture.
Some younger readers may point out that this TV Funhouse thing sounds reminiscent of the more recent and arguably even more crude, disgusting, and obnoxious MTV2 program Wonder Showzen. Well, yeah. It’s because the second show has a whole lot in common with the first. I’m not sure if the homage is direct or not, but I can say this – without TV Funhouse, there is no Wonder Showzen. Because crude, disgusting, and obnoxious is one way to describe my sense of humor, I happen to like both shows, so I’m glad for both being around. But TV Funhouse was the original gangsta.
In my opinion, TV Funhouse in its short life was genuinely socially relevant (yeah, I went there), and simultaneously, obviously, happily anarchist. I could write a whole treatise on why I think there’s legitimately smart and useful satire going on here, but I’m a lazy bastard so I won’t.
Instead I will leave you all with this monumental question:
What do you think is the funniest animal overall?
This show, given the moody Fogey, the perpetually tail-chasing Zabu, and the cameo appearance from Triumph, probably would give that honor to the dog. Dogs sniff butts and crotches and are amazingly funny when they try to stand up on two legs. But I love dogs too much to laugh at them with any true sense of mockery.
So then most people would probably say the monkey is the funniest animal, and they’d not be wrong, although that’s definitely the obvious answer, and monkeys are much more dangerous than they’re credited with being. Lethal viciousness is not all that funny.
I would like to volunteer one dark horse [no pun intended] for consideration – the owl. They make funny sounds, their heads spin around, they often pull their shoulders up over their necks, and they look contented all the time. An owl puppet makes a very brief appearance in one of the TV Funhouse episodes and it does NOT disappoint.
Also surprisingly funny are lions, because everyone is afraid of them but they’re so damn lazy. For the same reason, rhinos are funny.
And the lizard arrives lately as a stealth contender during the course of the show because they walk so hilariously.
However, my current vote for the funniest of the animals (because that leaning changes with the wind) is… none of the above.
No, my answer might surprise you.
But for once I’d like to encourage some activity in the Slow-Motion Quick-Draw forum, so I will leave this here at the cliffhanger stage.