TV Funhouse

journalism

CONTENT – Fall 2001

TV Funhouse

Comedy Central Program

EVERY COUPLE OF YEARS , a new show manages to get on television that’s not just good or “good-for TV,” but so breathtakingly original that early viewers become evangelists. In 1989 it was The Simpsons, in 1990 Twin Peaks, in 1992 The Larry Sanders Show, in 1993 Beavis and Butthead, in 1995 Mr. Show, in 1999 The Sopranos. I admit I was also a regular viewer of thirtysomething in the eighties, and these days I watch The West Wing, but shows like thosesober shows, solid shows-are ultimately just television: entertaining and wellcrafted but never really thrilling. The thrilling new show on the air right now is Robert Smigel’s TV Funhouse, on Comedy Central. A first season of eight episodes began airing last December.

This is a show you will either love or despise. The basic premise, not unlike Pee-wee’s Playhouse in the late eighties, is an old-fashioned kids’ program run amok. But unlike Pee-wee, which was both more subversive (because it was actually intended for children) and less (because its sexed-up psychedelia was all subtextual), TVFunhouse is not a campy ship of fools with a gooey sweet center. TV Funhouse is unabashedly dark and demented. It is goofy broad comedy as it might be if James Eliroy had a hand in it. There are relatively mainstream segments-like the great cartoons of the kind Smigel also creates for Saturday Night Live (one about Oprah Winfrey’s boyfriend; another called “The Baby, the Immigrant and the Guy on Mushrooms,” in which all three characters do nothing but say “Aah!”) and a brilliant piece originally called “Porn for Kids,” which consists entirely of nonsex scenes from pornographic movies. But most of the show, the squalid giddy heart of it, consists of taped sketches starring an ensemble of crummy, smut- and drugobsessed puppetsthree dogs, a cat, a turtle, a fish, and a chicken-who mingle with live animals, pedestrians, and guest stars like Robert Goulet. On TVFunhousethere is no moral uplift, no brilliant pop-culture allusiveness like on The Simpsons. It regularly goes way too far. And it’s a product of Viacom and AOL Time Warner, which makes the transgressive spectacle somehow all the more satisfying.