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DVD Review: Comedy Central’s TV Funhouse

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Reviewing comedy is both incredibly easy and largely impossible.

It's easy because what makes for good comedy is pretty simple: Did ya laugh? If yes, it works; if no, it don't.

At the same time, what makes you laugh isn't necessarily what makes me laugh, so while I may fall head over heels for a comedy series or film, you may watch the very same bits and have no reaction whatsoever. This is especially true when it comes to your more edgy brands of comedy — scatological humor, especially sharp satire, politically incorrect gags.

TV Funhouse is packed to the rafters with all three of the above, from monkey poop jokes to note-perfect parodies of old after-school cartoons and black-and-white educational films. Every scene seems to push some boundary or another, whether through coarse language, controversial content, or uncomfortable characters. It's comedy at the fringe, dancing back and forth across every conceivable boundary of acceptable behavior and content.

It's subversive, unspeakably profane, relentlessly sharp… and damned fantastic.

It's also one of TV's great cult classics of the past ten years. A spin-off of the popular recurring animated parody segments on Saturday Night Live, TV Funhouse was itself a parody of kids' television, with a friendly and earnest host participating in brief "educational" live segments and introducing the cartoon parodies. Except the live-action segments inevitably devolved into following the Anipals, intentionally silly-looking animal puppets, as they engaged in various misadventures that no self-respecting childrens' entertainer should be caught dead doing — a cockfight in Tijuana, for example, or getting drunk and laid with Robert Goulet in Atlantic City.

Like the SNL segments, TV Funhouse was largely the brainchild of writer/performer Robert Smigel, the hand up Triumph the Insult Comic Dog's ass and the first head writer for Conan O'Brien's late night show. TV Funhouse acts as a summation of his work, to get a little high-falutin' about it — with his writing and performances, he's constantly challenging societal morays and pushing the audience's boundaries of decency or comfort. This is a series where over the course of eight episodes, you get to see a young chicken masturbate, animals snorting Christmas cheer like it's cocaine, and a stuffed cat graphically give birth to real kittens.

There are also the cartoon parodies, which are more sharply defined comedic instruments, cutting deep and hard, taking no prisoners. "Steadman" chronicles the lengths to which Oprah's boyfriend will go to avoid having sex with her. "Wonderman" is a note-perfect parody of the old Fleischer Superman cartoons, except the titular superhero only performs heroic acts to get his alter-ego laid.

I'm probably in the minority on this, but the cartoon parodies aren't what has always drawn me to this series — they're not why I have longed to own this series on DVD and have never forgotten it in the seven or eight years since its initial airing. What's always made me laugh like a drain has been the Anipals. There's just something so consistently… WRONG about them. Everything they say and do is a fundamental violation of something — logic, decency, reality. They even eat at a restaurant that serves them cooked versions of themselves — the cows eat hamburgers, the pigs eat ribs, and the chickens eat fried chicken.

Hell, just let that mere concept roll around in your head for a minute… a wacky realistic puppet duck eating Peking duck in a restaurant modeled after a smoky booth-packed Sardi's for animals. Messed up? Absolutely. But hilarious all the same.

TV Funhouse works because it shatters standards; it is unflinching in pissing on the shoes of just about every conceivable institution and tradition of television and entertainment. Believe it or not, our culture sorta NEEDS that, and it doesn't really get enough of it. There are people like Smigel and Howard Stern, maybe Sarah Silverman and Zach Galifianakis, who see where we are most vulnerable and aim their jokes straight at those spots. The self-importance and satisfaction of the entertainment industry makes it and its products both easy targets, but that doesn't mean they're not still worthy targets. TV Funhouse is in many ways a giant nuclear bomb aimed at the heart of Hollywood culture and the sickening sycophancy it's engendered from both the media and the general populace. Just by virtue of its no-holds-barred tone and punchlines, it flies in the face of everything manufactured and staged that is passed off as "entertainment" these days.

Or maybe I'm smoking crack. At the end of the day, it's just comedy. The kittens crawl out of the fake puppet cat vagina, and you either laugh or you don't. If that sounds like your cup of cyanide-laced tea, then you must see TV Funhouse.

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