Make no mistake about this: anybody born in America in the latter half of the twentieth century was predestined to be just a little bit warped. And why wouldn’t we be? We leaped straight from the womb to the waiting arms of TV, which our enlightened post-war parents found to be the perfect nursemaid. They were right, of course. Without infantile exposure to what was then late afternoon and Saturday morning TV, we may never have experienced the skills necessary to surviving in the 21st century.
Without Buffalo Bob and Howdy Doody, Captain Kangaroo and Grandfather Clock, and Shari Lewis and her menagerie of conniving puppets like Lamb Chop, we might have gone through our lives without knowing that those damn puppets have lives of their own. Had it not been for Bozo and, yes, even Ronald McDonald, we might have thought the Joker is a quaint anomaly. Don’t even get me started on Chuck E. Cheese—my niece, when she was only four, demonstrated how terrifying that mofo really is.
Since we have to confront our fears in order to overcome them, it’s not surprising that the TV generation resorted to making fun of their demons. Paul Reubens, in his Pee-wee Herman persona, pioneered that particular catharsis way back in the late ’70s in clubs and early ’80s on HBO, before hitting the mainstream in 1986 with the CBS Saturday morning series Pee-wee’s Playhouse. It was a work of genius, full of talking chairs and sunflowers, innuendo that only adults would get, and genies and cowboys of questionable gender. As adults, we found the satire a biting memory of our own childhood TV experience. My 18-month-old daughter just found it mesmerizing. It worked out swimmingly for us both, although we found it funny for different reasons.
Comedy Central’s TV Funhouse took that Saturday morning premise to a different reality, one decidedly not designed for toddlers to enjoy with jaded parents. Created by Robert Smigel (You Don't Mess With The Zohan) and Dino Stamatopolous (Moral Orel), the series ran only eight episodes between 2000-01 before being cancelled for being “too expensive” to produce. Really?—kinda makes you wonder what sort of budgets basic cable worked with at the dawn of the Millennium. After all, except for a few simple cartoon shorts, the series was pretty much basic production values. Once you start wondering about that, you start wondering if maybe TV Funhouse was just a little too out there for a PC-conscious corporate mindset.
Imagine Quentin Tarantino as the executive producer of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, with Robert Ramirez directing the individual episodes, and you’ll have a very rough idea of how deliciously twisted TV Funhouse was. The concept’s innocent enough—a children’s TV show hosted by Doug, with each episode having a theme—“Western Day,” “Mexicans Day,” “Safari Day,” “Chinese New Year’s Day”—all designed to educate children in historical and cultural matters in an informal, easy to understand manner. The problem is, is his puppet co-hosts, the Anipals—a name-dropping dog, a cuckolded rooster, a turtle whose favorite transportation is “the tubes” (which begins with being flushed the toilet) and a cat with jazz aspirations and an adulterous wife—have better ways to spend their time. Rather than waste moments on Doug’s lame themed shows, they’d rather go whoring in Tijuana or partying in Atlantic City with Robert Goulet, or turn Doug’s spinal fluid into a meth-like version of Christmas Spirit.
It’s all very surreal, made all the more so by the clips and cartoons that litter the main story, and ultimately hold it all together. Cartoons like “Wonderman,” whose superhero ethic is based on getting his alter-ego laid, is even more cool in that it’s inspired by the Max Fleischer “Superman” cartoons of the forties. “The Baby, the Immigrant and the Guy on Mushrooms” has a deceptively innocent charm about it. And then there are the take-offs on the early fifties “educational” films, particularly “Mnemonics: Your Dear, Dear Friend.”
Yeah, you could make a politically correct case about the show’s crassness and its adult content, but you’d miss the point of the series. In its peculiar way, it rekindles our link with childhood, when our sense of wonder collided headlong with the realities we were going to have to face, one way or another. You could go on and on about how stupid it is, but you’d only show that you lost your sense of wonder somewhere along the way. TV Funhouse manages to straddle the dichotomous nature of wonderment and guttersnipe realities, and gleefully reawakens the chaotic demon-child we try, unsuccessfully, to repress.