Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Comedy Central's TV Funhouse

Robert Smigel is responsible for some of the best comedy on television. He wrote for what I consider to be the other golden age of Saturday Night Live (late 80's/early 90's), wrote great sketches, characters, and bits for The Dana Carvey Show and Late Night With Conan O'Brien, and then really made a name for himself with the "TV Funhouse" video shorts that aired on SNL. But there are few who remember the short-lived, underrated, and overlooked Comedy Central television series TV Funhouse. Thankfully, Comedy Central finally wised up and has released it on DVD. Rejoice!

Do I sound a little over excited? You bet. TV Funhouse is somewhat of a forgotten comedy gem that aired for only one season in '00-'01. It's a shame shows like this don't get more seasons but lazy and tremendously deplorable shite like Mind of Mencia get renewed. No justice in the comedy world! TV Funhouse is formatted like a children's show, but for adults (a format that would later be emulated by "Wonder Showzen"). It combines the puppetry from Smigel's work on Late Night and segments done in the style from the SNL "TV Funhouse" shorts.

The Anipals and their adventures straying from the set are what really make the show. Part of the charm and fun is that it's not the best puppet work in the world (those familiar with Triumph the iInsult Comic Dog know what I'm talking about). In fact, they mention in the commentary about firing some puppeteers who were trying to make the puppets move too much like real animals. It really is a small thing that actually adds to the comedy. They also have real animals react with the puppets. One particularly funny scene that comes to mind is a puppet cat giving birth to actual kittens and the unexpected action of one kitten that prompted some very funny improvised dialogue. They discuss in the commentary how working with real animals could be so unpredictable but could sometimes lead to great results (even jokingly giving writing credit to a monkey).

TV Funhouse has a lot to be proud of in its shorts. What's great about them is the attention to detail in making it look and sound so close to the thing they're parodying. Wonderman (done in the style of the old Fleischer Superman cartoons), Policeman (done in classic Sesame Street short fashion), and Christmas with Tingles (old black and white claymation Christmas parody) are just a few great examples.

You also have the infamous "Porn For Kids" segment that only aired once as that title and was later aired as "Porn For Everyone" due to the network making them change it. The segment is just a porno ("Silence of the Gams") cut down to less than 30 seconds since all the indecent stuff is edited out. You mainly get a few lines of dialogue and the credits. It's a very funny idea, but I guess the network felt a little nervous having it associated in any way with kids, even if it was just a title.

Other highlights include "Stedman" (about Oprah's boyfriend, which Smigel almost didn't approve because he felt it was too mean), "Mnemonics - Your Dear, Dear Friend", "The Safety Gang" (which Dino Stamatopoulos originally wrote for Mr.Show but never used it), "Fetal Scooby Doo", "Places to Look For Your Christmas Presents," and the other infamous short, "Jokamel" (Pokemon parody done with Joe Camel).

There's not too much offered on the extras side, but what's there is very enjoyable. It's funny to see how much time and care they took to get a turtle penis reveal to work. That's the kind of dedication you want in comedy. The commentary is a real treat and probably the best special feature on this disc. Creators and writers Robert Smigel, Dino Stamatopoulos, (The Ben Stiller Show, Mr.Show, Late Night with Conan O'Brien, Moral Orel), Andy Breckman (Monk, SNL), and host Doug Dale give a ton of insight on the show. They reveal the problems plaguing a second season and why ultimately they didn't do one, Smigel defends that his dog characters don't have the same Russian immigrant voice (He actually does both Fogey and Triumph back to back to prove his point), they talk about avoiding people they've made fun of (most notably Sally Jessie Raphael), and reveal other entertaining tidbits surrounding the production and end product of the show. It's definitely one of the better commentaries on a television DVD set.

There is a slight problem with this DVD release, though. It is NOT complete. In fact, it's missing one of my favorite animated shorts from TV Funhouse, "A Globetrotter's Christmas". What's funny is it's still mentioned in the credits. I think it may have been left out since it aired on SNL first and Universal might own the rights. Other shorts like "Stedman" and "The Baby, The Immigrant, and The Guy On Mushrooms" were also aired on SNL, but I believe it was after it was aired on TV Funhouse and perhaps that's how they avoided being omitted. Triumph insulting Hootie and the Blowfish in the "Safari Day" episode also seems to be missing. That's a real shame, but it doesn't hurt the set too much.

Fans of Smigel are sure to enjoy this show. Thank Jesus (whatever animal you think he might be. Show reference, settle down) that Comedy Central finally released this hilarious show! Now if only Comedy Central would release Exit 57 on DVD I can go into a blissful comedy nerd coma. Enjoy!

Extras include commentary from the creators and puppets (Chickie, Jason, and Xabu), Outtakes, Behind the Scenes footage, Triumph appearances from The Rob Reiner Roast and The Daily Show and the lost sketch "What Do We Know, Pt.2 with Bob Odenkirk".

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Drillbit Taylor- Extended Survival Edition

Not everything from the Apatow cannon can be a winner. For proof, look no further than Drillbit Taylor. Though, it isn't a full-on Apatow production, they don't hesitate to mention his name on it. Smart move, but it doesn't save the film. But wait a minute…it's not a terrible movie. With films like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Superbad, the bar was set pretty high, even without trying it seems. You have an entertaining cast of characters and a story that's somewhat enjoyable, so why is this different from the previously mentioned films? It just doesn't seem genuine or focused enough, really.

Drillbit Taylor revolves around two boys, Wade (Nate Hartley) and Ryan (Troy Gentile), who start high school and unfortunately start getting harassed by two bullies, Filkins (Alex Frost) and Ronnie (Josh Peck), almost immediately. When things get too much to handle (and the bullying is pretty intense), they decide to hire a personal bodyguard. Enter Drillbit Taylor (Own Wilson), a homeless beggar who answers their ad and pretends to be trained in martial arts and the like so he can swindle the kids out of their money and then split to Canada. But of course, he has a change of heart and starts to care about the kids and in the process the kids learn a thing or two about who they are and how to stand up for themselves. Sound a bit predictable? Well, yeah, it is. You know some lesson is going to be learned. It's a formula done to death, it's just how you pad it and treat it that can separate it from the rest. Drillbit tries, but doesn't quite make it.

While watching the first 30 or so minutes of this film I thought, "Hey, this isn't so bad. I wonder why it was panned?" Then somewhere after the mid-point I found myself a bit bored and amazed that there was still an hour left of the movie. It seems to just drift along in the middle and just keeps going. There are very funny lines and moments, but it just seems a little unfocused. There's even an 8 Mile freestyle-rap battle between Ryan and Filkins that had me groaning and rolling my eyes. It's hard to imagine Seth Rogen wrote that terrible scene. Yet somehow I feel some people will love it and probably quote it. Awkward white-guy rap just ain't my joint, dig?

Then there's the overblown cliché's. Nerds and bullies, it's something you've seen a million times, especially in the past 30 years. Drillbit Taylor is actually based on an original idea by John Hughes (Sixteen Candles, Pretty In Pink, do I even need to name?), and there are definitely elements of his style in this film, he practically perfected and pushed that classic nerds/poor kids vs. popular/rich kids cliché over the edge. Was it enjoyable? Yes. It's a sweet, sweet guilty pleasure. But now it just seems a little too unrealistic or overblown. Not to say it doesn't exist (I had my fair share of terrifying name-calling and bullying growing up), but it just seems like a paint by numbers routine at this point. Writers Seth Rogen and Kristofor Brown took Hughes' idea and fleshed it out. With Rogen helping with the writing you would expect more from this film especially from the work he did with Superbad, which to me seemed closer to my high school experience than any teen film previous to that, but it just falls short. Sure, it's unfair to compare it to Superbad standards, and I didn't entirely, but the end result leaves you a little unsatisfied.

What makes this movie enjoyable are the kids (who are perfectly casted), the supporting cast and cameos made throughout the film. You see three of the four members of the Upright Citizens Brigade make appearances and deliver some funny lines (especially Ian Roberts as Wade's step-father) as well as other talented comedic actors (Stephen Root, Beth Littleford, David Koechner, Cedric Yarbrough, and Kevin Hart). But the best supporting actor in this film is Danny McBride as Don, the homeless "friend" of Drillbit Taylor. You might recognize Danny McBride from the film Hot Rod or from his own hilarious film The Foot Fist Way. The deleted/extended scenes and the Line-O-Rama extra features are worth a look just for McBride's improvised lines alone. It wouldn't surprise me if he ends up being the next Steve Carell or Seth Rogen in the ever expanding and powerful Apatow universe. But as far as Owen Wilson goes, it doesn't matter much. There probably could have been a better casting choice because ultimately Wilson didn't really bring much to it. Not that it required a great deal of acting prowess; it just could have been better.

Overall Drillbit Taylor is something you might want to catch on a rainy Saturday afternoon on cable, but other than that it just falls short of its possible potential. No one's really to blame. You had the talent behind it, but it just doesn't quite stick. If anything, the DVD is worth a rent for the extra features "The Writers' Chance to Talk: Kristopher Brown and Seth Rogen," "Deleted and Extended Scenes," and "Line-O-Rama," mainly because the funniest moments are from these. If your fan of any of the cast or people involved with Drillbit Taylor, then you might want to check it out to quench that curiosity, but be wary, it won't be that fulfilling.