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Wonder Showzen: Season 1
How subversive is "Wonder Showzen," the hilariously twisted "Sesame Street" parody that premiered in 2005? The allegedly hip and rebellious (but actually very corporate) MTV aired it on its pot-smoking little brother MTV2 instead. It was too awesome to appear on MTV, suckas!!
The brainchild of New York writer/musician/performers John Lee and Vernon Chatman, "Wonder Showzen" is part of the post-modern no-taboos comedy that has become popular the last few years (witness the film "The Aristocrats" and comedians like Sarah Silverman) but that has been around since Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce, of course.
But where some comics have an underlying point to make -- a REASON to break all the taboos -- "Wonder Showzen" seems interested only in deconstructing the "kids show" format and pumping it full of unbridled lunacy. It exists just to be funny, in other words, not to make you think.
There are live-action segments featuring puppets like Chauncey and Wordsworth as they go on adventures and interact with young children. In one episode, Chauncey and a little girl take a rocketship into space, where they find (and fight with) God. In another, a beastly puppet called Him sells Wordsworth's cootie sores (they look like mini-pizzas) as snacks. In another, the Numbers and Letters have a rumble to decide which is better.
The stories make up only a tiny part of each episode, though, and it's easy to see where the other features have their roots. For example, there are two recurring "man on the street" segments. One is "Beat Kids," where kids in trenchcoats interview innocent bystanders in various places (the race track, a zoo, a butcher shop, etc.), with questions that have obviously been fed to them by unseen prompters. "When did you sell your conscience?" one child reporter asks a Wall Street executive. At the racetrack, young Trevor tells an old man he's going to do an impression of him: "Gamble, gamble, gamble, die."
The other has a puppet named Clarence asking people about that week's topic. In one clip, he has people say what they think about the subject of free speech -- except he keeps interrupting them to tell them what to say. The "Beat Kids" and Clarence features both bring to mind David Letterman's correspondents over the years, like Larry "Bud" Melman and Biff Henderson. For that matter, "The Daily Show" conducts some pretty loopy interviews, too.
Sometimes there are brief industrial films voiced over by kids, who make "Mystery Science Theater"-style remarks about the content. Some of the short animated cartoons, like "D.O.G.O.B.G.Y.N.," about a canine gynecologist, are reminiscent of Robert Smigel's "TV Funhouse" on "Saturday Night Live."
None of this is to say "Wonder Showzen" is derivative, only that it's a product of its creators' environment. Indeed, taken as a whole, it's a refreshingly original and experimental piece of television, sometimes so gallingly out-of-bounds that you wonder how it made it on the air, and sometimes just flat-out hilarious in an anarchic, iconoclastic way.
Like "Sesame Street," each episode of "Wonder Showzen" is "brought to you" by something. Some of the "sponsors" include: nature, girls, diversity, numbers, white people, Brain-Wash Shampoo, Tyler: America's Most Perfect Child, and toilet rice.
Or dig this catchy song about history:
"Slaves built the pyramids!
Slaves built the Parthenon!
Slaves built America!
This is your song!
Thank you, slaves!"
Probably my favorite feature is "Q&A," where a question is posed and the kids give answers (fed to them by the writers, of course). Some examples:
What is the difference between boys and girls? "Girls deserve respect; boys earn it." "Why don't you ask God? She'll tell you: Boys are smarter."
What is love?
"An emotional minefield."
"Ask my cellmate."
"A neuro-chemical con job."
What is your greatest wish?
"Dry sheets in the morning."
"I wish I had my innocence back."
"I wish my parents were back together. In hell."
What is heaven?
"That's where Whiskers went when he died. My brother Whiskers."
"That's where my legs are. (looks up) Keep kickin' angels, boys!"
"I'll never know."
Or how about the stock footage of warthogs in a field, accompanied by a little girl's voice over:
"I think warthogs are beautiful. But people say I'm ugly. So I guess that makes me stupid."
Often, a big part of the humor is simply that it's little kids saying these very grownup, very surprising things. That voice-over I just quoted wouldn't be nearly as funny if an adult said it; in fact, it's probably not very funny when I quote it, since you can't hear the little girl saying it. But over the course of these episodes, that concept -- mixing grownup angst and cynicism with childlike innocence -- is used in a way that is consistently, unfailingly hilarious.
Here are the episodes:
Birth (3/11/05): Letter N feels unloved and plunges into a shame spiral. When she emerges, she has a baby.
Space (3/18/05): Chauncey and Kaitlin go to space and fight with God.
Ocean (3/25/05): The puppets find a treasure map and set sail to find their fortune.
Diversity (4/1/05): Numbers and Letters fight to see which is better.
Nature (4/8/05): Mother Nature has a sex change operation that results in such atrocities as trees bleeding.
History (4/15/05): The Number 2 is sick of Number 1 getting all the attention.
Health (4/22/05): Wordsworth gets the cooties, and Him sells the scabs as snacks. Eww.
Patience (4/29/05): Patience indeed: The episode is full of patience-trying gimmicks like Clarence having people on the street say the same phrase over and over and over and over and over and over again. Then, halfway through, the episode replays itself, but backwards.
The 2-disc set comes in a regular DVD case in which Disc 2 is in the usually spot and Disc 1 is on top of it, on a thin platter that swings out. (This is becoming the norm for 2-disc sets, so you've probably seen it.)
The DVD case, however, is packaged in a cardboard slipcover. On the front is the "Wonder Showzen" logo with the adorable little girl in the middle. The front flap opens up to reveal an obscenely hilarious surprise.
The first season's eight episodes are included, six on Disc 1 and two on Disc 2.
There are no alternate language tracks. As for subtitles, both discs claim to have them. However, when I tried to access them, they never appeared, even when my DVD player told me they were on. (I tried it on two different players, to make sure.) Whether this is just a flaw in my copy or whether it's true of all copies, I don't know.
VIDEO: The bright primary colors of the series look as deliriously cheerful as they ought to. The old industrial films that make up some of the segments are scratchy, of course, but all the new material -- animated and live-action -- is clean and clear.
AUDIO: Standard digital stereo mix, typical of a brand-new TV series.
EXTRAS: Disc 1 has just three extras: commentaries on three of the six episodes.
On "Space," Screamin' Steven J. Hawkins -- a parody of Stephen Hawking -- speaks in a computerized voice about all manner of subjects, including how since "ignorance is bliss," that means he, being the smartest person in the world, must be the most miserable. ("More misery than anyone on this God-forsaken planet could possibly understand.")
Over "Diversity," the band PFFR (featuring the "Wonder Showzen" guys, and predating the TV show) plays its weird electronica music.
And on "Nature," actor Dick Gregory (who plays Mr. Sun on the show) rambles amiably about ... um ... the episode, sometimes, and sometimes just about whatever. It's not as funny as the Stephen Hawking thing, but it's admirably weird.
Disc 2 is where most of the special features are. There's one more commentary, from author Gordon Lish, who has no prior connection to "Wonder Showzen" as far as I can tell. He offers commentary on the "Patience" episode, talking more or less about the subject of patience without ever actually referencing the episode. When the episode starts playing backwards halfway through, Lish's commentary does the same thing. At the end, when the episode goes to fast-forward, so does Lish.
The auditions and outtakes (8:15) with the child actors is pretty funny (and damn adorable, in the case of the younger kids). There are clips of the children being asked questions about themselves, of being fed lines by the writers, and some improv between the puppets and the kids. For as evil as the show is, you get the sense that the people who make it really like kids.
The "Beat Kids" outtakes (3:52) and Clarence outtakes (3:21) are solid, too, every bit as hysterical as the clips that made the cut.
The promos (3:54) are simply four minutes of random clips from the series, each separated by the "Wonder Showzen" logo and the little girl saying "Wonder Showzen" in that creepy whispery voice. Most of them are funnier in context.
We mentioned PFFR earlier. They have a music video (2:08) that reads like a particularly out-there They Might Be Giants knock-off. I have no idea what the lyrics are saying, and the video portion is a collage of random images and animations. Take some Ecstasy and enjoy.
"Storytime with Flava Flav" (2:04) is a deleted scene featuring the rapper reading a story to the kids and asking them questions about it, all of which elicit amusing responses, of course. ("If you saw a police stealing money, what would you do?" "I'd blame the liberal media.") Similar segments were included in the show itself; apparently this one didn't make the cut. Fun stuff, though.
Finally, we get a sneak peek at season 2 (2:17) (starting March 31 on MTV2): an animated segment about Special Olympics athletes who form an "A-Team"-style task force. It's unbelievably offensive and uncalled for -- so much so that I'm setting my TiVo to record Season 2 right now.
The DVD presentation is pretty solid as far as it goes, though some legitimate commentaries would have been good. I'm sure there are some entertaining behind-the-scenes anecdotes to relate, particularly in the area of things MTV wanted them to change or cut out. The "Health" episode only aired once, in fact, due to complaints from the Jewish Anti-Defamation League. (That's the episode with a little boy dressed like Hitler asking New Yorkers, "What's wrong with the today's youth?") It would be cool to hear the show's creators talk about that kind of stuff.
Still, the show itself is worth buying the DVD. These episodes are outrageously funny even on a second or third viewing, and they move quickly, each one jam-packed with a variety of features. If you're a sicko -- and you know who you are -- this set's for you.