Tuesday, February 22, 2011

23. Tom Goes to the Mayor

Humor is a funny thing. There are those who think that humanity has some sort of skeleton key when it comes to making people laugh. Everyone loves a good knock-knock joke or an episode of “I Love Lucy” or seeing some guy get hit in the balls, right? Wrong. Two out of the preceding three aren’t funny at all, and three out of preceding three aren’t funny if you’re the guy whose balls are being hit.

Where do people get the idea that most humor is universal? I suppose that it comes from comedians who entertain large audiences or the communal viewing of a funny movie. If both examples are good, the majority of the crowd laughs together creating a sense of community or a veneer of shared comedic mores. People walk out of the theater or show assuming that all would enjoy what they just witnessed because the entirety of the crowd enjoyed it. It’s not that simple. For one thing, both of these groups are small sample sizes. And chances are good that if you go to a movie, you have a pretty good idea of the type of humor you’re about to see and thus you’re predisposed to liking it. And you're not the only one.

If I ever go to a Scary Movie-type flick, it’s because I was forced at gun point. Even if everyone is laughing around me, I doubt that I will crack a smile. And that’s because those movies aren’t my type of flicks. I'm not part of the overall audience reaction because I don't want to be part of that audience in the first place.

The same is true if you pay money to see a comedian.* A year or so ago my friend and I went to see David Cross. Cross is my favorite comedian of all time and there was no way that I wasn’t going to laugh. I laughed a ton (he really was legitimately funny) and I walked out of the Wilbur Theater saying that that was the best comedy show I’ve ever seen.

* The one exception to this is if you go to an open-mic night at your local Chuckle Hut. You have no idea what you’re getting there and if there’s a truly original comedian who galvanizes the crowd, that’s more of an exception than the rule. Many times, a new comedian is just cribbing off their comedy idol until they can find their voice. If the comedian worships at the feet of Jerry Seinfeld, you’re going to get some observational humor that might be clever at times. If you dig that sort of thing, you’ll like the comedian.

Establishing that different things makes different people laugh is hardly the revelation of the century. It's whether you tell people that you find something funny that the majority of folks don't that's the trick. You may find watching a handicapped or elderly person slip and fall on an icy street gut busting. Or you might be the type of person who enjoys a good Hitler joke now and then. But you're not going to tell anyone that you like these things. Why? Because you look like a complete sociopath and no matter how you explain why you think these things are funny, you're just digging a deeper hole for yourself.

This brings us to “Tom Goes to the Mayor” (TGTTM), which was created by comedic team Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim. If you’ve never seen it before, and chances are you probably haven’t, and that's a shame because it's a sublimely funny show. It began it’s run in late 2004 and lasted about two years (30 episodes) on Adult Swim. The basic plot of every 15-minute show is the same: local entrepreneur Tom Peters (played by Heidecker) stops by the Mayor of Jefferton’s (Wareheim) office to pitch a new money-making idea to him. The ideas are usually insane and aren’t grounded in reality, but the Mayor (and that’s his only name) usually loves the idea, agrees to go with the scheme and ultimately ruins it. It almost always ends poorly for Tom. Yet he's there week after week, pitching to the Mayor.

The show had it’s own unique form of animation, it’s hard to describe so I’ll let Wikipedia do the describing for me:

“The show features a crude yet distinctive limited animation style which is made by taking photos of the cast with different facial expressions and body language. The photos are filtered using the "photocopy" image filter in Adobe Photoshop, so that they are made up of only monochromatic blue and white, resembling mimeographs. There are some live-action scenes, usually on a television set within the show.”

It takes a bit of time to get used to the way the show is animated, but once you do it doesn’t even matter. The strength isn’t in the animation, it’s in the stories as Heidecker and Wareheim both have very broad senses of humor that works on multiple levels. They will take a comedic trope, amp up the action and at the same time make fun of the cliché. For example, if Tom gets hit in the testicles they will show that action to get a laugh from that (because seeing a guy getting hit in the balls is never not funny) but the duo will often over-exaggerate the action by having the actors mug wildly for the camera. The shots themselves will be lampooned and the dialogue and the resulting plot will also be ripped apart. What happens is that you’re laughing at the action itself and you’re laughing at the people who sincerely find this stuff funny.

It’s the ultimate form of having one’s cake and also eating it.

This is sort of a hard thing to explain while watching the show and is why my wife or 99% of my friends has never heard me talk about it—much less seen an episode, even though it’s one of my favorite shows. And while this isn't a show about Hitler jokes or poking fun at the handicapped, it is a show that if a viewer doesn't understand, it will result in a raised eyebrow at you. "You find this funny? Really? How could you? This show is too fucking weird. What the hell else is wrong with you?"

Ultimately, it's just easier not to say anything.

At first blush, it’s a strange show—though not as strange as classics as MTV's “Wonder Showzen”, “Tim and Eric, Awesome Show Great Job!” (created by the same Heidecker and Wareheim that created TGTTM) or any of the Kroft shows from the 70s. The show has a love it or hate it quality to it. If you love it, you really love it. And if you hate it, there is no amount of explanation by anyone to get you to tolerate it*.

* According to Wikipedia, Adult Swim fans hated this show so much they thought that the network was pulling a prank on them. When it was revealed that this wasn’t a prank, they flooded the AS website and message boards with complaints.

What drew me to this show is that it was produced by Bob Odenkirk. Odenkirk is the same guy behind one of my all-time favorite shows, “Mr. Show With Bob and David” and has a comedic resume of awesome projects a mile long. I figured that if he was involved with the show, I should at least give it a go. And I’m glad I did. Not only does Odenkirk make sporadic appearances, but it is a who’s who of mid-90s alternative comics: Cross, Sarah Silverman, Patton Oswalt, Brian Posehn, John Ennis, Michael Ian Black, Zach Galifianakis, Janeanne Garofolo and Tom Kinney. Also Jeff Goldblum, Garry Shandling, Jeff Garlin, Michael Cera, John C. Reilly and others make appearances.

I’ve often wondered exactly what the guests thought when they read the bizarre scripts and whether they were in on the joke or just there for a pay day. I have to think that this show didn’t pay that much and the exposure was small, so they had to be there because they thought the stuff was funny. In a way that makes me respect the people who took the chance and appeard on this show much more.

“Tom Goes to the Mayor” ushered in a new kind of show for Adult Swim. While it still had the comedic sensibilities of the four original shows, it also strayed away from what made the channel interesting. And while those shows did depend on a level of pop culture IQ (which it turned around and skewered), meta-humor and bizarre plots, TGTTM raised the bar a bit higher and made viewing a bit odder, a bit more uncomfortable. This uncomfortability humor was new-ish to the American airways when this show made its debut. Yes, the American version of "The Office" had been on, but it was hardly a hit. And the British version of the same show was still something that only a relative handful of people had seen.

So while it was easy to talk to my friends about anthropomorphizing food stuffs pulling pranks on each other, it’s a rare person that one can talk to about a guy trying to match dogs for marriage by sniffing their asses.But if you can find any of the episodes on YouTube, or if Adult Swim runs them in the future, set your DVR and check them out they’re well worth your time.

Rats off to ya, everyone!


Brett said...

Seriously? You don't like I Love Lucy??? What is wrong with you?

Byron said...

I Love Lucy is terrible. Each episode is the same and everything ends with Lucy yelling and whining.