Childrens Hospital never fails to deliver laughs, though in recent episodes, these have been fewer than before. The current season, which began in June, doesn’t really stand up to the inspired lunacy of the first, released in 2008 as a series of five-minute webisodes on TheWB.com. After it was picked up by Adult Swim, Childrens Hospital was extended to 15-minute episodes. Since then, the focus has shifted from absurd anti-comedy to parody of medical dramas like ER, Grey’s Anatomy, and St. Elsewhere.
This more conventional format has sapped the original webisodes’ energy and edge. The superficial signs of the change are easy to see: for instance, employees of the titular hospital don’t die and then pop up again inexplicably in the next episode. But for a show as original as this one, even small movement into the realm of situation comedy feels like a defeat.
Even in its new, less aggressively innovative form, it’s hard to describe what Childrens Hospital is “about,” and trying to do so can’t really get at the viewer’s experience anyway. For one thing, the series assumes a television-literate audience, and serves up exactly what is unexpected. As with many shows in the anti-comedy tradition, this one often draws attention to the limitations of the joke form by highlighting the predictability of set-ups immediately followed by punch lines. Where “normal” jokes would pay off, anti-comedy lingers in pointedly awkward situations, requiring expert delivery and unflinching commitment from performers.
As if to underline this awkwardness, the characters here are extremely abstract, referencing stock players from famous medical dramas, but twisted. Valerie Flame (Malin Ackerman) is a nod to the noble female physician who works long hours but somehow looks perfect after a double shift. Sy Mittleton (Henry Winkler) is an affable hospital administrator, though everyone assumes he’s a backstabbing company man. The crutches of Chief (Megan Mullally) allude to Dr. Weaver’s in ER, though she also has a bit of the battiness of Aunt Bea from The Andy Griffith Show, coupled with the randiness of Samantha from Sex and the City.
Pulling together a couple of themes, Dr. Blake Downs (Rob Corddry) is a strong believer in “the healing power of laughter.” We’re not precisely reassured of this by his regular appearance, namely, clown makeup and scrubs that are always stained with blood. Like a demonic Patch Adams, Dr. Downs keeps to his alternative medical philosophy even where more traditional medicine probably would be more helpful. Throughout the series, we’ve seen him in surgery, telling jokes into his patients’ open chest cavities while blood-soaked rubber chickens and whoopee cushions lay on the instrument table with the scalpels and rib-spreaders. He never understands why people are always dying on him.
The episodes airing 11 August and 25 August, “The Night Shift” and “Party Down,” like many before them, are structured around gags set up by ridiculous circumstances: the hospital’s used as a set to shoot pornography, a fake nurse is electrocuted to death, Dr. Downs’ rival clown doctor (Seth Morris) returns, and so does David Wain as Rabbi Jewy McJew Jew.
As the rabbi’s name and appearance suggest, Childrens Hospital occasionally takes aim at political correctness, much like other anti-comedy shows (say, The Sarah Silverman Program). “Being a Jew is fantastic,” he says, “We have big hands, we kick ass at math, and we can lift three times our body weight.” Or again, “Every Jewish boy dreams of being an older Jewish man.” The use of the stereotype challenges the stereotype: it’s a familiar trick, but not ineffective.
Similarly, the show is hardly invested in common plot devices: it’s not precisely a spoiler to say that a main character dies during these two episodes. Death has no meaning in the world of Childrens Hospital. In fact, the saddest aspect this passing is that it likely will remind fans of earlier seasons when characters were dying almost every episode. Nick Kroll’s appearance as a lusty shift manager will likewise remind fans of his much funnier role as Little Nicky, the boy from Season Two with the advanced aging disease. It seems unfair to complain that Childrens Hospital isn’t great. But given that what it used to be, good isn’t really good enough.