Crow T. Robot: A cable show where you make fun of other people’s videos?
Tom Servo: Shameless.
People who like to watch TV shows where other people watch TV shows or movies and provide snarky running commentaries have felt a void since Mystery Science Theater 3000 finished its run on the Sci-Fi Channel in 1999. Fortunately, ESPN Classic stepped up last year with Cheap Seats.
The series (which started its second season on last Monday) features twin comedians Randy (the one with the beard) and Jason (the one with the glasses) as ESPN production assistants. They’re thrust into hosting duties on an ESPN archive show when the original host, pompous Ron Parker (Michael Showalter), is crushed by a falling videotape shelf one minute into the premiere broadcast. Rather than wax rhapsodic about the anguish and triumph of competition like other ESPN talking heads, Randy and Jason tear apart clips of old ESPN and ABC Sports programs like the 1973 Superstars Contest and Steve Garvey’s Celebrity Billfish Tournament with a dizzying array of sports and pop culture references.
Bad as these “sporting events” are, it never occurs to the brothers to not watch them; and unlike Joel and Mike on MST3K, they have no Dr. Forrester threatening harm if they don’t. And this is rub: while it may seem big of ESPN to admit that some of its programming through the years has been lame, really, Cheap Seats only repackages that same programming, as if to say, “We’ve got you watching nevertheless!” Good thing the show is funny.
For the second season premiere, Jason and Randy watch the 2002 Creative Breaking Contest and the 2002 K-1 Fighting Championship (“Because nothing says ‘quality sport’ like a hyphen”). Like the gang on MST3K, Randy and Jason toss every reference they can against the fourth wall, and (again like MST3K) most of it sticks. During the Creative Breaking Contest (a martial arts exhibition where lots of boards and cinder blocks meet their demise), the Sklars namecheck Ray Lewis, Delta Burke (cited by the brothers as proof that “human beings were designed to break things”),
Abu Ghraib, Evel Knievel, Bugs Bunny, Kenny G, and note the delightful irony that a contestant in a Breaking Contest is named “Chip.” (Chip doesn’t win, but with a score of 49.5, the brothers note, “This guy’s so tough, he broke a point in half.”) This all transpires in 10 minutes. Granted, we forget the jokes as soon as they’re uttered, but another gag is always on the horizon. And for the season premiere bonus, MST3K‘s Mike Nelson, Tom Servo, and Crow T. Robot tune into Cheap Seats from the Satellite of Love and make fun of the Sklars while the brothers razz on the Breaking Contest. It’s all very meta, and a treat to see the MST3K gang again, if only in silhouette. Kudos to Cheap Seats for acknowledging their spiritual forefathers.
The Sklars also get help from some comedy buddies, featured in short video sequences that build on the sporting events getting skewered. Season One featured, among others, H. Jon Benjamin (Dr. Katz, Home Movies) as a Pro Wrestling foley artist and Jerry Minor (Mr. Show) as a Hootie Johnson-esque mini-golf course owner hellbent on keeping women off his Astroturf. (Reno 911‘s Kerri Kinney-Silver plays an inept Martha Burk foil.) These bits are funny, quick, and, most importantly, move the action out of the cramped studio (a meager set-up which consists of a lot of videotapes, a couch, and a flat-screen TV). After all, man cannot live on footage of the 1997 Spelling Bee alone.
The show includes as well the factoid rundown, “Do You Care?” and the end-of-episode Awarding of the Cheapies (like the shirtless, tattooed Breaking Contest competitor who lies on a bed of nails while another shirtless, tattooed guy lies on him to win the “Most Uncomfortable Moment” Cheapie, for several reasons.) In a TV universe seemingly hellbent on referencing itself out of existence, it’s refreshing that Cheap Seats both acknowledges that televised sports are little more than advertisers’ excuse to entice people to come out of the sun for a while also giving viewers a legitimate, funny reason to plop down and watch recycled television.