A recent article in New York magazine asserts, “Human Giant has a simple goal: To reinvent sketch comedy—and save MTV.” It’s a lofty aim, and not entirely accurate. Rather than “reinvent” sketch comedy, the group rejuvenates it with edgy, spontaneous humor, challenging the buttoned-up, not-quite-real-improv comedies on network television (think Thank God You’re Here). The format is familiar to anyone who has followed improvisational or sketch comedy: a typical show cycles through pre-filmed bits of comedy, with characters or situations occasionally popping up again later to provide an extra punch line. The sketches are funny—hilarious, even—but not quite revolutionary.
As for saving MTV, well, it’s just too late for anyone to do that. But Human Giant is certainly a step in the right direction. MTV needs to be saved from any number of forces, including its own fans, the kids who flock to the watered-down reality shows about rich teenagers and hypersexed blind dates. The channel needs programming that skews a little older—and much hipper—to restore its reputation as a relevant cultural touchstone unafraid of risk.
To that end, MTV couldn’t have found a better quartet of comedians. Though the story of the show’s origins sounds like a Web 2.0 fairytale—some execs saw the Human Giant’s YouTube videos and, like a fairy godmother, granted them their own show—all three Giant performers and director Jason Woliner were already known in comedy circles, through performances at venues like New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade theater. The television incarnation of Human Giant came with its own built-in cred and a cult following of indie tastemakers already familiar with the comedians’ work.
The best thing MTV could do to cultivate this fan base was stay out of the show’s way, and for the most part, it did. Some of the material in the first few episodes of Human Giant replicates almost exactly the videos they’d shown on YouTube (give or take a few music clearances here and there). This includes the fan-favorite “Shutterbugs” sketches, where Aziz Ansari and Rob Huebel are ruthless child-actor talent agents who urge on their tiny clients with all manner of inappropriate language. This series of sketches debuted way before Will Ferrell’s “Funny or Die” website took that shtick and ran with it in the now-viral short “The Landlord.”
Ansari, Huebel, Paul Scheer, and Woliner don’t rein themselves in for television, either. The TV installments of the “Shutterbugs” sketches push way past the level of inappropriateness in their Internet shorts. Instead of characters cursing at their charges and deriding their pre-K talent, the comedians now have the agents casting their clients in Lil’ 9/11, a feature film that reenacts the national tragedy using only child actors. The finale culminated in a fist-fight between Lil’ George W. Bush and Lil’ Osama Bin Laden. The pitch-perfect, dead-on trailer parody for Lil’ 9/11, as improper as it seems, has so far been the highlight of the Human Giant season.
The hilarity emerges from the actors’ delivery of such ridiculousness in a deadpan style. When faced with a crisis on the set, the beleaguered director for Lil’ 9/11 says calmly, “I think we should take this as a sign that we should use adult actors portraying adult situations… in a completely different movie.” It’s a laugh-out-loud moment, but a subtle one. Let’s hope that the Jackass crowd appreciates it.