The contents of Robert Smigel’s short-lived Comedy Central show TV Funhouse might play better on YouTube, like those Saturday Night Live sketches that haven’t yet turned up on the best-of or full-season DVDs: fleeting glimpses of comic brilliance that hasn’t yet been canonized and rerun to death. Viewed as a whole on an official DVD release, the six-episode series is more sporadic, though often hilarious.
Before Wonder Showzen or Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job, TV Funhouse positioned itself as a mock children’s show, complete with sunny host Doug Dale and a litter of adorable “ani-pals”. But as imagined by Robert Smigel, Doug is ineffectual and dim, while his pals (mostly puppets, with some real cats and dogs and chickens wandering through) are foulmouthed, hard-drinking, and sexually rapacious; not so different, really, from actual animals, though slightly more articulate.
In each episode, the ani-pals ditch poor Doug, who nonetheless toils away on “Caveman Day” or “Mexican Day” while his friends live it up in Atlantic City or Tijuana. Doug also introduces cartoons and shorts in the spirit of the “TV Funhouse” bits Smigel has been creating for Saturday Night Live for over a decade now. Smigel also created Triumph the Insult-Comic Dog; TV Funhouse, then, with its adult cartoons and cursing puppets, is like an inexplicably unpopular culmination of his comic sensibility.
Some of the cartoons showcased here are laugh-out-loud funny for 30-40 seconds and less so immediately after, even as their style parodies remain dead on (and not all out of his favored ‘60s/‘70s milieu; “Wonderman”, about a superhero who lives to get his alter-ego laid, apes the look of Fleischer Studios Superman cartoons from the ‘40s). “Kidder, Downey, and Heche”, in which some late-‘90s celebrity messes team up to wander around, sort of solving crime, probably had zing when it first aired but now it feels like overkill, and “The Baby, the Immigrant, and the Guy on Mushrooms” gets its big joke out of the way in the title.
It’s not that the cartoons aren’t amusing; it’s just that even in a six-episode run, Smigel and company just burn through them at a pace far greater than the semi-weekly SNL shorts. When they experiment a bit with the format, though, the results come alive. Witness “Jokamel”, an offspring of Joe Camel and Pokemon, which makes rapid-fire cuts between a busy animated series and its relentless tie-in ads. Rather than taking a single joke and taking it to an extreme conclusion, Smigel smashes together two near-cliché comic conceits: that cigarette ads secretly target children, and that Joe Camel’s nose looks phallic. The resulting sketch is a quick tour de force, dizzy with big, inappropriate laughs.
These cartoons and assorted miscellany are the show’s purported reason for being, but the most immediately memorable moments belong to those nasty little animal puppets. They’re all in the spirit of Triumph, who makes a guest appearance in the Atlantic City episode: simple to behold but, with their goofy voices and limited movements, strangely fascinating.
On the commentary track, Smigel’s coworkers describe him as a perfectionist, which seems near-absurd given the amusingly slapdash mingling of low-tech puppetry and lower-tech wildlife. Doubtless the real animals were difficult to corral (the commentary crew sounds particularly spooked by the live kangaroo they used), and indeed their unpredictability adds to the show’s off-the-cuff charm: when a puppet cat gives graphic birth to a litter of kittens, it’s doubly funny to see those kittens wandering out of their mother nonchalantly or even, in one case, deciding to re-enter the womb (“that cat is a comic genius”, the writers note on the commentary).
Commentaries on all of the episodes are the major feature of the DVD release, though Smigel and co-conspirator Dino Stamatopoulos seem almost sheepish; by the first ten minutes, they’re already joking about having nothing to say. Smigel sounds reflective and modest about his cult show, calling the characters two-dimensional and explaining that they’re the result of his willingness to create characters solely for the purposes of a sight gag.
It’s not that Smigel sounds like a perfectionist so much as a comedian who wants to be left to his own devices—to play with his friends. Whenever he and he and Stamatopoulos mention collaborators like puppeteers or animators, the tone is vague impatience, and even host Doug Dale, also on the commentaries, seems like a third wheel, interrupting as the others ignore him (this may explain why most of his bits on the show are lackluster). But hints of ego are deflated when Smigel notes that the show grew out of “arbitrary rules” he set while working for Late Night with Conan O’Brian, e.g., “all dogs should speak with a Russian accent.”
The rest of the DVD extras match the half-shrugging attitude; the most polished ones are those with only a tangential relationship to the show, like some extra Triumph appearances on other Comedy Central programming. A new “video commentary” with a couple of the ani-pals looks like it was produced a few hours before a due date; no one seems particularly enthused to reprise their two-dimensional characters. Though having all of this rare material in one place is certainly convenient, you wonder if maybe Smigel would’ve been just as happy leaving the show alone to develop its cult audience in peace.