Wonder Showzen is brilliant satire with a touch of the freakish. A growling send-up of kids’ shows like Sesame Street, Wonder Showzen dares to ask what TV would be like if it really educated viewers. When the kids delivering scripted lines on this show aren’t cursing, skewering the social order, or noting existential alienation everywhere, they’re interacting with trippy puppets to demonstrate they ain’t stupid. Children get more about the world than adults suspect.
But the target audience here is adults. The objects of satire include social norms, the hypocrisies of the educational system, big business, government, the media, political parties, war, and parents. The critique is leftist, sometimes almost anarchic. It’s intense enough to prompt a “Not for kids” warning at the beginning of each episode: “Wonder Showzen contains offensive, despicable content that is too controversial and too awesome for actual children. The stark, ugly, profound truths Wonder Showzen exposes may be soul crushing to the weak of spirit. If you allow a child to watch this show, you are a bad parent or guardian.”
This content is mostly smart and topical. In a DVD extra, a poster, one of the puppets wears a T-shirt picturing the hooded man tortured at Abu Ghraib and the words, “I Hate Homework” on the shirt and “Hang in There!” on the poster. The show underlines that this victim’s image has become an icon in consumer culture, separated from its original meaning and reduced to commodity.
Wonder Showzen also parodies kids’ programming. One segment, “Animal Dance,” starts off with images of happy little animals that give way to footage of animals killing each other (rattlesnake eating rodent), mating, birthing, being killed for science, and being sliced up for meat. A regular segment, “Beat Kids,” similarly debunks the practice of putting cute kids in adult roles: young Ray Ray plays a reporter doing “man on the street” interviews. Passersby, drawn in by the seeming innocence of the set-up, come over to chat. The looks on their faces when they realize they’re walking into seriously aggressive satire are priceless. In one bit, Ray Ray is dressed up as a little Hitler, asking a man in a cowboy hat, “Whose hat represents more oppression, yours or mine?” The cowboy replies that both “represent a fair amount of oppression, you just killed a lot more people a lot quicker.”
At times, the show goes for even more aggressive critiques of children’s programming, cogently showing it to be self-serving drivel disconnected from real world issues. In one snappy segment included in the DVD extras, Amy Sedaris does kids’ storytime, talking about a princess, then the princesses’ little penis. Here the shot pans to her audience: the kids have turned into skeletons. Smarmy fairy tales don’t cut it in the face of real life ugliness, constricting social norms, and mortality.
The series also scores knock-out punches when it uses such kid programming conventions to attack larger issues, like societal corruption. In another DVD extra, “Story Time with Flava Flav,” he reads “The Boy in the Red Cap” to another group of kids. After Flav tells them the boy finds a wallet with money in it, he asks the kids what they would do. Some curse, one says, “I would hire an old school hype man to read me a story.” Flav then reads that the boy gave the money to a cop, who pockets it. What would you do? The children say, “I’d rip that pig a new one,” “Karma would get him,” and “I’d blame the liberal media.” And so we get a Showzen-style moral: when faced with systemic corruption, you could turn to religion, violence, or scapegoats. All bad options.
When the show links education to big business, it offers smart new takes on familiar themes. A hand puppet asks people on the street whether he’s a “hero” if he stops them from smoking—he steals their cigarettes or cigars and almost gets attacked many times. The question is: how do we educate kids about important ideas? The denouement is: let’s slam how we capitulate and let corporate America.
Some of these sketches have their limitations, however. Putting disturbing messages in the mouths of child actors can be problematic—sometimes the show seems to exploit the kids or even laugh at them. When a puppet asks a child, “When is it okay to lie?”, she answers, “Accepting Jesus on death row,” plainly not understanding the implications of what she’s saying (DVD extras include auditions and outtakes for the child actors, demonstrating what they do and don’t understand).
Likewise, some of the edgy “man on the street” interviews flip over into disquieting ridicule. When the puppeteer harasses passersby, in the vein of Robert Smigel’s Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog, the point seems to be to get the people pissed off enough to hit the puppet or the puppeteer. This agitprop theater repeatedly shows dumb people, like Leno’s “Jaywalking.” In the cigarette-slamming segment, the puppet gets an elderly smoker to repeat after him: “I’m a good little monkey, I do what I’m told, I’m dumb.” When he asks another smoker if he’s just going to go home and die now, the guy says, “Yes, I hate this life.” The show slips from making fun of someone who doesn’t “get it” to putting the disenfranchised on display. This seems more like dark pathos than community-building project.
But mostly the edginess is effective, especially when mixed with absurdism. In a Dr. Seuss send-up cartoon, a student kills a teacher and then a principal when asked stupid questions, then claims he blacked out and was just having a nightmare, then says “nightmares are just nature’s cop-outs.” While somewhat incoherent, the bit explores the roots of teen violence in disconnection, miscommunication, and the absurdity of authority.
The absurdist bent goes meta in one purported commentary track. Instead of the usual observations on action, writers/directors John Lee and Vernon Chatman talk to comedian Gordon Lish in a restaurant, riffing on “honesty” while we see an episode addressing that theme. What, you were expecting conventional? This DVD deconstructs the conventions of DVDs. Nice. Wonder Showzen‘s signature mix of the disturbing and the absurd makes for searing satire and whipsmart TV.