Reviews

TV Funhouse

Doug's puppet pals are foulmouthed, hard-drinking, and sexually rapacious; rather like actual animals.


Comedy Central's TV Funhouse

Distributor: Comedy Central
Cast: Robert Smigel, Dino Stamatopoulos, Jon Glaser, David Juskow
Network: Comedy Central
First date: 2000
US Release Date: 2008-07-22
Amazon

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.

6

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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