Why TV Funhouse didn’t last confused me. Though its connecting puppet sketches didn’t really work, everything else, the short films and animated parodies, was pretty spot-on. After witnessing MTV2’s Wonder Showzen, I got what TV Funhouse lacked - a firm commitment to its target, children’s television.
The original FOX pilot for TV Funhouse was a full-on Bozo parody with kids in the studio for most of the insanity - including a segment where the camera sweeps through an audience to find a winning child only for it to stop on one tyke and announce “it’s not you!” From that, it’s safe to say, creator Robert Smigel was pretty committed to using the conventions of kid’s show. It was Comedy Central that got nervous (including switching one segment from “Porn to Kids” to “Porn for Everyone”).
Wonder Showzen is a kid’s show in all but title and, of course, content. Kids sing the main theme song and litter nearly all of the dark segments including an investigative report entitled “Beat Kids,” each word labeled across a fist. The show is brilliant - committed to be as horrific as possible with blood poring from dying trees and pictures of dead animals set to chants of children yelling “funny” or “not funny.” The ominous warning that begins every act includes eerie music and, if you listen, screams.
Some bits are ridiculous - bugging everyday people on the street with a puppet just makes the puppeteers look like assholes. But even then, they know it, and target people who deserve to be bothered like impolite cell phone users. The most recent, a visit to find out why people are angry in Harlem was even a good demonstration of how bad race relations still are.
The show even knows when it goes over the edge and calls itself on it. One cartoon featuring a song about celebrating differences includes “ooga-booga” African tribesmen and “Ching Chong” Chinamen is followed by a six-year-old saying, with perfect inflection, “Oh, I get it. Your racism is ironic.” The show is childlike clarity in form, but it has adult ambivalence and pain underlay every part.
It’s a shame it’s buried someplace like MTV2, but that might be the only reason why we’re seeing it at all. If you don’t get the channel, check out some segments here (wmv) or a bootleg of the original pilot here. And for the brave, check out the creators’ fantastically trippy site.