Reading too deeply into these things since 1981
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As they say, everybody’s a critic. As they should say immediately afterward, “Not everybody’s good at it, but there you go.”

Criticism is difficult to perform intelligently. I should know; I’m a particularly shitty critic myself. But every so often some anonymous stranger on the internet says something that — against all odds — turns out to be extremely insightful. From there, a great series of ongoing criticism can be born, and I wanted to take some time to share with you four of my absolute favorites.

This is not just a list of links…these are sincerely fantastic critical explorations that I endorse wholeheartedly.

1) Fred Clark’s Dissections of the Left Behind series.

For the past nine years (incredible but true) Fred Clark of Slacktivist has been analyzing page by agonizing page the entirety of the Left Behind series. For those who are unfamiliar with the series, here it is in a nutshell: God loves me, but not you. Fred, being a religious man himself, is appalled by the many levels of spiritual, literary and humanitarian stupidity on display in these pages, and he pulls them apart gorgeously. It’s a discussion about bad writing, yes, but it’s also a learning experience. I challenge any writer to come away from this series without being significantly more aware of the mistakes he or she is already making. You can check out his archive starting here, but many of the posts have annoyingly gone missing thanks to a change in URL. Regardless, he’s only recently begun the third book in the series, Nicolae, Rise of the Antichrist, and you can read these posts as they go up…which is the best way to enjoy them. First post here.

2) Dead Homer Society’s Discussions of Modern Simpsons.
We can argue all day about when The Simpsons officially became a shadow of its former self, but there’s really no arguing against the fact that it is a shadow of its former self. Dead Homer Society offers a shockingly sharp look at the current state of the show, with every new episode handled over at least four posts: a preview, a next-day recap, a feature that compares and contrasts it with an episode from the show’s golden years, and a transcript of a live chat discussing all aspects of the episode. It’s a surprisingly respectful way of conversing about a show that so clearly disappoints them in every way, and it makes for fascinating reading. Or, at least, it did. Yes, for Season 24 Dead Homer Society will be scaling back coverage, which is disappointing…but they will still be in operation, and — likely — just as worthy of your and my time. They’ve also released a fantastic new ebook called Zombie Simpsons: How the Best Show Ever Became the Broadcasting Undead that you can buy from Amazon or read for free here.

3) ProtonJon’s “Let’s Play Superman 64.”
The Let’s Play is a strange beast. I’ve recorded some myself, but even so I can’t say that I’m sure why people want to watch as somebody else plays video games for them. ProtonJon’s brilliantly exhaustive trek through Superman 64, however, is a glorious exception to a tedious norm. Two years into the project and with only 6 stages under his belt, it’s clear that ProtonJon has a lot to say. He spotlights glitches from the games, discusses characters both inside and outside of their roles in this adventure, and generally goes out of his way to provide fascinating — and sometimes exclusive — information along the way. Superman 64 is widely reviled as one of the worst video games of all time…and rightly so. ProtonJon can’t — and won’t — defend the game on its merits…but he sure does have a lot of fun pulling it apart to learn everything he can about the many, many ways in which it went wrong. From interviewing the developers to playing it alongside other Superman games to comparing it to unreleased beta footage, ProtonJon has taken an effortless YouTube staple and elevated it to the status of genuine — and remarkable — documentary. Tune in.

4) The Annotated Sonichu.
From the moment I started this site, I wanted to do a Noiseless Chatter Spotlight on Sonichu, the addictively weird creation of Christian Weston Chandler…also known as Chris-Chan. Sonichu himself is an unabashed hybrid of Pikachu and Sonic the Hedgehog, and Chandler’s comic is meant to follow him along on his exciting adventures. Instead, though, the comic sidelines Sonichu in favor of Chandler himself, who appears on the page — as he does in real life — as a man searching for love, and unable to grasp why he hasn’t found it already. Its childish art style and bizarre narrative flow make for an easy mockery, but The Annotated Sonichu takes its source material seriously, and discusses page by page the many direct carryovers from Chandler’s personal life that shape and enrich CWCville, the town in which Sonichu takes place. Family members, friends, his dead dog and strangers online who pretend to be females interested in him all make their way into the comic at some point, where Chandler uses his narrative authority to cope with them in the only way he knows how: with Crayola markers. Truly fascinating, and an unexpectedly respectful deconstruction.


Maybe I will do a list of this kind every month. Or maybe I won’t. I probably won’t. I hope you didn’t like that introductory paragraph very much, because I’m going to write another one:

Comedy is difficult. Making people laugh is the easy part…making people laugh for the right reasons, at the right times, satisfyingly and consistently, is practically a science. For that reason, we come to expect that not every comedian will make it big, and that not every joke they tell will make us laugh. We know that an impressive hit rate is difficult to maintain, and we adjust our expectations accordingly, striking a balance between how much we’d like to be entertained, and how much we can reasonably expect of a fellow flawed human being.

But, sometimes, a particular comedian is doomed from the start. He is not only incapable of making us laugh, but he’s without control over his material, his audience, or even his demeanor. It’s tragic when this happens, and painfully awkward. The floundering comedian is an effective and offputting archetype, and that’s why writers have dipped into this well repeatedly, crafting characters fated to bomb every time, doomed to botch every punchline, making us laugh not warmly, but defensively, and with discomfort.

In the interesting cases of these comedians, laughing at their material means you missed the joke. Here are 10 examples of that irony personified.

1) Fozzie Bear (The Muppet Show)

There’s perhaps no better cultural touchpoint for the ill-equipped comedian than Fozzie Bear, and his signature “wocka wocka” has wormed its way into our vernacular as well, becoming rightfully associated with sub-par material and limp gags. Fozzie’s routine was dated before he was born, relying on simple puns and vaudeville showmanship to generate rapturous laughter and applause that never comes. He’s also, however, eminently sympathetic, which is not only why we like him, but why Kermit keeps him around, and gives him another chance every week to die on stage. With two old curmudgeons heckling him from the balcony above, we are free from the desire to criticize his act, and can instead turn our attention to the uplifting fact that no matter how poorly he’s received, Fozzie’s always devoted enough to his craft to throw away what doesn’t work — in his case, everything — and write a whole new act from scratch. We’d love to see Dane Cook follow his lead.

2) Jimmy Valmer (South Park)

Jimmy Valmer is a special case, in several senses of the word. For one, he’s an 8-year-old boy, which means — unlike Fozzie and everyone else on this list — he isn’t disappointed that he hasn’t made it further in his comedy career. After all, that’s still to come! But he also suffers from several obvious physical handicaps. No matter; Jimmy wants only to make the world laugh, an ambition that’s downright touching by South Park standards, and one made all the more unfortunate by his chronic stutter, which causes him to step on his own punchlines and prevents him from honing his delivery…or even intelligibility. His jokes are about what you would expect from an 8-year-old boy — meaning his material is about as mature as could reasonably be expected and therefore, again, elevates him above the other entries on this list — but they actually seem to work. Stan, Kyle, Cartman, Kenny and the rest of the boys accept him relatively happily for who he is, functioning just fine within their social circle, and he’s not defined in their eyes by his handicaps. No, instead Jimmy is treated exactly as poorly as they treat anyone else. That’s the healing power of humor.

3) Randy (Funny People)

Aziz Ansari is a genuinely gifted comic, and as Parks and Recreation demonstrates weekly, he’s also a talented actor. Both of those things allowed him to bring to life Randy, a pitch-perfect exaggeration — though only just — of a comedian so manic and animated that it completely masks the dire quality of the material he’s delivering. The greatest stand-up comics raised their volume for emphasis. Those from Randy’s school of performing, on the other hand, do it to drown out audience thought, keeping them cheaply engaged and laughing hollowly so that they won’t realize there isn’t any substance. Funny People is just one of many movies that Ansari steals wholesale from their ostensible stars, and the character of Randy has gone on to a have a full life outside the film: Ansari deploys him during his actual stand-up routines now, perhaps as a point of comparison to his normal material, but more likely as a cathartic blow against more popular, more profitable contemporaries of his, who cash larger paychecks but don’t have anything worth saying. Randy may be a popular draw within the world of the film, but all he really does is pull audiences away from more deserving performers.

4) Kenny Bania (Seinfeld)

In contrast to Randy, Kenny Bania is a hack we actually tend to like. Like Fozzie Bear before him, we feel protective of Kenny Bania, as though we don’t trust that he’ll survive the cruel world of stand-up comedy. Even the typically staid Jerry breaks down his personal barriers and takes Bania under his wing — however temporarily. Bania is overjoyed by the simplest, laziest pieces of observational humor, often interrupting his mentor with a sincere and irony-free exclamation of “That’s gold, Jerry! Gold!” His perpetual enthusiasm and sunniness is a rare thing for the Seinfeld gang, and it’s no wonder that he made several appearances during the show’s run, becoming more successful as a comic, but never getting any better or any wiser. Bania was given the ultimate compliment long after Seinfeld ended, by being one of very few recurring characters resurrected for that show’s “reunion” episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Unlike the profoundly irritating Randy, whose success seems to grow as your faith in humanity diminishes, Bania is more of an infectiously adorable nuisance, and it’s nice to know that he’s still out there somewhere, as ecstatic as ever over jokes that aren’t as clever as he thinks they are.

5) Krusty the Clown (The Simpsons)

Krusty the Clown has provided us with much cause for laughter over the years…just not where he wanted us to find it. His Krusty the Clown Show sketches are the stuff of huge mustaches and pie fights, something that might be written by somebody who grew up watching classic comedians, but could never figure out why they were supposed to be funny. In fact, his comedy routines are so poor that they drove at least one of his previous sidekicks to criminal insanity. The humor behind Krusty comes from the incongruity of his situation: he’s a children’s entertainer who openly dislikes children, even when the cameras are rolling. His drug and booze fueled lifestyle allow him to coast lazily through whatever appearances he’s contractually obligated to make, but beyond that he’s a comedian who doesn’t particularly care whether or not you find him funny…he gets paid either way. In fact, in one episode (“The Last Temptation of Krust”) Krusty does become inspired to develop as a stand-up comedian, and achieves a new peak of notability with his more mature, insightful material. And then, of course, somebody offers him money, and he realizes that that’s his real passion. Krusty isn’t a hack because he doesn’t have the talent; he’s a hack because he’d rather make easy money than work hard. It’s an ethos so powerful and seductive that it eventually infected the writing of The Simpsons itself.

6) Dee Reynolds (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia)

You’d be hard pressed to describe any of the main characters in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia as sympathetic, but you’d probably have the easiest time with Dee, if only because she seems to be aware that she’s missing out on something greater in the world. For all their grumbling and groaning, Mac, Dennis, Charlie and Frank are all actually pretty content where they are, and with who they are. They don’t have much of a desire to achieve even a measure of self-awareness, let alone anything bigger for themselves. Dee, on the other hand, does have aspirations: she wants to be an actress. With so little experience and talent behind her, though, she isn’t even sure where to begin, which is why she regularly subjects herself to delivering dire stand-up comedy at The Laff House. She explains this to Charlie — the only one in whom she’s confided about her performances — by saying she’s paying her dues. After all, if she wants to be an actress, she has to learn how to hold an audience. Fair enough, but when her set degenerates immediately into a series of painful and repulsive dry heaves, it’s clear that this is a gesture of self-mutilation, rather than any experience she’s likely to benefit from. Charlie, meanwhile, eats cat food. He’s the happier one.

7) Geoff Tipps (The League of Gentlemen)

The brilliant third series of The League of Gentlemen found many of its characters being thrust well outside of their comfort zones, an evolutionary direction for the show that resulted in much of its best — if not necessarily funniest — material. For Geoff Tips, this meant leaving the small town of Royston Vasey to pursue a stand-up comedy career in London. This is not a career change that’s destined to go well, particularly as we’ve already seen him botch jokes so badly that he’s threatened to shoot people for not laughing, and play practical jokes on his friends that involve him staging a gory suicide in a restaurant bathroom. Comedy is not Geoff’s forte, but it is his passion, and so, when he loses his job in “Turn Again, Geoff Tipps”, the comedy club is the first place he turns. Of course he bombs in more ways than one, not only allowing his act to dissolve into a shouting match with dissatisfied audience members, but also by serving as the unwitting chauffeur for a terrorist car bomb on behalf of the IRA. Still, you’ve got to laugh, haven’t you?

8) GOB and Franklin Bluth (Arrested Development)

Comedy is not GOB Bluth’s strong point. Nor is puppeteering. Nor music. Nor ventriloquism nor respecting the delicacy of race relations. It’s pretty clear then that his act with Franklin is going to go about as well as anything else he’s done. That won’t stop GOB, however, because GOB is one of those people who believes that everything he does is being done well, simply by virtue of the fact that it’s he who is doing it. He sees himself as preternaturally gifted in all areas he attempts to explore, and often this premature self-satisfaction is so seductive that others get sucked in as well. In the case of Franklin Delano Bluth — the puppet who reminds us that it’s not easy being brown — however there’s not much to get on board with. His racially-charged banter with the dead-eyed Franklin is stymied by the fact GOB can’t keep his lips from moving, ultimately resulting in his desperately hiding a tape recorder inside the puppet as a substitute for using his own voice. Unfortunately, GOB’s lips still move, even though he’s not saying anything, and the act is just as doomed as it ever was. As a character, GOB rarely says or does anything genuinely clever; rather, he works so well as a comic figure because of just how artfully he gets everything wrong. And speaking of puppets…

9) Joe Beazley and Cheeky Monkey (Knowing Me, Knowing You… With Alan Partridge)

Of all the characters on this list, Joe Beazley and Cheeky Monkey are the only ones who have just a single appearance to their credit. Even Randy continued to exist outside of the film that gave him life. Joe Beazley and Cheeky Monkey, however, so thoroughly squandered their chance at fame that they were never heard from again, in any form, ever. Just one of many, many, many things to go wrong for Alan Partridge on his ABBA-inspired chat show, Joe Beazley — suffering obvious and debilitating stage fright — bungles his performance so badly than Alan is forced to shut it down almost immediately…much to Joe’s chagrin. Joe starts out by bungling a joke that he improvised just minutes before in the green room, and it only gets worse from there. This comedy misfire wasn’t quite as damaging to Alan’s television career as the fact that he later shot another guest through the heart with a dueling pistol on live television, but the bitter taste of Joe Beazley’s routine with Cheeky Monkey lingers on to this day; he was one of the performers Alan saw fit to call out and specifically berate in his recent memoir, I, Partridge. Alan’s not one to let go of disappointment easily, and this laugh-free puppet fiasco affected him so profoundly that he used it as justification for never again giving up-and-coming performers a break. Ooh, you cheeky monkey.

10) Steve Martin

Why are we ending on an actual comedian? Well, because Steve Martin, in terms of his stand-up anyway, was always a very deliberate creation. What you saw on stage wasn’t Steve Martin the man, but Steve Martin the character. His arrow through the head, his balloon animals, his belabored “Well ex-cuu-uu-uuse me!” were all meant as clever pieces of anti-comedy. When he took to the stage, he did so as a walking caricature of the worst that stand-up comedy had to offer. Needless to say, audiences loved it, and Martin was given higher profile gigs, such as a record-breaking number of appearances on Saturday Night Live, and also more classic films than we can remember. The public initially decided they loved Steve Martin because he shined a spotlight on things that weren’t funny, but he did so in such an endearingly committed way that they just had to laugh. And then, once he had everybody’s attention, he showed the world that he knew comedy so well that he’s since stood as an important cultural fixture, spanning decades while lesser comedians — including many who unintentionally resembled the act that made him famous — came and went. And the moral of Steve Martin’s story is the most important lesson to keep in mind here: anyone can write a bad joke, but it takes a sincerely gifted people to craft these characters that are so perfectly bad in all the best ways.

The Farrelly Brothers have been promoting their movie The Three Stooges by saying that first and foremost they wanted to pay tribute to the originals. Well, their movie is out this weekend, and from all accounts it doesn’t sound like all that flattering a tribute.

Personally, here’s how I’d pay proper tribute. I know it’s complicated, so I’ve tried to break it down into simple steps.

1) Take some time and go through all the surviving Stooge shorts. From these, take about 80 minutes’ worth of the best and most memorable material. You can narrow it down to a few complete shorts, or mix and match sequences from however many you like. I can see pros or cons either way. The important thing is, you’re using the originals, and not some lesser, artless stab at joyless re-creation.

2) Get someone knowledgeable and well-respected in the film industry to record an introduction for you. Roger Ebert won’t do for obvious reasons, but I’m sure you can find somebody important to speak for a minute or two about what the Stooges did for comedy, and how they influenced just about every physical comedian to come. This will be the first thing audiences see, because it’ll be comparatively boring and we want it out of the way early. Allot time for a pie in the face.

3) Draft a bunch of your Hollywood friends and colleagues to record new and interesting linking material. If they were willing to commit to humiliating cameos in the backyard horseplay you call a tribute film, I’m sure they’d be at least as willing to do this instead. Some of them might even come away from the project with some measure of self-respect, which would make for a nice selling point by comparison.

4) Edit it all together into A Celebration of The Three Stooges, or something. I don’t care. Call it a Tribstooge if you want. It doesn’t matter. Just as long as your centerpiece is original material, lovingly restored and considerately presented, featuring sincere reminiscences and discussions by contemporary stars and artists who appreciated them. Release it for one night only, or maybe schedule several showings over one weekend, to spur ticket sales and contribute to an overall sense of being part of an appreciative community.

5) There is no five. There are only four steps. This is fucking easy.

Of course, such a gambit might not make as much money as a major Hollywood film, but it would certainly cost a hell of a lot less than the monstrosity we have instead…and the profits on that one are yet to be determined anyway.

Then again, what do I know? We’re obviously in the hands of capable professionals.

The AV Club has recently reported that a full series DVD set of Get a Life is finally in the works. This is fantastic news for me, and it should be for you as well.

I remember Get a Life better than I should probably be proud of. For two years in the early 90s it was a Fox Sunday night staple, which means every week I could look forward to seeing it along side The Simpsons and Married…With Children, both of which were in their prime. And as much as I loved both of those shows, I think I looked forward to Get a Life the most.

Something about it appealed to me in ways that so many other shows didn’t. It’s commonplace now, but Get a Life was the largest-scale, balls-out genre subversion I had experienced at the time, and it probably did more to shape my personal sense of humor than anything else before or since. It was dark, sardonic and periodically psychotic…but everything was painted over with the veneer and style of a non-threatening 1950s sitcom. It had a laugh track that deliberately went wild over the most terrible things, and feel eerily silent when, suddenly, the mood would change from light comedy to bizarre, cruel chaos.

It was the continuing story of a dimwitted 30 year old paperboy who lives with his parents, ambling through life, endangering innocent people, and often getting killed horribly along the way. Its pilot featured Chris and his best friend stuck upside down in a roller coaster for the entire episode, and it only got stranger from there.

Much, much, much, much stranger.

And it was fantastic. It was clever, it was perfectly acted, and it was expertly handled. Writer David Mirkin went on to join The Simpsons after Get a Life ended, where he was able to weave his masterful sense of gently destructive parody seamlessly into that show, and Chris Elliott…well, Chris Elliott never really found another outlet for doing what he did best. Lately he appears in Adult Swim’s Eagleheart, which is absolutely a spiritual successor to this show, but Get a Life got there first.

I have a lot more to say about it, but I’m deliberately holding back. I think I feel a Noiseless Chatter Spotlight coming on…

I did have the good fortune of seeing the show in its entirety again during my late high school years, and at that time I definitely felt it had weathered the test of time. Now, with our tolerance for parody filed down to the nub by Family Guy and its ilk, I’m not sure if Get a Life won’t feel a little too quaint. But, then again, considering its own nature, that quaintness might just give it another layer of verisimilitude.

I’m hoping music rights issues don’t force us to hear sound-alikes during the show’s many montages, but otherwise I really don’t have any fears about this release at all. It’s a relic from a bygone time when genre subversion and extended film parodies and sociopathic tendencies didn’t belong in our comedy. There’s a reason this was cancelled, and that’s because audiences were terrified that this might be the future of television.

It was.

The 30 year old paperboy is dead. Long live the 30 year old paperboy.


He’s metal and small and doesn’t judge me at all.
He’s a cyberwired bundle of joy.
My robot friend.

In 2004, a coworker of mine convinced me to start watching South Park again. I’m not really sure why I had stopped. I was one of the show’s early adopters — which isn’t saying much; there were many — and I was always happy to defend it as being more substantial than its mountains of violence and profanity led the easily insulted to believe. It was a great show, I thought, with clever writing and some genuinely intelligent insight into touchy subjects and controversial material. But at some point, probably around season five or so, it became less important for me to tune in regularly. I think, in a way, I didn’t want to watch it become a shadow of itself. I never saw the quality slip, but my turning away was a preemptive measure. It’s what would keep me from having to see it devolve and degrade itself before me, becoming less of an artistic statement and more of a way of keeping Comedy Central swimming in merchandising profits as the years went on.

But my coworker assured me that that hadn’t happened. That South Park was just as good as it ever was, or probably even better. So I tuned in for the first time after a long absence, and watched each new episode of season eight as it premiered. And though the kids were all the same age and the adults were no wiser, South Park as a show revealed to me just how much it managed to grow up.

The self-imposed tight turnaround on South Park episodes sounds like a living nightmare when you hear creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone talk about it in interviews, and often that fatigue shows in their responses to the interviewers’ questions. They sound careless and dismissive. They don’t seem particularly invested or enthusiastic. But it works wonders in terms of keeping the show fresh — note I’m saying nothing about topicality — and I think that’s the reason it glides so smoothly along to this day, periodically achieving greatness sixteen seasons on.

Why do I think this brutal tightness of schedule might be a facilitator of quality? Well, because of “AWESOM-O.” And because of many, many other things that this episode leads me to think about.

In the week leading up to the premiere of “AWESOM-O,” Comedy Central ran promos promising the return of Lemmiwinks. Lemmiwinks was the gerbil from the deservedly popular “The Death Camp of Tolerance” episode from two seasons prior, and while I could understand why they’d think fans would appreciate a callback to that episode, I wasn’t quite sure why I was supposed to be getting excited about another episode centering around the sexual insertion of rodents. But then the night came, and there was no Lemmiwinks. Instead we got a title card, explaining that due to the recent tragedy in Hawaii, that episode would not be aired, and we would get something else instead. That something else was “AWESOM-O.”

“AWESOM-O” is easily one of my favorite episodes of South Park, and I could fill another post by simply listing the reasons for that. It’s also, apparently, the episode with the fastest turnaround time in the show’s history: three days from conception to air. That means that when the Lemmiwinks episode vanished, they didn’t just air a rerun, or slap up something else that was ready to go. They built something from the ground up, a ramshackle creation of whatever they could get their hands on quickly, much in the same way Cartman must have constructed his robot costume. There was no tragedy in Hawaii. They just made it most of the way through the process of producing an episode that it turned out they didn’t believe in. And rather than just finishing it and shipping it off to air and be forgotten, they stopped. They had the courage to throw it away, and to begin again. With a deadline looming and nothing to show for the work they’d already invested, it was up to them not only to replace an episode in the lineup, but qualitatively justify the fact that they had thrown a different one away.

That’s something that few shows have the luxury of doing, and it’s why South Park is able to continue to feel fresh: in a very literal way, it always is.

A show like The Simpsons — which was beginning to show its age not long after South Park shuffled into view, and was well past its prime by the time South Park gave us “AWESOM-O” — has a turnaround time of around six months per episode. That means that by the time all the pieces are put together, it’s too late to do much corrective work. Even if the entire creative staff is unsatisfied with the way the pieces fit, little more than polish can be applied. The episode, as it is, six months after the final script was written and recorded, is airing whether you like it or not. South Park, fortunately, never had anywhere near that turnaround. Parker and Stone started off with Comedy Central working at a frantic pace and never stopping to catch their breath, and that’s the way it remains today. It means the two of them don’t get much sleep and often feel as though their creation is eating them alive, but it also means that if they produce an episode that they don’t like, they can destroy it and start fresh. They are in the habit of doing so, they have a production style that was built to sustain such changes in trajectory, and there isn’t half a year and several million dollars invested. Ironically, the tighter time frame and smaller budget allow the South Park crew to do more than shows with more bountiful resources.

As a last-minute substitute, “AWESOM-O” makes perfect sense. The germ of the idea (Cartman dresses like a robot to play a prank on Butters) is simple. It doesn’t require much thought to flesh it out; it’s an episode where kids behave like kids, making it a good fit for the characters, and also an easy night in the writers’ room. There’s no need for topical jokes or complicated inversions of established tropes; this is a chance for two of the show’s most popular characters — and, arguably, the show’s single most fruitful dynamic — to take center stage and entertain us.

It’s also, however, a brilliant little character piece, offering both Cartman and Butters the chance to display emotions they don’t often get to tap into. It’s a small story that could have taken place entirely in Butters’s bedroom, but its themes are powerful and universal. “AWESOM-O” is a story of friendship, like Double Indemnity before it. And like Double Indemnity, it’s a story of underhanded dealings, dubious motives, and the climactic disappointment of the piece’s only innocent man.

Cartman decides — off camera, for reasons we never hear — to play a prank on Butters, and it’s his most cutting and personal one yet: by pretending to be a robot, he’s going to let Butters believe that he has a friend for life, and then take that friendship away from him.

For comparison’s sake, two of Cartman’s previous pranks on Butters are recounted in this episode: he once locked him in a bomb shelter for several days, and he imitated Butters on the phone so that his father would come home and beat him. Either of those pranks sounds significantly crueler than the helpful robot persona Cartman adopts here, but a step back reveals that that’s not the case; either of the other two pranks would have worked just as well on any of the other children. There’s nothing about either of them that target Butters as an individual…he’s simply a victim, and might as well be anonymous. Here, however, Cartman is preying on something he knows Butters — and only Butters — will respond to in the necessary tragic way: a friend. For any other child, friends come and go. Betrayal is unfortunate, but not uncommon. In order for someone to be betrayed, however, there must be a relationship to betray, and Cartman knows that Butters has never had that. He will befriend the boy for the sole purpose of breaking his heart. It’s the most hurtful thing Cartman can do to Butters, and so of course he can’t resist.

Of course Cartman’s plot falls apart the moment he finds out Butters has blackmail material on him: a videotape of him dressed as Britney Spears and dancing with a cardboard cutout of Justin Timberlake. Butters doesn’t intend to blackmail him, and in fact doesn’t even remember where the videotape is, but once Cartman learns of it existence he’s unable to reveal himself, and is therefore unable to break Butters’s heart. He is, instead, forced to become and remain the actual friend that he was going to make Butters look foolish for believing in.

You’ll notice that there’s nothing about Stan, Kyle or Kenny in the above discussion, and that’s because they’re relegated to cameos here. They show up to wonder why Cartman is still keeping his robot ruse going, but, technically, that scene didn’t even need to be there. They serve no purpose as characters, and the script doesn’t try to force them in where they don’t belong.

I noticed this when I watched it new, way back in 2004, and it’s just a broader reflection of why the tight schedule works so well for this show: with no time to lose, Parker and Stone are used to throwing away ideas that don’t work, and shifting directions at a moment’s notice. It’s an approach borne of utility, but in a larger sense it works in the show’s favor, as it’s conditioned them not to hold fast to what no longer interests them for the sake of maintaining status quo.

If you think I’m going to bring up The Simpsons again as a point of comparison, you’re right. After all, there’s no better reference point for either of the two shows than each other, and whereas The Simpsons has been recycling plots and echoing itself in gradually deteriorating whispers for the sake of remaining familiar to whatever small audience still chooses to follow it, South Park has been ditching characters and ideas since season two, scrambling up core dynamics and introducing new regular characters in order to explore avenues that they previously couldn’t reach without stretching characters beyond their scope of believability.

Compared to the early seasons of South Park, “AWESOM-O” seems like an almost completely different show. It looks and sounds the same, but so many staple features have been abandoned in the meantime. Chef doesn’t sing an inappropriate song, Kenny doesn’t die, Kyle doesn’t learn something today, Stan has been ousted as the central figure by a previously unnamed background character we now know as Butters, the town doesn’t riot, and no grand observations are made about politics, religion or society. Officer Barbrady and the Mayor don’t exist anymore, Mr. Garrison no longer speaks through Mr. Hat, Ike doesn’t show up for a round of Kick the Baby and Randy Marsh has gone from “Stan’s dad” to breakout character. Things have changed, and the show let them change.

This is a simple story of a boy and his robot friend, and it’s a thousand miles removed from anything the show laid the groundwork for in its early years. The reason? That groundwork proved limiting and was growing tiresome, and so the creators chose to evolve rather than to stagnate. It was a wise decision. After all, despite what any network executives might think, it’s not the familiarity that keeps people tuning in…it’s the quality. Lose familiar elements and an audience might stick around, but lose the quality and you’re finished for good.

The promotion of Butters to main character status is probably one of the most fruitful changes the show ever made. It was a sacrifice of familiar elements made in favor of maintaining quality, and it allowed them to write the kinds of stories that were previously off-limits. After all, Butters is a different type of child…one that was not represented within the main group. Stan was logical and well-centered, Kyle was the moralist, Cartman was the asshole, and Kenny was…well, Kenny was several things, but outside of a few grand exceptions (like his Mysterion arc) he was simply crude. They were all distinct characters, as you can see, but none of them were at all fragile. In fact, that’s what won over audiences — and infuriated parents — when the show premiered: these kids didn’t take any shit. The cursed, they fought back, and they were perfectly capable of resorting to things we never thought we’d see children do on primetime television.

Butters, however, does none of that. He is fragility incarnate. Easy to hurt, and yet always willing to get back up and let you hurt him again. He doesn’t have a malicious bone in his body, and he is endlessly selfless and caring. He’s neither rude nor profane (he blurts out “Oh hamburgers,” when he’s particularly upset), and he just wants everyone around him to be happy. This makes him an excellent foil for the boys in general, but especially, of course, for Cartman in particular.

Cartman doesn’t just get annoyed by Butters as the other boys do…he actively wishes to harm him. In Cartman’s world, there is no room for a Butters. It is impossible to co-exist…the fact that Butters is fragile and helpless is a clear-cut reason that he must be destroyed.

Butters, on the other hand, sees the boys — and, again, particularly Cartman — as his friends. He must; without ever having had actual friends to compare them to, he assumes that these boys who talk to him must qualify. It doesn’t matter how badly they mistreat him, or how callously they abuse him…Butters sees them as friends. Which is why “AWESOM-O” is interesting. Cartman assumes that Butters has never experienced friendship…despite the fact that he himself is often on the receiving end of Butters’s declarations of loyalty.

But he’s right. What Butters has with AWESOM-O is different, and even Butters must feel that on some level. At first, he’s just another friend. But once he listens to what Butters has to say, helps him with his chores and engages in social activities with him in public — all things his other “friends” never did — Butters knows that this is really what friendship is supposed to be, and he falls for it. Hard. Listen to the wistful way he sings the word “friend” in the song quoted above; there’s an enormous gravity hanging from that tiny word…a large investment of emotion that, previously, had nowhere to go. And when AWESOM-O asserts himself and expresses desires contrary to what Butters now expects of his friend, there’s a telling moment during which Butters scolds him, and even resorts to physical violence: a spanking. He has a friend now…and he’s not going to let him get away.

I don’t know precisely what it was about “AWESOM-O” that made me like it so much at first, and what still causes it to resonate with me today. Maybe it’s the writing-workshop approach to the script, the alchemy of pressing deadline pain into gold. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s a small, human story instead of some grander, topical plot. Or maybe it’s just something simple: the small satisfaction of seeing Cartman on the losing end for a change, and watching him struggle to reverse that, as his prank backfires and he’s stuck in an endless premise with no conclusion. The plan was to give Butters a taste of friendship and then take it away, but he’s unable to progress past step one, and the joke’s on him: like or not, he really did become Butters’s friend. As the scientist observes at the end of the episode, it doesn’t matter if AWESOM-O is a robot; what matters is the very human spirit of friendship it brought to the boy who loved him. Of course the scientist believes Cartman to actually be a robot when he says that, but it rings true for the eight-year-old boy inside the cardboard suit as well: whatever Cartman’s motives, it felt sincere to Butters. And that made it real.

“AWESOM-O” might not be what you’d think of when defining a South Park plot, but it’s a perfect fit for the universe created by Parker and Stone. After all, at its best, South Park has always been about the characters rather than the situations. That’s why most viewers, when asked about their favorite episodes or highlights, will tend to point toward smaller scenes or moments or interactions than any broad celebrity caricature or townwide apocalypse. And the show is still, another eight seasons after “AWESOM-O” premiered, finding new and impressive ways to let those characters be themselves, and find their voices, and live their lives. The Simpsons, at its best, was also about its characters, but that show is no longer anywhere near as interested in letting them be themselves. What made The Simpsons so brilliant is that they started with a palette of stereotypes, and layered and explored those characters until they felt like real human beings. What unmade The Simpsons was that, at some point, they destructively stereotyped them again, and left them there.

I don’t know what the Lemmiwinks episode was supposed to be about. Perhaps I would have loved it. That doesn’t matter.

What matters is that the creators weren’t pleased with it. They took a long hard look at what they accomplished, and they made a difficult decision: to throw it away, and to try harder.

It’s an interesting coincidence to me that this episode was part of South Park‘s eighth season, as I’d say that the eighth was the last truly great season of The Simpsons. From season nine on, it was a slope that got more slippery all the time, and now, I’d argue, it’s no longer even interested in climbing back up again. South Park was poised at that precise point three days before “AWESOM-O” aired. Would they take the easy way out and just air some mediocrity, and hope that the show would fix itself in the future? Or would they keep working until they had something worthy of carrying the reputation that they’d built?

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and South Park could not travel both. It took the road less traveled by.

It chose not to follow the path to ruin and creative bankruptcy. After all…Simpsons did it.

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