I don’t know about you, but I was really relieved Jon Benjamin Has A Van wasn’t another Daily Show. Not that there would be anything wrong with that, but the show’s promos seemed to indicate that it had the makings of yet another faux news show. Sure, the potential is always there for another Colbert Report, but I was really into the looser, sketch-oriented feel of Benjamin’s new project: less news-y, more goofy. Unfortunately, it’s that same looseness that eventually leads the pilot episodes into trouble, as it seems like Benjamin and his writers are still working out exactly what kind of hybrid his show should be.
The hands-down funniest part of the two premiere episodes came during “Border.” The episode was built around a run of scenes where Benjamin repeatedly pushes his irate producer over the border into a different Latin American country without his passport, thus forcing the producer to build a whole new life in each country he enters. The heightening is excellent, and the comedy logic satisfying, in a way that is very reminiscent of Upright Citizens Brigade, though the fact that Matt Walsh guest stars as the producer probably didn’t hurt when it came to creating that particular vibe.
In the second episode “Little Italy,” Jon is rescued from mobsters by a tiny woman hailing from Little Little Italy, with whom he then spends one passionate night. The visual of Benjamin rolling around in ecstasy while seemingly completely alone is worth watching the episode for. I will say however: if you’re going to show a baby in handcuffs in the intro, there had better be a baby in handcuffs somewhere in the show.
If I can make another comparison (and really, who’s gonna stop me?), I’d say the funny, interstitial man-on-the-street bits like “Old People Using The Internet” and “You Can’t Shoot Here” bring to mind Wonder Showzen’s Beat Kids, though of course there is a majestic legacy of hassling strangers that stretches back into comedy history immemorial.
I don’t mean to point out these similarities as a way to detract from the show. Rather, I want to highlight how excellent the certain separate bits are, despite the fact that the show seems to be struggling to pull them into a cohesive whole. So far the episodes have vacillated between filmed interviews and one lower investigative piece that happens in real-life, rather than as a recorded story. Having both options opens up a world of comic possibilities, but the whole thing becomes a little confusing when you consider that we don’t really know anything about the lead reporter or his film crew. For example, for who or what is Benjamin reporting for? If the show were to build up the mythology of “Jon Benjamin” as a rogue journalist or seasoned reporter or just a heightened version of himself, it would be easier to understand how the show as a whole operates. Overall, however, I’m interested to see what other funny, increasingly weird places Benjamin’s van is willing to go.