Last weekend, The LEGO Movie scored one of the highest box-office debuts ever for an original animated movie. Many critics were surprised by how enjoyable it was. But I and a small group of others were not, as we had seen Clone High, the 2003 MTV animated series created by Lego writers-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. Running for a mere thirteen episodes, Clone High still holds up more than a decade later as a brilliantly funny, completely nuts, surprisingly heartfelt, tonally inventive masterpiece. And it’s all on YouTube right now for you to watch.
I could summarize the show’s premise, but how about I let the theme song do the heavy lifting here: “Way way back in the 1980s/Secret government employees/Dug up famous guys and ladies/And made amusing genetic copies/Now their clones are sexy teens.” Clone High was a parody of melodramatic teen dramas, but in its world everyone was a famous historical figure. Abraham Lincoln is our lovelorn, gawky loser protagonist; Joan of Arc is the snarky, overly moral best friend; Cleopatra is the self-centered hot cheerleader; JFK is the womanizing, dumb jock; Gandhi is the hyper, wacky aspirational party animal. You also had the likes of Catherine the Great, George Washington, George Washington Carver (with an anthropomorphic peanut sidekick), Genghis Khan, Marie Curie, and Jesus Cristo (the Hispanic clone of Jesus). These are obviously the same guys that came up with a council of heroes that includes Gandalf, Wonder Woman, Milhouse, Michelangelo, the Statue of Liberty, and the 2002 NBA All-Stars.
It really is an A+ premise but not necessarily an easy one to pull off. When it comes to parodies, the creators usually have to choose between playing it straight (think Community) or playing it a bit detached and winky (think Childrens Hospital). Clone High aspired to do both, achieving a tone that combined the precision of the Simpsons’ best jokes with the shotgun madcappery of contemporary Adult Swim shows, like Superjail! Take this scene from episode one that deftly bounces back and forth between genuine (albeit partially ironically so) and completely absurd:
The reality was a loose one, built primarily for joke-writing, but the show was able to maintain a master story line centered on the love-square between Joan and Abe and Cleo and JFK, which allowed it to both feel like it wasn’t resetting every episode and provide a resonant ongoing story line, despite being a parody. (Here you can see the influence of Scrubs creator Bill Lawrence, who executive produced the show.)
As is often the case, great characters allow even the craziest of shows to feel grounded, and Clone High had ringers. The benefit of using the most famous people in all of history is that the viewer has a built-in investment new shows usually have to work very hard for. It took us three seasons to laugh when Ron Swanson plays against type and giggles at seeing Li’l Sebastian. A character like Gandhi has that level of expectation from episode one, because he’s Gandhi. In episode one, Gandhi is supposed to be working a crisis hotline, but he forwards the calls to his cell, so he can go to JFK’s party. There he puts Vincent van Gogh on speakerphone, so that an entire party can hear about his depression. When he finds out, van Gogh asks, “How could you?” to which Gandhi replies, “Hey, Gandhi’s anti-violence, not anti-comedy.” Clone High generally nailed bits like these, while being sure not to lean on them too much. Here’s another example from the election episode:
And it’s all made better by roundly terrific voice work. Yet there are three that stand out. First, Miller’s JFK, which is so over-the-top, it makes Mayor Quimby sound accurate. To get a sense of how great and ridiculous it was, watch this scene where JFK explains to Gandhi how to do the voice by reading the sentence, “For supper, I want a party platter.”
Second, you have Will Forte, who not only brought a certain versatility to Abe (Forte also voiced Lincoln in The Lego Movie), able to both play it big (he is a legendary comic screamer) and pull off the show’s few deadpan lines, but he also sang a lot (here’s a video of him singing as the non-cloned Abraham Lincoln, from the musical episode). He also provided the consistently funny, often shambolic voice-over for the “Previously, on a very special Clone High … ” and “Next week, on a very special Clone High … ” (Every episode was a very special episode.) Lord and Miller really got Forte’s voice, which is why it’s no surprise the three are working together again on a new sitcom for Fox. Lastly and maybe bestly, was Lord’s work as Principal Scudworth. “Phil’s portrayal of Principal Scudworth is something that sticks with you,” Miller told Grantland. He pointed to Scudworth’s freak-out over John Stamos, which highlights the loopy and oblivious mania Lord captured in his vocal performance.
In that scene, with its reference to how John Stamos was married to Rebecca Romijn, you see where the show might feel dated. Upon rewatching, it has a noticeable number of pop-culture references that now feel off. That is especially true in regards to the show’s guest stars like Tom Green, Marilyn Manson, and Ashley Parker Angel from O*Town. But even when the show originally aired, much of those castings were ironic, so the effect remains the same.
Clone High eventually got canceled for flying a bit too close to the sun. When word got to India about the portrayal of Gandhi, 150 politicians and Gandhi’s grandson mounted a hunger strike in front of the MTV India offices. MTV gave Lord and Miller an opportunity to come up with ways to write his character off the show, but ultimately MTV said no. It was probably for the best. Lord and Miller have gone on to do quite well for themselves — besides The Lego Movie, the two have written and directed 21 and 22 Jump Street and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. And one season of Clone High feels right. It was such a delightful, weird, specific show, and that’s a fine legacy to have.
Watch the first six episodes below and follow the links for the rest.