This week on “The Good, The Bad, and the Deeply Strange,” my exploration of Comedy Central’s short-lived shows, I’m looking at the sketch shows that only lasted one season. In the last installment, I dove into the deep well of reality and mockumentary shows. In the sketch department, there was a huge variance in quality from show to show; the good, the bad, and the strange are each well represented here.
All of the shows with full write-ups below are available on Amazon Instant Video for the curious, and all the shows without write-ups aren’t available anywhere, for better or worse.
The Naked Trucker & T-Bones Show
David Koechner and Dave “Gruber” Allen had been performing together as the Naked Trucker and T-Bones for almost a decade by the time their show premiered in the winter of 2007. Koechner created T-Bones all the way back in 1995, and performed T-Bones sketches when he was a cast member on SNL. So it took a while, and the T-Bones of the musical duo is very different than the SNL T-Bones, but it just shows that if you’re in Anchorman, you can get a TV deal for your signature character, no matter how inaccessible the show you create is.
The Naked Trucker & T-Bones Show is very weird. It’s not particularly funny, but it kind of seems like it’s not supposed to be that funny anyway. It mostly seems like Allen and especially Koechner are so invested in these characters that they’ve transcended the desire to make jokes and be traditionally funny and instead just exist on camera as these characters as they do whatever.
While watching The Naked Trucker & T-Bones Show, I kept asking, “who is this for?” Is it for kids? Stoners? Country music fans? No one? I haven’t the foggiest. What I can say for certain about the show is that it’s a combination of comedy-duo stage bits, short videos, and songs. T-Bones is a Southern-fried trickster and the Naked Trucker is snide and sarcastic and put-upon. The house band is called the Dick-Around Gang. I feel like the duo’s biggest influence is “A Boy Named Sue.” But why is the Naked Trucker naked? Why does T-Bone hold his mouth sideways? Why do the video sketches have a laugh track?
Is there something wrong with me? I feel like I might be overcomplicating this show.
Michael & Michael Have Issues
Michael Ian Black’s history with Comedy Central goes all the way back to 1997, when he starred in Viva Variety. That show was on the air for two years, and since then, he gets a new show every few years, but they disappointingly never last for more than a season. In the last installment of this column, I looked at Reality Bites Back, a reality show sendup, and in an upcoming installment will look at Stella, his cult classic absurdist sitcom with David Wain and closest State brother Michael Showalter. Four years after Stella, in the summer of 2009, Comedy Central reenlisted the Michaels once more for Michael & Michael Have Issues, a show that, if it doesn’t have a cult following of its own, certainly deserves one.
Michael & Michael Have Issues is another show-within-a-show show. If 30 Rock had interspersed “The Girlie Show” sketches throughout the behind-the-scenes plots, it would have been MMHI. The Michaels play versions of themselves who write and star in a sketch show. They disagree and compete about everything, and act like petty, childish assholes in a way that caused me to fully cringe at least once per episode. The Michaels have been doing the self-important jerk character with each other for so long that they have totally perfected it. Their acting is so good, and their smugness (Black) and pomposity (Showalter) is so clearly founded in some sort of truth, that the show has some basic level of sophistication that most other first-season shows don’t have. It knows exactly what it’s doing, and rarely falters tonally or structurally.
That tone and structure are the show’s greatest strengths. The Michaels (and all the State alums, but them especially) are absolute masters of straight-faced scatology and silliness. There are a few levels of meta (a sketch show about the making of a sketch show), but the show never gets too clever. It moves back and forth between styles effortlessly. Praise is also due to the supporting cast, which includes Kumail Nanjiani and actual former Comedy Central executive Jessi Klein, both of whom also co-wrote the show with Black and Showalter, Josh Pais as put-upon producer Jim Biederman, who never appears without earbuds around his neck, and the guy who played Sea Otter in The Wolf Of Wall Street as a sketch show cast member.
Michael & Michael Have Issues is the most disappointing loss of any of the shows profiled so far. It was a genuinely great show that couldn’t secure strong enough ratings, like Stella before it. For whatever reason, the Michaels can’t catch on as mainstream acts, but they’re currently operating the Topics podcast on Earwolf, which is a fitting niche for them, and sort of a continuation of the MMHI aesthetic.
The Jeff Dunham Show
You are reading this on Splitsider, a website for comedy nerds, so I assume you already hate Jeff Dunham. Let’s just acknowledge that, and that you already know that this show is dogshit before you read the rest of this, and this is not some lost gem. The Jeff Dunham Show sucks.
Jeff Dunham first appears onscreen wearing a shiny tuxedo jacket over a spangled t-shirt and a silver cross necklace. In one sketch he drives a Hummer H2, but it’s not a joke about either environmentalists or selfish gas-guzzlers, it’s just what he drives. He’s a douchebag.
All of his terrible characters appear: Walter, the crotchety old man; Achmed the Dead Terrorist, whose accent is probably terrible on purpose so that Dunham can pretend that he’s not supposed to be Muslim; and Peanut, which I don’t know what the fuck is supposed to be. There are sketches where the puppets walk around on their own without Dunham, and they are creepy and unsettling.
The only time I laughed in any of the episodes I watched is when Walter asks Benji and Joel Madden from Good Charlotte, who are promoting their clothing line as disinterestedly as possible, if they have a sweater vest with a skull on it. That’s the funniest moment on this whole godforsaken show.
Most of the bits are demeaning jokes about minorities made by a conservative white man. Jeff Dunham’s despicability was well-covered by Jon Mooalem’s profile of Dunham in the New York Times Magazine when the show came out, so I will not rehash all those points. But in summary, Jeff Dunham is a white supremacist.
I’m a New York City elitist comedy nerd. Jeff Dunham isn’t for me. But just because he isn’t for me doesn’t mean I don’t get him or his comedy isn’t awful. Katt Williams isn’t for me either, but I respect him. He has a distinct point of view and his comedy works hard to find surprising connections between different things. My cultural status doesn’t negate the fact that Jeff Dunham’s comedy is objectively awful.
The fact that The Jeff Dunham Show only lasted one season in the fall of 2009 is justice in some weird way. Like it’s proof that mediocrity isn’t always rewarded, although it still could have been: the show wasn’t cancelled due to low ratings, it was just too expensive. But hey, any reason that keeps Jeff Dunham in the Midwestern arenas where he gets rich and off of TV is a good one.
Jon Benjamin Has a Van
H. Jon Benjamin is comedy’s undisputed king of voice acting. Between Archer, Bob’s Burgers, Home Movies, and a bajillion other projects, Benjamin’s voice is one of the most ubiquitous stars in comedy. His face, however, hasn’t caught on as successfully. His own live-action show, Jon Benjamin Has A Van, did 11 episodes in the summer of 2011.
Jon Benjamin Has A Van premises Benjamin as the host of a newsmagazine show who has adventures on and offscreen his crew (Nathan Fielder and Leo Allen, who also co-created). The show-within-a-show premise is a common one, and the twist here is that the newsmagazine show is ridiculous. The unscripted man-on-the-street interactions are intentionally insipid, like one where Benjamin tries to ask people their opinions on gay marriage while they’re stopped at red lights or clearly in a rush, and the profiles are absurd riffs on the 60 Minutes style, like one where Benjamin interviews Jon Glaser, who plays a soldier with “pre-traumatic stress disorder” who lost his voice from screaming in fear at his impending deployment.
The majority of the show, however, is devoted to the ostensible behind-the-scenes, which are sketches of full-on craziness. In one episode, while profiling Little Little Italy, a tiny version of Little Italy in the back room of a grocery store, Benjamin gets caught up in a feud between the normal size Mafia and the little Mafia, and has an affair with the little Don’s 15-year-old, two-inch-tall daughter. It’s absurd and silly but also grim and violent.
That tone of absurdist brutality is what makes the show not fully click. It doesn’t nail its combination. There aren’t enough jokes for the mainstream, and it’s not surreal enough for cultists. Jon Benjamin Has A Van was an Abso Lutely production, and aired before Tim Heideicker & Eric Wareheim had mastered producing others’ work, as they now have with current shows like The Eric Andre Show and Nathan For You. Abso Lutely’s later shows figured out how to make absurdist brutality work, and Jon Benjamin Has A Van’s status as an early experiment shows.
The Ben Show
The Ben Show ran for eight episodes from January to April of last year. It was one part of a trio with Inside Amy Schumer and The Jeselnik Offensive, which were all picked up at the same time. Schumer’s show is still on and Jeselnik’s lasted two seasons. Amy Schumer and Anthony Jeselnik weren’t stars by when their shows debuted, but they were fairly established and well-regarded comics getting a their biggest shot yet. Ben Hoffman, creator and star of The Ben Show, was totally obscure, and his show bore the soporific title The Ben Show.
For real, The Ben Show might be the dullest title in television history. It conveys absolutely no information. Making things worse is the fact that no one knows who the titular Ben is. “Wanna watch The Ben Show?” “Ben who?” “Ben Hoffman.” “Who’s that?” “No idea.”
Well, prior to creating The Ben Show, Ben Hoffman was a writer for Comedy Central roasts and fellow One-Season Wonder Sports Show with Norm MacDonald. He is an uncharismatic fellow who always wears the same characterless baseball cap. That’s what he uses to distinguish himself.
The show itself is mean and dark and occasionally very funny. Recurring sketches like “Racist Football Coach” and “Barbershop Quartet Singing Porn Titles” are framed by Hoffman’s interactions with real people, including his father and his therapist, as he tries to do something to improve his life. In the first episode, he wants to buy a gun, so he consults his father and his therapist and various gun experts on whether he should or not. The line “having a gun is like having a second cock but this one can reach your mouth” is repeated three times.
That line is fucked up on multiple levels. It’s a well-written line that encapsulates what’s good and bad about The Ben Show; the blackness of its humor is sophisticated, but it’s executed too glibly. It’s not saying anything more than “this is a fucked up thing to say.” Ben Hoffman would be a good staff writer on a show like It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, but he doesn’t have the weight to carry his own show.
The Vacant Lot
According to Wikipedia, this was a Canadian show that Comedy Central bought the rights to and aired in 1994. Mark McKinney from Kids In The Hall’s brother Nick was on it.
The Chris Wylde Show Starring Chris Wylde
This was on in 2001. Chris Wylde was last seen in this almost unbelievable Toyota commercial where Busta Rhymes shouts out the Folk Nation street gang.
The Hollow Men
A six-episode British import from 2005. They might be the only sketch group named after a T.S. Eliot poem.