If you grew up in the suburbs of the early 90s, you may recall the hazy visage of Tom Smothers waggling his bony hips with two yo-yos flipping around in a bizarre made-for-TV stage act.
But, Yo Yo Man is no dream. Released in 1988, The Yo Yo Man Instructional Video was a widely successful Smothers Brothers VHS Tape that yielded over 200,000 sales and remains an alt-comedy entry point for many youngsters of the 1990s who had a weird sense of humor and a penchant for cool tricks.
Browsing through the archival link above (which is thankfully cluttered with all the dreamlike VHS bloops and buzzes of your subconscious), you may notice how strange this film must have been for the uninitiated. Predating Tim and Eric, Adult Swim, and our new wave of super-weird green screen comedy, the Smothers Brothers’ filmed stage routine has all the makings of an absurdist “why does this exist” masterpiece.
According to the Yo Yo Wikia, Tom Smothers received the “(I’m a) Yo-Yo Man” tune from songwriter Rick Cunha in the early 1980s, and, recalling some yo-yo tricks from his childhood, decided to add a Yo element to the Smothers Brothers stage act. By 1986, Yo-Yo Man made his debut on The Tonight Show, and the strange legend was born.
“The famous and powerful have all pursued the same goal. They have searched and searched, and searched, and searched… for the pure and supreme State of Yo!!”
The “Instructional Video” somehow doubles as a sort of alternative health narrative. Following Tom as a sad young boy searching for acceptance, the “State of Yo” is, apparently, all about transcendence. The weird, comedic story follows the lonesome Yo-Yo traveler, as he quests through claymation safety tips, spider-web sight gags, music video interludes, etc, until eventually, Tom Smothers, and we, become “Yo Masters,” in the end.
But, aside from Tom Smothers’s fascinatingly masterful skills with a yo-yo (see some his amazing tricks in the ending), the strangest thing about this tape is trying to decipher the true deceit of it all.
Clearly the Smothers Brothers, with their extremely bizarre sense of humor, are in on the joke – but just how far does this joke go, really? When Tom ascends to space and achieves Yo-Nirvana in the end, are they on the level with us? When he receives green suspenders, and gives a point of the hip and a weird smile to his voiceless bearded guru, are the Smothers Brothers spooking children intentionally, or is this just an old-fashioned looney goof, handed down from absurdist comics of their time, like early Carlin, or Steve Martin?
Or, is the Yo-Yo Man Instructional Video something much smarter than it lets on to be – perhaps this was the Smothers Brothers’ grand statement about late 80s in America, an era when transcendental meditation was infiltrating the suburbs, when tofurkey threatened the sanctity of the Thanksgiving dinner, and comedy had reached its disastrous all-time shlockiest (see Gallagher’s Sledge-O-Matic).
Whatever the case, Yo-Yo Man definitely made it easier for weird kids like me to survive the darkness of suburban America – I never found acceptance as an elementary school outcast until I brought my newfound yo-yo skills to the playground, and shared with others the blessed State of Yo.
Dominick Nero is a filmmaker and writer based out of Astoria, NY. He produces for Magnalux Pictures and has been on a satirical rampage of destruction with his recent videos – follow him on Twitter @filminick.