When Good Shows Happen to Bad People

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MTV2 just announced a premier date for season two (and season one on DVD) of Wonder Showzen, which was probably the best TV comedy to premier last year. Expect DVDs on March 28th, with season two premiering March 31st. (Looks like the creators will be on The Sound of Young America, too, knock on wood.)

Wonder Showzen is an angry, brilliant, borderline anarchist deconstruction of kids television (it was originally titled "Kids Show"). It's not a particularly new concept (it's a lot like Robert Smigel's "TV Funhouse"), but it's fantastically well executed. It gets at more than just the banality of kids' TV, which is a fat target; it also gets at hypocrisies, banalities, and small sadnesses in broader American life.

This segment, called "Beat Kids," visits the horse racing track, and the contrast between the sweet little kid and his mean, sad words is amazing.

Once in a while on the show, the meanness overwhelms the funny, but the hit ratio is pretty high. It's hard to maintain this kind of thing, but I think they've got a shot at it. I'm interested to see where the show goes from here, and I'm guessing it may blow up.

This post, though, is really about something broader than just Wonder Showzen. It's about good shows and bad people.

Remember when South Park first premiered? What a breath of fresh air it was. That first time you saw the show, it blew your mind.

But then it started to catch fire... and all of a sudden, when you thought South Park, you didn't think of the great, subversive humor. You thought of a-holes doing Cartman impressions. The worst parts of the show were the ones that were picked up by the mainstream, and it truly changed the meaning of the show. South Park is still going strong (financially and creatively, for the most part), but even now I can barely watch it.

Watching Dave Chappelle on Oprah, I got the feeling he ran into this same wall -- and since he's a standup, it hit him square in the face. He realized he wasn't writing his show for "us" anymore, he was now writing it for "them." In his case, of course, this has racial implications as well.

Black Studies scholars have spent a lot of time working on this idea of cultural production for "us" and cultural production for "them." I'd give you citations, but I'm at work. Chappelle's liberal use of the n-word, for example, has a very different meaning if the audience is "in" than if the audience is "out." When he stood on stage, trying to practice his art, and he heard 29 frat boys yelling "I'm Rick James, Bitch!," he flipped. For two years, he'd been writing an "us" show, and he realized in a flash it had become a "them" show. Not only might the satire (like the Black White Supremicist) be flying over the new audience's head, but the tossed off racial burlesque stuff (like say, the Mad Real World) was reaching an audience that wouldn't understand it, and could interpret it in racist ways. When he started work on the third season, he didn't know what to do about that, and he freaked.

We'll see if Wonder Showzen really does take off, and we'll see what effect it has on the show. As their audience changes, will they change? Will the new audience be there for the satire, or simply be attracted to the "outrageousness?" Does Wonder Showzen have more satire in the tank, or will they start to substitute easy shock for tough truth? Tune in March 31st, and find out.

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