It is time once again to return to the twisted, hilarious and wildly original world of Brad Neely‘s “China Illinois,” home of the Professor Brothers and Baby Cakes. This time, let’s take a look at the four-part miniseries named after the fictional town, which brings the characters from those other two series together for one continuous storyline, a first for Neely which in turn spawned a full-length, actually animated series on Adult Swim.
“China Illinois” begins with gentle giant Mark “Baby” Cakes in his usual mode, telling stories to his diary in his customarily idiosyncratic way. “Dear diary,” he says, “today me and Dad tried to clean our insides out, with plant hairs, tree ejaculates, and leafy-weafs.” “Tree ejaculates” are, of course, Baby Cakes’ unique way of saying “fruit,” just one of many phrases this character has coined that should obviously become part of the standard English lexicon immediately, for the sake of a more interesting future. When the unsatisfying meal is done, Baby Cakes comes upon “a lonely little pursey, with a pink diary hanging out,” completely failing to notice the bloody car accident adjacent to the lost purse.
The plot thickens when it is revealed that the owner of the purse was a professor at the local community college Baby Cakes attends, and that she was in an unhappy relationship with the self-absorbed Professor Frank, who romantically proclaimed to her, “You’ll never want to be anything more than the thing I am in.” Like his forbidden romance with his Dad’s girlfriend in “Baby Cakes Diary #4,” Baby Cakes becomes furious with Frank’s poor treatment of his newfound beloved, only to ultimately reconcile his feelings in a typically strange way by the end of the series.
Both Baby Cakes and Professor Frank are prone to expressing themselves through song, which, along with Baby Cakes’ poetic wordplay, brings an odd poignancy to an otherwise silly and very funny series. It’s surprising that an animatic cartoon that refers to Helen Keller as “history’s most famous little caca-faced animal kid” can strike deeper chords about the meaning of life, but that is a special ability Neely shares with fellow crude animation genius Don Hertzfeldt, and it is what makes “China Illinois” such an enduring creation.
Much like public access talk shows, nature programs on the likes of PBS and TLC are fertile ground for parody, as evidenced by the popularity of “The Crazy Nastyass Honey Badger.” The Onion‘s web series, “Horrifying Planet,” takes it even further by employing a distinguished-sounding, British narrator (though I suspect the British accent may be fake) similar to the ones actually used in real nature programs. The twist is that “Horrifying Planet” is filled not with the reverence for nature usually found in the real programs it spoofs, but rather a bitter, scornful disdain for nearly every aspect of the natural world.
According to the narrator of “Horrifying Planet,” zebras are “Nature’s Ultimate Prey,” evolved over the course of millennia to be the perfect victims of brutal murder. “With no purpose other than to feed monsters,” the narrator richly intones, “the zebra spends its entire life standing around, awaiting a violent death.” Meanwhile, the American robin is posited as nature’s “Perfect Murder Machine,” which seems silly until the point is made that “worms are capable of regeneration, so robins could satiate themselves on fractions of individual worms, and leave the rest. But it does not. Unequivocal evidence of the robin’s bloodlust.” Not given quite the credit that either robins or zebras get, chimpanzees are described as “Still Dumber Than the Dumbest Human,” in perhaps the series’ funniest episode. Asserting the superiority of humanity over the lowly chimp, the narrator says, “Indeed, not only are humans capable of wiping out chimps with inventions like bulldozers and dynamite, they have even developed a system of ethics that justifies it.”
The narrator’s smooth delivery falters when he is forced to discuss the vile spider, in an episode that is little more than an amalgam of audible cringing, and the tone of the series itself makes an abrupt shift in episode 6, which blends the usual nature show parody with that of an infomercial. With all the incessant negativity of “Horrifying Planet,” one would assume an episode entitled “Deer Are Fine” might be lightening up a bit, but in fact, “fine” in this context merely means “mediocre,” with the narrator advising the more unique relatives of the common deer to “Scale it back, buddy. You’re just going to end up dead like the rest of us, on our horrifying planet.”
There may have never been a more self-explanatory title for a web series than Jerry Seinfeld‘s latest project, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” The format is simplicity itself: for each episode, Seinfeld picks a different car, picks up a different comedian friend, and they go and get coffee and, often, a meal. Throughout the drive and the meal, they talk about various things, all improvised and frequently very funny. The main charm of the series, though, is watching the comedians make each other laugh. At best, it is almost like actually hanging out with a couple of very talented people for a little while. At worst, it is rather lazy and inconsequential, and Seinfeld sometimes seems to be exaggerating his reactions to the jokes told by his guests.
The series begins with Seinfeld’s most obvious guest, Larry David, with whom he co-created one of the most successful sitcoms of all time, “Seinfeld.” There seems to be some effort on Seinfeld’s part to pick a car that reflects his guest’s personality, as in this first episode, in which he chooses a 1952 VW bug as a symbol of David’s humble, unassuming nature. David, along with his other dietary idiosyncrasies, slightly messes up the premise right off the bat by ordering tea, but he offers one of the series more interesting insights. Discussing the difference between cigars and cigarettes, he suggests that a cigar imbues the smoker with an air of wisdom because of the time it takes to smoke, which lends itself to a “contemplative” posture.
Another very intelligent guest is “Mystery Science Theater 3000” creator Joel Hodgson in episode 5, who offers some interesting insights about nostalgia and economics. On the former, he says that the reason people love to look back at the past is that “You know what you’re going to say … you know what to say about the past, and you don’t know what to say about the future.” When Seinfeld brings up the mysterious economics of a restaurant, Hodgson offers a musical analogy: “The guy who sells the guitars makes the money, and not the guy in the band … How many guitars have you bought over the years … I’ve bought … six, and I don’t play the guitar.”
One of the series’ most enjoyable episodes is the third, in which Seinfeld’s guest is the great stand-up comic Brian Regan. The reason it works so well is that their conversation throughout feels like a joke-writing session, as if the two comedians are co-writing a sitcom or a stand-up set, often finishing each other’s sentences and collectively brainstorming jokes on each topic that comes up. Another especially good one features Alec Baldwin, whose overall attitude toward Seinfeld is playfully hostile, though he shows great humility when he credits the cast and writers of “30 Rock” for teaching him how to be funny. His story of a Rip Torn bar fight is not be missed, and this is where “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” excels: it presents very funny, interesting people just being naturally funny and interesting.
If you’re like us, you want to take your music everywhere you go but sometimes, that’s easier said than done. The market is littered with all sorts of Bluetooth speakers these days, but portability, durability and sound quality are all very hit or miss. Of course, headphones are the easiest solution but not always the safest, depending on your activity and surroundings, and besides, how can you share tunes with your friends if you have headphones crammed into your ears? Don’t be selfish.
The all new Turtle Shell boom box looks like an optimal solution, the first Bluetooth-powered speaker to offer a built-in threaded tripod mount that will allow you to mount the speaker to almost anything for instant on-the-go music. You can also use the optional Turtle Claw all-purpose clamp for even more mounting options, or just attach a carabiner to the steel loop under the Turtle Shell. Check out the video above for more ideas. The durable speaker meets IP5X standards, so don’t worry about dust, grime and water, the rechargeable lithium-ion battery offers up to 10 hours of playback, and it even comes with a built-in microphone so you can use it as a speakerphone.
We haven’t had a chance to test out the Turtle Shell yet, but as soon as we have one in hand, we’ll be sure to post our review. In the meantime, you can be one of the first to own a Turtle Shell if you help fund the project by pledging via Kickstarter, and in return, the guys at Outdoor Tech are offering lots of cool gear as a thank you.
Want to read more about the Turtle Shell? Check out this review from CNET following the Turtle Shell’s debut in January at CES.
It is time now to return to the bizarre, frequently hilarious and occasionally disturbing fictional universe of China, Illinois, where Brad Neely‘s “The Professor Brothers” hold sway as the arbiters of knowledge and coolness. Steve and Frank Smith are brothers who both teach at a local community college whose mascot is a panda bear. Steve is the more laid back and presumably younger of the two, and his bald, sunglass-adorned appearance is vaguely reminiscent of Elton John. Frank, also mostly bald but bearded, is a connoisseur of drunken blackout experiences, as documented in the very funny two-part episode, “FliffNight.”
Together, the Professor Brothers reign supreme in their shared office at the college, surrounded by books with titles like “Owl Sex” and “Man Cave.” They sometimes join forces for songs like the wonderfully catchy “Prisoner Christmas,” or to essentially prank some poor, unsuspecting student, as in “The T.A. Interview,” but more often than not, it is Prof. Steve who pranks Prof. Frank. In “The Substitute,” for example, Prof. Frank hands his history class over to Prof. Steve (it is never made clear what Prof. Steve actually teaches), who proceeds to make up an extremely strange and offensive lecture that he then blames on Prof. Steve’s notes, which he ignores in favor of a comic book. In “The Late Date,” Prof. Steve actually joins forces with the college’s dean for the ultimate prank on Prof. Frank, whose day has already been going very poorly.
Unlike Prof. Steve, Prof. Frank does sometimes get around to teaching some history, though it is primarily of the irreverent biblical kind, like his lecture on Sodom (“named after sodomy”) and Gomorrah (“which was named after an even weirder move”) in “Bible History #1.” He also recounts the life of “Jesus F**king Christ,” of whom he says, “I know that Jesus is pretty played, but just like feces, he was very real, and some point you have to talk about it.” According to Prof. Frank, Jesus was betrayed by a conspiracy of his disciples in order to sell more copies of his teachings; they then blamed it all on Judas, “who was planning on killing himself anyway.”
The foul-mouthed, slang-inventing Professor Brothers are perhaps not as fascinating as his earlier creation, “Baby Cakes,” but their songs and misadventures make a very funny addition to the China, Illinois, universe. Baby Cakes can be seen in the audience of some of Prof. Frank’s lectures, and he even gets some insightful dialogue in “Future Thoughts”: “When the aliens come, they will be so great in so many different ways, that everything we ever thought was cool will then make us ashamed.” Get ready for a “so much cooler” future, everybody, because according to the Professor Brothers, the government has been lying to us all along.