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.
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.
Brad Neely, perhaps best known for his hilarious “George Washington” and “JFK” music videos, has built an empire of off animatics (still images edited together with dialogue and sound effects). The creator of “Creased Comics” also invented a fictional town called China, Illinois, in which several strange characters reside, including a huge, baby-faced man named Mark “Baby” Cakes. In the series “Baby Cakes,” Neely explores the unique life and philosophy of this probably autistic, mostly gentle giant, and the results are very funny, always absurd, and even sort of profound and sad a surprising amount of the time.
The first six episodes of “Baby Cakes” find Baby Cakes transcribing his thoughts on a variety of subjects into his diary. The very first episode sets up a few recurring themes of the series, such as Baby Cakes’ belief that his father and his father’s professor friends are wizards, and his love of fantasy role-playing games. When one of his friends asks him if he’s a virgin, Baby Cakes’ reply is a perfect example of his strangely limited understanding of the world: “I said no, because I can’t give birth to a Jesus.” The episode also sets up Baby Cakes’ recurring songwriting, and some of the later episodes are entirely made of these songs.
The second episode introduces Baby Cakes’ grandfather and explores the relationship between the three generations, and demands a few repeat viewings in order to decipher the ridiculous bathroom graffiti Baby Cakes encounters in a gas station bathroom on the way to his grandfather’s house. The third episode is among the series’ very best, as it is the first one that really captures the sweet, oddly sad philosophy and worldview of Baby Cakes, a self-described “peaceful, sleepy giant making zero a year.” As Baby Cakes walks through the park, reflecting on the world around him, as he sees it, in a unique parlance all his own: “I have a big coat, with big pockets. Sometimes, kittens get in there. It’s cool with me as long as they keep their hook-socks curled.” The episode ends with a wonderful encapsulation of Baby Cakes’ views about life: “Even if my days don’t mean anything, I just hope that I die while hugging, and not while in a wine-drinking contest.”
The sixth episode expands on this strange but surprisingly insightful worldview, and just might be the very best episode of the entire series. It finds Baby Cakes digging up a time capsule he buried as a child, in which he placed his favorite thing and a note to his future self, in which he explains sex: “Sex is a people-spaghetti. Hairy pee-pees clash. They yell, ‘Yes! Yes!’ but their grody faces say, ‘Ouch!’” The rest of the episodes (the non-diary ones) are something of a mixed bag, but there are definitelyhighlights, and the whole series is only about 32 minutes long, with more brilliance scattered throughout than most full-length television series.