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.
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.
Few things are more ripe for satire than reality television, especially of the competitive variety seen on shows like “Survivor” and “The Bachelor,” and The Onion has boiled the format down to its essence with the web series “Sex House.” Combining the strangers living together format of MTV’s “The Real World,” on which all subsequent reality TV shows can be blamed, with the competitive dating games of so many other trash TV staples, “Sex House” skewers the artificiality and coercion involved in creating so-called “reality” programming.
The series focuses on six strangers brought together in the seemingly posh house for the sole purpose of having sex with one another. Each of them is a conveniently pegged type: Jay (Boyd Harris) is described as a “bro,” a “trim-seeker” and a “sex lover,” and his personality would not be out of place on “Jersey Shore”; Jay’s obvious female counterpart, Tara (Ashley Lobo), is a “sorority princess,” “proud skank” and “maneater”; Erin (Fiona Robert), an 18-year-old virgin, is “naive,” “clueless” “jailbait,” while Alex (Lea Pascal) is an “alt-punk” “polysexual princess”; Derek (Chris Boykin) is the show’s only gay guy, so he is described as a “sexually promiscuous” “flamboyant fireball,” but the show’s real wild card is Frank (Jesse Dabson), a 45-year-old “big daddy” who won a Tombstone pizza contest to get on the show.
The first few episodes progress as might be expected, with the desperate Alex trying to have sex with anyone and everyone, while Jay admits that “Tara’s pretty slutty, I get it,” though he is more interested in deflowering Erin, who is “totally smokin’. I’m like, ‘I’m tryin’ to have sex with that!’” The gang plays a disastrous game of “Sexy Truth or Sexy Dare” and receives pole dancing instructions in the third episode, “Get on That Pole!” Meanwhile, the males are given some “bro lessons” by Danny Vullmer (Chris Meister), a hacky comedian who makes dated references to Urkel, En Vogue and Roseanne Barr. Things get more and more disturbing after that, as “Erin Bares It All” in the fourth episode with a shocking announcement that changes everything, and the show’s participants begin to revolt against its creators, including the “asexual” and very creepy host (Chris Agos).
In its most recent episodes, “Sex House” has gradually become more like a horror film, which only makes it funnier, beginning with the disgusting “Banana Sex Olympics” in episode 5 and continuing with “Dr. Sex” in episode 6. By the most recent episode, “Sex in a Bottle,” things are looking decidedly grim for the malnourished prisoners of Sex House, and the preview for episode 8 (which goes live today) makes it clear that it’s only going to get worse. New episodes go live every Thursday on The Onion’s YouTube channel.
The Upright Citizens Brigadetheater, nationally renowned as one of the absolute best resources for improv and sketch comedy in the country, presented a couple of its best troupes last night in New York City’s East River Park, as part of the annual SummerStage festival. Showcasing two distinctly different collectives with a brief intermission, the show was a great example of how good improvisational theater can be when carried out by skilled performers adept at thinking on their feet. It was a unique treat to be in attendance, especially since this particular show will, by definition, never be seen again.
The first troupe, known as The Pox, followed the format of UCB’s celebrated “ASSSSCAT!” show, featuring a monologist telling a personal anecdote based on an audience suggestion, followed by a series of improvisational sketches based on that monologue. Their skits revolved heavily around the experience of out-of-towners visiting New York, such as a scene in which a tourist is robbed at gunpoint in Central Park, then decides that video of the robbery would be a great souvenir of his visit and begins directing the robber while his friends film it. Another highlight was a sketch in which a teacher ruins the joy of swearing for her twelve-year-old students by telling them that Shakespeare coined many of the English language’s best curse words. One of their best ideas, however, was the last scene of the first set, in which a man gives god credit for everything from work promotions to his wife’s pregnancy (“No, I think I knocked god up … or god knocked himself up”), then likewise shifts the blame for a car accident in which he is at fault onto the almighty.
The second troupe, Sandino, was even better, weaving their sketches seamlessly together into a bizarre, alternate-world scenario until, by the end, they felt less like random sketches than cohesive scenes in a play. Using a shouted audience suggestion, “P90X” (which further research tells me is some sort of workout program for which I am undoubtedly too lazy), Sandino improvised a dystopian tale of a world in which robots are programmed for only three functions – rage, sex and boredom – and people have jobs like drunkenly dancing nude in glass towers. Though the set begins with two of the performers working out, the phrase “P90X” ended up referring to a prisoner who has become a problem for his captors, one of whom suggests that the solution is to let him loose in Detroit and see who survives, him or the city of Detroit. This is all part of an evolutionary experiment he feels is vital to the human race, and later this same character reappears to serve an arsenic-laced dinner to a friend, for the same reason. “It’s not a lethal dosage,” he insists. “It’s just going to hurt real bad.”
It’s truly amazing how well Sandino incorporated elements of all their sketches into one large narrative, to the point that the final revelation that prisoner P90X is actually Virgin Group mogul Richard Branson (who designed the boredom robot in order to gain perspective on his overly exciting life) made perfect sense. This is a tremendously talented group of performers, and while I feel privileged to have attended their only performance of this specific material, I certainly hope a video recording is made available in the near future.
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.