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.”
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.
Fans of the excellent satirical newspaper The Onion should be familiar with the name Stan Kelly. A fictional editorial cartoonist whose reactionary views on current events and the way things used to be in the “good old days” (he supposedly began working for the paper in 1957) are expressed with hacky, obvious writing and a crude, simplistic drawing style. I remember when I first saw his work in the pages of “America’s Finest News Source” years ago, I totally fell for it, believing it to be a real strip The Onion had picked up to display ironically, like when they used to run Cathy Guisewite‘s “Cathy” in Spanish. Eventually, though, I realized how unlikely it was that any newspaper anywhere would seriously run strips celebrating the deaths of beloved celebrities like James Brown, for example, and that Kelly’s political cartoons were a joke from the start.
The Onion recently confirmed this all over again with the new web series “Behind the Pen,” in which “Kelly” describes his artistic process and explains the thought process behind his awful, out-of-touch jokes, as if anyone who can read would have trouble understanding his points. In the first episode, “How Marriage Works,” he explains that he’s doing it “to reach the youngsters” with his message. These hypothetical young people are illustrated by archive photographs of at-risk teens, and even one African child holding an assault rifle. He then proceeds to explain his cartoon, “Holy Matri-Money,” complete with an absurdly unnecessary explication of his “last word,” in which his self-portrait alter-ego delivers the punchline. This is a feature of all Kelly’s cartoons, and each episode correspondingly features a “Last Word” segment.
The second episode, “Collective Wisdom,” features another segment entitled “Tips for Young Artists,” in which Kelly hilariously explains the subtlety of his technique: “If you wanna show somebody’s in love with somebody, you put a little heart next to ’em.” Each subsequent episode (there are five so far, uploaded within the last two months) is better than the last, with Kelly increasingly going into angry tirades about his own family, especially his darkly comic explanation of his cartoon “Nanny State, Ninny State,” in which he skewers the Big Brother program by saying, “A kid’s heart oughta be calloused, it oughta be weathered.”
Kelly’s voice is wonderfully grizzled and mean-spirited – not unlike another brilliant Onion creation, the politician JoadCressbeckler, who now has his own segment on the Onion News Network television series on IFC – and “Behind the Pen” shows great promise in continuing to develop this fascinating character. The more unhinged and apoplectic he becomes, the funnier he is and the more his character is revealed, so hopefully the series will continue in this direction, as it already seems to be doing.
It started, as these things invariably do, with an email from a publicist.
The situation was thus: the fine folks from Harley-Davidson were looking to shine the light on the ’72 Harley, the latest and greatest model from their Dark Custom Line, with an all-expenses-paid trip to Chicago’s Wild Fire Harley-Davidson. Fair enough…except for the fact that I don’t own a motorcycle, it’s been more than ten years since I’ve ridden on a motorcycle, and, given that the ride in question – on the back of my brother-in-law’s bike – was so goddamned terrifying (he turned a corner, my feet dragged on the ground, and I was convinced that both our asses were about to hit the fucking pavement) that I’ve never thought for even so much as a moment about buying a motorcycle.
Ah, but the pitch wasn’t just about motorcycles. Indeed, the phrase used to describe the expedition was “a jam-packed day of ass-kicking and whiskey drinking.” Now, not being much of a scrapper, I can take or leave the former, but when you bring up the latter…? Sir, you have my undivided attention.
And that, my friends, is how I came to get…
Because of the designated start time on Saturday and the terribly unhelpful flight times from my home base from Norfolk (ORF) to Chicago, it was agreed that the most convenient time for me to arrive into O’Hare would actually be on Friday…and after this was agreed upon, I then begged, pleaded, and ultimately annoyed my hosts into getting me on the earliest possible flight, so as to be in Chicago for as long as possible.
Coming down the escalator, I was met by a driver holding up a card with my name on it, which is an experience that every flier should have at least once in their life. In short order, I had been deposited at the front door of The Drake Hotel, a gorgeous establishment right in the heart of the city, and – to my utter amazement – I was able to check in immediately, go right up to my room, drop off my bags, and hit the streets of Chicago.