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.