Weekly Web Series Review: Baby Cakes

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 definitely highlights, and the whole series is only about 32 minutes long, with more brilliance scattered throughout than most full-length television series.

  

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Weekly Web Series Review: Behind the Pen

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 Joad Cressbeckler, 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.


Behind The Pen: ‘High’ Ideals

  

Weekly Web Series Review: Smart Girls at the Party

Described by host Amy Poehler as “a celebration of real friendship, real fellowship, and a kind of community with other girls,” the web series “Smart Girls at the Party” is a kind-hearted, fun and educational program for kids and their parents alike, but especially for young girls. Often specifically focusing on girls who enjoy activities traditionally thought of as being more for boys, the series enjoyed a significant viewership boost in its first season when it introduced its youngest interviewee, seven-year-old Ruby, who speaks precociously about feminism. Its most-viewed episode to date features a 14-year-old boxer named Precela, and another highlight features a young robotics engineer named Rachel.

These are the “girls who are changing the world by being themselves,” in the words of Poehler, who hosts the show with the tongue-in-cheek seriousness of a news anchor before ending each episode with a dance party. Along with producer Meredith Walker and musical director Amy Miles, Poehler explores the special talents and interests of each girl – or in a few episodes, groups of girls – and interviews them, always ending on a “very serious question,” such as “pizza or cotton candy?” or “which is cuter, a baby panda or a baby monkey?” However, despite poking fun at self-serious interview questions, the series never makes fun of the girls or treats them or their interests with cynicism or irony. Instead, it clearly aims to imbue its young audience with a sense of self-worth and individuality, without being boring or preachy.

Now in its second season, the series has markedly improved from its first few episodes, adding a “World Famous 20 Second Song” segment for Miles and boasting higher production values. There are also some familiar faces in the dance parties that parents will enjoy spotting, including Poehler’s husband Will Arnett (who returns from the first season), as well as her “Parks and Recreation co-stars Aziz Ansari, Nick Offerman, Rashida Jones and Aubrey Plaza. Look closely and you’ll also spot folks like Jon Hamm, David Cross and Jack McBrayer in later episodes. With its own new channel on YouTube, “Smart Girls at the Party” is slicker and more fun than ever, and is highly recommended for viewing with children, especially daughters, between the ages of five and fifteen.

  

Weekly Web Series Review: Drunk History

Derek Waters’ “Drunk History” is one of the strangest, funniest, most absurd concepts in web series history. Playing on the inherent comedy of drunken incompetence and memory loss, each of the series’ six episodes takes a different comedic actor or writer, puts way too much booze in them, and then follows their muddled, profane accounts of important historical events. The episodes then cut between these slurred, rambling monologues and dramatic reenactments of the events, featuring famous actors such as Jack Black, Will Ferrell and Zooey Deschanel. The genius of these reenactments is how closely the actors follow the exact words of the inebriated nonsense that forms the basis of their script, lip-syncing the dialogue perfectly right down to the inadvertent sniffles and hiccups of the actual speaker.

The first episode features Mark Gagliardi recounting the story of Alexander Hamilton’s famous duel with Aaron Burr after drinking a bottle of Scotch. Though it is unclear how large the bottle was, it was clearly quite a bit of liquor, as he spends most of his segment reclined on a couch with a bucket nearby, just in case. Hamilton is played by a suitably innocent-looking Michael Cera in the reenactment, but the real show-stealer is Jake Johnson in a brilliantly shifty-eyed performance as the loathsome Aaron Burr. In episode 2, Eric Falconer takes on the famous story of Benjamin Franklin‘s discovery of electricity, expounding upon his theory that it was actually Franklin’s “bastard son,” William (Clark Duke), who actually flew the legendary kite with the key tied to it. This is also the series’ first instance of vomiting in the midst of the storytelling, but not its last, so be warned that the series is not for the weak-stomached. Jack Black portrays Franklin again in a special volume 2.5 episode, in which Falconer tells a hilarious tale of Franklin’s sexual deviance.

Episode 3 features Jen Kirkman‘s account of Oney Judge (Tymberlee Hill), a female slave of George Washington (Danny McBride) that is especially funny because of the way the actors incorporate Kirkman’s frequent hiccups into their performances. The fourth episode features J.D. Ryznar‘s unwise decision to drink vodka and beer together, which obviously leads to more vomiting, and his account of the U.S. president William Henry Harrison (Paul Schneider), who died after only 32 days in office. Jen Kirkman returns for episode 5, in which Don Cheadle gives a hilarious performance as Frederick Douglass; there is something especially funny about Kirkman’s slurred words coming out of this revered actor’s mouth. Finally, in episode 6, Duncan Trussell follows six beers with a half-bottle of absinthe, and more vomiting ensues. He also tells the story of Nikola Tesla (John C. Reilly) and his contentious relationship with Thomas Edison (the always intensely weird Crispin Glover).

These are the only official episodes of the series (plus a very special Christmas episode included below), so beware of the unofficial knockoffs, most of which are pretty terrible. In fact, the one I linked to there is pretty much the only one that’s watchable, and it’s still nowhere near as good as the real thing. In addition to the recognizable stars, look for Waters’ name and also that of series director Jeremy Konner to avoid being duped.

  

Weekly Web Series Review: Blue

Julia Stiles stars as the title character in “Blue,” a new web series produced by the YouTube channel Wigs, which is described as “a digital channel producing high-end, original, scripted dramatic series and short films about the lives of women.” “Blue” certainly fits this bill, as it has high, network-standard production values and explores the life of Francine, aka Blue (Stiles), a single mother who works in an office and moonlights as a prostitute. We are introduced to her in the middle of serving a client, Cooper (David Harbour), who turns out to be an old acquaintance from high school. Cooper has more than a simple professional interest in her, and there is speculation that he might be the father of her 13-year-old son, Josh (Uriah Shelton).

Josh is a precocious, A-student who is beginning to be curious about sex and who is too smart not to know that his mother is hiding something about herself from him, though he is not yet sure what. He befriends Cooper, seeming to need a father figure in his life to complement the good relationships he has with his mother and his grandmother, Jessica (Kathleen Quinlan), a sexy older woman prone to over-sharing about her love life. Meanwhile, beginning in the third episode, Blue has an oddly mentor-like relationship with her office co-worker, Lavinia (Sarah Paulson), who looks up to her, thinking Blue really has her life together. Lavinia seeks Blue’s advice about her relationship with her ex-husband, Walter (so far unseen), who seems to be using her for financial support due to his ailing health.

The series is created, written and directed by Rodrigo Garcia, who is known for his work on feature films like “Mother and Child” and last year’s “Albert Nobbs,” as well as television series such as HBO’s “The Sopranos” and “Six Feet Under,” the latter of which has a similarly soap opera feel to it. The first season runs 12 episodes, each around eight minutes long, which means the entire first season is roughly the length of a relatively short feature film, and each episode is basically a single long scene, or two shorter, connected ones. Some of these work better than others; while Blue and Josh have great chemistry and really good dialogue in the second episode, and a subplot involving Josh’s troubles at school in the tenth and eleventh episodes is especially interesting, I have to admit I have very little interest in the relationship between Blue and Lavinia. Paulson is a very good actor, but her character is sort of weak and whiny, and it remains to be seen if her subplot will garner more interest. On the other hand, the first season ends with an intriguing development involving an older man from Blue’s past, and fans of soapy drama will definitely want to tune in for new episodes once they become available.

  

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