Absurdist Humor and the Art of Public Access Lampooning

Absurdist Humor and the Art of Public Access Lampooning

Before we get started, I present to you an oddity that was brought to my classmates and I during our Master’s program at SCAD.

What you’ve just seen, if you stood to watch all 4:45 seconds of it, was a clip from an infamously peculiar public access television show entitled Beyond Vaudeville. Hosted by Frank Hope and premiering in 1986, the show ran for 10 years before it was picked up by MTV in 1997. Under the moniker of Oddville, USA, the show was eventually cancelled after 66 episodes. While watching, viewers would be privy to off-kilter jokes, awkward interviews with the city’s most enthusiastically idiosyncratic characters and a bevy of freedom to do with whatever they wanted.

Public access television began in the late 1960s when studios were leased with the intention of opening up cable space for community use. The idea that people would have to pay to use these spaces was opposed, and this then led to various legal mandates that allowed municipalities to either accept or deny public access to some of their smaller, low frequency channels. While most cities have a channel devoted to educational or political use, certain markets will allow private individuals or entities to produce content as they see fit (so long as it fits with either that community’s standards or those of the FCC). This is where Beyond Vaudeville came into being, and shows like it preambled absurdist comedy settings that became commonplace on offerings such as Adult Swim, a late night subset of the Cartoon Network.

I’m a fan of absurdist comedy. I love the wild rantings of semi-psychotic actors who, often times, give in to their own demons to produce something that’s original and disturbingly refreshing. For me, absurdist humor defines the loudest person in the room with the biggest imagination in their head. They don’t approach comedy safely or generically, but rather bash their heads into the wall with defiance of social norms or expectations. They don’t care what you think, and it’s that devil-may-care attitude that makes this type of comedy so special to me. It’s not about ratings, but about making you laugh in the most uncomfortable of ways.

Beyond Vaudeville is most definitely parody. Let’s not forget that for a moment. It shows love for the quirkiness of its guests and the oddness that can define portions of New York. But there’s a lo-fi aspect to public access that is often the butt of many jokes. Often times, the people who hosted these shows had no discernible skills of presentation or social interaction, and the poor technology that assisted their production only added to the awkwardness. But I’ll be damned in saying it’s not admirable for trying, and for nothing else, they just gave the rest of us something honest to lovingly lampoon.

That’s what I find endearing about two of Adult Swim’s creepiest and abnormal offerings. The first is the John C. Reilly-headed Check It Out with Dr. Steve Brule. Here’s an introduction for one of his many shows.

Scratching your head yet? That’s okay. Dr. Steve Brule is one of the most delightfully odd characters to grace television screens since the shenanigans of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim’s Awesome Show, Great Job!. In fact, that’s where Dr. Brule was originated and the comedy duo helped develop and produce the aforementioned show. In each episode, Dr. Brule explores a new topic, from relationships to food, in the most bizarre ways. Here’s a clip where Dr. Brule visits a restaurant in search of “specials that are out of the ordinary.”

What’s funny here is not just the fact that Dr. Brule carries a weirdness about himself, but that the producers completely tap into the poor live editing skills of many public access shows. From the awkwardly timed title cards to the numerous camera angles that Dr. Brule can’t quite connect with, it’s all in good humor and out of love for the unintentional fodder that public access television feeds us. While Check It Out has it’s overtly aggressive moments (some of which are downright disgusting), a more current offering further plays upon the talk show aspect of these productions.

The Eric Andre Show premiered in May of last year and is currently airing its second season. Self-proclaimed by its host as the equivalent of “mixing poop and pee”, here’s an example of what viewers can expect at the top of each episode.

I’m sure there’s some theoretical explanation as for why Andre destroys his set at the start of each show, but I think it’s just him being overtly destructive in the most hysterical of ways. If you watched that segment and asked yourself “why?”, then the humor is working. It’s not catering to the mainstream or even wanting to be liked. It just wants to be odd and for you to be moved. Here’s another example of Andre’s (with recurring co-host Hannibal Burress) aggressive humor.

There are other clips I’d love to post here, but for the sake of the more sensitive people around you, I’ll suggest you do some more digging on your own. What Andre does is unique because he finds every opportunity to mix the deadpan with the outrageous. With Steve Brule, there’s a slight explanation for his madness. For Andre, you just get the impression of a man who is overcome with his inner darkness and that this form of dialogue is the only thing keeping him from homicidal actions. Trust me. This type of darkness is not foreign to comedy.

Regardless of what you may think of the humor or the public access roots that gave birth to it, it’s a wholly unique and immersive experience. It’s an assault on the senses, and for what it’s worth, I’d rather be  fully engaged or not at all.