GREG THE BUNNY
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"Welcome to Sweetknuckle Junction," "Sock Like Me," "Dottie Heat," "SK-2.0," "Piddler on the Roof," "Rabbit Redux," "Father & Son Reunion," "Jimmy Drives Gil Crazy," "Greg Gets Puppish," "Surprise!," "The Jewel Heist," "The Singing Mailman," "Blah Bawls"
CRANK YANKERS - UNCENSORED: SEASON ONE
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by Walter Chaw What is it about puppets, exactly, that makes them the preferred avatars for children as they navigate the murky straits between childhood and adulthood? I'd hazard that there's a simplifying element to them, some sort of leavening of the peculiarities of human expression so that emotions aren't so subtle, so fraught with the landmines of nuance and subtlety. They're great teaching tools, the perfect bearer of allegory--hence the Japanese, with their tradition of sophisticated puppet theatre, have distilled it (as they have animation) into an adult medium. But in the western world, puppets are so embedded in our puerile, formative experiences (from "Sesame Street" to "Bear in the Big Blue House") that when they're subverted (as in Team America, for instance), there's something particularly naughty about it--above and beyond, perhaps, the specific offense. Alas, it can only hold its illicit thrill until the novelty and surprise of it wears off.
Spun off from a series of shorts produced first for public access, then for IFC, the truncated Fox sitcom "Greg the Bunny" takes place in a Who Framed Roger Rabbit universe where people interact with puppets. Although the felted ones are portrayed as second-class citizens struggling against racism (specism?), every opportunity to address actual race issues is rendered moot by the show's diehard dedication to being as inoffensive as possible in the early going--a nuts-grab to attract the "straight" audience of adults tuning in to see a stuffed rabbit get a job on a failing children's program populated by a cast of foul-mouthed puppet misfits, I guess. (This despite that an entire episode of the thirteen produced deals directly with a racial epithet ("sock" serving as the "N-word" substitute) scrawled on a men's room wall.) How "Greg the Bunny" fails to shock as well as to, for the most part, entertain, is more the pity, as there are moments here and again (a hilarious cameo by Corey Feldman that picks the Michael Jackson and Corey Haim scabs mercilessly) pointing to how good the show could have been had the creators the "Family Guy" moxie to stand up for their principles. The show was cancelled anyway, after all--may as well have it cancelled on its own terms.
The closest the series ever gets to the edge its creator Dan Milano professes to have desired in his numerous DVD commentaries is in the stray contemporary comment and the suggestion that people are actually having sex with the puppets, which is, after all, pretty close to reality for a lot of folks as it is. The rest of it is the standard backstage conceit of everything from "Just Shoot Me!" to "Frasier", where crusty misfits and earthbound angels populate the workplace of a mass media venture. Greg himself (voiced by Milano) is a little brown bunny conceived as something of a child-like Jerry Lewis carbon but promptly "aged" by studio wags to tone down the weirdness of his flirtation with human co-star Dottie (Dina Waters). Greg lives with slacker Jimmy (professional slacker Seth Green), whose father Gil (Eugene Levy) is the show-runner of "Sweetknuckle Junction", and as all the stars align in the pilot episode, Greg is accidentally hired on by Gil and new network boss Alison (Sarah Silverman) to replace the star of their floundering program. The usual hijinks ensue as Greg has stage fright and fights with his co-stars Count Blah (Drew Massey), pretentious thespian monkey Warren Demontague (Milano, again), and Vietnam-addled human Jack (Bob Gunton)--who, as the series wears on, is turned into a transvestite because, ha ha, all NRA members are gay. Get it?
To that end, there's almost a visceral bump between the shows on the first disc and those on the second; perhaps the low ratings incited the guardians at the Fox gate to loosen the leash and let "Greg the Bunny" get a little weird. In the latter half of the season, Jimmy stumbles upon a sex video shot by the monkey and an off-camera prostitute; puppet porn mags are discovered in the back seat of a car; Dottie gets extorted with a video of her performing a striptease to an MC Hammer tune ("And then, at the end, I touch it," she says tearfully); and Marilu Henner catches puppet fever and acts on it. Still, when held up against the puppet-based instalments of American contemporary "TV Funhouse", "Greg the Bunny" looks extraordinarily tame: a network situation comedy with a twist that isn't ultimately very twisty once you're a couple of episodes in. The biggest squandering of potential, though, is the mishandling of the notoriously foul-mouthed Sarah Silverman (who loses a few points, it must be said, for dating ogre Jimmy Kimmel), transforming her into a prototypical businesswoman bitch archetype while not doing any favours to the other women on the show, either. Were "Greg the Bunny" genuinely subversive, you could see this gender pigeonholing as satirical--but it's not subversive, thus on top of its vanilla crimes, it's misogynistic, too.
No charges of taste apply to Silverman's next puppet endeavour, "Crank Yankers". She's among the many voices (including Adam Corolla, Ray Romano sound-alike Jim Florentine, Kimmel, Tracy Morgan, Wanda Sykes, Drew Massey again, and so on) engaged in crank-calling unsuspecting businesses and then playing the tapes over puppets acting out both sides of the conversation. There's funny stuff in here (my favourite probably Wanda Sykes--whom I normally detest--calling a garage to complain that a turd the size of a 2x4 was left in the back of her recently-serviced vehicle) and a guiltily hilarious bit about an Asian rap aficionado ("Me no wigger, me chigger!") calling to test the street cred of a hapless record store clerk. Other stuff, though, like "Special Ed" (Florentine), who calls travel agencies and computer help lines to scream the same line over and over, just comes off as mean-spirited, interminable, and really not funny.
The interesting thing about "Crank Yankers", though, is just how congenial the majority of the victims are during the oftentimes compelling calls (as a blind stripper threatens to close down a strip club because it doesn't want her seeing eye dog in the act, the proprietor maintains a near-Buddhist serenity)--the only jerks here are the comedians going out of their way to make someone's difficult day that much more difficult. In truth, what we know from watching the entire ten-episode run of "Crank Yankers"' first season is that working in any kind of service industry essentially prepares you for almost any kind of outlandish, perverse, ignorant interaction imaginable between two people. (Inspiring and depressing at once to know this kind of perseverance is possible.) Occasionally, "Crank Yankers" will end with a musical performance in puppet form by, say, Jack Black's Tenacious D in the puppet altogether (a cameo not nearly as impressive as "Greg the Bunny" scoring Gary Oldman (in an episode helmed by Curtis Hanson to boot))--which doesn't make any sense in regards to the mission of the show but, hell, who am I to disdain the open display of puppet genitalia?
"Greg the Bunny" arrives on DVD in a swing-tray keepcase courtesy Fox, the brain trust that neutered it, put it to sleep, and now aims to squeeze a few bucks out of its negligence by releasing the series "Uncut. Uncensored. Unrelenting." If only. I fear that the damage has already been done contrary to the inclusion of five deleted scenes (totalling 15 mins.) on Disc 1 that, almost to a one, are marginally more interesting than what actually made the cut. Milano paints himself as a sycophant even now that the corpse of his show has cooled in an optional commentary for these elisions, furnishing the censors with excuses for watering down his creation along the lines of "Yeah, but Greg didn't look as good as we wanted him to look yet," and, "I guess that homeless guy was sort of creepy." This section contains a brief introduction from Greg that is completely disposable, though I was interested to learn that you can't say "Jesus" in vain on broadcast TV.
"The Humans Behind the Fabricated Americans" (32 mins.) reveals that Dan Milano looks a lot like Josh Kornbluth as he discusses the sway that Kermit the Frog had on his development. Interview segments with the puppets are predictably irritating and cut together with talking-heads from Milano and Massey and others of the crew covering the influence of the Jerky Boys (another link to "Crank Yankers") on the original public access show that spawned Greg. Some clips from said show and the IFC interstitials ferry the docu into the actual making of the "Greg the Bunny" television show; kudos here for a little, if ultimately too little, discussion of Fox buying the product for its innovative hook only to transform it into something unrecognizably safe. As the piece closes, there's a shot of what appears to be Greg screwing the housecat in the shower that makes me wish basic cable had picked up this series instead.
Continuing, it warrants mention that the video transfer in 1.33:1 full frame is vibrant, befitting a television show minted this decade on HD, and the Dolby Surround mixes yield neither more nor less than what you would expect from a dialogue-driven comedy. "Puppet Auditions" (6 mins.) is just that, the audition of various puppeteers, captured like screen tests ("like" nothing, they're screen tests for puppets) for our bemusement. Here, too, we discover the origins of the series' running joke of various "Sesame Street" puppets being manic-depressive assholes and that Bert and Ernie are actually straight. "Conceptual Artwork" is basically a 21-image still gallery of sketches of puppets, while clicking "left" from "Puppet Auditions" on the "Special Features" page delivers an Easter Egg outtake of Warren's stage play possessed of a certain Buster Keaton mentality and deadpan double-take that proves more infectiously hilarious than any other single moment from the series proper. Consider that the real peril of a show like this is in demonstrating what happens when actual flawed, foul beings are entrusted with the status of instant-allegory for a nation of impressionable emotional children--and that a scene where a revamped version of "Sweetknuckle Junction" causes seizures is not the same if we don't get to see the little brats writhing around, frothing at the mouth. One's a tired joke--the other's an assault on our complacency.
An episode-length commentary track accompanying the premier, "Welcome to Sweetknuckle Junction", features Milano, production designer Jim Dultz, music supervisor Howard Paar, and prop master Brad Elliott. Milano tells the usual tales about the difficulties of having a hand puppet in a sink full of water while Paar, speaking in an inscrutable accent, insists on calling the musical compositions "creations" and remains strangely evasive on the topic of who actually composed--I mean, created--the theme song. Not that it matters. Thirty minutes isn't a lot of time to go into any specifics, I was thinking to myself, before realizing that there wasn't really anything they could tell me (Eugene Levy likes new glasses for every role and they're expensive, for instance) that I would be interested in knowing.
"Sock Like Me" (episode 2) features commentary from Milano, Seth Green, Bob Gunton, and puppeteers Massey, Victor Yerrid, and James Murray. One real shortcoming of the "Puppet Auditions" segment is the lack of auditions from puppeteers who didn't get the job. See, that would have intrigued, as, presumably, people watching the special features just spent 13 episodes becoming familiar with the styles of the folks the show did hire. Milano lets slip that the original concept of this episode--a racial epithet appears on a wall--was scaled back because they thought that the conflict between human Bob and the rest of the puppets was too intense. Once revealed, however, it's never commented-upon again, which tells me that the cast is the most cowardly and obsequious in recent memory--or that Fox had final approval on the supplementary material. Either way, compromised or yellow, any discussion of controversy is put aside in favour of plot regurgitation and horsing around.
"Piddler on the Roof," where Warren pisses in Alison's convertible, also gets the commentary treatment from Milano, joined this time by Green, Sarah Silverman, Dina Waters, Massey, Yerrid, and Murray. Finding out that this episode was directed by the Curtis Hanson sort of kicked me in the nards for no other reason than it's out of far left field; that Hanson went way over budget and schedule because of his inability to reconfigure his process for the wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am TV ethic is an amusing anecdote. Silverman is fun, pointing out continuity errors, complaining that her character was smoothed out to unrecognizability, and cajoling out the confession that the "real" show happened between takes. Ergo, this is the most honest yak-track despite everyone else's best intentions--bless that Silverman and her lack of discretion. The last episode on the first disc, "Rabbit Redux," brings Milano together with director/editor Brent Carpenter, writer Bill Freiberger, and Murray. Without Silverman, the now-worn stories--aging Greg, meek battles with the network--and patting one another on the back for their yeoman's work fill the empty spaces with metaphorical empty spaces. It's only interesting to watch a shipwreck for a couple of hours before it's just a boat going under. Think De Niro's career.
The second platter is another bonanza of supplementary material (even the menus are narrated with new banter). One deleted scene (from "Surprise") and one extended scene (from "The Singing Mailman") are viewable with optional Milano commentary. Bucking popular wisdom, I'd recommend going without--it's too depressing listening to Milano half-complain about being forced to nip/tuck before conceding the field. "Surprise" has the turtle puppet confessing to schtupping a coat and "The Singing Mailman" shows that "Hooter" was originally "Beaver." Clicking left at "Surprise" opens another Easter egg, this one a weird outtake that doesn't make sense to me out of context. "IFC: The Greg the Bunny Show - Reality" (7 mins.) is an IFC interstitial with Greg on the streets of New York interacting with New Yorkers. It's funny--you can see the potential in the conceit before it was beaten into a cookie cutter.
"Tardy Delivery" (9 mins.) is an additional early skit--apparently exclusive to the disc--starring the retarded turtle puppet in a mock behind-the-scenes dramedy that was intended as the first of several mock-docs but, of course, there's only the one. It's essentially what you think it is, shot after the first six episodes (which were completed in a block) and before the second seven (thus accounting for the tonal shift in the series midway)--but because the idea of a retarded turtle is sort of hilarious, it works well. Commentary by Massey and Yerrid is nothing special--chronology, basically. In the short you do get to see, the turtle's fingers are clearly crossed in honour of Leonardo DiCaprio's What's Eating Gilbert Grape? character.
"Behind the Scenes Stills" and "Storyboards - 'Jimmy Drives Gil Crazy'" are stills galleries--as is at least a portion of the "Publicity Gallery." Therein lies, too, each of Fox's six promos, which are only about as funny as cobbled-together promos ever are. Put together, they clock at around two minutes. That the spots proudly proclaim that "This is a puppet show on FOX" is particularly loathsome given that we now know what the network does to their potentially controversial properties. ("The Simpsons", despite or because of its success, is the most censored series in the history of television.)
Still with me? (Why?) The first of two episode commentaries on Disc 2 comes attached to "Jimmy Drives Gil Crazy" (the one with Corey Feldman's classic cameo (two characters ask "What'd I say?" when Feldman corrects that he's not Haim)); it features Greg the Bunny, Green, Gunton, Warren the Ape, Count Blah, Tardy the Turtle, Rochester Rabbit, and Susan the Monster, as well as a few other in-character riffs that drive me absolutely batshit. I don't like it when the Coen Brothers do it, I don't like it when Richard Kelly does it, and I sure as hell don't like it when these idiots do it. Belying the volume of participants, there's a lot of silence--which can be, as they say, bliss. It's a total waste of time until Feldman surfaces and they start riffing on the many terrible movies in which the child thesp has appeared. I gotta reiterate that there's an amazing amount of silence on this track--probably a good thing that almost none of this series was improvised. A yakker for "The Singing Mailman" teams Milano, Green, Silverman, Waters, Massey, Yerrid, and Murray for another session saved by sour-talking Silverman. Michael McDonald (of "MadTV") is referred to in glowing terms and, indeed, he's a great sketch comic, while Silverman, bless her heart, talks about how executives hire people to do things they can't do in order to tell them they can't do it. It's a long way to say that suits are idiots and Fox suits are super-idiots. I was personally surprised to hear that the show was taped in widescreen but never aired in its original aspect ratio--a pity that we don't get to see it in its original form on DVD, either.
"Crank Yankers", on the other end of the spectrum, really only has a single special feature: "Dial T for Torment: A Mini Documentary" (26 mins.). Midget jokes from Kimmel and Corolla--can you imagine? And then there's the rest of it, as Corolla, Kimmel, et al describe the process of creating "Crank Yankers" thusly: "We knew we needed puppets, we knew we needed a place for them to live..." So, essentially, it's a bunch of drunken idiots earning money by staying drunken idiots: the American dream. Revelations that a handful of the characters are based on friends and members of the family doesn't exactly set the world on fire, and neither does the one about how "Crank Yankers" is mostly improvised. Pretending this stuff is science for a half-hour is the biggest crank of all. Two "Unaired Calls" (4 mins. and 3 mins.) are the usual suspects: one is a call placed to a funeral home regarding a casket for a horse, rendered funnier by the caller's demand that the victim speak extremely slowly to facilitate a hearing problem; the other sees Silverman phoning a record store in the guise of a Jewish folk singer seeking an outlet for her bountiful wares. It's not complicated, but it is, at least, courageous enough and, for what it's worth, humane enough to merit a looksee. More than I can say, frankly, for the hopelessly compromised "Greg the Bunny". Originally published: February 5, 2005.