COMEDY CENTRAL'S TV FUNHOUSE: UNCENSORED
Image B Sound B Extras B-
"Western Day," "Hawaiian Day," "Christmas Day," "Mexicans Day," "Caveman Day," "Safari Day," "Astronaut Day," "Chinese New Year's Day"
DEAR PAM (1976)
*/**** Image C- Sound D+ Extras D+
starring Crystal Sync, Jennifer Jordan, John Holmes, Tony Perez
written and directed by Harold Hindgrind
by Ian Pugh Viewing it today, I realize that Robert Smigel's unfortunately short-lived Comedy Central series "TV Funhouse" probably represented a major turning point in my understanding of film and television as artforms. Its casual acquaintance with reality and fantasy was a vital link that germinated the meta seeds planted by "Freakazoid!" and Back to the Future Part II before I graduated to The Dead Pool and Tenebrae; and although the cartoons parodying celebrities are horribly dated now, they're most likely where I properly developed a sense of irony. ("Stedman," wherein Oprah's fiancé pretends to be a secret agent in order to spend her money and avoid sleeping with her, remains my most lucid memory of the show's broadcast run.) The revelation was somehow surprising yet completely logical all the same, considering how the show operates in a grey zone between two perspectives--that of a child vs. that of an adult--and questions whether the two are really that different from each other.
The premise is a fairly standard one for self-conscious "adult" properties: a children's show, populated by animal puppets that perform unspeakable acts behind closed doors. Unlike Meet the Feebles, however, "TV Funhouse" understood that the Muppets and their ilk already had a sense of absurdity--the idea of autonomous puppets putting on a show is so inherently farcical that to throw sex and dirty words into the equation is at best trite and obvious. The truth of the matter is that "TV Funhouse" in itself barely qualifies as a fake children's show, resulting in one of its most subversive conceits as the "Anipal" puppets, within moments of naïve host Doug Dale's arrival, abandon him to go on various horrifying adventures in Tijuana (1.1, "Western Day"), Atlantic City (1.6, "Safari Day"), and "The Sally Jesse Raphael Show" (1.4, "Mexicans Day").
So the next step is to take the anthropomorphism to its inevitable conclusion: puppets and live, disinterested animals cohabitate without comment, which is funny enough on its own--but what can you say about Sames Restaurant ("You eat what you are"), the popular watering hole where said animals happily cannibalize members of their own species? Find similar themes first in a parody of the animated Raid commercials (1.2, "Hawaiian Day") that presents cartoon bugs living happy, idyllic lives before they come in contact with the deadly spray, and again in a segment (1.8, "Chinese New Year's Day") in which Doug logically concludes that if the Chinese New Year occurs in February, then Chinese Lincoln's birthday must be sometime in March. It's all about understanding how we shoehorn our own cultural standards into areas where they don't belong--and, furthermore, about realizing that there are consequences to that. True that you're being given a part of the picture you've never seen before (namely that "behind closed doors" part), but that's not the point. The point is the possibility you've been misinterpreting the part that's always been right in front of your face. "TV Funhouse" doesn't parody the institutions of your childhood as much as it brings to light the fact that, back then, your perspective existed on a hopelessly infinitesimal scope--and maybe still does.
Indeed, the whole show seemingly revolves around the idea of turning your preconceived notions on their ear--and searching out ways to push that envelope even further. The series hits conceptual gold with its Christmas episode (1.3, "Christmas Day"), wherein the Anipals extract "pure Christmas cheer" from Doug's spine and snort it for a cheap high. But it approaches mad performance art as Smigel and company take their puppets out in public and assault pedestrians with loud, incoherent carolling--and, honestly, is there a better way to satirize the overmedicated sense of cheer imposed on you by the holiday season? Largely freed from the banal network expectations of "Saturday Night Live" or "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" (although he can't resist bringing Triumph the Insult Comic Dog along for the Atlantic City excursion), Smigel captured lightning in a bottle. Still, why "TV Funhouse" was cancelled with only eight episodes produced is all too self-evident and can be encapsulated by the fate of a not-particularly-ribald sketch entitled "Porn for Kids" (porn so heavily edited as to become incomprehensible)--rechristened "Porn for Everyone" after its initial broadcast because the mere suggestion of a clash between the worlds of kids and grown-ups was apparently too much for anyone to handle. If the audio commentaries are any indication, Smigel and his crew would have given anything for a second season. Me, too.
With Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights being the first movie I ever saw on the midnight circuit, Dear Pam also represents something of a milestone in my cinematic education--not only for the opportunity to finally see a film starring the man who was the model for Dirk Diggler, but to see it, too, armed with the ability to comprehend Jack Horner's struggle to create a work of art within pornographic parameters. Holmes--who bears a strangely unsettling resemblance to a young John C. McGinley--is featured here as a member of the prudish Decency and Morality League, which plans to award the title of "Moral Woman of the Year" to advice columnist Pam Slanders (Crystal Sync). In order to determine whether or not she truly deserves the prestigious honour, the League wants to know how she'll respond to a random letter from her daily pile. One Harry Phallis (Eric Edwards) seeks Pam's counsel on a rather delicate topic: it seems that, following a day of vigorous sex with a prospective secretary (C.J. Laing), his best friend's wife (Beverly Bovy), and his 14-year-old stepdaughter (Ginger Snaps), he's lost his precious fertility necklace! Should he buy a replacement, or should he listen to his wife and forget the whole thing?
It's easy enough to pinpoint Dear Pam's attempt to attack the hypocrisy of moral crusades as the Decency and Morality League sets out to prove the veracity of Harry's story, in the process succumbing to the very carnal appetites they so despise. But it is through Harry Phallis that the film criticizes an outright dearth of values: his secretary wants to marry him once he forcibly claims her virginity; his best friend's wife tells him that he's the father of her unborn child; and the film refuses to regard his encounter with his stepdaughter as anything but a matter of pedophilic rape. (His cuckolded wife, meanwhile, is never seen.) And yet the loss of metaphorical manhood is what concerns Harry, who typically mugs for the camera with an "oh well" expression when his sexual partners drop their respective bombs--thus the sleazy implications of these scenarios in relation to the very function of a porno film are just a little too obvious to be taken seriously. There is, I suppose, a subtle understanding that no one here is getting raped or underage. In that case, is Dear Pam hoping you ignore its unsavoury aspects? Yes and no.
By likening loose, malleable morality to the unspoken boundaries dividing pornographic reality and fantasy, the film is something like an examination of the Madonna/whore complex, particularly noticeable as the "actresses" waver uncomfortably between childish gullibility and amazing sexual prowess. What prevents Dear Pam from transcending straight pornography to become the social commentary it desperately wants to be is, ironically enough, its plot. As the film progresses, Phallis's fertility necklace (actually a cock ring) wraps itself around the major players' private parts during the many acts of intercourse throughout--and indeed, nobody in the film has sex without one party wearing the necklace. By transplanting the impulse of sexual desire to a pseudo-hypnotic talisman, Dear Pam lets Harry and the League off the hook, implying that they have not broken any deep-rooted taboos of their own free will. (Nor do they betray any hypocrisy to their mission statements.) With this in mind, even Dear Pam's most interesting ideas--such as two League members acting out erotic fantasies as they describe their abhorrence to them--are dashed away, leaving in their wake a generic, slimy work that can only boast Holmes's abnormally large penis as a selling point.
"Comedy Central's TV Funhouse" arrives on DVD from Paramount in a two-disc set whose slipcase packaging evokes, not coincidentally, Shout! Factory's classic-TV compilation "Hiya, Kids!!". The full-frame, video-based presentation is a little dull and grainy, though that can be said of many of Comedy Central's shows from the era; the accompanying DD 2.0 stereo audio is acceptable, if a tad underwhelming. Commentary from Smigel, Dale, and co-creator Dino Stamatopoulos appends all eight episodes, with writer Andy Breckman joining the fray for "Safari Day." Their excessively reminiscent anecdotes and long peals of laughter serve to remind that seven years have passed since the show went off the air; there is much discussion about which animals and guest stars died in the interim. Be that as it may, there's a lot to learn about clearing material for copyright/legal reasons and other post-production concerns--and Dale maintains the silly faux-naïveté that made him so charming onscreen. (We also learn that he was apparently up for a spot on "Saturday Night Live" in 1985 but got beaten out by Jon Lovitz.)
Conceived for Internet broadcast, "Video Commentary" (7 mins.) finds some of the puppets making smartass remarks during the editing of "Chinese New Year's Day"; it's more or less the kind of goofing off you'd expect to encounter in a gag reel. The "Outtakes" (7 mins.) proper are less outtakes than straightforward, behind-the-scenes looks at the filming of specific shots (primarily concerning the particulars of revealing a turtle's penis and dumping fake semen onto a lizard puppet) that spotlight Smigel's perfectionism--the target of many jokes in the audio commentaries. "Behind the Scenes: Killing Bob Hope/Horse Cock" (5 mins.) is a bit more obvious to that end, showing the filming of additional shots with the crew in plain view. Previews for "Drawn Together: Season Two", "Little Bush, Resident of the United States: Season One", and "The Upright Citizens Brigade: The Complete Second Season" cue up upon insertion of the first disc.
Over on Disc Two, "Extra Triumph Appearances" excerpt the titular Insult Comic Dog's turns on "The Comedy Central Roast of Rob Reiner" and "The Daily Show"'s less politically-inclined days (was Jon Stewart ever really that young?) while more or less confirming that Triumph has never been all that funny. Finally, "What We Know, Part 2" is a "lost sketch" starring Bob Odenkirk's bizarrely vague Discovery Channel host (the Arc de Triomphe "towers between one inch and three hundred million feet tall"), who scrapes for extra money by parlaying his globetrotting skills into drug trafficking. A menu of "Comedy Central Quickies" for "The Colbert Report" ("Breasts"), "The Sarah Silverman Program." ("Date with God"), and "South Park" ("Leprechaun") finishes off the platter. Note that while the DVDs are completely uncensored--"Porn for Kids" is back to its unaltered form--"Christmas Day" runs a few minutes shorter than the average episode because a mock instalment of the old "Harlem Globetrotters" cartoon that initially aired on "Saturday Night Live" was inserted into the broadcast version as filler.
Dear Pam is available on the first disc of After Hours Cinema's two-disc "John Holmes Collection", an entry in "42nd Street Pete's Signature Performer Series." Although he comes across as creepy and unpleasant in the "8mm Madness" trailers that comprise the "Previews" section, 42nd Street Pete is much more analytical and ingratiating in an introduction of the film proper. He offers a brief biographical rundown of its star that manages to be fairly even-handed despite his assurance that Holmes--who continued to work in porn despite his HIV diagnosis--was a total douche. Pete claims that the film itself was transferred straight from the reel cans upon languishing in obscurity for years, and I have no reason to disbelieve him: the 1.78:1, 16x9-enhanced image is blurry and scratched-up (occasionally beyond recognition), while the DD 2.0 mono soundtrack is consistently plagued by a high-pitched whine. Previews for Sylvia, "Busty Superstars of the 1970s: 8mm Madness Part 7", and "The Grindhouse Occult Collection" (a double-bill featuring The Sins of Reverend Star and Night of Submission) begin on startup.
Disc Two of the Collection includes ten of Holmes's 8mm porno loops (which apparently became his bread and butter), each of which is introduced by Pete. Precisely as straightforward as their titles ("Rough Stuff and Two Blondes," "John's Orgy"), they've been preserved about as well as Dear Pam--which is to say they look like they were discovered in a dingy attic--and are furnished with a whirring-projector noise to better recreate the conditions under which one originally viewed them. Trailers for "The Early Films of John Holmes", "Sex on 42nd Street", "Grindhouse Trash", "Grindhouse Trash 2", "Sex Starlets of the 1970s", "The Grindhouse Occult Collection", "The Grindhouse Hostage Collection", "The Grindhouse Honeymoon Collection", "The Sex on Wheels Collection", "The Diary of a Nymph Collection", "Skin in the Sixties", and Chic 69'--in other words, a shitload of pornography--cap things off. Originally published: August 20, 2008.