Believe it or not, Appellate Judge Dave Ryan is not on the take from Shout! Factory, despite his overt fawning over their products. But he is open to offers...
"Let me tell you something about women, Brendon. Women…are like men. That's it. That's all I've got."—Coach McGuirk
Home Movies is the best show you've almost certainly never seen. Abandoned and buried by UPN after five low-rated episodes, this squiggly cartoon about a grade-school filmmaker, his friends, his single mom, and his oft-drunken soccer coach was one of the first shows to be rescued under the aegis of the Cartoon Network's "Adult Swim" programming block. Cartoon Network funded production of the remaining eight episodes of the first season, and ultimately ordered three additional seasons. This second chance gave the show sufficient time to find a small, but decidedly loyal, audience. Those who made the effort to find the show discovered a true diamond in the rough—a show that captured everything good about improvisational comedy in a pseudo-sitcom format.
The good folks at Shout! Factory once again bring a quality niche-market comedy show to DVD with this comprehensive Season One package.
Facts of the Case
Brendon Small (Brendon Small) is an 8-year-old third grader who makes movies. Not just brief clips of the dog playing or random scenery, mind you—Brendon makes full-fledged Hollywood-style epics. Or at least he tries. But all he has to work with is a single video camera, and two friends: his classmate Melissa (Melissa Bardin Garsky) and 7-year-old outcast Jason (H. Jon Benjamin). Brendon, the child of a divorced mother (Paula Poundstone for episodes 1-5, Janine Ditullio thereafter), is kinda sorta a control freak on the set. His only male role model is his school soccer coach John McGuirk (Benjamin again), a single alcoholic guy who hates soccer and hates kids. But he feels some sort of odd connection to Brendon, and tries to guide him as best he can. Which isn't very well.
Home Movies, like many of its Adult Swim cohorts, is like no other show on television. It started life as a low-budget "family" show commissioned by UPN from Boston's own Tom Snyder Productions (not to be confused with the former host of Tomorrow), later renamed Soup2Nuts, which had created Comedy Central's popular Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist and ABC's virtually unwatched gem Science Court. Snyder (a former high school science teacher) and his animation house had developed a unique 2-D computer-based flat animation technique called "Squigglevision" that gave their shows a distinct visual style.
Dr. Katz producer Loren Bouchard was given the task of assembling a show—any show—to fulfill UPN's order. He discovered stand-up comedian Brendon Small, an Illinois transplant, working comedy clubs in Cambridge. Small (with some digital audio processing to increase the pitch of his voice) became the youthful protagonist of the show, and also did all of the show's music. Jon Benjamin was no stranger to Bouchard, having voiced Jonathan Katz's ne'er-do-well son Ben on Dr. Katz. He was an easy hire. Melissa Garsky was one of his co-producers, who just sort of wound up doing a voice on the show. Finally, comedienne Paula Poundstone was hired to be the voice of (and the model for) Brendon's mother Paula. An eight-minute demo reel (which eventually became the first act of the first show) was prepared. There was no script; the dialogue was completely improvised. After editing, a winnowed-down final voice track served as the basis for the subsequent animation. UPN accepted the demo, and the show was born.
It lasted five episodes.
UPN's brief experiment with animated shows was a dismal failure, and Home Movies was the lowest-rated of the bunch. It got a quick axe from the network, and so the story seemed to end.
But then a funny thing happened…Cartoon Network, apparently tired of being perceived as a network for children and children only, hatched an idea. Why don't we create a block of programming, they said, that will specifically appeal to adults? And so, the idea that would eventually become Sunday's "Adult Swim" programming block was born. One of the first things Cartoon Network did to implement the Adult Swim plan was to contact Soup2Nuts. Eventually, they agreed to finance the completion of the full first season of Home Movies, which became one of the cornerstones of Adult Swim.
And what a cornerstone it turned out to be. Smart, clever, and devastatingly funny, Home Movies is at heart a show about kids who think like adults and talk like adults, but who usually wind up acting their age. It brings you into the very realistic world of these characters, and makes you care about their little stories. There's no Simpsons-esque "Homer Goes Into Space" over-the-top farce here; Brendon and his cohorts deal with simple problems with which most people can identify: feeding the neighbor's cat, dealing with a bully, coping with divorce. And guess what? There's a tremendous amount of humor in these everyday situations, something that humorists from Erma Bombeck to Jerry Seinfeld know quite well. In the right hands, even the simplest foible becomes high comedy. This show definitely had the right hands.
The thirteen episodes of the first season are split over three discs. The first disc contains the five episodes that aired on UPN, with the Cartoon Network episodes following on discs two and three.
• "Get Away From My Mom"
• "I Don't Do Well In Parent-Teacher Conferences"
• "The Art of the Sucker Punch"
• "Brendon Gets Rabies"
• "Yoko" (formerly known as "We'll Always Have
• "Director's Cut"
• "It Was Supposed To Be Funny"
• "Method of Acting"
• "Life Through a Fisheye Lens"
• "School Nurse"
• "Mortgages and Marbles"
• "Law and Boarder"
• "Brendon's Choice"
It's sort of hard to put into words what's truly special about Home Movies. It's structured in a completely different way from the typical sitcom or animated half-hour show. Home Movies episodes follow the format in theory—a problem/issue is introduced early on, with events leading to a resolution by the end, and there's often a "B" story on the side as well. But along the way, extremely funny (and occasionally random) things just sort of…happen. The early UPN shows are often totally unpredictable; they were almost completely improvised by the actors. As the show aged, the full-improv method shifted to a more script-based format, but the show still retained that edgy, what-will-happen-next feel that the best improvisational comedy always possesses.
Credit for the show's comedic success ultimately lies with Brendon Small and Jon Benjamin, two gifted and naturally funny people. As the bonus interviews (included as extras) reveal, just leaving an open mic in their general vicinity results in the creation of something funny. (Do not skip those interviews—especially the one where poor Loren Bouchard tries to get a word in edgewise while Small and Benjamin riff off each other.) Give them a solid premise like this show, reasonably well-defined character roles, and a remarkably solid "straight girl" in Melissa Garsky, and the comedy practically creates itself.
There is one absolute don't-miss episode in this collection: "Director's Cut," the first Cartoon Network episode. It features, as mentioned in the summary above, a Tommy-like rock opera (penned and performed by Small) based on Kafka's Metamorphoses. (All of you who want to point out that Tommy is technically a song cycle, and not an opera—stop. Just stop.) That's something that's just plain funny in concept. But Small went the extra mile, and actually wrote the thing. It's a brilliant parody, echoing not only the Who, but also throwing a bit of Queen in as well. The animators manage to parody the look and feel of several well-known music videos in the course of the show—watch for the dead-on "Bohemian Rhapsody" bit. It's a damn catchy rock opera, too. (If you're curious, some of the songs from the show are available on Small's website for your listening pleasure. I also recommend the speed-metal anthem "Don't Put Marbles In Your Nose," from "Mortgages and Marbles.") This attention to detail is one of the hallmarks of the show. It just doesn't take lazy shortcuts. And seriously—that rock opera is one of the funniest things I've ever seen.
Picture and sound are good. The Squigglevision animation technique introduces its own unique video issues, which somewhat limits the maximum potential quality of the picture. The image isn't up to the standard set by the Futurama collections, but it's more than adequate for the task at hand. Colors are vibrant, and there's no bleeding—and really, those are the essentials when evaluating an animated show. Audio is the original Dolby 2.0 stereo track used for broadcast. A surround track would have been nice, but this isn't a big-budget show…
Shout! Factory has wrapped the episodes up in a more-than-respectable package of extras. I've already mentioned the four interview pieces (each is roughly half an hour long), one each with Small, Benjamin, and Bouchard, and one with the three of them together. Ten commentary tracks are also provided, some with the Bouchard/Small/Benjamin axis, others with members of the show's production staff (including some of the animators). The B/S/B commentary tracks are, like the interviews, more discrete comedy performances than informative behind-the-scenes pieces. But they're a blast to listen to, and occasionally Bouchard manages to work in an interesting fact or two. The production staff commentaries are a bit more restrained—but just a bit. They have a lot of "war stories" about making the show on its shoestring budget.
For the animation freaks among us, each disc has an animation gallery with production/design sketches (including rejected designs) from the episodes on that disc. Two episodes are presented, in their entirety, in their raw animatic form as well. This is all legitimately interesting stuff—especially seeing the rejected designs for various characters on the show.
Wrapping up the extras are two short films, one each by Small and Benjamin. Small's entry, The Thor von Clemson Advanced Fast-Hand Finger Wizard Master Class, is an inspired faux-promo for a mail-order guitar course taught by the titular Thor von Clemson (guitar wizard extraordinaire). It's so over-the-top, yet such a dead-on parody of the guitar freak subculture, that I just don't know what to say. Part of me wants to laugh out loud, but part of me wants to order the course so that I, too, may totally rock.
Benjamin submits Baby Pranks, a spoof of Punk'd. (Or it would be a spoof, except it's vastly superior in quality and entertainment value to the original. But I digress.) Instead of punking out celebrities, Benjamin (playing himself) and his crew punk out infants and toddlers. For example, they have an actor tell a two-year-old that she's her grandmother, then spring their "surprise" revelation that she's really an actor!!!! You've been pranked! It's patently absurd, surreal—and uncomfortably funny. (No children are harmed—don't worry. Most of them are, of course, utterly oblivious.)
Sadly, Home Movies appears to have run its course with the recent completion of its fourth season on Cartoon Network. But for those four seasons, it was one of the most unique and high-quality comedy half-hours on television. Its fans are devoted and vociferous in their support for the show, but the show is so subtle, intelligent, and esoteric that it was almost doomed to cult status from the get-go. Thankfully, we live in an age where the DVD format can preserve little gems like Home Movies and help it reach the people who may truly enjoy it. Throw in a bunch of solid extras and you've got Shout! Factory's latest preservation project—something that should be a part of any animated comedy fan's collection.
Not guilty. Thank you, Shout! Factory, for making us laugh about love…again. Freaks and Geeks…SCTV…Home Movies…Dammit, I'm coming over there to hug each and every one of you personally.
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