Thursday, July 31, 2008

That's en-ter-taaaaaain-ment!

I've been recently captivated by DVDs of an animated series called The Venture Brothers. The fact that it's been out for two years tells you just how "Now" I am. Anyway, if you ever ill-spent your childhood Saturdays watching Johnny Quest and appreciate just how hokey it was, I have a hunch you'll find the Ventures pretty funny.

There's a great essay by David Foster Wallace called "Some Remarks on Kafka's Funniness From Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed" that hints at some of what I love about this show.

First of all, you've got to be the kind of person that thinks the title of that essay is a little funny all by itself. Then, you've got to be the sort that thinks Kafka's writing is also funny. If you're American, you probably qualify this by saying "Kafka is funny, but in an unfunny Frenchish way." And only to your friends when you think the DHS isn't listening.

Of course, you also have to be the sort of person who can seriously discuss an animated sit-com featured on Adult Swim by the light of Kafka and David Foster Wallace.

Anyway, the hint is as follows:
It's not that students don't "get" Kafka's humor but that we've taught them to see humor as something you get--the same way we've taught them that a self is something you just have. No wonder they cannot appreciate the really central Kafka joke: that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home.
So, if you're the sort who finds that very premise "funny" in a (duh) Kafkaesque way, then you'll really appreciate The Venture Bros.

Or you'll just think it's kind of funny.

As everyone knows and Wallace points out, there is no quicker way to kill a joke than to explain what makes it funny. So I'll just give you the premise:

Dr. Venture (pictured above) is a "super-scientist" in the Saturday morning mode. But he's a failure: the no-account son of a truly great super-scientist. Venture has two sons, Dean and Hank, both stupid and caught in a post-50's mindset. It's not entirely their fault, we discover, as they're actually clones -- the "blanks" for which Venture keeps locked up for use as the boys get killed. Which they frequently do.

Venture also has a bodyguard named Brock Sampson, an agent assigned to him from the "Office of Secret Intelligence" to protect the Venture family from the enemies of Venture's father. Sampson is especially hilarious in the second season -- I think the writers caught on to the fact that they had a great foil. He's the only one who seems aware that he's caught up in a very stupid farce. His lines become a kind of exhausted, eye-rolling recitation of the obvious -- which everyone else is missing. Very ably voiced by Patrick Warburton's lugubrious monotone.

Central to the story is Venture's wanna-be nemesis: The Monarch. As in butterfly. He directs his henchmen -- another hilarious side story is the existential dilemma of "henching" -- against Venture for no reason other than he's determined to be someone's nemesis and has picked Venture (with whom he went to college). The Monarch is ever in peril of having his heart broken by Doctor Girlfriend (pictured), a smoking hot (and actually competent) Jackie-O look-like with a disturbingly deep voice.

The show is peopled with all kinds of villains and other wannabe's, mostly farcical representations of Saturday-morning staples, but including a cameo by an Uncle Duke/HST doppelganger. As an example of what I find funny:

The Monarch has been imprisoned and his henchmen cast to the winds. We catch up with Henchmen #21 and #24 (the only ones with names, sort of) at a support group: "Men Before Henchmen." They can't kick the henching habit, and 21 unintentionally subverts the group by encouraging another sad-sack to keep hope alive: his master might not, in fact, have been sucked into a jet-engine.

If you think that's funny, rent the vids. As Zissou says, "If not, then yes."


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