Comic Relief

I grew up on cartoons. (My mother, in fact, when asked about my devotion to the legendary Astro Boy show, noted dryly, "You thought you were Astro Boy.") But I gave up cartoons long ago, right about the time I discovered the Woodstock soundtrack and started banging away ineptly on a Sears knockoff of a Gibson SG while Jefferson Airplane's Volunteers was playing on the turntable. In the last four or five years, I've gotten hooked again. You probably are as well.It started with The Simpsons, which is certainly the most influential show of this generation -- on a par with what Monty Python's Flying Circus was to the last generation.See, anybody could recite lines from The Brady Bunch. And they did. But if you wanted to impress someone, you pulled out bits from the "Cycling in Cornwall" episode, or the episode where "Hilter" runs for office on the National Socialist ticket in a deserted corner of England. It's the same today with The Simpsons. You impress folks with your total recall of the "Bart pisses off Australia" episode, or the "Krusty Komeback" show.The Simpsons isn't merely a barometer of contemporary hip, however. It singlehandedly rescued the moribund cartoon format and pushed its borders well into uncharted territory.Sure, the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon programs and the classic Warner Bros. cartoons had sly and sophisticated takes on social trends. But there wasn't a comprehensive and relentlessly subversive vision. The Simpsons found that vision and rode it to some highly unlikely popularity.Several cartoon competitors have appeared in the wake of The Simpsons. Some -- The Critic, The Tick, and MTV's Daria -- are amusing but ultimately unsatisfying. Others -- Beavis and Butt-head, Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist, King of the Hill and the new Comedy Central offering, South Park -- have taken the freedom that The Simpsons gave the cartoon and run with it.Mike Judge's Beavis and Butt-head, which recently shut down production, is probably the most misunderstood cartoon in history, blamed for everything from fires to juvenile delinquency. But I'd maintain that Beavis and Butt-head exploited cartoons' well-known appeal to younger viewers while maintaining a high satiric standard. The video commentary by the two moronic cartoon teenagers on a couch, in particular, was one of the most subversive ongoing features on television, a brilliant way of illustrating that we often loathe the right things for the wrong reasons. It's ironic to me that Judge's tamer but no less witty cartoon King of the Hill is finally getting the critical acclaim that the truly innovative Beavis and Butt-head should have received.Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist is more subtle still, a sly assault on two of the most co-dependent trends in American culture -- single parenting and psychoanalysis. The show has undoubtedly slipped from its fast start, as more comics sit on the couch and do their acts instead of interacting with writer and cartoon shrink Jonathan Katz. But Dr. Katz captures the stammerings and fits and starts of the psyche better than any sitcom could.With South Park, the boundaries may well be pushed even further. Although Beavis and Butt-head and Dr. Katz pick up some cues from The Simpsons, neither show has exploited the manic pacing that The Simpsons excels at. South Park -- and its four boys trapped in a perpetually wintry Colorado town -- pick up The Simpsons' gauntlet of relentless pace.Comparisons have been made between Beavis and Butt-head and South Park, mostly on account of the new show's vulgarity. But the differences -- even in the use of vulgarity -- are remarkable. When Cartman (the fat kid), Kyle (the sensitive kid), Stan (the loudmouth) and Kenny (the muffled kid) employ vulgarities, it's simply to break the tension of being 8-years-old. The South Park gang is also "smart." (Precocious, even.) That's helped the show win over folks who didn't know just how to take Beavis and Butt-head.Best of all, South Park is just plain funny. A recent show in which Stan's uncle takes the gang hunting, was as fast-paced, manic and mercilessly hilarious as any episode of The Simpsons, tackling mother love, automatic weapons, lies, TV disaster coverage and the destruction of Denver (and I'm missing a few) in a dazzling half-hour that left my girlfriend and me in hysterical tears on the couch. Watch South Park. Dammit!

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