Viva, Viva!

The initial promo ads for Comedy Central's Viva Variety should have warned viewers about the show's penchant for rampant oddity.The show's three "hosts" -- Meredith Laupin (Thomas Lennon), Agatha Laupin (Kerri Kenney) and Johnny Blue Jeans (Michael Ian Black) -- were greeted by a reporter (played by VV writer Ben Garant) as they embarked on a mission to bring "one of Europe's most succesful variety shows" to the United States. The ads were weird, more than slightly surreal, and yet almost believable -- just what you'd expect from four cast members from the acclaimed MTV comedy series The State.The viewers hooked in by those offbeat ads were treated to one of the more wittily written comedy series ever to grace American television -- a knowing lampoon of kitsch (both European and American) with sexy dancers (the Swimsuit Squad), cool music and odd stunts thrown in."You know it's a great job," says Thomas Lennon, "when Run DMC are on one side, and someone's throwing spears on the other side, and the dancers are warming up." The comedy on Viva Variety -- which turned out to be the first in three fabulous new shows (with odd game show Win Ben Stein's Money and the deliciously malicious South Park) debuted by Comedy Central in the past few months -- seems to thrive in the circus atmosphere.On what other show could you find Star Trek notable Walter Koenig (who played Chekhov) involved in a skit called "Chekhov Play Chekhov," a Russian drama that magically sprouts Klingons? Where else can a studio-audience member play a quiz game titled "French or Gay?" When's the last time Saturday Night Live did something as inventive as tell the story of Oedipus Rex in trucker lingo? And can anyone resist "live" pitches for sponsor products like "Fishibar," "Baby Tastes Like Soup" "Baby Quotes Castro," or a Mace that's lovingly called "Not Tonight, Not Ever?"Lennon and Garant sat down at Comedy Central's Manhattan offices with the RFT just as the new season -- which debuted Tuesday, Dec. 9, on Comedy Central -- was preparing to go into production. (Lennon, Garant and I also went to huge video arcade in Times Square to play a staggeringly difficult auto-racing game and have a beer, but that's another story.)"It's the best job ever," says Lennon of Viva Variety. "We hang with dancers and freaks and musicians."Asked how close the Viva Variety that made it to Comedy Central was to the cast's original conception, Lennon offers a glimpse inside just how a show makes it to TV these days."It was pretty close to our original concept," Lennon says. "But we did a pilot that was really different. The pilot was goofball, closer to Pee-Wee's Playhouse. Then we decided to go more Dean Martin Show."Garant chimes in: "It took us the first three or four shows to figure out the voices of the characters, then it really fell into place. It became easier to write."Viva Variety actually grew out of a sketch that Lennon wrote. "Mine and Kerri's roles, we'd always had in mind," he says. "They were in the original. Ben played a character called the Secretary General. The show used to have a villain."That conflict eventually shook out to a more subtle conflict between cultures, embodied by a new character -- "Johnny Blue Jeans" -- who obsesses over the minutiae of late-'70s and early-'80s culture and revels in his role as a more-than-incompetent sidekick."We knew we wanted somebody out of sync," Lennon explains. "We talked about it a lot."Garant adds, "We thought about what these characters would do to make the show American.' What would Europeans do? Blue Jeans.'"Black's combination of broad physical comedy and staggeringly hip idiocy (think John Travolta's turn as Vinnie Barbarino in Welcome Back, Kotter) as Johnny Blue Jeans is one of the show's most appealing elements. Few actors would so brazenly, for instance, work with animals for laughs, as Black does in last season's "Monkey Sports" spots, in which he double-dates with a chimp and, eventually, takes on pro-wrestling duo Harlem Heat and actually steals the show from the monkey.Lennon also notes that Johnny Blue Jeans, as a character, "is the way for us to get everything that we love into the show from the early '80s." (Seeing Fred "Rerun" Berry and Dick Clark yuck it up with Black is a particularly wicked laugh sensation.)The relationship between Lennon's Mr. Laupin and Kerri Kenny's Agatha, however, is the linchpin of the show's humor. The characters were once married but are now divorced; Agatha's boundless contempt and hatred of Meredith and Laupin's slow, agonized burns as yet another verbal missile hits make for a hilarious parody of shameless celebrity couples.Why host together despite the hate? "In their divorce settlement," Lennon explains, "they each got one-half of the show. If they quit, they lose their rights to the show."And," Lennon chuckles, "he really does love (Agatha)." In one show, for instance, Laupin turns down a chance to run off with Eartha "Catwoman" Kitt to stay with the show.Garant teases the new season by observing, "I think you'll learn a lot more about the characters this time."The hints thus far, including one blisteringly funny bit in which Meredith and Laupin hawk a "greatest moments" video that depicts Agatha in a '80s Europop band playing a terrible song called "Android Love Affair," Meredith in a '70s "manic cocaine energy" period, and a clip of the episode when Viva Variety was taken over by the Symbionese Liberation Army, promise much in this regard. "We want to do a show," says Lennon, "where we take off' for a week and show a classic' episode, a show where there's a Ravi Shankar dude instead of Johnny Blue Jeans, and the set has throw pillows, and (Meredith and Agatha) are still married."As Comedy Central's championing (and blazing success) with South Park proves, the network isn't afraid to let its shows rip when it comes to the unholy trinity of sex, drugs and rock & roll, Lennon observes that Comedy Central is a great place to have a show like Viva Variety."I think we have a lot more freedom here," Lennon says, "than we did with The State (at MTV). At MTV, the censorship department was really strong because of kids watching. No drug jokes, for one. We were always under scrutiny."Lennon and Garant agree, however, that more freedom for Viva Variety in the content department doesn't mean they're angling for the lowbrow. In fact, they're happier out of State than in State."There were 11 voices at all times," Garant explains. "It was difficult to argue. Someone would make a fart joke, and you would argue about it for five hours."Lennon jumps in. "There were two camps (at The State)," he observes. "Yeah," agrees Garant. "The fart camp and the not-fart camp." One imagines that the guests (Kitt, Ben Stiller, Janeane Garofalo, Carmen Electra), the various variety acts (including stunt archers, a woman who blew herself up with dynamite, and expert regurgitator Stevie Starr), and the musical guests (ranging from King Chango and Cibo Matto to Kerri Kenney's band CakeLike) would be hard-pressed to make sense of the show. But Lennon and Garant concur that "everybody was great," with one notable exception."Everyone was great except the guy who swallowed stuff (Stevie Starr)," says Garant. Starr's act included his regurgitation of keys and a billiard ball, accompanied with annoying campy flourish and stomach-turning sound effects."He was a psycho," Lennon adds. "I have no problem saying that." More than wonderful, and anything but psycho, are the often-overlooked (and often-looked-over) Swimsuit Squad, who seemed to play a larger and larger role in the show as the season progressed. The squad -- fitted in skimpy costumes that Laupin referred to in one show as "yards and yards of fabric" that were "choking" them -- will be back in force, according to Lennon."We may even enlarge the Swimsuit Squad," he jokes. "They're definitely not going anywhere."

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