The first season of Freakazoid! came out on DVD at the end of July, and it's frankly better than it has any right to be. A product of the underratedly brilliant team that produced Tiny Toon Adventures and Animaniacs -- possibly the greatest half-hour animated show other than The Simpsons and South Park -- Freakazoid! was marketed as a kid's show with witty humor for adults, but really it was nothing less than a spiritual descendent of Looney Tunes, and a worthy sibling to Animaniacs.
Stylistically somewhere between the great superhero parody The Tick (the animated show, not the disappointing live-action show) and Marx Brothers-style vaudeville, it was the cartoon equivalent of an S.J. Perelman short story: almost disconcertingly absurd, completely nonsensical, but absolutely hilarious.
Like much great comedy, the show strongly evoked -- and outright stole -- from greater influences. In the commentary to the very first scene of the very first episode, Freakazoid voice (and frequent writer) Paul Rugg exclaimed joyfully, "We took this from Marty Feldman!" He then told everyone watching to go Google Feldman, an unjustly forgotten, memorably bug-eyed British comedian with a long sketch comedy career on the BBC but little in America beyond his famous performance as Eye-Gor in Young Frankenstein. He chortled with glee in a later scene when he explained another character onscreen was being voiced by Kenneth Mars, reprising his role as the German police constable in Young Frankenstein. It would be hard to think of better source material to lovingly rip off.
Moreover, a large part of Freakazoid's dual identity -- nerd Dexter Douglas, out of control superhero alter ego Freakazoid -- is an extended dual impression of Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor, both nerd and suave hep cat. The effect is magical, a hoary, twinkling Borsht Belt timeliness that informs every rapid-fire joke, every sight gag, every non-sequitur. Don't like the joke? Wait fifteen seconds.
It is, like its forbears, extremely self-referential, and gets a lot of mileage out of meta-comedy: playing with genre, playing with form, and making jokes about what they're doing while they're doing it. Since the show is a scattershot mixture of slapstick, absurdism, metahumor, references, non sequiturs, and running gags, a lot of the jokes are expected to go over the heads of the target audience. Of course, not all of them work, and a show that uses Jerry Lewis as its inspiration certainly isn't everyone's cup of tea.
The show's essential disregard for plot or storylines -- they exist, but they don't really matter, and the writers make it clear that's the point -- makes everything meta at some level or another. The jokes are mostly incidental to the plot, or, rather, the plot is mostly incidental to the jokes. As in the movie Airplane!, the hackneyed situations are really just a background for every type of wordplay and gag the writers and improvising voice actors can think of.
Comic pastiche, more or less an ironic form of parody, is a very common form of modern humor, from Looney Tunes to The Simpsons and less inspired knockoffs like Shrek, Family Guy, and Drawn Together. It's essentially a copy-and-paste act: put a bunch of recognizable objects into the same space, and laugh at the incongruity. The key, really, is love: if you truly love Marty Feldman, the care with which you paste him into a children's show -- and the degree of inspiration you use in recontextualizing him -- will show through even if the kids (understandably) have no idea who he is or what you're doing. In other words, if you build a punchline, they will come.
If you don't particularly care, you'll end up with something like Epic Movie, or Not Another Teen Movie, or An American Carol: a punchlineless revue of people in costumes dressed like people from other movies, just going through the motions in the hopes that someone in the audience will give a laugh of recognition until the next 15-second tableau. It's a thin line, but a joke with no punchline deserves no laugh.
And Freakazoid! is overflowing with punchlines. It may not influence future generations of comedians, because it wears its own influences so baldly. It almost certainly won't last as long as Looney Tunes, whose collected cartoons comprise one of the most important cultural collaborative efforts of the 20th century and arguably one of the most important bodies of work in the history of comedy. But Freakazoid! sure is funny. It deserves to be watched again, by kids and adults alike. And, if by some miracle, DVD sales spike, and Jerry Lewis finally becomes popular outside France again, that would be a small price to pay.
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