As a parent, I’m always on the lookout for something that may warp The Baby. Not so much to shield her from harm (apart from the obvious evils), but more to spot True Weirdness that may shape her in the future.
By True Weirdness, I don’t mean someone/something that tries real hard to be weird. Some Williamsburg hipster in a handlebar mustache and a Billy Jean pleather jacket does not have True Weirdness. I’m talking about a creative expression so undiluted and genuine that the practitioner has no idea (s)he is being weird. Like some guy who lives in the middle of nowhere and who’s never been to a gallery and has no artistic ambitions at all, yet feels compelled to make sculptures out of old mufflers and crankcases.
Sadly, most kiddie fare is devoid of True Weirdness, unless you consider the preternaturally wholesome world of Barney weird. (/thrusts hand up high) SpongeBob Square Pants can get completely insane at times (in a good way), and has plenty of jokes that go way over kids’ heads. SpongeBob makes me laugh on a consistent basis, and I like that it provides steady work to Mr. Show alum Tom Kenny. Still, it’s hard to call something as popular (and lucrative) as SpongeBob Truly Weird.
There’s Yo Gabba Gabba, which is complete audio/visual crack for parents who grew up with Nintendo. And I have to applaud any kids’ show that regularly features Rahzel, Biz Markie, and Mark Mothersbaugh. But it also tries very hard to be hip. It succeeds to be sure, but this self awareness keeps it from being Truly Weird.
I have only discovered one Truly Weird kids’ show, and it is as strange as anything I’ve ever seen on television: The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack. It airs on Cartoon Network, and could totally be part of the Adult Swim lineup if it had more pottymouth. But unlike the Adult Swim shows, I don’t get the sense that it’s trying to be weird. Its simply dedicated to a bizarre mini-universe whose architect has no idea how weird his visions look to the rest of the world.
The show’s titular character is a blonde moppet who longs for adventure on the high seas. He lives in a grimy seatown known simply as The Docks. Or rather, he lives in the mouth of a motherly whale named Bubbie, along with a gruff old salt named Captain K’Nuckles (voiced by Brian Doyle Murray, in his best role since Get A Life). He wants to discover the mythical land of Candied Island. In this
universe, tough sailors lust after candy instead of booze; Captain K’Nuckles comes home from a hard day at work and unwinds with a cocktail of maple syrup, whipped cream, and marshmallow peeps.
This all sounds like silly kiddie show fare, but I assure you, this show is about eight steps beyond what you’re prepared for. Flapjack combines animation, painted sets, and stop-motion strangeness into a visually arresting style that almost defies description. It lies somewhere in the Venn intersection of Terry Gilliam’s cutouts, Dr. Seuss, Sam & Max, Wally Wood/Sam Elder-era Mad magazine, and Victorian woodcut newspaper ads.
To give you an idea of the tone Flapjack wants to achieve, the main character was originally intended to be voiced by Paul Reubens–known to most humans as Pee-Wee Herman.
Like Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, Flapjack goes for visual overload, knowing full well that most of its viewers won’t catch all the gags hiding in the background. It’s also a spiritual cousin of another completely insane kiddie classic: Ren and Stimpy. Most of the humor is visual, and comes primarily from its skewed sense of design.
I’m grateful to The Wife for alerting me to this show’s existence. She pulled me away from my desk one night and insisted, “You have to see this.” In the first episode I saw, Flapjack freaks out because he thinks he’s gone blind. Captain K’Nuckles reluctantly takes him to
the local doctor, whose office is adorned with a skeleton and a poster of an old-timey diving suit with the warning PREVENT THE BENDS. The doctor is just about to start sawing away at Flapjack when he discovers the boy isn’t blind, just blinded by his long hair. He recommends a “handsome” barber next door.
So Flapjack and K’Nuckles go next door, only to discover that the doctor and the barber are the same person; the doctor walks through a doorway between the two rooms and replaces his mirror shield with a straw boater. But what had me dying was when they enter the barbershop, there is an identical skeleton by the front door–except it has a very bad toupee resting on its skull.
I won’t attempt to describe the entire episode, but it involves a creepy barbershop quartet, classic cartoon trickery, and the dreaded “hot towel treatment”.
The show is the brainchild of Thurop van Orman (which I figured had to be a fake name; turns out it’s not, which is a thousand times more awesome). There’s precious little info out there about Mr. van Orman, except that he’s a former animator of other Cartoon Network shows you probably never saw. But the pictures that exist of this mysterious man make him look exactly what I’d expect. Which is to say, a slightly more goofy version of Les Savy Fav’s Tim Harrington.
Flapjack premiered last June, and yet there are a curious lack of fan sites, blog posts, etc. about the show, which makes me fear for its fate. It has all the makings of a future cult classic: surreal humor, unique design, singular lunatic vision, and, sadly, a almost-certainly doomed future. So watch it now, and you can lord it over those poor schmucks who won’t discover it until it’s released on DVD 15 years from now.