When someone hears the title TV Funhouse they probably first go to Saturday Night Live and The Ambiguously Gay Duo, a cartoon Batman and Robin parody that hypothesizes the relationship between the two heroes is more than just friendship. What many aren’t aware of is that the comedic short starring Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert actually originated on the short-lived Dana Carvey Show. Writer Robert Smigel, best known for being the handler of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, is credited with coming up with The Ambiguously Gay Duo, one of the few hits churned out by the Dana Carvey Show. When that show was cancelled, as it was a comically bad fit for network ABC, Smigel went back to writing for SNL and he took his cartoon with him where it would air under the TV Funhouse banner.
Comedy Central, seeing how popular the segment was on SNL, brought Smigel onboard to create his own show for their network. It’s not surprising that he decided to call the show TV Funhouse, as that was his most successful brand (next to Triumph, I suppose). The show would need to find a new vehicle for presenting Smigel’s cartoons though as he didn’t want to just air a block of cartoon shorts. Instead, TV Funhouse ended up being a mix of live-action with puppets with some room for animated segments. The show was hosted by Doug (Doug Dale) who was basically the straight man of the show. He was unfailingly optimistic and just plain nice as the show strived for a children’s programming feel. It was basically Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, but with a grounded host and a target audience of teenage stoners. Playing off of Doug was an assortment of puppet animals, several of which were voiced by Smigel himself. Actual barnyard animals were brought in on occasion as well and there was a reoccurring segment in which Smigel and his team would bring the puppets out onto the streets of New York at night just to riff on random pedestrians.
The show was not much of a hit, as it only lasted for 8 episodes. It was a bit tough to produce given the inclusion of live animals which necessitate different requirements on-set. The show frequently went over budget as well, and though the network professed faith in it, it doesn’t sound like many were all that interested in keeping it going since Smigel also described shooting the show as “tedious.” During its brief run though, it did manage to land on Christmas. Every episode of the show had a theme and was titled “Blank” Day. “Christmas Day” made for a pretty easy concept to adopt and certainly fit the mood of a children’s show. It was a subject ripe for parody.
The episode begins with the following disclaimer: The following program contains lambs, and puppet lambs in mature situations. Viewer discretion is advised. Well that sounds like a winner to me! The opening credits are all animated and make the show seem like an earnest attempt at a kid’s show to someone not paying attention. Looking closer and it’s more cynical as the kid’s parents are yanking him out of bed and forcing him to watch “the last cartoon show of the day,” as the song informs, which includes animals that defecate. It’s quite a catchy song though. We’re then shown our host Doug as he rises from bed and takes to the streets of New York where he selects a box with the episode title on it. It’s all live video, but with Doug posing like he’s in a still photograph and pedestrians have to move around him or walk into him. He dawns a festive elf costume, and our episode is underway.
Doug prances around the studio in his costume singing a jolly Christmas song. It’s mostly nonsense words, but he pauses to deadpan a line about Christ being born, before resuming. He greets his co-stars, the AniPals, but finds their spirit a bit lacking. A puppet dog, Fogey (Smigel), tells him to shut up, while a rooster, Chickie (Dino Stamatopoulis) says “Bah, hum-cunt!” when Doug expresses his excitement for the holiday. Doug corrects the rooster by telling him it’s “Bah, humbug,” and that it’s a saying from the Christmas episode of Bewitched. He says it in a very sincere manner, as this is the type of humor the show aims for. Doug then explains he’s full of Christmas cheer, and the puppets decide they need some of that shit too. Doug makes the mistake of telling them that Christmas cheer is a feeling you just feel running up your spine, giving the puppets the idea to utilize a spinal tap to extract Christmas cheer from Doug then sell it for a tidy sum.
We cut to Doug laying on his stomach with his shirt off while a doctor dog puppet (Smigel) informs him the needle he’s about to jab into his spine is going to hurt a whole lot. When one of the dogs asks Doug if it does, he confirms it does indeed hurt, but through a smile. He’s pretty happy to be sharing his Christmas cheer with others as he watches it flow through some tubes. He asks the dog doctor if it’s okay for him to go caroling in an hour and the doctor replies with “I wouldn’t because I would be paralyzed.” Doug can’t feel his legs, but he continues to smile as the animals decide to head back to Chickie’s house to figure out a way to ingest this Christmas cheer, which gives Doug a chance to introduce the first cartoon of the episode.
The short is titled Christmas With Tingles and it tells the story of Tingles, the Christmas Tension. He’s basically an elf and the short resembles a Rankin/Bass stop-motion cartoon, though it’s actually a parody of “Hardrock, Coco, and Joe.” The concept is that Tingles is responsible for all of that holiday tension that comes around each year. He’s responsible for poorly timed bills and dad’s sexual frustrations, among other things. It’s told with a song punctuated with a nasally Smigel singing “I’m Tingles the Christmas Tension.” It ends with a reminder that Tingles will return next year, but must make way for Moples the Day After Christmas Depression. It’s a bit dark, but it’s also pretty funny. The only bad thing about the short is it might be the funniest part of the special and it takes place during the first five minutes.
Chickie and the gang arrive back at the coop only to find a grumpy Mrs. Chickie who just finished wrapping all of the Christmas presents. He tells his wife they need the help of their kid who likes science and she tells him they can find him in his room. This sets off a series of gags in which the gang peek into a room only to find it’s the wrong one. One chick likes wrestling, one likes astronauts, another likes The Simpsons, and someone seems to object to another chick liking Metallica (possibly Napster related given the era). When one of the other puppets asks Chickie how many chicks he has, he confirms 186 and that they’re all boys.
At the studio, Doug is dragging himself across the floor by his arms since his legs are still numb. He’s been decorating the Christmas tree, but since he can’t stand only the bottom of the tree has anything on it. He’s still happy though as he goes into “Oh, Christmas Tree” while laying at the base of it with the syringe still sticking out of his back.
After a commercial break, Doug is unwrapping presents while continuing to sing carols and urges the puppet dog Xabu (Smigel) to join in. Xabu is a dog obsessed with chasing his own tail and can rarely focus on anything but that. Doug keeps singing and Xabu reluctantly joins in before quickly abandoning the song out of fears his tail is getting away. Doug just laughs and introduces more holiday, Christmas, stuff.
The next segment is a live-action one titled “Places to Look for Your Christmas Presents.” It begins benignly with kids finding Christmas presents in places suggested by a narrator like a closet or drawer. It then gets weird by having the kids look in the oven or under their grandfather’s hat, then gets dark by pointing them towards a gun case, then absurd by suggesting they’re hidden in bread or behind a wall. It was a promising concept, but ultimately this one just doesn’t land as it fails to find a true climax.
After that is concluded, we rejoin the puppets as they seek out Chickie’s son who likes science. We first have to endure a few more rooms that aren’t the right one before the group finally finds the chick they’re looking for. Chickie goes in and demands his kid stop working on his science project and help them synthesize their Christmas cheer. The chick first turns it into a powder that the animals happily snort. When they complain it’s not doing anything, the young chick suggests free-basing. He gets set on fire, which the other puppets choose to ignore, as the stuff is prepared over a burner. The resulting smoke created by the burning cheer is enough to get the animals both high and excited as they run off to see if it’s snowing leaving the chick behind to be consumed by flames.
This brings about a musical montage of the puppets out and about. They make a snowman and mob pedestrians with Christmas carols all to “Hazy Shade of Winter” by The Bangles. The AniPals continue to enjoy their Christmas cheer and even try sharing it with a real, live, reindeer. Most of the people they harass are good sports and just stand there and smile. One guy tries to talk about Jesus or something and gets shot down. Their mostly cooperative nature doesn’t make for great comedy.
We’re then taken to a Christmas party. The puppets are joined by many live animals and we even get a nice shot of a sheep’s ass as it drops a deuce. Hank the lobster puppet (Tommy Blacha) is shown chatting it up with a sheep puppet, who I think is named Larry (David Juskow). He’s happy to be there and compliments Hank on the drugs. Chickie, after watching the live sheep poop, decides to cover his tiny, rooster, penis with some powdered cheer and appears ready to bang the sheep. Larry objects because they’re running out of stuff and starts sucking it off of Chickie’s member. You don’t really see anything as it’s just two puppets slamming together, but Chickie sure sounds like he’s enjoying it. The other puppets realize they need to score some more cheer and take off.
Doug is shown still on the floor as he wishes a “Feliz Navidad” to all of the Latino viewers. Xabu is shown with an adorable little santa hat and one has also been placed on his tail. He needs Doug to keep it down as he’s trying to lull his tail into a false sense of security by watching It’s a Wonderful Life and eating rum balls. Doug is optimistic about his foot twitching as he hangs ornaments on the side of his hospital gurney. He announces his leg just went numb again, with a smile, as the AniPals have returned to take more cheer from his spine. Satisfied with what they were able to get, they take off and leave Doug on the floor once again.
It’s the next morning, and all of the puppets are hung over while the live sheep “throws up” in a toilet, angering Larry because he’s too loud. He then finds out from Jeffrey, the duck (Doug Dale), that it’s 10 AM which reminds him he’s late to play Santa at Macy’s. We’re then shown Larry, dressed up as Santa, seated in the store as he urges himself not to freak out. A kitten then climbs onto his lap as Larry does indeed freak out. He sees the kitten as grass and starts eating it. The kitten, which is an actual live kitten, predictably wanders off of the puppet’s lap.
We’re back to Doug, who has affixed some mistletoe to his silly elf hat and is batting at it like a cat. Doug is hoping this will get him a Christmas kiss to go along with some spine sympathy. Xabu then pops up, still looking festive, and tells Doug to shut up. He saunters under the mistletoe and it’s clear his plan is to get his tail to kiss him. When the tail moves out of the way, he calls it a scumbag and makes a bunch of threats while Doug shrugs and informs us of “another one.”
This one is “The Harlem Globetrotters First Christmas.” I believe this is recycled from SNL, but anyways, ever see those Globetrotters Hanna-Barbera appearances? This is essentially a parody of those. The Globetrotters decide to use their magic bus to go back in time to their first Christmas, which is THE first Christmas. They come upon Mary and Joseph in search of a place to have their kid and the Globetrotters turn it into a basketball game for the only available room. Loser sleeps in the manger. It’s actually played really straight with a gratuitous laugh track, until the baby Jesus takes over and starts dunking on everyone. The Globetrotters, being unbeatable and all, still manage to beat Jesus, his dad, and the three wise men in a game of basketball, but let them have the room instead. Back in the present, they reflect on their trip to the past. When Curly opens up a bible, he finds it’s been changed as the Globetrotters have essentially replaced Jesus. It even ends with a shot of the Globetrotter pope. It’s not very funny, but it at least finds a way to end on an absurd note.
We’re back at the house with the AniPals as Hank tries to have sex with a cat. Jeffrey then realizes he’s supposed to be seeing his kid’s recital at church and asks Fogey for help getting there. The turtle puppet informs the gang he’s taking the pipes to get there and flushes himself down the toilet. We then see the show as a bunch of adorable baby ducks waddle around a puppet one. Jeffrey, Mr. Whiskers, Hank, Fogey, and Chickie arrive with Jeffrey blurting out “That’s my kid – he’s the fucking star!” Fogey cautions him to keep it down as not everyone in the church is on cheer as the gang finds a pew to sit on. Jeffrey’s son is playing Jesus in his play and Jeffrey just starts yelling out to him how he shouldn’t do it because it will all end bad. This causes some smoke to appear before him and a duck Ghost of Christmas Past appears as the turtle is rocketed out of a toilet and onto Jeffrey.
The ghost is a bit confused by the turtle’s method of arrival, but then proceeds. Jeffrey expects to be shown a past Christmas, but instead it turns out the ghost is here to show future, bearded, Jeffrey this Christmas. He mostly just rambles about the beard he’ll have in the future, while future Jeffrey (who is a real duck) just stands and quacks. The AniPals then realize they need to get off the drugs, but Jeffrey questions where they’ll find the strength. Suddenly, a light shines on the stage pointing them to the answer – an egg! With tears in their eyes, the AniPals realize the meaning of the season as “Silent Night” plays in the background.
Back at the studio, house, or whatever – Doug is back on his feet with the aid of candy cane crutches. They soon buckle under his weight and he falls back onto the gurney. He licks one crutch before remarking, “I’m candy-capped.” The AniPals then burst in to “Silent Night” ready to spread Christmas cheer to their pal Doug. They admonish him for looking at Christmas as just a time for candy and licking and such. They testify, and Doug begins to wiggle his feet a bit and Jesus gets all of the credit. The AniPals sing us into the credits ending this one with faux-sincerity.
TV Funhouse is one of those shows you either find funny or you don’t. Most of the humor is either satirical, farcical, or dark. Some of the jokes are supposed to be so bad they’re good, but then some are just bad. I’m mostly fine with this level of humor, my only issue is that some of the segments just don’t land. This show might be better served as a 10 minute production or something. And once you’ve seen a puppet mime sex with one animal, you’ve seen ’em all. I do find Doug charming and Xabu is rather cute. Maybe my biggest laugh was simply when Xabu called his tail a scumbag, simply because I wasn’t expecting it. Smigel’s delivery is just so good too.
When the live animals are onscreen I can certainly get a sense as to why Smigel called the production tedious. They just let the animals wander and it’s obvious they’re being coaxed with food or scents. They certainly help give the show a distinct look, and definitely add to the chaotic nature of a bunch of puppets on a bender, but I don’t know if it’s worth the effort. The idea to convert Christmas cheer into a drug seems like it’s there for shock value, but also feels like a really easy joke. Not much humor arises from it until the final payoff of the goofy ghost duck which is a manifestation of the AniPals tripping. Tingles ends up being the real star, and if you want to experience something from this show this Christmas, maybe just look that bit up on YouTube.
If you need the full TV Funhouse experience though, you’ll probably have to turn to home video. Comedy Central released the entire series, a mere 8 episodes, on DVD awhile back. It’s not terribly expensive and the good news is the show is uncut so you get to hear all of the curse words that the network bleeped out. I don’t think Comedy Central ever rebroadcasts this show, so that’s pretty much your only, legal, way to see it.