Most comedy specials demand you watch someone talk, for thirty to sixty minutes, to a crowd of people having a much more enjoyable time than you are. Good specials, if you’re lucky, let you feel like the comedian is speaking directly to you as well. A great special cracks the artist’s skull into yours and mixes all the blood and grey matter into a singular psychic blob. Brian Huskey’s Mr. Neighbor’s House, which airs tomorrow on Adult Swim, is one of the greats.
A taut, slender twenty minutes, Mr. Neighbor’s House isn’t standup. Like its network peers Brett Gelman’s Dinner… and Tim and Eric’s Bedtime Stories, this is a short film with a distinctly auteur style, a slow and deranged descent from grace to madness. It’s more a riff on than a parody of its source material, the sort of sweet-natured educational children’s program defined by Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Created with Jesse Falcon and Jason Mantzoukas, and directed by Bill Benz (whose directing and editing credits include Kroll Show, Portlandia, and the phenomenally underrated Man Seeking Woman), Mr. Neighbor’s House envisions a gorgeously colorful, vividly textured children’s show, with Huskey—bespectacled, sweater-vested—as the titular host. This is no normal day for Mr. Neighbor, though. No, it’s his 36th birthday, which he’d rather style as his “31st annual fifth birthday,” for reasons involving repressed demons that slowly push their way to the surface—not only figuratively but literally, in a scene of unhinged theatricality that would give poor Mr. Rogers a heart attack. Which is sort of the point. “I definitely grew up watching Mr. Rogers,” Huskey told Paste. “It’s such a beautiful show, it’s so sincere in how gentle it is. I don’t know if it would still apply these days. There’s a different pacing to the world now.” Mr. Neighbor’s House reads in many ways as a grim eulogy for that earlier world, rosy as we may recall it. Plop Mr. Rogers in this one and it just might destroy him.
The supporting ensemble includes puppets, spirits, Nick Kroll as some kind of, I don’t know, burlap sack-type creature?, who runs a photography parlor?, and Mary Holland as Mr. Neighbor’s librarian love interest, but it’s Huskey steering the ship here. Those who recognize him best as a “That Guy” character actor (his words) might be surprised at the painful depths he plumbs as a kindly TV personality driven to dementia. (Spoiler alert). But if you’re at all acquainted with his absurder work, on the likes of Comedy Central’s Another Period and Adult Swim’s Children’s Hospital, you’ll know well that Huskey excels on the fringes of sanity. “I’m very fascinated by characters who are just keeping it together,” Huskey said, “who have that paper-thin membrane of ‘No, it’s all fine, everything’s great!’ That’s what I really enjoyed in playing Mr. Neighbor: those moments where he lost his cool in the show, or in the world he’s built in his head, and it all falls apart.” But ah, what a world it is before the collapse: The eponymous house, one of a handful of settings, is decorated with model ships and lighthouses, paintings of sea vessels and horses, evocative both of Mr. Neighbor’s backstory (everyman) and psyche (unmoored). This effect is heightened by the camera’s occasional lurch away from the set and into the darkened, hangar-like soundstage, early glimpses of the inevitable revelation that these events are a painful fusion of memory and psychosis. Huskey remarked that this darkness, deranged but not violent, has troubled a few of the special’s early viewers. “Maybe it’s disturbing to them because of things that happened in their own life, or maybe it’s that great unknown,” he said. “What things would be like if you lost it all.”
Adult Swim has long pioneered this class of comedy special, the self-contained short that, like a standup set, succinctly elucidates an artist’s or artists’ point of view. (Huskey notes that he made Mr. Neighbor’s House before the network came under public fire for its dearth of female creators, and one of its executives’ problematic comments on the matter). For my money, this genre makes for a much more exciting experience than the traditional half hour or hour of jokes jokes jokes. Not only does it open the door to a greater diversity of non-standup comedians (see: Netflix’s The Characters), but it also allows for more involved, and I think ultimately more satisfying storytelling. Mr. Neighbor’s House grew out of a weekly improv show that Huskey, Falcon and Mantzoukas perform at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in Los Angeles; that improvisational spirit is palpable in the special. “I realized early on in doing improv that we’re being given public permission to act out our most unconscious impulses,” he said. “We’re framing it so it’s funny, but ultimately, if you look at it, that was really kind of a disturbing scene. We come from a place without budgetary restrictions”—improv—“so we’ve always gone to very strange territory. It was really cool for us to be, like, okay, now we can actually illustrate it, now we can give form and color and substance to all these little layers and ideas around a weird premise.” This short film approach lends greater weight to the viewer’s inner experience of a piece, whereas even the funniest standup routine lives more in the comic’s imagination than the audience’s. “Standups are able to let you in, but I do think they’re only able to let you in so much as they decide to present,” he said. “I feel like with this kind of work, or with improv, the audience can assign other, deeper layers. It’s like seeing movie or a painting—you can make your own associations and go a little further with it.”
Formal analyses aside, of course, it all comes down to what’s best for the story and its teller. “I guess I’m just saying I’m an incredible artist,” Huskey quipped, before speaking to the anxiety inherent in sharing work so personal—if artistically rather than biographically. “There was a bit of a period where I felt self-conscious in how dark, for some people, it would be,” he said. “Because this is my sensibility, what I’ve always found fascinating and funny and just interesting. But I think for a lot of people, discovering that side of me is a little, ‘Oh, okay, wow, I didn’t know that about you.’” That sense of discomfort is important, though, especially in a world where so much comedy exists within an echo chamber of like minds. “I think a big part of any performance experience is shifting you, making you feel one way or another,” Huskey said. “There’s always that uncomfortable laughter, which I think is nice as long as you don’t feel victimized.”
Most comedians deal with this tension by making themselves the butt of life’s jokes. Mr. Neighbor’s House offers a slightly more nuanced take in its catastrophic climax, a wreck of a birthday party in which every guest is revealed to be a puppet operated by a chorus of Mr. Neighbors. It turns out we’re not just the world’s victims, but our own. It’s a warning that feels truer every day.
Mr. Neighbor’s House airs at midnight on Adult Swim. Seth Simons is Paste’s assistant comedy editor.