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Chaos Reigns in Netflix's New Sketch Show Aunty Donna's Big Ol' House of Fun

Comedy Reviews sketch comedy
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Chaos Reigns in Netflix's New Sketch Show <i>Aunty Donna's Big Ol' House of Fun</i>

Aunty Donna’s Big Ol’ House of Fun might look like a Pee-Wee’s Playhouse parody. It’s got bright, colorful graphics, at least one talking appliance, not one but three weird manchildren, and even a different special word in every episode. Don’t get too hung up on those similarities, though. The new sketch show from the three-man Australian troupe Aunty Donna doesn’t limit itself by focusing on any one show or genre, or even on TV as a medium. These six episodes contain some of the most abstract, absurd, wayward and unhinged comedy sketches seen in a good while—to the show’s benefit and detriment.

Big Ol’ House of Fun does have its slower, quieter moments, but for the most part it’s pitched about as high as it can get. The three stars—Zachary Ruane, Broden Kelly, and Mark Samuel Bonanno—are almost always a little manic in their performances, which can make it hard to watch more than a couple of episodes in a row. It does deepen the contrast between the typical sketch and the quieter, more sober ones, which can make the latter land even better than they might have otherwise done—especially since those more restrained sketches usually aren’t any less absurd than the rest of the show.

Absurdity is absolutely the key here. Don’t expect anything resembling sociopolitical commentary or too much in the way of cultural satire. Big Ol’ House of Fun is basically a live-action cartoon that goes out of its way to flout logic, reason, and even the laws of physics, and yet which often abides by a deeply fractured internal logic that it’s still willing to cast off whenever necessary.

Yes, this show is absolutely ridiculous. It’s also very funny at times. It’s full of ingenious sight gags, unpredictable tone shifts, and seemingly throwaway details that suddenly become the main focus of a sketch. In keeping with the best sketch tradition the show often connects these sketches and ideas together in ways that feel… well, not seamless, but at least with a clear rhythm and sense of purpose. Episodes even have a central plot that weaves through them, and although the show regularly diverges from it, widely and wildly, it still gives a bit of form to the nonsense. In a way it’s like The Young Ones, a sketch show dressed up like a sitcom, only it’s even less interested in sitcom convention or traditional storytelling than The Young Ones was. (The sitcom dressing does lead to a fantastic gag in the last episode, though, that I won’t spoil here.)

Sometimes Bonanno, Kelly and Ruane overdo the ridiculousness, or carry a joke or scene on far longer than it needs to go—and not to where it circles back around to become even funnier than before, as with the classic Simpsons rake scene. But sometimes they show supreme self-awareness, and use a too-long, deeply silly set-up as an introduction to something quieter and more human, as when a sketch starring Bonanno as an extremely cartoonish Italian stereotype turns into him quietly confiding to his mother that he doesn’t think his friends and co-stars respect his heritage. The punchline there is a bit obvious but no less funny, and it all hinges on how over-the-top the sketch is at first. It’s almost like a comedic version of “the drop” in EDM—the first part of that sketch is the long build-up, the quiet moment when Bonanno calls his mom is the drop, and then the punchline is, I don’t know, when somebody spikes your drink with ketamine.

As the latest sketch show on Netflix, Aunty Donna’s Big Ol’ House of Fun will probably garner lots of comparisons to last year’s brilliant I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson. Aunty Donna has made a very different kind of sketch comedy—louder, more cartoonish, less patient and less rewatchable—but it’s still funny. It has less in common with Robinson’s show than the freewheeling silliness of Comedy Bang-Bang, which makes sense, as one of Big Ol’ House of Fun’s producers is Bang-Bang creator and host Scott Aukerman. (Ed Helms is also a producer, and guest stars in an episode.) If you appreciate the unrepentantly absurd and the overwhelmingly silly, you’ll probably enjoy Aunty Donna’s Big Ol’ House of Fun.


Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, music, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.

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