I like sports, and I like comedy. Drilling deeper on those two subjects, I’m one of those weird Americans who actually loves the Tour de France (seriously—I’ve written about it. Twice.), and I’m one of those comedy weirdos who loved Seven Days in Hell, the 2015 HBO sports mockumentary from the team of Andy Samberg, writer Murray Miller, and director Jake Szymanski (I wrote about that too). So, ask yourself—when HBO accidentally combined two of my favorite things in Tour de Pharmacy, the mockumentary that aired this past weekend about the fictional 1982 Tour de France, what were the chances that I’d have anything but lavish praise for the entire production?
That is, I don’t have anything but lavish praise for the entire production. If you’d prefer to read a more sober piece of criticism, I’m sure there’s somebody out there who can tell you which parts failed some objective test of comedy, or something. Go read that, if you want. You piece of shit.
Sorry, too harsh. Look, one of my regrets as a comedy fan is that even within the wider landscape of television and film that we’re blessed with in 2017, we don’t get a ton of comedy that is both plot-based and absurd. As in, it tells a coherent story with a beginning, middle and end, but it also subverts reality and goes on strange tangents and delivers really cheap laughs with incredibly elaborate set-ups and also shocks you with an abundance of penises. As far as I can tell, there is nothing else out there quite like it. You might be tempted to compare it to a Christopher Guest film, but it’s not the same—his movies derive comedy from the foibles of characters who take themselves too seriously and get into bizarre situations, but they don’t devolve into absurdity. The best comedic comparison I can think of is Jack Handey’s Deep Thoughts, which are not films or TV programs at all, but very short jokes that rarely last longer than a paragraph.
Imagine this as a 30-minute mockumentary, and you’re getting close:
“I’ll take that little one, way in the back,” I said.
“That little collie mix?” said the animal shelter guy.
“No,” I said, “the one behind him.”
“The gray terrier?” he said.
“He’s gray,” I said,”but way in the back, in the corner.”
“You mean the water faucet?” he said. I realized then it was a water faucet, but I didn’t want to look like a jerk, so I said,”Yeah, that’s the one I want.”
It ended up costing me almost five hundred dollars to get that faucet removed. But you know, I’ve still got that faucet, and I wouldn’t trade it for any dog in the world.
Even still, these are poor descriptions of exactly what they’re offering, because the narrative element is oddly compelling on its own, even without the comedy. In that sense, the other parallel worth drawing is to Armando Iannucci, both for his intricate storylines and because for pure volume of jokes—laughs per second—only a show like Veep or The Thick of It merits comparison to these mockumentaries.
It may sound paradoxical, but in a work of absurdity, plot often plays a very functional role. In Seven Days in Hell, the Legends of Sports team told the story of a Wimbledon match between two flawed champions that went on interminably until both died simultaneously on the court. It was inspired in part, I’m willing to bet, by the real-life 2010 match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut, which spanned three days and took over 11 hours of match time to complete. Likewise, as the title Tour de Pharmacy suggests, their newest project centers on the pervasive, and possibly permanent, “crisis” of performance-enhancing drugs in professional cycling. In their version of the ‘82 race, all but five competitors are kicked out for paying a $50,000 bribe to the race sponsor in exchange for immunity from drug tests, and the satisfying drama follows the five remaining cyclists as they cross France over three grueling weeks. If you let your vision blur just a little, and forgive the exaggerations, this premise could work as a straight sports movie. And this is critical, because it’s the foundation on which the comedy is built—the thing that keeps us squinting at the narrative horizon, anticipating the next plot turn, while they’re busy pulling the rug out from under our feet.
But of course, the comedy is even more critical. When I wrote about Seven Days in Hell, I singled out a really brilliant tangent about a revolutionary courtroom sketch artist—a diversion that had only the loosest connection to the story, was featured far longer than any actual documentarian would deem appropriate, and was treated with absolute paramount importance by everyone in the story. This is their particular brand of absurdity, and it’s glorious in the way it takes crazy risks that rewards comedy psychopaths like me, and would perhaps leave an average viewer behind). You can imagine my perverse delight when I found that Tour de Pharmacy has several brilliant deviations in just this vein.
My favorite—the one that left me laughing so hard that I missed the next three minutes or so—came while they explained exactly how the rest of the field got kicked out of the race. See if you can follow me here, plot only:
—Everybody in the ‘82 race was doping because credit cards had just been introduced in Finland by KultaBank.
—The announcement of the new card was announced in a strange commercial.
—The commercial was so strange, and so bad at explaining credit cards, that the president of the Union Cycliste Internationale, Ditmer Klerken—a Finn, played by Kevin Bacon—didn’t understand the concept at all, thought it was free money, and ran up a $16 million debt to KultaBank in three months.
—In order to repay his debt, he sent a note to every rider saying that if they paid him $50,000, they would have immunity for drug testing.
—All but five riders paid the bribe, were found out after the first stage of the race, and subsequently booted from the race. Notably, the five that were allowed to say were still doping.
Okay, so that vaguely makes sense as a plot, right? But holy shit, that KultaBank commercial! In true absurdist fashion, they aired the entire commercial, and when I say I was laughing to a distracting degree when it was over, I mean that as the most sincere form of praise, because, like a drug or porn addict who constantly needs to seek greater highs in order to feel satisfied, I have been so corrupted by a lifetime of constant voluntary exposure to comedy that it takes something really fucking strange and surprising to get me off.
I’ll try to describe the commercial, though of course explaining a joke never quite does it justice: Airy, ‘70s-style guitar music plays while a nerdy man in a green sweater looks inside his refrigerator. He is pleased to find milk, but less pleased when he spills it all over the floor. His beautiful blond wife walks in, sees the spilled milk, the music stops, and the husband looks like he just got caught with a dead body. After a moment, a look of total resignation overcomes him. In the very next shot, the wife is now topless in bed, and the husband is going down on her. She is smiling like that cat that ate the canary, drinking a glass of milk, and he—still fully clothed—briefly glances out from under a sheet to wipe his mouth and look absolutely disgusted. Then we see the text: “Kulta Bank. Why pay now, when you can pay later.”
To me, this was absolutely hysterical, and the comedy only grew as they turned to their various cycling experts for reaction.
“First of all, why is going down on his wife payment for this guy?” asks Maya Rudolph, playing the editor of a cycling magazine. “And what’s he paying for? Spilling the milk?”
“We saw him spill the milk,” notes Dolph Lundgren, playing the cyclist Gustav Ditters, “so why is she drinking milk in the very next scene?”
“You’ll notice the woman does not climax, and so the debt has not been fully repaid,” says the brilliant Nathan Fielder, playing the head of an anti-doping agency, “and likely never will. Right guys? Sorry I just noticed the crew is mostly women…I’m not good at oral sex.”
Now, okay—maybe this shit is not for everyone. It’s odd, it’s off the wall, whatever. But for me, the genius it takes to concoct this plot, show the fucked-up commercial, and then treat the crazy thing as real and have these various experts treat it as real and point out its flaws, all while taking a very glaring sideways turn from the normal narrative that just ramps up the complete absurdity of watching this hyper-sexual nonsensical Finnish bank commercial…that, to me, is gorgeous comedy.
When the writers go there, Tour de Pharmacy soars. Here’s another quick for-instance—one of the five riders who makes the cut is Skip Robinson, the nephew of Jackie Robinson, who only got into cycling because he wanted to find a sport where he could break the color barrier. In an interview with the BBC,
Slim Robinson: My whole life, people have been referring to me as the nephew of Jackie Robinson. But I think after what I do here today, they’re going to start calling him ‘Slim’s uncle.’”
BBC reporter: Really? You think people will start to call Jackie Robinson ‘Slim’s uncle’?
Slim Robinson: Absolutely. Yeah.
BBC reporter: I disagree.
You see the magic here again—a terrific comedic premise, a wonderful twist into absurdity, and then a potent secondary punchline manifested by observing that old improv edict of “playing it real.” Even without the last line, this scene would have succeeded, but those two words, “I disagree,” are so goddamn funny, so true, and delivered with such finality, that it elevates the vignette to—I want to use this word, so I’m going to—virtuosity.
There’s more than just the absurdity to love here. There are a ridiculous number of famous people involved, from J.J. Abrams to John Cena, and though it would be impossible to elaborate on every hilarious cameo, I would like to give a polite nod of acknowledgment to Will Forte, who plays a French police officer who sodomizes himself with his own baton after accidentally injecting meth into his finger on a French news broadcast.
There are jokes here about new wave cinema, gender confusion, the band Toto, and French cheese, and off the top of my head, I can’t think of any televised comedy that has used penises to such great effect. So great, in fact, that I’m starting to think penises might be the next comedic frontier. Even when the writers go for more standard laughs—as they do in appearances by Lance Armstrong and Mike Tyson, where the mere presence is part of the joke—they go the extra mile and build jokes on top of jokes; in Armstrong’s case, a bit where the filmmakers utterly fail to keep him anonymous, and in Tyson’s case, a boxing origin story that stems from the time he beat up a young Joe Buck for stealing his bike, and found that he was really good at this fighting thing.
Does every joke land? My answer is: Who cares? Most of them do, and an achievement like this occupies such a unique and uncultivated slice of comedic soil that its value is inarguable. It’s easy to miss the genius while you’re laughing your ass off, since we’re not conditioned to think of humor as high art, but in Tour de Pharmacy, HBO has created an exquisite curiosity, and quite a rare little gem.