Here’s a description of Delocated, the comedy series that airs on Adult Swim (Cartoon Network’s late night programming), taken straight from the Wikipedia page:
Jon Glaser plays a man in the Witness Protection Program who moves his family to New York City so they can star in a reality TV show, forced to wear ski masks and have his voice changed at all times.
There are a few ways to respond to this premise. First, you could be baffled, which is how I imagine most Americans reacting. When you start to parse the specifics, the logical flaws become obvious, and then glaring. A family in the Witness Protection Program would never go on a reality TV show, for one, because that would expose them to the criminals they’re trying to avoid. Setting that aside for a moment, it wouldn’t make sense for them to wear ski masks, since they’d become walking targets among the millions of people in New York City not wearing ski masks. Third, voice modulation would be totally irrelevant since—oh, fuck it, the whole thing is nonsensical.
It’s easy to picture a network executive reading the pitch, scratching his head, and passing without a second thought. But there’s a different way to react, which is to appreciate the absurdity of the idea and actually laugh. Because, come on, that’s hilarious!
But those types of ideas—wacky, subversive, silly, whatever you want to call them—have typically been used as the seeds of sketch comedy. A five-minute SNL piece about the Witness Protection Program reality show sounds like a great idea, but ask the Coneheads how it goes when you convert them to longer formats, like film. And the source of Delocated confirms the suspicion; it was first developed by Glaser when he was a writer for Conan. Originally, the character was a witness protection comedian called Kim whose celebrity impressions all sounded the same because of his voice modulator. A funny idea, good for a few laughs, but very much a quick-hitter. How could it sustain the energy needed to work as a full show?
The answer, as it turns out, is a delicate balancing act between absurdity and traditional storytelling necessities like plot and character. On one hand, Delocated mines every last laugh from the ridiculous premise, and that’s the substance of the comedy. On the other, the characters behave in such recognizably human ways that we’re never fully detached into the sketchy world of the set-up. Jon, for instance, is a fame-craving blowhard in the mold of Ricky Gervais’ David Brent. His enemy, Yvgeny Mirminski (played by Eugene Mirman) is constantly letting down his hardboiled Russian crime family by pursuing his dream of being a stand-up comedian. Jon’s first Secret Service guard, Mike, wants to quit to become his full-time friend. His second, Rob, sleeps with his wife and falls in love. And all the while, the Russians are constantly trying to kill Jon (he witnessed a murder and put the Mirminski patriarch behind bars), and instead killing his friends and family.
The end result is, to me, revolutionary. Never has a live action show been so fully committed to absurdist impulses that it abandoned all logic, and yet continued to function as an effective narrative sitcom. We’ve seen it in animated shows, but that’s not the same since they hide behind the artificiality of the illustrated world and distance us from the humanity. Shows like Arrested Development contain their share of ludicrous elements, but are primarily character and plot-driven. British shows like The Mighty Boosh are a possible antecedent, though again, the plot seems somehow more prominent there.
The dueling elements of narrative and absurdity are at least somewhat exclusive, or so it’s always seemed. But to reconcile them and create a brilliant show that produces laugh after laugh as it undermines your expectations, while still being compelling from a storytelling perspective…well, that’s a little bit astounding.
There are endless examples from Delocated, but the one that comes to mind is the episode in Season Two where Jon runs for dog mayor. Immediately, the concept is low-stakes; there’s no such thing as a dog mayor, and even if Jon “wins,” there’s no power behind the position. It’s goofy, it’s inane, and it shouldn’t elicit more than a simple laugh. But then he plays it so sincere, and you start to get sucked in, and then—hold your breath for a moment—his girlfriend’s brother decides to run against him, and they put ads on the cable access channel, and then the network executive (“Mighty Joe Jon, the black blond”) takes an interest, and then Jon inadvertently lies about the Russians killing his dog, and in order to set the story straight they kidnap the owner of Jon’s favorite sandwich shop, and Mighty Joe Jon tells him he can’t go back on his lie or he’ll lose his campaign, so he embarks on a daring rescue, saves the sandwich shop owner by wearing a coat lined with live puppies that the Russians are afraid to shoot, wins the campaign, and then resigns in disgrace after being caught smoking a dog-nip cigar on camera.
If you’re like me, you’ll watch this episode, giggle at the set-up, and then, almost against your will, become engrossed in the plot. And it’s crazy, because the history of television comedy tells us it shouldn’t work that way. Either you get us with the subversive sketch ideas, or you hook us with story and character, but you can’t have your cake and eat it too.
But man, they do. And so does Eagleheart, the wonderful comedy starring Chris Elliott and Brett Gelman about a U.S. Marshal named Chris Monsanto who plays by his own rules. It combines many of the tropes from cop shows like Walker, Texas Ranger, and is full of unlikely fights and gory violence. But the absurdity governs all; in one episode, Monsanto discovers that crimes committed in the sky can’t be prosecuted on earth, and he has to take down a crime syndicate that operates in a giant zeppelin. Again, it seems like a great premise for a sketch, but the show plays the action so well, and gets so much mileage from the interaction between the free-shooting Monsanto and his sidekicks, that it ends up mattering what they do, how they do it, and what becomes of them. And that’s the rub—it always matters, even when you know it’s all bullshit, and the writers are actively fucking with you every chance they get. That is one hell of a trick.
Both shows are becoming more confident in longer formats while maintaining an acute sense of the absurd. Delocated started off as an 11-minute show, but graduated to a standard 22 minutes for the second season. Eagleheart remains at 11 minutes, but is certainly capable of expanding. And both are doing well. Sure, the measure of success on Adult Swim is nowhere near as rigorous as it would be on a major network, and it’s still doubtful that something this risky, regardless of the result, could ever succeed in a mainstream capacity. But every advance in humor started out as a revolution, and these shows are a testament to the benefits of experimentation; proof that the best comedy is always a step away from where everyone else is looking.