“Make ’Em Laugh” (season 2, episode 18; originally aired 11/5/1994)
By sheer coincidence, this recap falls on the week after the Just For Laughs festival in Chicago, the nation’s biggest showcase for stand-up comedians. I didn’t actually attend any Just For Laughs shows, but that was because I had the pleasure of seeing the three-hour A.V. Club Redacted show, which featured ten of the world’s best comedians. The different performers were all connected by a mutual sense of self-loathing, a quality that seems to be a prerequisite for a successful career as a comedian. Is it any wonder that the Joker was an aspiring stand-up comic before becoming the most dangerous person in Gotham City?
Paul Dini and Randy Rogel are veterans of the wackier world of Warner Bros. animation, having worked on Tiny Toons and Animaniacs, respectively. “Make ’Em Laugh” fits more with the tradition of those series than the rest of Batman: The Animated Series, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. If anything, it highlights the malleable tone and style of the series, jumping from high drama to low-brow comedy with remarkable ease.
The episode begins with the introduction of the Condiment King. “Drop your forks and prepare to cover before the uncanny Condiment King!” He yells as he enters a classy Gotham restaurant. He sprays people with ketchup and mustard and chokes them with hot sauce when they try to fight back. The serious supervillain dialogue (“Anyone else wanna be a hero?!”) becomes hilarious in the ridiculous context, and Stuart Pankin really chews the scenery with his voice work. Batman has no problem taking out Condiment King, who is actually comedian Buddy Standler, the first in a series of funny guys turned bad. He’s followed by Harry Loomis, a Jerry Lewis stand-in that robs a department store as Pack Rat.
A burglar who steals pocket lint and other undesirables, Pack Rat is another joke villain. (In case you haven’t figured out who’s behind all this, “joke” is the big clue.) While Batman and Robin save Alfred from a machine gun-wielding Loomis, comedienne Lisa Lorraine is kidnapped by the Joker when she answers the door for pizza. Condiment King is my favorite villain of this episode, but Lisa Lorraine is my favorite comedian, and Andrea Martin’s Roseanne impression make me laugh a whole lot. Lorraine, Loomis, and Standler were all judges in the Gotham “Laugh-Off” competition last year, and they refused to let a guy named Smilin’ Shecky Rimshot perform. They had every right to: after all, he missed the registration deadline. But Shecky vowed revenge on the three as he was pulled off stage—after he becoming the Joker, he’s following through on that vow.
There’s no way that the Joker has only been around for a year on this show. Last week’s episode had a six-month time jump, so there’s clearly not a very solid timeline for this series. That said, I like to think that “Make ’Em Laugh” isn’t actually a veiled origin story for the Joker, but rather a look at what motivates Batman’s most unpredictable foe. Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke cast Joker as a struggling comedian, and while that still applies to the B:TAS version of the character, it’s more interesting to view Shecky as Joker in disguise, rather than pre-Joker. What if, when Joker got on that “Laugh-Off” stage, he just wanted to prove that he could still make people laugh without killing them? We’ve never seen Joker fight for anything other than chaos, but what if he’s fighting for comedy? He’s the antihero of humor, a walking punchline that gets punched a lot, too.
“Make ’Em Laugh” eventually reveals that Joker stole the Mad Hatter’s mind control technology to transform Gotham’s comedians into criminals, and his final creation is Mighty Mom, the broom-wielding alter ego of Lisa Lorraine. (She also has an electric egg beater and spatula). While Robin gets his ass beat by an overweight middle-aged woman, Batman fights Joker on a giant clown balloon—because this episode is clearly not going for subtlety. When Joker falls off the balloon, Batman catches him with his grapple gun, pulling down Joker’s pants as he’s lowered to the ground. Yup, the episode ends on a pants-dropping gag, because kids love that shit. As the villain is pulled away by the police, the crowd cackles with delight. Joker finally makes ’em laugh, but not the way he wants to.
- Batman Beatdown: As Pack Rat swings a golf club at him, Batman slowly steps backward until Harry hits an electrical box and shocks himself unconscious.
- The title card does a great job of bringing a sense of foreboding to a light-hearted episode by contrasting the neon lettering of the title with the ominous image of a microphone lit by a spotlight.
- “Parting is such sweet and sour sorrow.”
- Joker: “My very own happy homewrecker!” Mighty Mom: “I don’t do windows!”
- “Naughty boy! Mama spank!”