Tonight’s Bob’s Burgers is a damn delight, building an increasingly absurd half-hour of comedy out of a recognition of one basic problem with comedy storytelling: It’s really, really hard to portray accurately just how crummy school plays are. Real performances by actual elementary and middle school students are excruciatingly bad. They are awful in a way that’s too tedious and incoherent to be mocked, especially by professional performers and creative teams who can’t help but be too good to capture the true terribleness. This is a point made in one Simpsons DVD commentary—I don’t have the exact details at hand, but I believe Matt Groening notes, in reference to a Springfield Elementary orchestra recital, that the professional musicians do play sour notes, but they can’t help but keep to a consistent melody in a way little kids wouldn’t. The same logic applies to depictions of school plays, particularly those in animated shows where the actors as well as the writers and directors are all adults.
Most shows just accept it’s better to portray a school performance unrealistically and move right along. Bob’s Burgers did this a couple years back with “Work Hard Or Die Trying, Girl,” which involves a ton of complex special effects and complicated lines that should be way beyond a bunch of fourth graders just winging it. What most shows will do—what Bob’s Burgers did in that earlier episode, what The Simpsons did in the combined Valentine’s and President’s Day episode where Ralph Wiggum works through his heartbreak by playing George Washington—is have an adult in the audience comment how shockingly good the show is, treat that as sufficient acknowledgment of the implausibility, and just move on. Which generally works very well! But “Mom, Lies, And Videotape” plots a different course, taking what could just be a narrative-necessitated contrivance and finding a way that’s simultaneously far more realistic and far more ridiculous.
There are so many layers of comedy to tonight’s episode. First, Bob has to screw up the recording of the performance, which is the perfect spot for a well-intentioned, long-suffering sap like Bob. The episode starts from the simple enough premise that, like damn near everything else Bob owns, his video camera is hideously obsolete and totally unreliable, which gives the kids plenty of opportunities to mock their father’s gigantic cinderblock of a camera. Once he gets to the performance, Bob encounters problem after problem, an inevitable byproduct of the fact he clearly didn’t bother to check whether his camera was charged or had a tape that was actually ready to record. The final mishap that takes the camera down doesn’t even need a specific explanation: It’s just logical that anything Bob owns would crap out on him for no particular reason.
Throughout that, we get a glimpse of how bad the kids’ performances are, though the episode doesn’t bother to give us more than a quick sense so as to sharpen the contrast with what Louise, Gene, and Tina come up with later. The format “Mom, Lies, And Videotape” settles into is one the show has used before, with each of the kids coming up with some ridiculous tale around some loosely defined common theme. It’s been a generally effective format for the show to experiment and play around in other genres, and tonight’s episode gets plenty of mileage out of the different ways the kids approach their prompt of telling a suitably epic Mother’s Day-themed story.
Like with previous episodes in this vein, each section gets laughs out of how the storytelling reflects the mindset of the kid telling it. Louise’s western is the most nakedly manipulative entry, mixing fawning praise for mothers with an unsurprisingly violent story about cowboys and outlaws. Louise understands the premise of the exercise far better than her siblings, so she emphasizes all the details meant to evoke maternal approval from the ailing Linda, with the entire story a tribute to how mothers are the only ones who can stop bad things and children are useless without mothers to tell them what to do and fight all their battles for them. Gene is too much the epicurean goofball to show similar commitment to sucking up to Linda, but his tale of a god of indeterminate mythology wanting to create a mother for the hugs and affection is a pretty apt distillation of how the show has depicted his relationship with his mom. And Tina, well, Tina is far too weird and transgressive to keep a sharp focus on playing to Linda’s preferences, instead offering a deeply psychotic mishmash of Alien and Freaky Friday.
What’s brilliant about all this is that the kids’ fantasies never dump the conceit that these are all meant to be plays, as after all the whole point is to convince their mom that this is what she missed at the actual show. So Louise has to have her outlaws fight with rubber bands while assuring Linda that Millie trained for two weeks to pull of that one stunt. Gene has to explain all the crew kids view their performance as working the wires for the onstage characters. Tina has to claim the budget for her part of the school play was $50,000—which, let’s be real, firing a gym teacher and holding a bake sale might pay for like half of that. The whole thing is transparently ridiculous, but Linda is both enough under the weather and enough of a mom to go along with her kids’ outlandish claims. That’s a good illustration of the show’s essential charm, as it takes what could be a bunch of admittedly very funny but random absurdity and locates it in something fundamentally sweet.
The best part, though, has to be how the kids cast their schoolmates in the various performances. I leave it to those braver than I to work out what it might mean Louise and Gene both cast their potential love interests, Regular-Size Rudy and Courtney Wheeler, as the other halves of their respective mother-son relationships. Tina, on the other hand, has a much more realistic sense of how Jimmy Jr. would fit into her play, which is to be bored and vaguely annoyed with everything she does as Sigourney. Again, if one wants to engage with the episode on a deep enough level to puzzle out why the kids cast each person in each role, then Bob’s Burgers has established sufficiently rich characters for that to be possible. But a viewer needn’t go that far, as the appeal of the various characters’ inclusion is more basic than that: Rudy, Millie, Chloe Barbash, Courtney, Jimmy Jr., Zeke, and Jocelyn are in the plays because previous character development has made all of them funnier and more interesting than a bunch of random kids would be. The show can lean on its prior character work, even when those characters are playing roles in made-up plays, to wring out additional laughs.
And that last part speaks to what’s so great about “Mom, Lies, And Videotape”: This one has got so many layers. It’s a sweet family story, a crazy genre exercise, a fun deconstruction of a common trope of animated comedy, an insight into the psychologies of the kids, and about a dozen other things beside, including a half-hour of comedy with a bunch of funny jokes. Pick whichever bit you want to focus on and go wild.
- If the various casts we see are any indication, I think it’s fair to say Gene’s classmates are the ones we still know the least about of the three grades. Which, yeah, is totally unsurprising.
- Speaking of unsurprising: Linda is the least hygienic person alive. It’s a wonder Hugo hasn’t been able to shut the restaurant down, if we’re being real honest.
- Mr. Frond is also the most delightfully ineffectual emcee. What little we saw of the actual show was impressively terrible.