The beauty of The Characters is the freedom it affords its comics to show us what they’d do if, as is the case thanks to Netflix here, they could do exactly what they want to showcase their comic sensibilities. For Henry Zebrowski, that means revealing his absolute belief in the saying “vanity is the death of comedy,” for better or, in the case of his episode of the series, frequently worse.
In it, Zebrowski plays himself at first—or at least a version of himself that complains about the cancellation of A To Z (“I guess nobody cares about a 13-episode series that was canceled over two years ago. What the fuck is that about?”), humiliates a couple who mistake him for Jim Gaffigan, complains about “immigrant couples” and tells his frenemy, profane and broadly accented gyro truck guy Jamji (also Zebrowski, in questionable brownface), “Here’s a tip. Stop being brown” right before Zebrowski gets creamed by a bus. What follows is a the comic’s scabrous version of A Christmas Carol, with his mystical guide (a now be-robed Jamji) showing him what a disgusting prick he has been in every previous life, from caveman times to the crucifixion, to the time a drunken pilot ancestor was responsible for the plane crash deaths of almost every musician you can think of. In every case, Zebrowski’s comic sensibility is simultaneously fearless and repellant, a tricky combination that he successfully pulls off only in tiny snatches.
Zebrowski’s style here is to make a disgusting, offputting spectacle of himself at literally every opportunity, a commitment to his comic vision that’s certainly admirable, even if it means subjecting us to the sight of: Jamji being sexually serviced by some sort of squid creature; caveman Zebrowski sloppily humping the rock-woman he’s constructed until he climaxes and bursts into flame simultaneously; crucified Zebrowski (identified as Barabbas in the credits) annoying Jesus (Jermaine Fowler) to death with an interminable song and incessant complaints about nipple itch; a present-day character (the whole “past lives” thing goes out the window here) showing up graphically nude in a restaurant and regaling his lunch companion with an ludicrously detailed tale of parking lot sexual assault; Jamji and Henry reminiscing about “yurking off” to Aaliyah after the story of her plane crash; and more. Again, here’s to Zebrowski for his comic courage. But if, as these episodes are, this is to be Henry Zebrowski planting his flag in the comedy world, he’s planting it firmly on the hill of “fourth lead who no one wants to watch for very long.”
Not that Zebrowski’s shy about that fact. He tells afterlife Jamji that he’s up for the role of “the Mucinex booger in the new Mucinex movie,” and the episode serves on some level as Zebrowski deconstructing the fact that he’s not the “pretty boy good guy” his onscreen avatar claims is his true show biz calling. But going for broke in the other direction requires better material than Zebrowski shows here. In sketch after sketch, the joke is on him for being a gross, insufferable pig, but he’s writing the things that make him look like a gross, insufferable pig and presenting them as hilarious in their own right. It takes a special kind of comic genius to go so far over the top that it becomes admirable (think John Waters). Here, all that’s left most of the time is the spectacle of a guy making a spectacle of himself.
Self-awareness is built into Zebrowski’s formula, but it’s half-assed. When Jamji—whose position as wise man setting Zebrowski straight comes coupled with indeterminate “foreign” accent and tales of a Borat-style homeland where people fuck dead horses, warlords teabag families to death, and a dog becomes mayor—eventually asks, “Do you mind if I drop my fucking racist mystic fucking accent for a second?” and speaks like a Shakespearean actor, Zebrowski is calling attention to the stereotypes while also presenting them as fucking hilarious the rest of the time. Like most of this episode, it’s scattershot and gross rather than pointed or insightful.
There are laughs along the way, but they usually come when Zebrowski screws around with absurdist touches around the margins. The perpetually disastrous pilot is named Peppers Cheddar, because he keeps peppers in his pocket to keep from having his dick sucked “by mummies in the night.” (His last name’s just “a cheese thing.”) Zebrowski and Jamji get sidetracked for a while over their shared appreciation for Dune (“the best desert-based sci-fi”). Patrick (the naked restaurant guy) is taken aback when he realizes that the men who assaulted him are the same group that improbably did exactly the same thing to him years ago. Before being hit by that bus, Zebrowski warns a fighting-mood Jamji (who will not hear of anyone disrespecting Jim Gaffigan) by saying, “I trained for two months to be a Special Olympics boxer for a Lifetime movie that did not air!” and is taken aback when Jamji guesses the number of gallons of ice cream he had to eat for the role (22). But, for every funny little touch there’s a line like “That wind’s gonna suck on your daughters’ pussies so hard, they’re gonna turn into little dicks,” or “I will make you suck your own dick and I will jerk off watching you do it,” or a Freddie Mercury AIDS joke, or another (and another, and another) scene where the joke is how willing Zebrowski is to get naked and do something disgusting. (And the “one good life” Jamji shows him gives him a chance to do a stereotypical mentally-challenged guy bit, for good measure. At least there are cyborg cops in this one.) Again, props for courage, but it’s all pretty exhausting by the end.
When the end comes, and Henry is returned to life, he’s learned to be a better man, naturally. He finds that Jim Gaffigan couple and gives them money and enough weed to “get as high as a dragon’s nest,” makes nice with real-world Jamji, and decides to wear porkpie hats now. Looking up, afterlife Jamji gives him a thumbs-up while that squid thing sucks his dick. One last time—points for commitment, but this is the first real misfire from The Characters.
- Is there, like, a world where like everybody’s Indian, and everything’s written in Indian, and then people just eat nothing but Indian food?” “You mean fucking India? The country of India that you could go to?”
- Caveman Grog’s pre-mastubation-fire encounter with a cave-lady is one long “friendzone” joke in animal skins.
- The pilot tells Buddy Holly, “I love the jittery music that you stole from black people.”
- “You’re the kindest, gentlest chubby comedian since Louie Anderson—in the ’80s!”