Monkeys are supposed to be funny. Comedy is full of monkeys for that very reason. Yet monkeys are often funnier as ideas, concepts — as stories — than in actuality. I don't think I've ever laughed at monkeys as much as I regularly laugh at the "Monkey News" segment of The Ricky Gervais Show, and that's largely because there are no real monkeys to be found. It's all about highly improbably stories about monkeys, which are somehow rendered more believable because of the primate character of the animal, at least in the minds of weird news buffs and the gullible Karl Pilkington.
So I laughed at the end of "Zoo Or False," partly because of the cleverness of the image of the monkey climbing the model of the Empire State Building wth a little blond doll clutched in his hand, batting away cameraman Mike's paper airplane assault, and partly because of the cleverness of the writing in making a point about not letting truth get in the way of a good story. But getting there was rocky, folks. The many funny elements in the script never seemed to settle into rhythm or find their natural relationship. And you know what I blame? Monkeys.
Or rather, the supposed comedic rule that monkeys are funny. Because after Marshall confessed that he'd been mugged by a monkey, his friends spend the rest of the episode laughing at the thought of that monkey. And you know what's extra not funny? Actors pretending to be convulsed with laughter.
I don't mind a bit that "Zoo Or False" might be the writers' way of weaseling their way out of continuity problems; I've never cared if all the pieces can be made to fit at the end of a five-plus season show, Lost-style. In fact, I was rather charmed when Saget started out, "There's a fine line between a good story and a bald-faced lie." And when it became clear that Barney would be illustrating how to construct and then repeatedly cross that line, I couldn't have been more delighted. "Best place I ever visited: The moon," he declares to a blond, explaining that he's Neil Armstrong and that "my spaceship passed through a wormhole or some gamma rays or something, I started aging backwards, anyway blah blah blah, so you work in a yogurt shop, that must be wild!"
When Marshall confesses that he can't pay for the pizza not because he doesn't like pizza (Arthur the delivery guy: "Marshall, there's a cartoon of you on our coupon!") but because he handed over his wallet to a mugger, Barney starts to take notes on this highly sincere and affecting story. For proper believability, leave out the guy in a black knit ski cap with five o'clock shadow (Marshall: "Yes, I got mugged in 1947 at the corner of Abbott and Costello") and go for pathos: "I'd just like to forget this ever happened and move on with my life!" But then Robin mentions to Lily that a big ol' gun under her pillow will solve all her problems, and Lily seems all too willing to become a gun person. So Marshall confesses that he wasn't mugged, but had a monkey grab his wallet after standing inadvisedly close to the cage at the Central Park Zoo. Cue the unconvincing gales of laughter.
Marshall's content to be a figure of fun in his social circle, but when Robin asks him to be interviewed about his unusual experience on her show, he is faced with a dilemma he can't lie or tell the truth his way out of. The monkey will be exiled if he mugged Marshall, says the zookeeper; Lily will get a gun if Marshall had a gun pulled on him, says Lily. Ted, who really wants to be interviewed about his Empire State Building model, won't get on TV either way. And so we have an ending we can't believe, smoke and mirrors, to save him from having to make a choice and save everybody's storyline.
Some of you may feel like that's a cheat. It is unusual, but I thought it was rather poetically done. What bothers me is that everybody seemed to be dancing extra hard to distract us from a lack of natural interaction or real emotion in this episode. The few nice moments — Ted bragging about catching seven peanuts in a row, the montage of ways Marshall has injured Lily, Barney switching girls when he finally puts their names right ("Oh, you're Lisa? Sarah, wait …") — just point up the falseness of those laughs every time the script went back to what tradition tells us is comedy gold: "He got mugged by a monkey."
Tradition is a liar. You shouldn't let it get in the way of being funny.
- Maybe it's no coincidence that Alyson Hannigan's orange color distracted me for the first time tonight.
- Mayor McWoof: Not an actual mayor, but a guy who wears a dog costume and teaches kids not to litter. Not really; he just shills for Bone Happy Feet insoles.
- "Are you acting out the last scene of Sleepless In Seattle with little dolls?" "How long have you been out here?" "Ten seconds." "Yeah, just the last scene."
- Those methods of accidental injury: cork, slap, refrigerator door in the face (apparently in Paul and Jamie Buchman's kitchen from the mid-nineties), dancing, and unexpected scary Halloween costume.
- "Except for the good people of Thailand, Costa Rica, and many other places where monkey crime is an extremely common occurrence."
- "People like being lied to. They don't like finding out they've been lied to."
- "I will believe Jack Palance is dead when I see the body."
- "Are you sure it wasn't a monkey standing on another monkey's shoulders wearing a trench coat?" Now there's some monkey material Karl Pilkington could turn into ten minutes of big laughs.