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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Jon Benjamin Has a Van: "Road Rage"

Illustration for article titled Jon Benjamin Has a Van: "Road Rage"
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I got the feeling during “Road Rage” that the sketches existed merely as a way for Jon Benjamin to do ridiculous physical gags. “Single Dad Triathlon” had a bunch of dads running while wearing baby bjorns. The “Shame On Me” anger management special once again ended with the guy yelling in his boxers. Jon Benjamin’s descent into “were-Jew” and “were-gay” territory was just a shot of Benjamin rollerskating in Hasidic garb. There wasn’t much build to the story or really much of a pay-off (unless you count totally random werewolf insertions as pay-off), just Benjamin rollerskating in Hasidic garb. Which, by the way, was in the preview.

The last episode, “Breakdown,” worked as a cohesive sketch because every new piece of information fit in with the world that had already been created. Benjamin and his crew were forced to do half the show in silence because the sound guy was missing; then, at the end, Benjamin learns the entire exercise was part of the Poor Farm he’d been reporting on earlier. In “Road Rage” there isn’t even a main story to deviate from. Benjamin is simply driving in his van when he’s cut off by a group of Hasidic Jews, and when one bites him, he suddenly becomes a were-Jew—during the Sabbath, he’s Jewish, and otherwise, he’s just himself. His friends don’t believe him, so next Friday night, he ties himself to a chair, and they watch in horror as his payis grow out of nowhere. Later though, Benjamin doesn’t change back; he remains the Hassid, and only adopts the were-qualities again when bitten by a gay guy, turning into a were-gay. There’s two things happening: One is the ridiculousness of the were-Jew concept. The other is the were-layering. “Road Rage” chooses both, and it’s never clear how things are supposed to shake out.

The other sketch segments were more of a welcome distraction. The internal logic of each one made total sense, thus it was easier to get on board for the joke. In the switcheroo sketch, Benjamin takes a rich kid from the city and has him swap lives for an afternoon with a rich kid from the country. The boys comment on the mundane, like the race of the new nanny, and end up looking longingly out into the ocean/Central Park, longing for the rich life they’ve left behind. There aren’t any surprises, but the sketch is pretty solid on its own. On the other hand, the main story has one final surprise: The rest of the cast has turned into werewolves. It feels like a copout given the notes of poetic justice that the other episodes ended on (particularly “Star Door”). Random for random’s sake rarely ever works.

What I think might help Jon Benjamin Has A Van is to reorganize the way the episodes tell stories—in order to couch weaker storylines like tonight’s. The show always starts with a standalone sketch, presumably meant to ease viewers into the show. That’s all well and good, but no matter what, I never really feel like the episode really gets going until Benjamin starts the main sketch, and by then, I’ve mostly forgotten about what came before it. I suppose Benjamin wants us to be somewhat surprised about what gets spun into a larger bit, but in the case of something like tonight, there’s really no indication. Get us invested in the overarching story right off the bat and sprinkle the other sketches throughout to break things up. I found tonight’s “Shame On Me” to be more of the same, but I wonder if I’d have a different opinion if it came after the shock of Jon Benjamin’s marital bed blood discovery, where it could add a different sort of energy, as well as stand alone.

The plot of “Road Rage” got away from Jon Benjamin, so it’s no wonder he chose to end the episode on such a nonsequitor.  Still, the more Benjamin keeps his stories on a leash—even if it’s a very long leash—the more cohesive sketches feel, and the more effortlessly the jokes come together. A few great lines (like “I was blessing the toilet paper. There is much toilet paper to bless”) and some rare Jon Benjamin “acting” (“anger”) saved “Road Rage” from totally flopping, but it wasn’t my favorite.

Stray observations:

  • I still like the little things, like the way Benjamin held the microphone directly in front of his mouth when intro-ing the dad triathlon segment. Same in "Breakdown," when the camera zoomed back to show Nathan holding the microphone up to Benjamin's face.
  • Are we to assume that Jon Benjamin lives, permanently, in a seedy motel?