Before the State of the Union address begins, Hot Dog is asked a question by Paul F. Tompkins, but he isn’t listening. “Sorry,” he says, “I was live-tweeting.” It’s a joke so obvious it confirms that the phenomenon of not paying attention to what’s actually happening on television for the sake of being momentarily witty (and ultimately forgotten) has become the kind of everyman reference point to open an otherwise esoteric program where puppets provide live commentary about the SOTU address. That fact is not lost on the good people of Fusion, a network launched as a partnership between ABC and Univision, and thus their grand puppet experiment No, You Shut Up! is commentary unto itself—hanging a fuzzy mirror in apartment buildings around major cities where laptops have created permanent indentations and infertility in laps. “Well,” they figure, “if it’s live snark people want, it’s live snark people are going to get. Only if they happen to glance up for a second, there will be a splitscreen of President Obama and a hot dog with a pube-stache.” Try not to watch that.
No, You Shut Up! is a weekly panel show hosted by stand-up Paul F. Tompkins—a master of deadpan insults, wry observations, and people referencing the fact that he always wears suits—and created by David Jägerbomb (jk it’s Javerbaum), who used to be the head writer of The Daily Show. The Comedy Central force is strong in this one: Tompkins is the Jon Stewart-type, acting as the befuddled voice of sanity. The puppets, brought to you by the Jim Henson Company, are the correspondents, and like on The Daily Show, each plays a caricaturized version of themselves. John Oliver is the British guy, for example, just as Professor Cornelius Nougat is an ape with plans to enslave humanity and a desire to fling his feces. On this particular live installment, he’s joined by conservative talking head/squirrel Star Schlesinger, Yerd Nerp the partying one-eyed alien, and a hot dog named Hot Dog who, from what I can tell, is the “youth correspondent” of sorts in that he makes film references.
The setup feels especially limiting, and reminds me of the problems I have with The Daily Show’s use of correspondents as well. It’s rare that one of them has the chance to really drive a story and make it their own; often Stewart asks a particular correspondent to simply heighten a joke. (It’s no surprise that John Oliver’s farewell address included a montage of him playing various British stereotypes.) Similarly, there is a large portion of No, You Shut Up! that feels heavily scripted and tired. Cheering as Yerd Nerp plays his drink-when-Joe-Biden-stands game is fun at the beginning of the extended speech, when the pomp and circumstance of the affair are still amusing and novel, and less so as he becomes unable to contribute much else to the panel. Not because he’s drunk, but because he only has one or two defining traits, and Tompkins can do little to help. He has to shut up every few seconds, of course, because the president is talking again.
The less No, You Shut Up! sticks to its rigid structure, the more it serves as an astute complement to what Obama is saying. Tompkins riffs even when not provoked or required, and it’s like following the clever guy on Twitter. Plus, I’m not sure if Stephen Colbert was feeding lines to Star Schlesinger, the conservative squirrel, but she channels his brilliance in balancing iconoclasm with coded jabs at the GOP. When the president gets a standing ovation for mentioning his commitment to natural gas, without missing a beat, she says, “How’s he supposed to get to that gas without using fracking, which I thought you liberals didn’t like?” It’s followed almost immediately by applauding Obama for promising a college education to students who will, according to Schlesinger, just get a communications degree they’ll never use. Most of the puppets stick to their script, so to speak, and stay within their predefined games. But both that squirrel and Tompkins are only playing halfway, leaving room for opinion and mockery.
There may be structural problems with No, You Shut Up!, but it succeeds when it weaves itself into the fabric of the State Of The Union. Nobody cared when the robots talked on Mystery Science Theater 3000 because the movies were so stupid, you didn’t need to hear what was being said to miss anything important. The SOTU has applause breaks—just enough time for a swift remark or conversational zip-zap-zop—built into it. There will never not be applause breaks until President Chainsaw lops off all our hands. I was less annoyed that Hot Dog spun every topic into something movie-related or that Professor Nougat made a classic feces-throwing bit, and more happy to have some levity during the barrage of political rhetoric. That’s what probably drives most of us to Twitter in the first place. Might as well have the chance to catch a splitscreen of President Obama and a hot dog with a pube-stache.