When Cartoon Network announced that Steven Universe was doing a crossover episode with Uncle Grandpa, I was, to say the least, skeptical. I’ve never particularly cared for Uncle Grandpa, a show that is a bit too ridiculous for my taste, occasionally difficult to watch consistently, and, in some respects, deeply antithetical to the quiet calm of Steven Universe. Also, crossovers of this sort almost never work, do they? (I mean, not unless they involve John Munch.) Well… this one does! Overcoming all expectations to the contrary, “Say Uncle” more or less seamlessly integrates the Uncle Grandpa characters into the Gems’ world, using a simple, but effective Steven Universe plot to afford the creative team the opportunity to pull out all the stops and spend an episode just going for laughs.
“Say Uncle” starts from the same place as “Gem Glow,” with Steven trying to gain better control of his powers so he can summon his weapon at will. That’s the only excuse needed for storyboarders Joe Johnston and Jeff Liu to introduce Uncle Grandpa—after all, he can just show up and help a kid in need, right? And Steven does want to use his shield to protect the Gems. That’s all the episode needs, and just getting it out of the way stops the kind of hand-wringing you would normally see in an “event” episode bringing two universes (and one Universe) together. This lets “Say Uncle” get to doing what it does best: making deeply silly jokes.
Steven Universe is a very, very funny show, but its humor is, for the most part, gentle and character-based, providing more chuckles than anything else. And its world may be fantastic in many ways, but it’s also consistent, meaning that it obeys certain laws that you can pick up on by watching the show, necessitating certain rhythms in editing and the visual presentation of the show—violating these would, ordinarily, be a betrayal of the viewers and the agreement they make with the creators. But the introduction of Uncle Grandpa is outright hilarious, allowing the show to break the fourth wall and wring jokes out of the nature of animation. He can be anywhere he wants and do anything he wants, and the Gems (and viewers) are just going to have to deal with it.
This controlled chaos allows Johnston and Liu to play around with different animation styles (in particular, the depiction of Pearl’s anxiety), and it allows the voice cast to delightfully ham it up (like Amethyst’s “Whyyyyy” when she trips over the giant words “Run Away”), and clearly have a blast doing so. Straight up, “Say Uncle” might be the funniest episode Steven Universe or Uncle Grandpa have ever done, something that isn’t even diminished by Steven’s time in the UGRV. By the time Steven enters the Uncle Grandpa universe (with an attendant shift in animation style), I was actually mildly surprised at the other side of the crossover, because of how effective Uncle Grandpa had been in Beach City. In fact, even though I don’t like the show, I was primed to yell “Pizza Steve!” out loud when he showed up. Why? I don’t really want to watch Pizza Steve every week, but, come on, it’s Adam DeVine from Workaholics voicing a talking piece of pizza with sunglasses. It works in the moment.
It’s worth noting here that this is probably not something that should be repeated—it would lose a lot of the magic that in large part comes from surprise that this one works so well. Many of the funniest jokes are basically Family Guy gags (in particular Uncle Grandpa seeing Steven during a promo from “Gem Glow,” is basically Cross-armed Opposites.) That’s not a criticism, though—I’m a defender of the first couple of seasons of Family Guy, when those jokes were actually pretty good. They work in “Say Uncle” because they’re so unexpected in the Steven Universe world, and because, unlike in the twelfth or thirteenth season of Family Guy, they haven’t been run into the ground by years and years of lazy, joyless repetition.
Does that mean that all of this is a one-off lark? Maybe. While there have been some rumblings among the creative team that “Say Uncle” is “100% canon,” it’s easy to chalk this up to trolling grumpy fans. After all, Uncle Grandpa explicitly tells Steven, “Don’t worry bro, none of this is canon.” There are a few other hints that this episode exists outside of the main story of Steven Universe—in particular, the use of Garnet’s earlier design (EDIT: “Say Uncle” apparently takes place before the Steven Bomb)—but, honestly, who cares? The only thing it could legitimately mean is that Steven has slightly more control over his shield, and maybe that the Gems will reference that one weird time Uncle Grandpa showed up in, like, one episode. So what? There’s a deep sense of ownership that lots of fans feel in cases like this that can lead to really unfortunate, close-minded attitudes toward change (and toward anyone who doesn’t like the piece of art involved)—something that I’m certainly guilty of experiencing on occasion when it comes to Steven Universe, but that is almost always overblown by overzealous enthusiasts.
And indeed, “Say Uncle” continues the trend from “The Message” of the writers lovingly poking fun at their fans. When Steven asks how the Uncle Grandpa characters can know about the existence of the Gems, Mr. Gus says “I have a comprehensive knowledge of all magical denizens of the multiverse,” by which he means he has access to the internet. (Where he has his very own Gemsona!) Mr. Gus is taking the wind out of people’s sails a bit (though his Gemsona does look pretty cool), but he’s also an opportunity for Steven Universe to inject an outsiders’ perspective, and have characters say things to Steven that the fans might yell were they a part of the show. In telling Steven that his powers are linked emotional clarity and his protective, maternal instincts, Mr. Gus gets to voice something the rest of us have probably been thinking for a while. That’s pretty cool.
Only the grumpiest fans will take issue with an episode that ends with so bald-faced a “moral,” which plays simultaneously like a parody of cartoon “valuable lessons” (and crossovers in general, where everyone has to say what they learned from each other) and a defense of “Say Uncle” in particular:
Remember kids. Don’t be afraid to be super weird. Steven and I have got your back. See with eyes unclouded by hate, and always remember to say “Good morning!”
Getting to lean on the Gems’ original caricatures (Pearl as overprotective, Garnet as hotheaded, and Amethyst as sloppy and goofy) allows “Say Uncle” to openly say the most obvious, corniest thing that a kids’ show can say, and pull it off spectacularly. Still, not everything is perfect at the end of the episode. After running through a list of other Cartoon Network kids in a shot that will surely incite mass theories about the entire network being one “shared universe” which, okay, sure, whatever, guys, Uncle Grandpa settles on his next target—Clarence. Here we go again.
- If there’s a real false note in this episode, continuity-wise, it’s that there’s no sense that Uncle Grandpa emerging from the ocean could actually be Malachite. The fear from “Full Disclosure” is absent here, and it would have been nice to see for even a moment or two.
- Garnet, fixing the episode’s pacing: “Okay, I’m ready for this episode to end.” Not only is this hysterical (I wrote it down both times I watched the episode), it also makes total sense that Garnet would be the Gem most aware of her own fictionality. Future vision!
- Lion and Giant Realistic Flying Tiger totally had an affair, right? Me-ow.
- R.I.P. Pizza Steve. I’m sure you were delicious.