Every season, Cartoon Network's Adult Swim block gets a bit more experimental, adding at least one show that's not for everyone, or everyone who could stomach the previous year's new offerings. Among other things, this has made it a lot easier to laugh at awkwardness. I don't mean the kind of awkwardness Michael Scott creates when he drops his million black jokes at Stanley's expense in every episode of The Office. I mean the mismatches and fumbles that afflict most people's daily lives. Instead of just riffing on awkwardness, shows like Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! (and Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim's previous show, the brilliant Tom Goes To The Mayor) make watching comedy feel as uncomfortable and clumsy as an AA (or city council) meeting.
Hard as it is to get used to, Awesome Show's got a creepy familiarity. Yank the average middle-aged man out of his life, put him in front of a camera, and chances are his sense of timing, eye contact, and delivery would make him about as effective as go-to advice guy Dr. Steve Brule (more evidence that John C. Reilly is a magical being who transcends time, space, air, and water):
And that's what Awesome Show really captures—the results a bunch of average dopes would get if they tried to run a TV network. Especially if a few of them had spent some time in halfway houses, but still. You might even forget it's funny time until you catch the duo just about to crack up. Maybe laughing at it is just the way viewers cope. You'll have to strain a lot harder to imagine yourself as the title character of Adult Swim's new Xavier: Renegade Angel, from Wonder Showzen's John Lee and Vernon Chatman, two guys who never tire of fucking with people. In its second episode, Xavier's comedy gets some room to breathe, so maybe even its awkwardness is bearable (but more on that later).
Of course, Tim and Eric aren't alone in discovering this texture. (I can't ignore Napoleon Dynamite at this point, but that could get me way off track.) If anyone can outdo them, it's Leslie Hall, an Iowan rapper/performance artist who fronts Leslie And The LYs, sporting gold-lamé bodysuits, gem sweaters, and a sagging belly.
Everyone wants to be charismatic and famous. If more of us made a fuck-all dash for it, Leslie would have more competition. At her shows, you'll notice as much uninhibited dancing as you will howls of laughter. Gape at the garish spectacle, then try to imagine yourself as her. It's easier than you might think.
But even if you agree with me on Leslie and Awesome Show, Xavier seems calculated to repel you. Xavier himself is a vapid spiritual seeker, part bird, part horse (or some kind of hairy mammal), part man, with a snake for an arm, and ultimately seems interested only in the sound of his own voice (hey, at least Michael Scott has, you know, human longings). Xavier talks the way Scott Stapp sings, milking every word for more significance than it has—he says "life" as "ly-iiife," complete with an echo effect. His backstory should be funny for anyone who's ever wandered through a New Age bookstore—in the series premiere, we learn he burned down his house (killing his parents) by lighting too many candles during a seance (but still thinks an arsonist did it). So why isn't it? At this point in Adult Swim's history, aren't the discomfort and fractured comic rhythms part of the fun? Or can comedy become too awkward and disorienting for its own good?
I've watched this episode four times now, and can't figure out if it's simply too strange for some tastes, or simply dumb and unfunny. It's got all the runaway sadism and mockery of Wonder Showzen. In fact, it's smothered in them. But what's missing, and who's to say that comic innovation can, at some point, kill the laughs? All I know is what's carried me through Adult Swim's evolution so far: the familiarity that rests under the eccentricities of Awesome Show, Tom Goes To The Mayor, Sealab 2021, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Frisky Dingo, Metalocalypse, etc. It's not necessarily why those shows are funny, just what helps people stay engaged. The well-meaning wimp Tom Peters just might fit into our world, and Xavier doesn't fit anywhere (that's kind of the point so far). It wouldn't surprise me if Lee and Chatman had said, "Let's create the least relatable character ever." So far, their career's been a heroic pursuit of alienation, even in a medium that's bound to alienate people anyway. It helped, though, that Wonder Showzen (like Awesome Show) parodied the incredible stupidity of TV, while reminding me of the sketch-comedy essentials. Xavier doesn't give us any such reference points—or, if it does, it has tweaked them beyond recognition.
Ricky Gervais says that comedy's built on empathy–"you've gotta like something about everyone, really"–and as dumb as it is to make rules for art, I'm pretty much willing to adopt that as a standard. Xavier seems determined to violate it. Thanks in part to the Nintendo 64-caliber animation, Xavier's as flat and expressionless as the ignorant hicks he runs up against, can't reach us emotionally, and generally helps the show destroy itself. There's not much to do but gawk at him, which gets old once you've picked up on his catchphrases (expect to see "Chomsky-honk" and "Ooh! Frittata!" popping up on a lot of nerdy message boards this season).
In short, the comedy of awkwardness might reach its breaking point on shows like this, and we'll realize it takes more than sheer daring to make people laugh. Just as likely, people like me will get too fascinated to stop watching, and eventually get dragged past their own limits. Adult Swim's a time for comedy fans who enjoy attacks on form, after all. More often than not, it's proven that what seems antagonistic at first can become hilarious (but still pretty damn antagonistic). Until now, awkward comedy has improved television while making it more kitschy than anyone could have expected. Will that still be true when we can't see ourselves in it at all?