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10 episodes capture the shape-shifting comedy genius of Childrens Hospital

With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD, it gets harder and harder to keep up with recent shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. They might not be the 10 best episodes, but they’re the 10 episodes that’ll help you understand what the show’s all about.

The simple story of the sitcom in the 2010s is two gold rushes on opposite coasts. On one side, writers flock to the relationship comedy (and, nearby, the dramedy), which has soaked up most of the attention. But on the other is a mother lode no less worthy for its lack of sentimentality: the parody. In 2015, you could watch great sustained television parodies of space operas (Other Space), sci-fi (Rick And Morty), nonfiction (Documentary Now!), and both Downton Abbey and Keeping Up With The Kardashians at once (Another Period). Lifetime soap UnREAL isn’t a comedy, but its frothy riff on The Bachelor is no less a parody. Before that came Burning Love, a standout in a sea of subsequent web satires like The Hotwives Of Orlando. Community made a show of its constant makeovers—a Rankin-Bass Christmas special one week, My Dinner With Andre the next. And latter-day 30 Rock gave us two Real Housewives send-ups on top of its sketch-length riffs on Amos ’N’ Andy, The Dean Martin Show, and The Honeymooners. There have been television parodies at least since Gilligan’s Island played on the Gunsmoke set, but the current renaissance in the form is new.

The parody capital of the world is Adult Swim, offering live-action spoofs of high-tech cop dramas, low-tech cop dramas, cable-access educational shows, cable-access talk shows, newsmagazines, infomercials, and for 11 glorious minutes around Halloween 2014, ’80s sitcom title credits. And since 2010, Adult Swim has been home to Childrens Hospital, Rob Corddry’s riff on the medical melodrama turned television omnivore.

What people say about full moons and babies is true of writers’ strikes and webseries. While Joss Whedon developed Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Corddry concocted Childrens Hospital. Originally a parody of Grey’s Anatomy and its ilk—with some ER, House, and M*A*S*H thrown in for good measure—the show follows the staff of a children’s hospital named for its founder, Arthur Childrens. (“I believe the Childrens are the future,” reads a memorial wall.) Corddry plays a Patch Adams type, Dr. Blake Downs, a clown doctor who insists on using the healing power of laughter. At one point, Megan Mullally’s disabled Chief asks, “Why don’t you try using the healing power of medicine?” Erinn Hayes’ Dr. Lola Spratt and Lake Bell’s Dr. Cat Black are more obsessed with their love lives than their work. Rob Huebel’s Dr. Owen Maestro is an ex-cop who was a first responder at the World Trade Center with partner Chance Briggs (Nick Offerman). In the background, Michael Cera voices announcements, such as “Attention, staff: Will Captain Pierce please report to Colonel Blake? That is all.” And Ken Marino plays the Jewish Dr. Glenn Richie.

Developed by Corddry alongside David Wain (who also plays the show’s director and the recurring character Rabbi Jewy McJewJew) and Jonathan Stern, the first season is rougher than the series it would become—in more ways than one. Jokes about 9/11, disability, and slicing off a kid’s cock pile up quickly, but it’s funny from the opening seconds. The “Previously on Childrens Hospital…” with Lake Bell’s ridiculously overdramatic delivery get the early giggles. With a recurring cast including Ed Helms, Nate Corddry, and John Ross Bowie, the first season aired 10 five-minute episodes of outrageous medical soap parody on TheWB.com in 2008.

Two years later Adult Swim rebroadcast the episodes—doubled up and filled out with promos for upcoming Adult Swim parodies like NTSF:SD:SUV::in advance of a second season with a higher budget. Helms, Corddry, and Bowie were replaced by Henry Winkler as the misunderstood new administrator Sy Mittleman and Malin Akerman as Dr. Valerie Flame. Over the next three years, Childrens Hospital flourished. It kept its roots in the medical-soap parody, but it also ventured into other forms, like throwback theater and ghost-hunter TV.

Meanwhile, the series developed an elaborate “behind-the-scenes” world around its fictional hospital drama. Corddry isn’t playing Blake directly: He’s playing actor Cutter Spindell who’s playing Blake. Everything is a potential source of comedy: The fourth season makes a subtle running gag of “Tomato, tomahto” by sneaking it into almost every episode, and at one point Huebel and Marino filmed a scene below Christ The Redeemer in Rio De Janeiro, an extravagant joke about the established fact that Childrens Hospital is located in Brazil and caters exclusively to Americans and American ex-pats.

With Lake Bell contracted to How To Make It In America for most of Childrens’ second season, the cast was already starting to disintegrate in the early going. As the show went on, it became less and less common to see more than a few of the regulars in the same episode. But the ensemble was bolstered by enhancing supporting players like Zandy Hartig’s poker-faced Nurse Dori, Beth Dover’s dramatic Nurse Beth, and Brian Huskey’s creepy paramedic Chet. The show was permanently unmoored for its fifth season, in which the setting shifted to a U.S. military base in Japan, a setup for a M*A*S*H joke that never came. The season revealed a valuable lesson in sustained absurdism: Without what little grounding Childrens Hospital has to begin with, it floats away.

It would be a year and a half before the sixth season debuted. The episodes take place once more in Brazil, but with a noticeably new set. (The North Hollywood Medical Center, which had also served as the shooting location for Scrubs, had been demolished.) The final two seasons are of a piece, both a rebound and a victory lap for one of the funniest shows of the 2010s. Those years have only managed a handful of candidates for Childrens Hospital’s highest tier between them, but a couple are among the decade’s best television, period. Even in the emptier episodes, Childrens Hospital is chockablock with good gags, like when Cat Black enters a scene by dropping from the ceiling for no reason other than it’s funny.

With its laughter-for-laughter’s-sake comic anarchy, jam-packed and short run times, MVP-talented team players, characters defined largely by a single trait (Jewishness) or relationship (Chief-ness), and its tour of various forms and genres over the years, Childrens Hospital is nothing less than television’s Looney Tunes. Here are the 10 episodes that best illustrate the show’s cartoon contortions over the years.

“A Hospital Isn’t A Place For Lazy People” (season one, episode one)

The first season (and to a certain extent the second season) are serialized, so what better place to start with Childrens Hospital than the premiere? Part of the reason the show drifted from its medical soap origins is that it peaked on its first try. The aforementioned “Previously on…” begins a montage of horny doctors getting it on in their patients’ rooms, callous physicians who don’t seem to know what they’re doing, and a sweeps-month emergency. The episode also contains some of the first season’s best gags, like when Cat and Lola are dancing out their boy problems and, through a forced series of stumbles, just happen to wind up with their lips inches apart. The early darkness comes through in Mullally’s caricature of ER’s Kerry Weaver, thrashing her way down the hall on forearm crutches as passing doctors call her clumsy and narrator Cat calls her too lazy to take care of herself.

With the webisodes doubled up for broadcast on Adult Swim, the show’s most reliable supporting character, Nick Offerman’s Chance Briggs, now makes his debut in the series premiere. In addition to this twofer strategy, Adult Swim filled out the 15-minute time slots for the first season with NTSF promos and closing words from Rob Corddry—and his first epilogue is by far the darkest.

“The End Of The Middle” (season two, episode six)

A landmark episode in TV comedy, this is the moment Childrens Hospital expanded its horizons beyond the medical soap. Instead of the typical “Previously on…”, the episode begins with Mather Zickel’s Louis La Fonda (a character first seen in Wain’s 2007 anthology film, The Ten), introducing his interview with the cast and crew of Childrens Hospital for the newsmagazine Newsreaders. Suddenly, all the actors are portraying the actors behind the characters: Mullally’s an English woman, Marino’s doing Joaquin Phoenix circa I’m Still Here, Hayes is playing a serious artist, and so on. It’s a whirlwind of jokes about television and movies, from a pilot set in 1969 (in which Abigail Spencer plays Chief) to a modern Bollywood adaptation where the doctors decide to appeal to the U.N. for tongue depressors before a big musical number. It’s Childrens Hospital in a nutshell.

“Hot Enough For You?” (season two, episode eight)

Two episodes after that landmark came another, a Do The Right Thing parody so perfectly calibrated it even pulls off a rape joke (it’s still early enough that the series is lapsing into such touchy material) when Valerie has sex with a passed-out Blake. She protests, “He was asking for it, wearing all that slutty makeup!” (In Childrens Hospital, clowns are an oppressed minority with their own traditions and communities, and they always wear their makeup.) It’s a riff on heat-wave episodes that gets everyone hot and bothered, and thanks to its Spike Lee inspiration, it’s even more cinematically adventurous than “End Of The Middle,” with low lighting, heavy shadows, lap dissolves, and a sax score. While everyone else is locked in an unrequited love circle, Glenn finds himself in the funniest chapter of his cancer-cure arc, when Kurtwood Smith’s pharmaceutical rep goes off on just how powerful his industry is. A sample: “Big Pharma took us to war in Vietnam, synthesized crack, and killed Kennedy.” At the end is a Childrens Hospital take on Rosie Perez’s dance under the opening credits of Do The Right Thing. As the original song, “I Killed Cancer,” plays, the characters dance individually and together, culminating in a Christmas-card shot of the whole cast—even Cat, who at this point in the story is “dead.” It’s a well-earned celebration.

“Home Is Where The Hospital Is” (season three, episode four)

This back-to-basics Grey’s spoof is one of the standout low-concept episodes. The staff (including Jordan Peele’s Dr. Brian) are all roommates, Sy is sleeping at the hospital, Glenn and Lola are secretly dating, and Owen is assigned to a patient who abuses his Make-A-Wish power. From that framework hang as many jokes as will fit: The six doctors all using the house kitchen at the same time, Valerie staring at her phone as she drives the group to work, or Blake refusing to be the one to move out because his dad co-signed the lease. When Detective Chance Briggs shows up, Owen asks, “Can you arrest a kid for being a dick?” Chance responds, “If he’s a Muslim.” Built out of unnecessary drama and heightened emotions, “Home Is Where The Hospital Is” contains one of the funniest scenes in the series, a fight between Glenn and Lola that’s just a battle of non sequiturs. “You always out-emotion me,” Lola wails. “Fine, we’ll go to your parents’ house for Thanksgiving,” he replies. “I had an abortion, Glenn! An abortion!”

“The ’70s Episode,” (season three, episode six)

Ostensibly a rerun from the 1970s era of the show, “The ’70s Episode” is hilariously simple. The dialogue in the “Previously on…” segment is a staccato blitzkrieg of ’70s-ness: “Baseball mustache.” “Khmer rouge.” “Station wagons.” The plots: Dr. Lola Spratt is the first female doctor at Childrens, Owen and Blake endure a hot-dog shortage, and Dr. Glenn Richie is suffering PTSD. Just back from Vietnam, people keep calling him a baby-killer. He protests that he’s no baby-killer, he’s a doctor—specifically, the new abortionist. The colors are earth tones, everyone’s in a wig, and the cheapo production values make for formal jokes like the obviously reused footage intended to drag out the act break. It’s not about the ’70s. It’s about the ’70s on TV.

British Hospital” (season four, episode seven)

The next great leap after “End Of The Middle” is “British Hospital,” ostensibly an episode of the BBC Ten adaptation of Childrens Hospital starring none of the regular cast. In their place are some big names in their own right: Frances Fisher as the stiff-upper-lipped Headmistress, Dominic Monaghan as the bloodhound Oren Maestro, and Jaime Murray as self-consciously upper-class doctor Kitty Black. (“I can’t talk right now, Mummy. I’m doing medicine on a black girl from a council estate, and my hands are dripping with her poor, black blood.”) The pleasures are part translation—Blake’s clown doctor becoming a French mime doctor—and part sendup of Britishness. It’s hard to imagine another live-action show giving a whole episode to characters who will never be seen again, the ultimate demonstration of Childrens’ shape-shifting.

A Kid Walks Into A Hospital…” (season four, episode nine)

Short of the Wachowski sisters, it should be a moot point for writers to propose crafting a “we’re all connected” network narrative in the wake of “A Kid Walks Into A Hospital.” The main plot has to do with Sy preparing to battle his ex-wife, an assassin who has pledged to kill him by that very date. Meanwhile, Valerie rubs Blake’s face in her relationship with Glenn, and Lola’s younger sister Maxine (Abigail Spencer again) tries to steal Owen from her. There are lots of funny gags along the way, such as Lola donning a skeleton costume to sneak through the halls (it’s so successful, all we see is an actual skeleton), but the ending is the whammy. In a speech about connections, life, and purpose, the episode pushes self-seriousness into outright silliness, thereby eulogizing a pervasive brand of hackery in both movies and television.

The Gang Gets Sushi” (season five, episode six)

Starting with “Previously on…” footage that, disappointingly, has actually previously been on Childrens Hospital, “The Gang Gets Sushi” is a good representation of season five. The story of Lola getting drafted into a secret government intelligence operation is funny in places, but it doesn’t feel like Childrens Hospital. Action is a genre Childrens would keep returning to in the final few seasons, no matter how awkwardly it fits the show’s structure. A conspiracy-plot episode has to do with tongue depressors, the jewelry-heist installment centers on a billionaire patient, and the almost-dystopian episode arises out of an outbreak, but “The Gang Gets Sushi” doesn’t need to be about a hospital at all.

Fan Fiction” (season six, episode four)

Introduced by David Wain (as Childrens Hospital director David Wain) and Liz Cackowski (as Childrens Hospital viewer Carol Torton), “Fan Fiction” delivers an episode written by contest winner Torton, who has never written for television but who has written a ton of fan fiction. Thus begins an episode—which Torton titles “The Lovers, The Fighters, The Heroes (Or Who Cures The Doctor But The Moon And Blood?)”—centered on tertiary character Nurse Beth and featuring strong parallels to Twilight. Actually written by Megan Amram, the prose couldn’t be purpler: “I am in love with Dr. Owen Maestro. He is as gorgeous as the languorous summer if the fall never arrived to wipe the poppies and Indian paintbrush into oblivion.” Moody visuals and a piano score follow suit, and the result is a clunky, passionate, brilliant promotion of a longtime supporting player.

The Show You Watch” (season seven, episode five)

The surprise of the final season is a parody so immaculate and singular, it stands head to head with the best episodes of the show’s peak years. Broadcast in dull black-and-white with a boxy aspect ratio warped to resemble old, curved TV tubes, “The Show You Watch” purports to be an episode of the ’50s variety show that eventually gave rise to Childrens Hospital via a recurring sketch called “The Childrens Hospital.” Toby Huss plays host Rex Hilliard, Blake plays a more traditional clown, and the other actors play characters in a Titanic sketch that lampoons classic sitcom representations of marriage (“Very funny,” Rex says afterward, “but a lot of people did in fact die on that boat”). There’s a musical sequence in which Marino’s character tries to find a girl who wants his pickle, and a dramatic doctor scene. From the language to the look, “The Show You Watch” delights in the details, giving us one last spectacular television parody on its way out the door.

And if you like those, here are 10 more: “Joke Overload,” (season two, episode five); “The Sultan’s Finger,” (season two, episode 12); “Ward 8,” (season three, episode two); “Childrens Hospital: A Play In Three Acts,” (season three, episode nine); “The Night Shift,” (season three, episode 11); “Newsreaders,” (season three, episode 14); “The Return Of The Young Billionaire,” (season four, episode six); “A Year In The Life,” (season four, episode 10); “Me, Owen,” (season six, episode 11); “One Million Saved,” (season seven, episode two).

Availability: Seasons one through five are available for purchase on DVD, and the complete series is available for digital purchase on Amazon and iTunes.