About two years ago, I got an e-mail asking whether I would be interested in appearing on Switch, a sketchy-sounding Canadian basic-cable panel show about cheesy old television shows, alongside luminaries like Erik Estrada and Jimmie “J.J.” Walker. I believe my immediate reaction was, “Oh, fuck yes.”
As soon as I reached the set in Toronto, Erik Estrada gave me a giant bear hug for no discernible reason and began joking to everyone within earshot that he was going to have me fitted for a toupee like his own. For reasons known only to breakout stars of CHiPs, Estrada does not wear a toupee, yet likes to pretend that he does. I thought, for the first and perhaps last time, “Oh my God, Erik Estrada is totally invading my personal space. And we haven’t even been introduced!”
It was, as you might imagine, a surreal experience, especially once Estrada began talking about how he now toiled as a Virginia deputy who specialized in foiling cyber-sex crimes, and pontificated on how exactly people became sex criminals. It all began, he insisted, with them masturbating vigorously to Playboy as teenagers. But this was not enough, and soon, these reprobates were raping 12-month-olds. Mr. Estrada, who does not appear overly encumbered by self-consciousness or restraint, then began pantomiming a child molester raping a toddler. Have I mentioned that this was, on the whole, an odd experience?
Mr. Estrada and Mr. Walker were guests on Switch as living embodiments of television’s past. They were, in effect, human reruns. It was hard to conceive of them as anything other than flickering images on a black-and-white television screen, even as they sat next to me during lunch, telling stories and basking in their fading celebrity. In a weird sort of way, this modern version of Estrada and Walker seemed somehow inauthentic: It was as if the real Walker was the skinny 19-year-old hollering “Dynomite!” to the delight of an ecstatic studio audience, and the pudgy middle-aged man sitting next to me was a faded Xerox.
The remarkable thing about Switch is that it was an original program that did not contain even the faintest vestige of originality. The format was as simple as it was fatally flawed. A panel of pop-culture talking heads and a superstar celebrity guest like Estrada or Walker would simply jibber-jabber for half an hour about all the crazy, campy television shows of yesteryear. The show aired on Canada’s equivalent to TV Land, a world where television’s history was recycled on a daily basis, and to paraphrase William Faulkner, the past didn’t go anywhere; it wasn’t even the past.
I came to think that we were living in the age of the rerun. In the past decade, reruns have gone from being a lucrative ancillary revenue stream to an aesthetic that brings the best and worst of the past into the future, both in its original form, and through countless television and movie remakes/updates. This isn’t inherently a bad thing: I don’t want to live in a world where The Simpsons isn’t constantly rerunning. My greatest fear is that my children won’t like The Simpsons. What on Earth would we talk about, then? Christ, The Simpsons has already colonized about 20 percent of my psyche.
On my final day on the Switch set—I taped four episodes and watched two more being filmed before flying back to Chicago—I sat in the green room and thumbed through an authorized biography of Butch Patrick—the episode’s superstar celebrity guest—called Eddie Munster AKA Butch Patrick. It was one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen. It was written in the gushing, adoring tone of a puff piece, yet it betrayed an infinite darkness and turmoil in its subject’s life. There was, for example, a passage explaining that Patrick was quite the lothario during his teenage years, and once slept with eight women in a single weekend, including David Cassidy’s girlfriend, and that because birth control wasn’t as common as it is today, Patrick ended up paying for seven or eight abortions. After the sixth abortion, I’d imagine that even the Pope would counsel Patrick, “For fuck’s sake, man, use a goddamned condom! They aren’t that bad!” Again, bear in mind that this was all conveyed in the fluffy tenor of an admiring People profile.
Mr. Patrick himself perambulated into the green room at one point, and one of my co-panelists asked him about Lidsville, a Sid and Marty Krofft production he starred in as a teenager trapped in a fantastical land inhabited by sentient hats. “Aw man,” Patrick enthused, “we were totally fucking baked half the time we were taping that show.” I found that hard to believe: Who genuinely thinks anyone even vaguely associated with a puppet show about a land of sentient hats was sober even a tiny percentage of the time?
Sid and Marty Krofft were famous (and infamous) as the warped impresarios behind a slew of shows made for children by adults on drugs. It’d be tempting to say that many of the shows had a psychedelic subtext, but the drug content was so prevalent that it barely qualified as subtext. In an especially brazen move, one of the pair’s biggest, most beloved hits was called H.R. Pufnstuff, a name only slightly more subtle than S.S. GettingTotallyBaked. Lidsville was only slightly more restrained, since a lid is drug slang for an ounce of pot.
The Kroffts’ drug-addled puppet fantasias seldom lasted more than a few seasons, yet they attained a strange second life in syndication. It’s safe to say that most people familiar with shows like H.R. Pufnstuf, Lidsville, and perhaps the Kroffts’ magnum opus, Land Of The Lost, know them from reruns. The Kroffts’ trippy creations bewitched stoners as well as naïve children who grew up to become film executives convinced that studio films should emulate the reruns they grew up with. Why take a chance with an original script when you can simply plug bankable movie stars into big-screen remakes of cheesy old television shows?
That seems to be the thinking behind last year’s disastrous Land Of The Lost film. The children’s show took place in a crazy time-warp alternate universe where a park ranger’s family were trapped in a barren land inhabited by dinosaurs, monkey-people known as Pakuni, and a race of humanoid lizards known as Sleestaks. The lumbering monstrosity that is the film version of Land Of The Lost seems to inhabit a time warp of its own: It transforms the cheesy television of yesterday into a modern film to be consumed vacantly by the undiscriminating audiences of tomorrow.
The thinking, I suppose, was that adults who grew up on Land Of The Lost and the Kroffts’ other puppety mindfucks would take their children to the film. Then again, it’s perhaps unwise to ascribe logic to a project this misbegotten. The filmmakers seemed to have many conflicting visions for the film, all of them terrible. They wanted to, in order:
- spoof Land Of The Lost for adults now hip and savvy enough to recognize the show’s fundamental ridiculousness
- create a comic Jurassic Park full of dinosaurs and derring-do
- use Land Of The Lost as a flimsy springboard for a generic Will Ferrell comedy
- turn Land Of The Lost into a stoner comedy filled with naughty asides and wink-wink drug references
- make a goofball Star Wars, complete with a convoluted mythology pitting good against evil, with lots of expensive yet depressingly cheap-looking special effects
The filmmakers couldn’t decide which terrible path to follow, so they limply combined all five ideas into an unpalatable, tedious mess that was widely rejected by critics and audiences alike. It never came close to making back its $100 million budget, and was roundly and justly panned.
Land Of The Lost opens with Will Ferrell’s pompous scientist being humiliated by Matt Lauer during a Today Show interview during which Ferrell proposes a controversial and widely mocked theory about alternate universes and time warps. We then flash-forward three years. A disgraced Ferrell now tries to numb his pain with overeating. This is the subject of three mildly amusing moments. It’s never an encouraging sign when you can pinpoint the several moderately clever bits in a $100 million comedy starring two of the funniest people in the world (Ferrell and costar Danny McBride). With that in mind, here are the only moments in the film that brought me to the verge of a mild chuckle:
- A depressed Ferrell eats a donut with M&M’s inside, reasoning that once you’re done with the donut, you don’t have to eat additional M&M’s.
- Ferrell defends his love of A Chorus Line with the words, “I love showtunes. They really tell the story of the human condition.”
- A stoned Ferrell tells Jorma Taccone’s hideous ape-man that his love for Taccone is a thousand times Jesus’ love for humanity as he hung upon the cross.
Those three moments, which together amount to maybe a minute of screen time, constitute an oasis of moderate comic invention in a vast, sprawling, laugh-free desert. Ferrell begins to get his groove back when Anna Friel, a beautiful young scientist who believes deeply in him and his theories, pays him a visit. Friel and Ferrell end up at a cut-rate tourist trap run by McBride, where they fall through some crazy cosmic portal and end up in the Land Of The Lost.
As a television-addicted child of the ’80s, I vaguely recall watching a few episodes of the original series, but all I could remember was a father and his two children wandering around a barren wasteland and occasionally encountering a mythical creature of some sort. There had to be more to it than that, right? Brad Silberling’s abysmal big-screen adaptation suggests otherwise. Vast stretches of Land Of The Lost are devoted to nothing more scintillating than Ferrell, McBride, Friel, and Taccone’s horny monkey-man bantering lamely while walking around a space desert. Eventually, a plot of sorts develops, as an evil Sleestak leader schemes to create a portal that will allow his evil minions to conquer Earth. But there’s never any sense of danger or suspense. Everyone seems to be glumly going through the motions, recycling the tics and mannerisms they developed in far worthier fare.
McBride, for example, has cornered the market on playing redneck shit-kickers puffed full of delusional pride and unearned arrogance. In Eastbound & Down, his brilliant, Ferrell-produced HBO series, the hillbilly minstrelsy of his mulleted-jackass shtick was leavened by his palpable affection for the character and a refreshing sense of cultural specificity. McBride’s major-league has-been is a raging asshole, but he’s oddly loveable all the same. Land Of The Lost has none of that: He’s reduced to doing facile shtick, a piss-poor imitation of his most famous creation.
Like Ray Harryhausen, the Kroffts’ whimsical gifts to kids and stoners benefited from a homemade sense of craft. The duo’s puppets were charming in no small part because of their lumbering awkwardness. So it’s supremely counterproductive to replace the Kroffts’ deeply personal world of felt and strings with lazy CGI effects.
To add a maraschino cherry onto the five-scoop hot-fudge sundae of pointlessness that is Land Of The Lost, Mr. Show already delivered the ultimate parody of the Kroffts in its beloved sketch “The Altered State Of Druggachusettes.”
In its bid to appeal to kids and adults, Land Of The Lost ends up appealing to neither. It’s too smutty and dull for children, and too stupid and juvenile for adults. In attempting to appeal to everyone, the film ended up appealing to just about no one. Oh well. Hopefully the Kroffts will have better luck with a big-screen adaptation of Lidsville. Now that will blow some fucking minds.
Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Failure