To what extent do we want Home Movies to be about, you know, the movies? I think about this a lot when I’m watching the show, and my answer changes from week to week. The movies are a hook—a solid hook, but nonetheless an element of the show that only informs the characters of Brendon, Melissa, and Jason to a point. The peeks into their basement-backlot lives are only a single facet of Home Movies, one that provides depth to the series and only occasionally drives its stories. But had the conceptual winds blown in a different direction while Brendon Small and Loren Bouchard were developing the series, the kids could’ve taken up any number of other creative outlets. Heavy metal, for instance, or the culinary arts.
And yet the filmmaking exploits of Brendon et al. are inextricable from Home Movies. They’re one of the show’s most reliable sources of laughs: It’s funny to watch the kids grapple with the mechanics of a complicated heist picture or an ambitious space opera—ideas typically gleaned from other films. And even during the most fantastical productions, each time Brendon steps behind the camera, he, Melissa, and Jason are presenting a skewed perspective on their own world, one that’s best (and amusingly) translated through camcorder opuses. Home Movies could’ve still been a good animated comedy without the filmmaking interludes, but it’s a great show because of them.
“Class Trip” (season two, episode nine; originally aired 3/3/2002)
I imagine the biggest challenge of the filmmaking sequences is how they isolate three of the show’s main characters from the rest of the cast. It’s almost as if Home Movies’ rich crop of supporting players was developed out of necessity: For Brendon, Melissa, and Jason to spend the majority of “Class Trip” making the diamond-heist movie, the writers need characters like Walter, Perry, Fenton, and Ken Adleberg to throw comedic and dramatic obstacles in front of Paula and Mr. Lynch. And Coach McGuirk needs to be enough of a fleshed-out character to merit a storyline of his own. While it relies heavily on the most fundamental, logline-ready part of Home Movies—protagonist and amateur filmmaker Brendon Small shoots a movie with his two best friends and collaborators—it requires 21 episodes of background to make an episode like “Class Trip” work.
“Class Trip” is built like a Seinfeld episode, with three parallel storylines humming along, their players vaguely aware of their proximity—before BLAM! All three threads collide in an explosive finale, set here in the coffeeshop where McGuirk takes a part-time job/pays ironic penance for his latest rage-induced misdeed. (He threw a busted coffee machine out of a window and into the principal’s car.) The episode continues season two’s experiments in structure, commenting along the way on the suspension of disbelief required for a farcical setup like this to work. “I know this is only a sitcom, but nobody can be that stupid” Brendon says to Paula while the two watch TV—though he could just as easily be talking about the hotel guest who mistakes Jason for a legit bellhop or the two restaurant managers who buy Coach McGuirk’s trumped-up résumés.
I’m not entirely convinced that this is a format that works for Home Movies, however. There are great episodes of this show that put a lot of space between its principals—once more, “Shore Leave” leaps to mind, but that episode uses Coach McGuirk to thread together the kids’ solo adventures, as he runs into Melissa at the mall and ultimately delivers Brendon and Melissa from their respective personal hells. Once “Class Trip” arrives at the hotel, its threads are sealed off from one another—good for the diamond-heist movie and the disastrous field trip, but bad for McGuirk’s trials and tribulations as an astronaut-helmeted barista. There’s a lot of potential humor in McGuirk interacting with the outside world, but H. Jon Benjamin isn’t given the right scene partner here. With his authority stripped away and placed into the hands of Val Kappa’s bubble-headed Clarice, the coach just isn’t the coach—Clarice forces him to be the straightman in the Galaxy Coffee scenes, and though it’s fun to see Benjamin’s range put to the test, there isn’t a lot of chemistry between the two. It’s not until the kids show up and start exposing the lies of “Brendon Small” (there’s some nice attention to detail in McGuirk’s assumed first and last names being included on his name tag) that the character is allowed to be his sputtering, shady-but-loveable best.
Paula and Lynch, meanwhile, have the benefit of being stranded with four of the show’s surest wild cards: Walter, Perry, Fenton, and Ken Adelberg. Some words of praise for Ken, a man who’s occupied a different position every time we’ve seen him this season: He could’ve lapsed into a “naïve foreigner” stereotype, but instead he’s Home Movies’ bright-eyed, incomprehensible equivalent to Taxi’s Latka Gravas. Ken’s characterization isn’t robust enough to carry a storyline of his own—in “Class Trip,” he exists solely to misunderstand and to be misunderstood—but he shines in a supporting role, a man dedicated to such seemingly insignificant matters as the proper folding of the last piece on a toilet paper roll. His dedication and by-the-book treatment of his hotel job just kills me—it’s dry as sandpaper, but Small’s marble-mouthed vocalization and the schlubby character design do the trick, and he keeps the field-trip plot in motion once Brendon’s disappearance throws Paula and Lynch into full-on panic mode.
And all that frees Brendon, Melissa, and Jason to focus on filmmaking, a process that requires all the stealth and close calls of an actual heist movie. This storyline is as heavily plotted as Home Movies gets, a rare instance where the beats of the story—Jason donning the bellhop disguise, Brendon finagling his way into a hotel room, everyone being caught by the room’s guests—dictate more of the laughs than character. The main exception is Brendon’s failure to memorize his lines, foreshadowing a similar failure to commitment in “History.” It’s a different feel for the show, but one that works for the episode, a caper where Home Movies dons its own disguise and makes a fairly clean getaway.
- Those who contend that punning is the lowest form of humor haven’t had to grit their teeth through enough jokes about coffee, like the “caffeine copilot” schtick that McGuirk’s bearded colleague trots out before the coffee machine itself takes flight. It’s just such a universal, “Did you notice this?” type of gag, the province of people who think they’re funny (but aren’t) and the scene captures that sense perfectly.
- Prime Jason material: Returning to the subject of his laminated permission slip long after it’s been dropped.
- “There’s been a little monkey thrown into the mix” “I think you mean monkey wrench.”—Brendon’s problems apparently go beyond Paula volunteering to chaperone the hotel trip.
- Ken Adelberg, hotel comedian: “Now I want to show you how to turn down a bed, if he ever ask you to do something.”
“History” (season two, episode 10; originally aired 3/10/2002)
(Available on Netflix and Amazon)
Unlike “Class Trip,” “History” announces itself as a different kind of Home Movies episode from the get go. What plays out in those opening scenes with the evil, factually fuzzy George Washington, Annie Oakley, and Pablo Picasso isn’t a work in progress—Starboy And The Captain Of Outer Space is in the can. It would have to be, since its production process has been playing out in the background for the previous nine episodes. The choice to weave a finished movie into the fabric of “History” has a huge impact on Brendon’s storyline: There’s a great blurring of reality in this half-hour, as it’s only clear in the end that the version of Starboy on display isn’t all in Brendon’s head. Either way, it’s evident that this movie detaches our Junior George Lucas from reality to a greater degree than usual. The higher production values (Check out that title sequence! And the glowing eyes of Duane’s Mr. Pants costume) and greater commitment to continuity go one step further toward illustrating that the making of Starboy was a more involved, time- and attention-consuming process than the average Small production.
Fittingly, Starboy and The Captain Of Outer Space’s interstellar escapades operate on their own comedic wavelength. The kids’ filmmaking opened a lot of genre-hopping doors for Home Movies’ writers, animators, and performers, and “History” afforded them the chance to work out all sorts of pent-up sci-fi aspirations. It’s only appropriate that Brendon’s latest is highly derivative of the comic book he pages through during a “tutoring” session with McGuirk: Starboy’s rigid sense of right and wrong and its pulpy dialogue belong in three colors. Its world could only be more of a Home Movies analog to Calvin And Hobbes’ “Spaceman Spiff” if the animation took on a starker realism as “History” alternates between Starboy and Brendon’s home and school lives.
But Brendon’s IRL distraction finds its way into Starboy, too, and the heroes’ inability to stay on task contributes a lot of laughs to “History”’s movie sequences. H. Jon Benjamin received an “Additional material provided by” credit for this episode, so I have to wonder if he wasn’t feeling a little squirrelly in the recording booth—especially considering The Captain Of Outer Space’s “seriously, we should stop screwing around and find out how hot dogs are made” declaration. Or maybe those contributions are part of the episode’s illusion of digressiveness: After all, the most tangential of Starboy developments—“The Compliment Song”—ends up being the key to defeating Mr. Pants and saving the human race. (That’s a joke in line with Starboy’s origins as a long-in-the-works callback, a rewarding “Eureka!” moment for those who’ve been paying close attention to the buildup.) Starboy and The Captain Of Outer Space are hilariously ineffectual heroes, apathetic to the safety of Shakespeare, Oliver Twist, and The Mermaid Queen—but they get the job done.
The movie segments are the most extensive the show has yet to try; we not only see the beginning and end of Starboy, but we see a majority of what happens in between, too. According to the audio commentary on the episode, that put a huge strain on the animation department, which took on extra work each time a script put a character in multiple costumes. But those additional labors also provide the most visually engaging Home Movies to date: Starboy and The Captain Of Outer Space get a great, space-age design—all fins and antennas, helmets and goggles—and I love the little touches like Annie Oakley’s inflatable horse and the attempt to give Jason’s Picasso a cubist face. Keeping that extra work in mind, it’s no wonder one exchange between Brendon and Paula is played out as reflections in a TV screen: Stretching out the characters’ faces and layering some reflective texture over them would’ve been a welcome break from having to scrawl all the scenic details of the Jefferson Spaceplane or the evil historical figures’ hideout.
And it’s not like the art team had to abandon its pre-existing designs for the entire episode—it takes a while to get to that first scene in Mr. Lynch’s class, but the real-life scenes are still plentiful—and essential—to “History.” (Sort of the reverse of what was discussed up top.) There are no behind-the-scenes conversations between the kids in this episode, but there’s a crucial amount of background laid out in Brendon’s interactions with the adults in his life, background that sets up strong Starboy gags like the heroes’ absentmindedness and the villains’ garbled biographies. Brendon’s not paying attention in history, McGuirk’s “tutoring” is feeding him faulty information, so voilà: A George Washington who assassinated Abraham Lincoln and an Annie Oakley who’s one part Annie Get Your Gun and one part just plain Annie. (With Jason’s Daddy Warbucks getup meaning one more costume on the artists’ itinerary.) Meanwhile, McGuirk’s feeling abandoned by Brendon once more—and if there’s one thing the coach is equipped to teach Brendon, it’s the manipulation that’s channeled into “The Compliment Song.” The depths to which Brendon’s non-soccer activities push McGuirk in season two didn’t occur to me until this rewatch; you can even read his fraying connection to the kid into the chronic insomnia inflicted on the character next week.
“History” comes down to a question of priorities, and Brendon’s inability to balance schoolwork and movie work results in him losing the camera for two weeks. It’s returned before the next episode begins, but both parts of this week’s doubleheader suggest the escapism of filmmaking has reached an untenable point for the character. Starboy And The Captain Of Outer Space might be Brendon’s best work to date (and even his best work confuses Paula), but other parts of his life are suffering because of it. He has plenty of reasons to want to fly away on the Jefferson Spaceplane and never return, but the coming weeks hold some harsh truths that aren’t as easily ignored as a history test.
- Scäb’s insistence that Starboy and The Captain Of Outer Space are actual brothers made its way into the final cut. Did their insolence over that plot point lead to transitional music that’s merely recycled bits of the Franz Kafka rock opera? (There’s a lot of musical reconstitution going on in “History”: The arrangement of “The Compliment Song” is more or less “The Birthday Song”; the score for the trip to the hot-dog factory sounds an awful lot like “Jason’s Theme.” Maybe all of the good musical ideas were used up by the time Brendon Small decided to punctuate every word in “The Captain Of Outer Space” with ray-gun sounds?)
- Another nice touch from the art department: A Polaroid of Washington, Oakley, and Picasso serves as Brendon’s solution for replicating the Phantom Zone from Superman II.
- Best lyric of the episode: “They’re rascally badgers of medium girth / they’re shaping the planet and also the Earth” or “You have very nice cheek bones / Now help me cosign this bank loan”?
- Junior Adelberg gives his father a run for his money with a simple mispronunciation of “multiplication.”
- Missed opportunity: Not incorporating “The Pope’s cousin, Count Popula, a magical monster with pencils for arms” into Starboy And The Captain Of Outer Space.
- This week in “John McGuirk says more about himself than he realizes: “Did they ask you anything about Sam Adams? I know about him. He was a brewer and a patriot.”
- Brendon is an equal-opportunity filmmaker: “Nobody can beat us, Starboy. Not even our forefathers.” “Or our foremothers.”