“Dad” (season two, episode five; originally aired 2/17/2002)/“Therapy” (season two, episode six; originally aired 2/24/2002)
Louis C.K. is not the first name conjured by the term “voice actor.” Sure, as a stand-up, he’s mastered the art of comedic inflection and emphasis, and he has a few go-to character voices—like the whiny sneer he employs to portray anyone who’s annoyed him, be they a person on the street or his own daughters. But The Top Comedian in The Game Today™ isn’t noted for his vocal range, even if it stretches from a low grumble to fever-pitched exasperation.
His acting range, however, is criminally underrated. The man born (and credited in “Dad” and “Therapy” as) Louis Szekeley has carried entire episodes of Louie, and his time as Parks And Recreation’s Officer Dave demonstrates that he’s not the type of stand-up who books acting gigs simply by playing multiple variations of himself. When you hire Louis C.K., you’re hiring a certain personality, a particular point of view, and even if his speaking voice isn’t all that distinctive, his comedic voice is—and it can contain multitudes.
In that way, C.K. is similar to Home Movies star H. Jon Benjamin. The realization that an animated character is speaking with Benjamin’s sonorous tones and wry delivery comes quicker than, say, the recognition that Louis C.K. is voicing Home Movie’s Andrew Small; however, it’s no stretch to say that Coach McGuirk, Sterling Archer, and Bob Belcher all have the same voice. Benjamin isn’t a vocal chameleon of the Mel Blanc, June Foray, or Frank Welker variety—the variations in his performances are in the characterizations, the nuances that separate McGuirk and Archer’s unique kinds of psychic damage. Superficially, there’s a lot in common between Benjamin’s method of portraying Archer’s affinity for animals and the immediate, over-protective (and misplaced) affection McGuirk shows for Sick Eddie in “Dad.” But they come from different places, emotionally, and that has as much to do with writing as it does with Benjamin’s performances. Many of Archer’s issues stem from daddy issues, while McGuirk frequently oversteps his bounds because he unconsciously wants to be a father figure—and I believe you can hear that in the subtleties of Benjamin’s performances. There’s that added giddiness to the way Archer talks to Babou; McGuirk’s interactions with Eddie are much calmer, almost soothing. His ability to do such surgical work in the recording booth is why Benjamin is The Hardest Working Man in the Voice Business™ in spite of the fact that his most iconic characters all speak in the same, sardonic, slightly nasally basso.
The H. Jon Benjamin persona didn’t exist when “Dad” and “Therapy” premièred, however—though an appearance during the first season of Aqua Teen Hunger Force as Mothmonsterman went a ways toward bolstering his post-Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist reputation—and the Louis C.K. type wasn’t a known quantity, either. In 2002, C.K. was still largely an underground phenomenon, revered by comedy nerds and held in esteem by early converts to the cult of Pootie Tang. Today, thanks to Louie and innovations in direct-to-consumer sales, fortune and the comedy gods smile upon C.K.; it’s a due triumph, but one that throws a hazy “Before They Were Famous” lens over his excellent work as Brendon Small’s prodigal father. He had plenty of road experience under his belt, and a Comedy Central Presents special to his name, but the original audience for “Dad” and “Therapy” probably knew C.K. best as the redheaded Dr. Katz patient who introduced the notion of “extra jail.”
It’s fitting that there’s so much overlap between Home Movies and Dr. Katz: The former series’ cast of characters is a psychological powder keg. Brendon has abandonment issues stemming from Andrew, Paula’s a knot of anxiety, and McGuirk’s, well, McGuirk—maladjusted, malcontent, and malcoholic. [Rim shot.] I can’t recall if this should be attributed to Loren Bouchard or Brendon Small, but one of the show’s co-creators once observed that Walter and Perry are the only truly happy characters in the Home Movies universe. That observation plays out across this week’s two-parter, most visible in Brendon’s storyline: He’s reunited with his absent father, but that reunion brings him no more closer to the man. In fact, the presence of Andrew’s new girlfriend/prospective fiancée, Linda (voiced to icy perfection by returning player/Dr. Katz holdover Laura Silverman) makes Brendon feel so ignored by his dad that he channels those emotions into a medieval period piece about a king who’s shrinking out of existence. Of course, that’s just the diagnosis of the Smalls’ family therapist, the ponytail behind a revolutionary breakthrough in New Age passive-aggression, Gentle Talk.
“Dad” is a major episode in the grand scheme of Home Movies, and it initiates the plot that carries the second season to completion. It bears so much thematic weight that it has to bleed over into “Therapy,” in which an activity intended to resolve conflict between the Smalls only breeds more discontent. It’s reminiscent of McGuirk’s anger-management sessions in the first-season finale; considering that parallel, as well as the gravity of Brendon picking up the phone to speak with his unseen father at the end of “Brendon’s Choice,” it’s curious that this unofficial two-parter was held until the middle of season two. Maybe there was a scheduling conflict with C.K.; maybe Bouchard and the real-life Small wanted to hold off on plumbing these depths in order to set Paula’s unemployment arc in motion while scattering Starboy Easter eggs. The again, maybe it was decided that diving straight into “Dad” and “Therapy”—the latter of which is a real emotional horror show at times—would start the second season off on too much of a down note.
That said, “Dad” is one of my personal picks for Home Movies’ funniest episodes; while Brendon is put through the emotional wringer, he gets off a lot of fun asides and one-liners. (The character’s exclamation of “Good morning to me!” in response to seeing Linda in her revealing pajamas has always stuck with me, for some reason. This run of episodes turns Brendon into quite the little rake, doesn’t it?) “Dad” is notable for the way it excludes the other principals for most of its running time—the later scenes from Brendon’s everyday life are useful gauges for the character’s frame of mind, but the episode is squarely about fumbling to connect. C.K. does a great job of portraying Andrew’s eagerness to get to know Brendon, all the while embodying a lack of fatherly knowledge and tendency toward distraction. The show’s deftness with vaudevillian misunderstandings is channeled hilariously into the “What’s up? / Nothing—I thought we just covered this” gag—but the phone calls Andrew keeps taking are just one more piece in the Shrink King puzzle.
Being more rigorous with storytelling gives Home Movies a weirdly accelerated metabolism. The process of Brendon acclimating to his second (or third, more accurately) family is smartly spread between two episodes, but it also requires an uncomfortable condensing of the two-parter’s timeline. Brendon is rushed out the door to get to Andrew’s; the conflicts that are suggested in “Dad” are already full-blown dysfunction by the time of “Therapy.” It’s not like we need the blow-by-blow of how the Smalls 2.0 ended up being subjected to Gentle Talk—it’s just that the speed with which these two episodes move inspires an unexpected longing for the slack pacing of the Squigglevision era.
In contrast to my general “it’s all in the details” take on Home Movies (and all that stuff up top about Louis C.K. and H. Jon Benjamin), “Dad” and “Therapy” are more “forest for the trees” affairs. These are broad statement episodes for Home Movies, half-hours that show off the series’ desire to upend accepted wisdom and think outside traditional structures. They’re a pair of episodes that reinforce the foundations of the families we choose (like the one that encircles the kids, Paula, and McGuirk), demonstrating that while such groups are given to disagreement and conflict, that doesn’t make them any less functional, healthy, or legitimate than our actual families. Brendon rails against feel-good therapy like Gentle Talk; chatting with McGuirk on the sidelines leads to fewer repressed feelings, even if the coach thinks “there’s no such thing as psychology.” (Or astronomy.) The true antagonist of Home Movies isn’t Linda, Fenton, or Shannon—it’s the prescribed way of doing things. And that extends to its voice casting, too.
- McGuirk’s “Big Brother” plot is on-the-nose, but it gets a great prelude from an un-commented-upon McGuirk aggressively swerving in front of Andrew’s car near the beginning of “Dad.” Sick Eddie makes for a poor substitute-Brendon, but there’s a sweetness in the way McGuirk, brashly ignorant when it comes to the specifics of the kid’s ailments, defends and protects him. And then the coach blasts Eddie in the face with a soccer ball, and Home Movies gets one of its most twisted visual punchlines: The heartbreaking sight of Eddie’s toothless smile. He’s so happy, but it’s so sad.
- We can get deeper into this at a later date, but Silverman does an excellent job of distinguishing Linda from the other adults on Home Movies, simply by condescending to Brendon.
- Any two-parter linked by spit takes—Brendon’s responses to “I think I’m going to ask Linda to marry me” and “We found a big roadblock in the family, and that road block is right there”—earns my seal of approval. I should anticipate the second one—there’s no reason for Brendon to have a cup in his hand during the therapy session—but it gets me every time.
- Another nice touch: Linda and Brendon’s rapid-fire “You don’t have to go to therapy—but I think a person like you really should” conversation gets a laugh track from the Smalls’ living-room TV. There’s even some applause to go with its tongue-tying climax.
- Small & Small, the modern-day Abbott & Costello, do their world-famous “telescope bit”: “Can you see the stars?” “Those people are famous?” (Side note: C.K. earns his entire paycheck with the disappointment he puts into Andrew’s voice when answering the Rear Window-inspired question “Did you ever see a murder?”)
- Brendon and McGuirk recognize that no one talks about gum disease in real life: “It’s called gingivitis.” “Like on TV.” “Right, or in the movies.”
- Brendon’s mind is all over the place this week: Paula: “I don’t think you’re melon-chested, Brendon.” Brendon: “Well, maybe ‘melon-chested’ is the wrong word, but I am messed up.”
- Paula’s misgivings about Andrew’s remarriage add another layer of “melon-chested” to these episodes, but they can also be summed up in this single, deadpan line: “There’s nothing wrong with reacting to your father remarrying. I’ve been doing it all week.” [Drinks.]
- A conversation between patient and therapist, or show and critic?: “Hey look, let’s not over-analyze this.” “I have to.”