“Get Away From My Mom” (season 1, episode 1; originally aired 4/26/1999)
Bearing the headline “Animation’s New Wave,” the cover of the July 12, 1997 edition of TV Guide finds three of the period’s cartoon icons—Hank Hill, Daria, and Dr. Jonathan Katz—riding high on a giant swell. (Noticeably absent: any of the kids from South Park, who were little more than a month away from making their debut on Comedy Central.) The magazine’s focus on primetime animation wasn’t a cheap excuse to fill empty pages during dead summer months—the mid-to-late ’90s was a legitimate boom time for cartoons on TV, particularly those aimed at teenaged and adult audiences. On Fox, King Of The Hill succeeded where shows like The Critic had failed, proving that fans of The Simpsons were willing to tune in for an additional half-hour of animated fare every week. Cable, however, was a more cultish realm, where Daria offered a cerebral take on Beavis And Butt-Head’s “young and bored in the suburbs” milieu, and Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist gave middle America a glimpse into the alternative comedy scenes bubbling up on the country’s East and West Coasts. Stay up later into the night, and you were bound to trip over the fringier, stoner-friendly likes of Duckman, The Head, and Space Ghost Coast To Coast. In particular, Space Ghost Coast To Coast argued that a significant number of people with attention spans shortened by excessive television viewing, illicit substances, or bouts of insomnia (or combinations thereof) were willing to stay up into the wee hours of the night to enjoy the digressive, irreverent offerings of animators based outside the entertainment hubs of Los Angeles or New York City.
Then came South Park, a pop-cultural event that, like The Simpsons before it, resonated deeply in the collective imagination (and T-shirt collections) of Americans under the age of 40. Comedy Central’s ability to generate big profits from such a crudely put-together endeavor was a tipping point for primetime animation. Trey Parker and Matt Stone stood at the peak of a golden age that eventually gave itself over to diminishing returns, as Fox, The WB, and UPN attempted to replicate the success of South Park through flimsy adaptations of daily comic strips—Dilbert, Baby Blues—and more idiosyncratic, creator-driven series—Family Guy, Futurama, Mission Hill, The Oblongs, Home Movies—that seemed like they were better suited to air alongside Tad Ghostal and his merry band of intergalactic idiots.
Of the seven shows listed above, six would eventually help Cartoon Network fill the gaps in the earliest versions of its Adult Swim lineup. Between new episodes of Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Harvey Birdman, Attorney At Law, the shows were reborn—sometimes literally. A combination of DVD sales and Adult Swim ratings eventually resuscitated Family Guy, enabling the show to form the bedrock of Fox’s current Animation Domination bloc. Following four feature-length adventures with the Planet Express crew, Futurama found a new home on Comedy Central, where it’s currently in its seventh or eighth season, depending on how you count its 13-episode chunks of new programming.
Appropriate for its low-key vibe, Home Movies was saved from the scrap heap by Adult Swim, but it never became the runaway success of Family Guy, Futurama, or even its squiggly precursor, Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist. Yet the powers that be at Cartoon Network allowed Brendon Small and Loren Bouchard’s coming-of-age tale to play out the unaired remainder of its prematurely axed first season, eventually ordering three additional seasons that both expanded and improved upon the format established in those first 13 episodes. Family Guy and Futurama may have established Adult Swim as a television force to be reckoned with, but its history as a basic-cable Lazarus Pit begins with Small’s animated alter ego, a handheld camcorder, and a measured dose of yelling from H. Jon Benjamin. The work that currently flies under the Adult Swim banner—including Small’s own Metalocalypse— might not reflect it, but Home Movies is as crucial to the development of the bloc as anything that Williams Street Studios constructed from discarded Hanna-Barbera cartoons.
Flashing back to the spring of 1999, however, it’s easy to see how primetime viewers never warmed to Home Movies. For one thing, precious little happens in “Get Away From My Mom”; pint-sized filmmakers Brendon, Jason (voiced by Benjamin), and Melissa (Melissa Bardin Galsky) don’t even make a full film—they merely complete the trailers for two entries in their Darkside Of The Law franchise. For another, it makes zero bones about Coach John McGuirk (also Benjamin, in a role that more or less defined the direction of his voice-acting career) being both the 8-year-old Brendon’s most trusted adult role model and a raging alcoholic. Finally—and I say this as someone who treasures Dr. Katz for its utter rigidity, and never understood complaints that it was difficult to watch: Squigglevision is an absolute assault on the eyes, especially in streaming video. The show’s transition to Flash animation cannot come soon enough.
Though its script was, according to Internet legend, entirely improvised, “Get Away From My Mom” still manages to lay the most basic platform for what’s to come from Home Movies. The opening scene between Brendon and McGuirk wisely begins in media res, and we immediately understand the dynamic between the two characters: Brendon looks up to his coach, but he’s also aware of McGuirk’s intrinsic idiocy. That makes it hard to rectify Brendon’s sudden, “McGuirk’s gonna come after your moms!” shift at the end of the episode—but he’s an 8-year-old kid with a wild imagination, so that makes it easier to accept such capricious mood swings. Above all, the first episode of Home Movies succeeds in selling the lived-in universe of the series. It’s understood and effectively communicated that Brendon is an amateur filmmaker, a terrible soccer player, and too old to be playing in the sandbox. There’s no time wasted with introductions or extensive exposition—like all good improvised comedy, the episode follows the rule that everybody in a scene already knows everybody else.
The plots, in so much as those exist, center on disappointments for what will emerge as the show’s two central characters: Brendon and McGuirk. The source of that disappointment is Brendon’s mother, Paula, a harried maternal figure who’s largely a vessel for Paula Poundstone’s observational humor on motherhood in “Get Away From My Mom.” Paula indulges Brendon’s retreat into his filmmaking fantasies, but she also hastens that retreat by accepting McGuirk’s request for a date. She gives Brendon a comfortable life, but that comfort—in addition to the anxiety about his mother re-entering the dating pool—is contrasted by the “dirty cop” drama of Darkside Of The Law. Brendon’s movies aren’t just an escape from his life as a child of divorced parents—they’re also an escape from a mundane existence of school, soccer practice, and listening in on his mother’s phone conversations.
Given that the word “movies” is right there in the title, it’s interesting how little Brendon, Jason, and Melissa’s Hollywood aspirations play into “Get Away From My Mom.” The Darkside Of The Law trailers aside, the first episode only offers a brief glimpse into Brendon’s basement studio, the site of many character-defining discussions and creative disagreements to come. Perhaps hoping to attract some of Dr. Katz’s audience base, the Home Movies première spends more of its time with the adult characters—including Jonathan Katz’s Erik Robbins, who’ll become less important to the show as characters who share a greater amount of chemistry with Paula, McGuirk, and the kids (like stuffed-shirt educator Mr. Lynch) are introduced. In this first episode, Brendon’s camcorder opuses are treated more as a cute framing device, and less as a defining aspect of the series’ main character.
That said, as far as comedy premières go, Home Movies succeeds in establishing its voice and point of view early. It’s a tricky thing, making a show about childhood while also respecting the intellect and emotions of your young characters—“Get Away From My Mom” allows Brendan to act like a child, but it’s funniest when he rises to Paula’s level or sinks down to McGuirk’s. The lines between parental figure and child are blurry on this show, but that underlines the importance of the interaction between the characters (and the actors playing those characters). The great thrill in these early episodes of Home Movies is watching the principals bounce off one another—as much as they can bounce in Squigglevision, that is. The biggest laugh of the episode comes from a particularly juicy entry in Erik’s “duck game,” when a geyser of saliva clearly erupted from Katz’s mouth in the studio, and Galsky and Small couldn’t keep themselves from laughing.
Those organically arising, unintentional laughs are a major draw to Home Movies while the show is in its infancy. That serendipitous, making-it-up-as-we-go-along sense was greeted as poisonous to a network that had enough trouble attracting viewers to shows that were well-thought-out—but for a network that valued unpredictability, Home Movies would be lifted up as an ideal to follow. Given the spontaneous nature of so much in this first season of the series, it’s fitting Home Movies accidentally helped Adult Swim build the programming clout it commands today.
- An inside peek at the making of Darkside Of The Law: Jason: “How come we’re in France?” Brendon: “Because that’s where dramatic things take place.”
- From the Darkside Of The Law II trailer: “You thought Darkside Of The Law was the… last of the films with that title—you were wrong!”
- Coach McGuirk has some questions for the ref: “What’s a 21-year-old kid doing on that field?”