“School Nurse” (season 1, episode 10; originally aired 9/30/2001) and “Mortgages And Marbles” (season 2, episode 11; originally aired 9/30/2001)
“If you want to smear mud on your ass, smear mud on your ass. Just be honest about it.”—Can Of Vegetables, Wet Hot American Summer
H. Jon Benjamin had already played Ben Katz for six seasons of Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist by the time he voiced Wet Hot American’s Summer’s vessel of inspiration and mixed veggies. However, it was his cameo in that 2001 comedy—a role that amounts to little more than a single exchange with a stewing Christopher Meloni—that set the course for the past decade-plus of Benjamin’s voiceover career. On Dr. Katz, he was the voice of apathetic youth—rudderless, but not opposed to pursuing the occasional harebrained scheme. As the Can Of Vegetables, however, Benjamin’s voice transformed: In that scene, it has authority, a spine, and poise. If there’s a key to broadcasting a character’s innate confidence, it can be found in Benjamin’s bold, self-assured admissions to Meloni. Within that scene, you’ll believe a can can talk—you’ll also believe it has a dick, which it can suck, a lot.
Of course, confidence in and of itself isn’t funny. A character who believes in himself and achieves everything he sets out to do isn’t a comedic figure—he’s a Horatio Alger protagonist. What Benjamin taps into in Wet Hot American Summer—and what he’s continued to exploit in the, oh, hundred or so cartoon characters he’s voiced since—is a confidence that will amount to nothing. The Can Of Vegetables can stop a man from hiding himself from himself, but he’s never going to actually administer self-fellatio. Similarly, there are some personal demons Sterling Archer can’t dismiss with a gun, a fuck, or a fifth of liquor, and supreme confidence in punny specials and new menu additions will never make Bob Belcher’s family eatery anything more than a burger joint. And no matter how many ounces of liquid courage he consumes or how tremendously he puffs up his yearly income, Coach John McGuirk has no real chance of dating Nurse Kirkman or landing a swanky high-rise bachelor pad.
Given how he’s portrayed in “School Nurse” and “Mortgages And Marbles,” John McGuirk must fancy himself as the star of an unending television spot for Bud Light. (Or the fictional Black Hole Brew, as the case may be.) Through McGuirk’s bloodshot eyes, the world is all great times, good beers, and chicks in bikinis who don’t mind that you’re nakedly ogling them from the balcony of a condo you could never feasibly afford. If I wasn’t so sure that Sterling Archer sprung, fully formed, from the mind of John McGuirk, I’d say what the character truly aspires to be is the human equivalent of Spuds MacKenzie. After all, nobody ever asked ol’ Spuds to deliver a speech about soccer before a crowded student assembly.
One of the major themes of Home Movies involves characters remaking their realities, and there are constant reminders of the actual squalor in which McGuirk lives throughout this week’s episodes: After their disastrous evening at the bar in “School Nurse,” Nurse Kirkman drops the pickled coach off at his apartment on Lonely Avenue; in “Mortgages And Marbles,” Melissa tells Brendon that she can’t wait until McGuirk is out of her house, if only because “he smells.” It’s fitting that “School Nurse” kicks off with a school-wide lice check, as Kirkman’s night with McGuirk eventually morphs into the nurse attempting to rid herself of a parasite—the coach. Yet, the morning after, McGuirk finds himself in the teacher’s lounge, bragging about how he and the new nurse are an item.
These would be the tragic opening passages of a Hubert Selby Jr. novel were it not for McGuirk’s stubborn refusal to follow Can Of Vegetables’ No. 1 rule: Just be honest. Instead, McGuirk lies to himself and others, and the authority with which Benjamin delivers those lies breathes humor into the character. And when he does decide to tell the truth, the actor and the Home Movies’ brain trust discovered McGuirk’s critical vulnerability. In an echo of “Get Away From My Mom,” the coach finds himself being overly honest with the person sitting across the table from him, digging into the Freudian (or, in McGuirk’s words, Darwinian) observation that a man simply wants a woman who will replace his mother. In a smart twist, he’s dropping this Psychology 101 information to a woman whose professional obligation is to care for people. Unfortunate for the characters—but fortunate for the viewers—neither McGuirk, Mr. Lynch, nor Jason can separate the duties of Nurse Kirkman’s occupation from romantic gestures. It’s an old setup, but Home Movies delivers the punch line eloquently, tying the tongues of all three characters in a pileup of dialogue near the end of “School Nurse” that overshadows the fact that Brendon, the boy who cried sick day, has finally driven himself into a stress-induced illness. Unlike his soccer coach, Brendon’s big wish for the episode is fulfilled—but at a price.
After trying to bullshit his way into Nurse Kirkman’s heart (though, if he’s being honest with himself, he’s aiming for her pants first and then her heart), McGuirk makes a comparable play at a new home in “Mortgages And Marbles.” Though the search for a new place to live plays into the character’s delusions and impulsive behavior, the desire to suddenly become a homeowner feels out of character for McGuirk. It’s a storyline that, like most Home Movies plots, thrives entirely on character, prompting a lot of fun moments between the coach and Erik as they team up on house-hunting expeditions. There’s a wonderful, residual Dr. Katz chemistry between Benjamin and Jonathan Katz in these scenes, and it’s too bad McGuirk wouldn’t tangle with Erik as much as he does with Mr. Lynch as the series goes on. But, as mentioned previously and exhibited by “School Nurse,” Mr. Lynch is better suited for the role of McGuirk’s foil, a character whose smooth talking is backed up by legitimate knowledge—even if, after 18 years of teaching, he’s forgotten the difference between biography and biology.
In general, this week’s Home Movies doubleheader belongs to Benjamin. Jason tends to be more of a background player than Coach McGuirk, but he gets a fun arc in “School Nurse,” developing an innocent schoolboy variation on McGuirk’s infatuation with Nurse Kirkman. After ridding his head of lice and spurring Jason toward previously unknown levels of personal hygiene, the nurse reveals the kid’s romantic side—though this new angle of his personality is consistently interrupted by the intrusions of Brendon, McGuirk, and Lynch. The nurse lets her pint-sized suitor down gently, feeding him the illusion of a possible love connection multiple decades down the line—one which he sees through (or at least dismisses, along with his crush) almost instantly. By way of contrast, this all occurs while McGuirk counts down the limited time frame during which Nurse Kirkman can give their “relationship” a second chance. Even at his most desperate, Coach McGuirk keeps his fantasies alive and maintains just a shred of confidence in himself and his supposed charms. And that’s not just what makes McGuirk the ideal H. Jon Benjamin character—it’s what makes him the most compelling character in all of Home Movies.
- Upon further review, Scäb’s soundtrack for Brendon’s educational film about putting marbles in your nose—which, it turns out, you should not do—doesn’t top the Franz Kafka rock opera. There’s only one joke in the lyrics (the immediate reversal of the “Don’t put marbles in your nose” refrain), and the visuals provide most of the laughs. Duane’s brief homage to Quiet Riot’s “Bang Your Head (Metal Health)” doesn’t disappoint—particularly the background touch that reveals he’s doing his Kevin DuBrow routine in the bathtub.
- Nurse Kirkman is, of course, voiced by stand-up comedian, writer, and recent Stand Down star Jen Kirkman. The way Kirkman’s anecdotes on The Pod F. Tompkast usually go, I wouldn’t be surprised if Nurse Kirkman’s “Maybe in 30 years” method of dealing with Jason was derived from real life.
- Given the role that McGuirk eventually plays in the kids’ lives, it’s funny how poorly he performs the part of “surrogate parent” when he’s staying at the Robbins’ house. By acting how he thinks a parent would act, he’s getting it completely wrong.
- “Yeah, you’re right—I’ve got the rubber legs”—everyone’s on wobbly footing during these Squigglevision episodes, but the animators do a good job of exaggerating that quality at the end of McGuirk’s rough night.
- Jason, on the infestation on his scalp: “They practically formed their own ecosystem.”
- Ron Lynch senses a second beat and seizes it: “What are we speaking in class, everybody?” “Unison!”
- Paula gets dark while dealing with Brendon’s illness: “Mommy ate the bucket of Darvon for lunch.”
- “While I have your attention today…”: There is no good ending to any speech or conversation that begins with this preamble.
- Lynch is easily misdirected: “I don’t want this video to glorify violence.” “What about slapstick?” “Oh, I love slapstick—that’s a very good choice.”
- After the debut of the anti-marbles-in-nose movie starring Brendon’s cobbled-together puppet Spiky McMarbles, the filmmaker receives some helpful feedback: “At what point did you get the urge to put marbles in your nose?” “When Spiky told me not to.”