In theory, there’s nothing wrong with the surreal conceptual jokes in “Turkey Pot Die.” Like Seth MacFarlane’s two other mock-sitcom cartoons, The Cleveland Show thrives on deflating viewers’ expectations. Ostensibly, having Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington and filmmaker David Lynch respectively play an over-protective, anthropomorphized mother bear and a bartender is funny because there’s no precedent for it. It’s not just a random choice; it’s funny because it’s a totally natural random chance that’s that much more strange because that’s the status quo on The Cleveland Show. So by the time you get to “Turkey Pot Die,” the fourth episode of the show’s fourth season, it’s a given that Lynch, the writer/director of the nightmarish Eraserhead, is an awkwardly surly local fixture, while Huffington, multi-hyphenate and proud exploiter of “citizen journalists,” is Donna’s catty maternal foil. The fact that could be construed as normal is, theoretically, funny. But only in small doses.
And that’s what’s wrong with “Turkey Pot Die”: The episode has no sense of comic timing or proportion. It’s one thing to take a joke that works and stretch it too far. But the episode’s creators don’t really do that. Instead, they consistently over-state the deadpan elements inherent in MacFarlane’s style of comedy.
“Turkey Pot Die” has two separate storylines: Cleveland tries to bond with Junior by killing a turkey for Thanksgiving, while Rallo tries to spend quality time with his mother by making a parade float for the local holiday parade competition. Neither activity goes according to plan. While Cleveland tries to cure Junior of his squeamishness, Donna ignores Rallo’s input because she desperately wants to beat Arianna, who has won the parade float contest for the last 10 years.
Both of these scenarios rely on a basic level of familiarity with sitcom clichés. Take Cleveland and Junior’s story, for example. Cleveland tries to trick Junior into getting closer to him by going hunting. The cliché of the fuddy-duddy alpha male father trying to make his effeminate son tougher is replicated here, as Cleveland thinks Junior’s nonsensical distinction between “turkey the animal” and “turkey the food” makes him a sissy. But Cleveland’s generically insensitive objection to his son’s behavior is undermined when he tells Lester that unlike Junior, he likes to take “baths with lady products.” “Yours is a fragrant and fascinating people,” Lester retorts.
Just like how this bar-side scene ends with David Lynch inexplicably denying Cleveland free finger food and getting into a fight with his Mexican kitchen staff about it, the humor from Lester and Cleveland’s discussion comes from the fact that nothing, according to sitcom stereotypes, makes sense in The Cleveland Show. After all, while he wants to toughen up his son, Cleveland has always been characterized as being just as effete as Junior. Sure enough, Cleveland instantly becomes sympathetic to his son’s uneasiness after getting gut-shot by his own gun. “Killin’ turkeys is wrong,” Cleveland exclaims. “Except in cases of rape and incest.” There’s no link between this abortion-related joke and male bonding or turkey-eating, and that’s the joke.
After getting shot, Cleveland and Junior stage PETA-style protests. These happenings are shown in a montage scored by Johnny Cash’s cover of Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” This montage is a good test of if you’ll enjoy “Turkey Pot Die.” Whether you laugh at the episode’s pseudo-subversive humor depends on how funny you think leading the viewer to think one thing and then subverting those just-established expectations with sub-dada level sight gags is. Cleveland and Junior’s anti-turkey-the-food montage tellingly ends with Cleveland shooting the head off of a bystander and shoving a sign saying, “Don’t kill turkeys,” into the dead guy’s neck. The problem here isn’t that this is inherently lazy conceptual comedy, but rather that it’s poorly executed conceptual humor. It’s the mediocre execution and lack of inspiration behind the jokes, the kind that you might find funny if a friend improvised them for you in person, not the ideas behind them.
By the same token, the Rallo/Donna B-plot is rarely that funny, because the jokes are often over-done. For example, when the day of the big parade comes, and Tyler Perry’s Madea mysteriously shows up for a split-second to yell, “That’s just outrageous,” the joke just doesn’t work because it reeks of pandering desperation. The show’s writers are falling over themselves trying to flatter their viewer with arbitrary pop culture references, like when fashion guru Tim Gunn shows up to critique Donna’s float. But again, the fact that Tim Gunn and Madea and Cathouse (yes, there is a Cathouse reference) are name-dropped isn’t the problem. The problem is that the show’s writers and voice cast don’t do anything that funny with those gratuitous allusions.
So the Madea joke backfires on the show’s writers because, when the episode’s director encouraged his voice actors to add and then over-stress so many extra syllables to “outrageous,” so that it phonetically sounds like, “Out-ray-ju-uuuuuuuuuuus,” it just makes the show’s writers look like Friedberg/Seltzer-type comedians. We get it: This is how Madea sounds in her comedies. But isn’t it pointless to pander to your audience by mocking Tyler Perry’s own pandering? You can do and say anything to get a laugh, and be really funny. But without a knack for that kind of anarchic comedy, there’s just no point. That is, unless you think having Arianna Huffington yell, “Oh, the bearmanity,” or having Tim Gunn say, “I also say ‘Wow Factor,’” with a smirk is inherently hilarious.
There are, however, brief moments when the episode’s creators prove that they can earn yuks at the expense of canned sitcom humor and bad movie clichés. Later in “Turkey Pot Die,” Cleveland and Junior try to liberate Lester’s turkeys, but Lester catches on and gives chase. First, Junior looks in his passenger side mirror. Then there’s a quick cut to Lester and his wife pursuing Cleveland. Then there’s a crash zoom in on Cleveland, who has his head sticking out of the side of the car as he squints at Lester. It’s not exactly a sophisticated visual cue, but it is proof that The Cleveland Show’s creators can infrequently be funny without trying too hard.