Steve's tied up tonight, so I'm filling in for him. I'm actually glad that I'm getting the chance to weigh in a little on this show before it disappears, leaving behind a lot of confused viewers and, I suspect, a few even more confused programming executives. Somewhere around the third episode, Jon Benjamin Has a Van started to remind me of one of my all-time favorite Comedy Central shows, the Upright Citizens Brigade's sketch series from the '90s. This is kind of amazing to me, partly because I was prepared to make it to the end of my life without ever seeing anything that reminded me of that show. Like the UCB show, JBHAV throws together skits and hidden-camera stuff and throwaway gags and then manages to tie things together into a head-splitting narrative that keeps catching you often guard, even when you think you've figured out how the formula works. It doesn't quite have the ambitious, visionary scale of the UCB's paranoid fantasies, which sometimes made you wonder if Thomas Pynchon had started taking improv classes. But the best episodes of JBHAV have been among the happier surprises of summer TV '11.
"House on the Lake" wasn't one of the best episodes, but there was still a lot to like in it. The opening "Nostalgia Corner" report was about the sad yet inspiring life of Larry Hearst, a Rhode Island lout who achieved immortality by coining the term "hot beef injection", then, shortly before his untimely death in 1982, topped himself by inventing the phrase, "God hates fags." The dramatic re-enactments were choice, with the actor playing the not-yet-famous Hearst preparing to try out a first draft of his masterpiece at a backyard cookout, despondently poking cold hamburger patties laid out on an unlit grill. Interviewing the great man's daughter, Jon asked her which of his creations had the deeper impact on the world. As far as she was concerned, there was no question about it: "'Hot beef injection' was like my father's Meet the Beatles, where 'God hates [bleep!] was like his Sgt. Pepper's", she said, and to better make her point she produced mock-ups of record album covers matching the phrases to the appropriate artwork.
I also got a chuckle out of the hidden-camera number, "Jew Them Up!", with Jon and David Cross, in Hasidic gear, combating the anti-Semitic stereotype of the money-grubbing Jew by wandering the city and haggling people into jacking up the prices of things they wanted to buy. These candid-camera setups often just make me uncomfortable, because I'm enough of a wuss to feel sorry for innocent bystanders who are being made to look ridiculous for my amusement, but here, the straight men were permitted to keep their dignity. They seemed a little confused but not especially put out over the prospect of overcharging a customer for a hot dog, so long as he was going to insist on it.
It was right about the point where previous episodes have taken off into the ozone that this one started to flatline. The story line finally began to emerge, in the form of a spoof on the plight of the Broadway musical theater, when Patton Oswalt showed up as a producer who seemed to be in such good spirits as he talked about his past failures and the ruinous state of his own industry that he was practically dancing on his own grave. Oswalt's manner was very funny, especially when he just continued babbling while Jon took a phone call and then left the room. There was also a note-perfect parody of a TV commercial for Oswalt's current hit, but the big joke--that audience members, and the people onstage, too, were encouraged to talk on their cell phones during the production-- didn't ring any bells. I'm not even sure if it was meant as a joke on rude audiences, though if it was, it probably resonated most strongly with people who've spent time onstage in comedy clubs.
The big show-within-the-show twist was that Jon's producer had been embezzling show funds in order to mount his own musical (Secrets! Do Not Enter), which, of course, was all about what a pain in the ass it is to have to work with Jon. It was "meta", I guess, but in a disappointingly mild way, and I got a whiff of what was missing when it looked for a second as if the producer was going to whack Jon and the crew in order to cover his tracks, and then nothing came of it. I hate to sound all Mr. Mike and suggest that the show's comedy suffers when it isn't dark enough, but I think maybe it does. JBHAV seems to need a trace of the sinister to elevate its silliness to the truly surreal. Jon Benjamin may not look like a resident of the edge, but his best jokes are powered by one -hundred-proof nightmare fuel.