To the hopelessly out-of-shape schmuck, there’s no more brutal test of physical (in)ability than the pull-up. Running a mile might take 25 minutes, but sheer spiteful determination can be enough to get through the misery. One might not be able to do a push-up or a sit-up correctly, but they’re easy enough to fake one’s way through, and it’s much the same with touching one’s toes. But the pull-up represents a brutal binary between being utterly out-of-shape and the most basic, least impressive level of fitness. And for all those who find themselves on the wrong side of that upper-body strength divide, there’s nothing more humiliating than being the only person who can’t get his head over the bar—hell, can’t even get his head within one foot of that stupid bar. Yes, this is one Regular Show scenario with which I am all too brutally familiar, although I never had a cute mole to help train me, to my infinite regret.
The park staff members must pass a physical fitness test in order to keep their job, per a new government law. (Exactly which government laid down this law is never specified, so while this sure sounds like a city ordinance or perhaps a statewide thing, the episode leaves us with the amusing possibility that a bunch of Washington bureaucrats are now trying to make the gang’s life miserable.) The whole thing is ridiculously easy for everyone involved, right up to the point where Rigby is required to do one pull-up, something at which he fails spectacularly. When his video game-based exercise regimen gets him no closer to completing his mandatory pull-up, he accepts help from Eileen, who uses her pep squad training as the perfect excuse to get closer to the object of her affections. Working hard through a quick Rocky homage gets Rigby closer to his goal, but not close enough, and so he jumps at the first shortcut he sees on TV: a Russian bodybuilder’s machine that uses electricity to build muscle. Rigby falls asleep with the machine still on, and when Eileen finds him the next morning, his muscles are so massive that the floor can barely support their weight.
“One Pull Up” is on the more realistic side of Regular Show episodes, insofar as I define any Regular Show that doesn’t involve ripping open a portal to another dimension as realistic. Actually, that does offer a surprisingly useful way of categorizing the two main breeds of Regular Show story. Almost every episode starts with a relatable situation, and the first few minutes generally offer a fairly realistic treatment of whatever problem Mordecai and Rigby are struggling with this week. The majority of episodes then use that initial setup as a launching pad for a surreal flight of fancy, one that by episode’s end has only the most tenuous of connections to the original situation. That approach can probably be considered Regular Show’s signature style, and it’s what we might call tangential storytelling. Of the episodes I’ve reviewed, “Sugar Rush” is the clearest example of this.
Tonight’s episode, on the other hand, keeps its focus squarely on Rigby’s inability to do a pull-up. This is one of those stories where, if you conveniently forget that the main setpiece involves a talking raccoon being trained by a talking mole, just about everything in the first eight minutes could just about happen in real life. The introduction of the Russian electric workout machine pushes the episode over into fantastical territory, but what we see is simply a hyperbolic version of the all-too-real cockamamie devices people use in a desperate attempt to avoid actually working out. This episode is an example of what might be called exaggerated storytelling, and it represents the other end of the Regular Show spectrum.
The great advantage of this approach is that the story tends to be a lot clearer, and in “One Pull Up” we’re treated to a pair of simple, well-executed little arcs: one in which Rigby finally overcomes his self-doubt and finds the determination to complete his one pull-up, the second in which Eileen helps Rigby solve his problem and earns a well-deserved, spine-crunching hug. While a lot of Regular Show episodes end abruptly on a joke or a bit of weirdness, there’s a real sense in “One Pull-Up” that we have reached the fitting conclusion to the night’s story.
This is also a particularly good showcase for Regular Show’s laidback sense of humor. The commercial for the Russian features a nice trio of escalating visual gags in which a succession of rather fratty-looking young men use the machine to bulk up in no time at all, with the final user building muscle over the space of a single visit to the toilet. What’s interesting is how slow-paced these gags are compared to the rapid-fire pacing found on most animated shows. For instance, the commercial leaves little beats in between when the final customer discovers his newfound musculature and when he turn to the camera and thanks the Russian for his bulk—and, in a nicely bizarre touch, his voice happens to be identical to that of the bodybuilder selling the Russian.
That sort of pacing doesn’t allow for a scattershot approach, in which any of a dozen jokes in the space of 30 seconds might get a laugh—Regular Show picks its jokes deliberately and gives each space to breathe. That doesn’t always work, of course, and it’s part of why I tend to think of Regular Show as a fun show more than as a funny one, but the commercial is one of the funniest bits the show has done this season. Besides, a fast-paced, slickly made commercial would be a poor fit with Regular Show’s overall storytelling and animation style. The key is taking this lo-fi approach to this universe’s own pop culture and marrying it to the show’s overall laidback surrealism, and The Russian is a particularly successful example.
While this is very much a Rigby episode—and to the little guy’s credit, he waits a surprisingly long time before taking the easy way out —we also get some great moments of him with Eileen. Her relationship with Rigby is one of the sweetest, and it’s a nice counterpoint to Mordecai’s (largely former) mooning over Margaret. While I’m a fan of that pairing, Mordecai’s romantic cowardice means it’s a generally frustrating relationship. Eileen, on the other hand, is far more self-assured in her unsubtle attempts to get close to Rigby, and Rigby’s obliviousness is more easily played for laughs than is Margaret’s. Eileen’s impromptu acrobatics and offhand pronouncement that training starts once her shift is up are lovely character moments, and Regular Show treats their relationship with tenderness. Despite Rigby’s continual failure, Eileen never stops believing in him, and Rigby, for all his understandable frustration, never lashes out at her. When it comes to exploring unspoken love on absurdist animated shows, all I ask is that when the episode ends, it still makes sense for the one person to have a crush on the former. That Regular Show pulls that off when the object of Eileen’s crush is Rigby is one hell of a storytelling accomplishment in and of itself.
- After perhaps one too many showcase episode this season, Muscle Man here reminds us why he’s so much fun in small doses. His eagerness to humiliate Rigby is funny, but his insistence on still doing that stupid noise is brilliant, not to mention his peeved declaration that there will be no refunds in case Rigby doesn’t show up to his final test.
- I’m still a little shocked that Muscle Man can do a pull-up. Despite his name, I would have had him pegged as way too flabby and weak in the arms to clear the bar. And that’s not even getting into how exactly Hi-Five Ghost is even anatomically capable of doing a pull-up.
- My Regular Show categorization system between tangent and exaggeration admittedly isn’t perfect, and most episodes probably have elements of both—for instance, last week’s “Guys Night” is definitely somewhere in between. Then there’s stuff like “Exit 9b”, which is just flat-out craziness from start to finish.