Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Jon Benjamin Has a Van: "Breakdown"

Illustration for article titled Jon Benjamin Has a Van: "Breakdown"

Now we're talkin'. "Breakdown" epitomized what Jon Benjamin Has A Van can contribute to the ever-expanding sketch comedy landscape: elaborate jokes, told simply. Tonight's episode conceit (which is probably the best way to describe the show-within-a-show part from here on out) involved a so-called "Poor Farm"—a remote desert area where billionaires gather each year to live out their poor-person fantasies and appreciate their vast wealth that much more. On the way to the location, the van breaks down, and Jon throws Nathan the sound guy into a truck to go and get help. The sound cuts out—because, of course, the sound guy is now gone—and we watch as a kidnapping plot unfolds in total silence.

I got the sense that Jon Benjamin and his writers (Leo Allen, specifically) were really excited about the no-sound concept, because they throw a bunch of moving parts into the fold that exploit the idea. First Benjamin attempts to communicate with a deaf grizzly driver using hand-written notes with lots of teenager speak. Then they get to the diner, and tons of people, and dogs, are making noise—ringing bells and playing guitar. An airhorn goes off, the phone's picked up, and we only hear the trucker speaking, with Benjamin's voice muffled, as it would if the sound guy was trapped in the other room. Once things get going, the story isn't very complicated. Benjamin simply must retrieve $10,000 to save Nathan's life. The show is able to go off to the side every once in a while, like having Benjamin take out the money in $200 increments over the course of his allotted hour, because the mission is clear. The realization that it was all a Poor Farm exercise punctuated everything that came before it; internally, the logic of "Breakdown" still made sense.

When Jon Benjamin Has A Van occasionally does nonsensical things, then, it's all the more random and surprising. During the interview segment leading up to the Poor Farm stuff, Benjamin interviews one of the participants, who appears in shadow to hide his identity; for no good reason, Benjamin does the same. The "Do You Have A Minute?" segment involved Benjamin asking random New Yorkers if they had a minute, then shoving the microphone in their face with no follow-up explanation. This sort of stuff plays to the conventions of how news TV shows are supposed to play out, and I like that Benjamin mixes these short bursts of jokes with the bulk of an episode that totally deviates from the form. It might not be for you, but the structure of Jon Benjamin Has A Van is pretty well thought out, allowing Benjamin to tap into all sorts of sketch-writing muscles.

I wasn't wild about the way the episode opened—with a story about an armless, legless man where the real tragedy was that his machine guns, grafted onto the wheelchair, had been taken away. This was happening because a boy stole the wheelchair and went on a shooting spree that ended with the destruction of a mirror store; the owner of the neighboring mirror store closes out the sketch by pondering how things would have been so much different had the boy taken a slight turn into his mirror store. It was a silly button to a sketch that involved a kid gunning people down, and the twist at the end made the earlier violence seem like unnecessarily dark material.

But then again, "Breakdown" ends with a guy playing the air jazz guitar, so how seriously can I take it? It was definitely the strongest episode in the show's run thus far, allowing Benjamin to play with the conventions of both a news show and a sketch show in a fairly cohesive way. It's not revolutionizing the sketch comedy landscape or anything yet, but Benjamin's trying a whole lot of things, and he's not letting the show get away from him.

Stray observations:

  • Even if most of the supporting cast wasn't part of Tim & Eric before, a lot of them certainly looked like they could have easily been, especially the mirror store guy. It's just something about the way they're shot, with the camera way too close to their faces at times.
  • I like how the photo they show people when Nathan's missing is just him standing there naked. I guess the conceit is that Benjamin has a bunch of those photos stockpiled—Nathan, Matt Walsh, etc.