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

Jon Benjamin Has a Van: "Star Door"

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Whenever sketch comedy shows go in weird directions, there are two paths the characters can take: They can comment on just how weird the story has become, or they can embrace it, acting as if what's happening is the most natural thing in the world. The latter is a wise move; comedy is always strongest when it comes out of agreement, which is the whole improv "yes, and" philosophy in action. Strong sketch shows have gone that route in the past (Human Giant, The Life & Times Of Tim, which is cartoonish enough in plot to qualify), but Jon Benjamin Has A Van goes all the way, introducing the weirdest plots imaginable, then trying to have them make sense.

The show is strongest when it embraces this inherent silliness, and "Star Door" is both strikingly weird but comically nonchalant. It's very out there: While reporting on "Area 54", a secret club inside Area 51, Jon Benjamin and his team stumble upon an ancient artifact that's been studied by government scientists (chief among them Chris Parnell) for years to much head-scratching. Of course, though, Jon Benjamin's van is the catalyst to make this star door work—it's the exact size of the van—and the team drives through, making a journey to a distant land. When they inadvertently run over an alien upon exiting, Benjamin finds himself on trial, and completely unrelated to the appearances of Tim and Eric, it only gets odder from there.

I liked "Star Door" a hell of a lot more than "Little Italy" because the internal logic of the weirdness makes more sense. The people in Little Little Italy are tiny, and the fact that they'd think they had a viable shot at killing regular-size people is pretty ridiculous; it just feels like more of a gimmick than something to hang an episode on. "Star Door" suffers a little from the sketch version of the deus-ex-machina (the logic that, in fact, the Eric Wareheim character is the one who committed the crime), but for the most part everything is explained and exists within the realm of plausibility. Sure, it's very out-there plausibility, but Jon Benjamin Has A Van creates the sort of comic world where the more things are pushed in a weird and uncomfortable direction, the more the payoff can become.

The remainder of the episode demonstrates this point. The supplementary sketch segments were always good for a laugh, but the ones in "Star Door" round out the comical world of the show by introducing new characters. "Shame On Me" takes on the rant-type segments of these interview shows, and the guy who does realistic hairpieces is the sort of person I'd imagine the fictional Jon Benjamin—the guy who remains unflappable when sitting in a prison on the other end of a star door—would be fascinated by. I wanted more; the vast majority of the episode was devoted to star door shenanigans. Still, Jon Benjamin Has A Van is tinkering with just how far the show can take things, and "Star Door" is a step back in the right direction.

Stray observations:

  • I can understand why the show might be alienating, which is something I've heard a lot. There aren't really that many likable characters, and they pretty much operate as sketch pawns for the larger gag anyways. Take the people in the lab, robot-ly celebrating their colleague's birthday party near the end, or the fact that the entire Jon Benjamin crew basically speaks in the same tone of voice the entire episode. I guess I just enjoy being in this world, so I'm fine with the show standing entirely on its ability to churn out sketches; it tries hard not to be like most other sketch shows, which typically shake out as "kinda like the real world, only slightly different!"
  • The UCB train continues forward with Ian Roberts. This show reminds me of that one more with each episode. Here's hoping Amy Poehler swings by.
  • Was anyone else needlessly unsettled when the skin came off and that wig guy had full, flowing locks? Unexpected hair = worse than weird hair.