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

Regular Show: “Catching The Wave”

Illustration for article titled Regular Show: “Catching The Wave”

This definitely isn’t the first time that I’ve brought this up, but so much of Regular Show’s comedic genius can be attributed to its sense of when to tell a joke quickly and when to slow things down. “Catching The Wave” is a tremendous episode, one of the best of the season, and part of the reason it’s so successful is how willfully, hilariously misaligned its storytelling priorities are. The show’s 11-minute running time always means the show has to condense its plot beats and, to some extent, its gags; indeed, sometimes the acceleration of a fairly rote storytelling point will transform it into a gag. Case in point: When Mordecai and Rigby promise to keep an eye on Pops all night, we know that they’re going to fail. This is Mordecai and Rigby we’re talking about, after all. Decades of hokey sitcom storytelling has taught us that anyone assigned to guard someplace overnight will inevitably fall asleep (in fairness, as hokey sitcom tropes go, this is one of the more plausible ones). Other shows, armed with a full half-hour to play with, might drag out the inevitable moment when Mordecai and Rigby fall asleep. But since time is of the essence, the pair immediately start snoozing and snoring, with the turbocharged shift to the next plot beat serving as its own gag.

That’s the simplest example of a joke type that “Catching The Wave” trots out more than once. Pops’ vicious attack at the hands of nature unfolds in record time, especially when one considers that some of his major assailants are a bunch of notoriously slow-moving turtles. The closing scene, in which he regains his oneness with nature, features a similarly quick-fire gag, as Pops’ massive wave levels most of the city as it rolls away. This isn’t the first time that a Regular Show has featured senseless property destruction and collateral damage, but it’s relatively rare to see such moments occur in the final seconds of an episode, where they can only serve as an unexpected, rather dark, and very funny punchline. More generally, that final sequence represents Regular Show at its mostly giddily, audaciously untethered from reality, and I don’t just mean the gigantic, mystical whale that appears out of nowhere. The best gag—well, the second best gag, right after the dolphins crashing into the jerk surfers’ vehicle—can be found in the park staffers’ awed reactions to Pops’ apotheosis. I can’t imagine that this moment actually represents the character’s exit from the show, but Benson comes across as just so completely, cosmically certain that Pops is with nature now that I refuse to rule it out.

And yet, for all the success of those fast-developing jokes, one of the best moments of “Catching The Wave” comes when the episode inexplicably slows itself down. For, in the midst of Pops’ greatest existential crisis, it’s really important that the show takes a moment so that we can see whether a garage door is actually strong enough to break a pencil. (It is.) That little vignette is a perfectly placed breather, a break from the main action that allows the episode to convey an expanded sense of scale; after all, this story is now big enough to incorporate that random digression from the real point. Leaving aside the very funny pointlessness of it all and looking at it on a character level, it’s a fine distillation of what makes Mordecai and Rigby tick. This episode presents them as consummate friends, willing to support Pops to the very best of their abilities—which we discover really isn’t all that much, but still—and we gain some additional context on that by seeing just how pointless their existences are when not given some external cause to rally around. The pair needs a wild-eyed, ambitious dreamer like Pops to bring out the best in them, because they’re so much more useful when they are, say, pointing out that an artificial wave pool maybe doesn’t need a bunch of expensively imported dolphins. I suppose one could argue that they act as Pops’ enablers here, but that’s taking an unnecessarily paternalistic attitude toward Pops; as we learned in “Guys Night,” Pops long since proved that he’s worthy of our heroes’ support.

Then there’s all the surfing. “Catching The Wave” does a sterling job hitting just about every conceivable aspect of surfer culture, opening with a righteous salvo of slang and lingo. The parallel drawn between the surfers’ repeated use of “brah” and Mordecai and Rigby’s constant deployment of “dude” is a fairly obvious gag, but that doesn’t make it any less successful, mostly because the show only occasionally bothers to draw attention to just how obsessed our characters are with that word. Once the surfer vocabulary is established, there are only so many more jokes that the show has to make; really, the use of “Wipe Out” as the ancient call of the surfers served as the perfect climax for that whole line of gags. Beyond the comedy, the surfers provide one of the better excuses for a giant climactic battle, as the park staffers take to the boats to defend their beleaguered friend. This is one of Regular Show’s most visually dynamic episodes, with a very nice assist from the music; the pivotal moment when Pops is holding onto the board and riding the ultimate wave is the perfect junction point of animation, music, writing, and Sam Marin’s voice acting. This genuinely feels like a defining decision for Pops, and “Catching The Wave” is able to bring all the storytelling tools it has to bear on his moment of truth.

In the end, “Catching The Wave” soars because Regular Show has taken the time over its run to make us care about its supporting characters. Pops likely isn’t a character who could sustain anything more than one episode per season’s worth of story, but he’s built up so much good will that that one episode is instantly positioned as a classic. I’d compare this story to “Skips’ Stress,” another side character spotlight episode that succeeded simply because it reaffirmed all the things we already know to be true about a supporting character but can normally take for granted. With Mordecai and Rigby stories, the show is in its exploratory mode, pushing the boundaries of what we know about the characters in search of new stories to tell. With Pops, we don’t need that. We just need Pops to prove that he’s still the person we thought he was, that he doesn’t give up in the face of cruelty or unfair play. Given all that, it’s easy for “Catching The Wave” to feel like a triumph, even if it does casually destroy some city blocks in the process.

Stray observations:

  • Dr. Henry is a fun character, if only because I always appreciate it when the show acknowledges the physical reality of its characters. Pops’ anatomy really does make it pretty much impossible for him to go surfing.
  • I love how gloriously dumb the surfers’ names are: Hurl, Burl, and Merle.