There was a time when the only way to catch a cavalcade of cutting-edge animation involved waiting for Craig Decker and Mike Gribble to temporarily set up shop at a nearby repertory theater, projector-equipped rock club, or college campus. Spike & Mike’s Festival Of Animation and its “Sick And Twisted” spin-off provided some of the earliest platforms for the likes of Bill Plympton, Don Hertzfeldt, and Mike Judge—all of whom also received a leg up from the Festival Of Animation’s basic-cable equivalent, Liquid Television. With one foot firmly planted in the avant-garde, that MTV anthology still managed to sow the seeds—after cross-pollinating with The Simpsons—of an adult-animation upheaval that witnessed many highs (Beavis And Butt-Head, Daria, South Park), many lows (any of the comic-strip time-killers programmed by UPN or The WB), and ultimately yielded campaigns of carton shock-and-awe like Adult Swim and Fox’s Animation Domination High-Def.
The unpredictable nature and intoxicant-encouraging spirit of Liquid Television lives on in ADHD’s Internet-damaged interstitials—which receive a new companion in the short-form-animation realm thanks to Comedy Central’s TripTank. More Sick And Twisted than Liquid Television, each episode of TripTank slams together multiple shorts into 22 minutes of crude blackouts, smudgy sketches, and cartoon mindfucks. Curating that content is ShadowMachine Films, the Emmy-winning production company behind the similarly schizophrenic Robot Chicken and the similarly incendiary Moral Orel. Not that any of TripTank’s worlds have anything on the satirical ripeness of Moralton: Bob Odenkirk’s contribution to an early episode boasts the sting of the Mr. Show classic “Commercials Of The Future,” but TripTank is treated largely as a release valve for concepts too filthy, cruel, or outlandish to play anywhere else. That freedom opens some creative avenues—like “Tell Tale Hare,” in which China, IL vet Mike Mayfield maps real-world consequences onto Chuck Jones’ survival-of-the-fittest Looney Tunes shorts—but it also cuts a path for an overwhelming stream of gore, piss, and cum.
Expecting people to take offense to purposely offensive material, the show sets up a framing device in which theoretical viewers hurl empty criticisms at TripTank employees who have nothing to do with the content of the sketches. The characters fielding those calls—bored receptionist Ben (Ben Wolfinsohn) and scatterbrained maintenance guy Roy (Eric Magnussen)—are funny in a conversational, indie-film way, but the callers are hands down TripTank’s most obnoxious feature. Beyond their aggressively ugly design, they undercut the cathartic nature of the show’s sense of humor. Each time Ben picks up the phone, it feels less like a provocation and more like an apology—not to mention how presumptuous it is that anyone’s going to get this bent out of shape about an anthropomorphized trapezoid fucking a toaster.
As visual wallpaper for the stoned, drunk, and sleep-deprived (or some combination of the three), TripTank is frustratingly inconsistent. Digital animation holds sway on TripTank, but the quality of the visuals varies wildly, encompassing Flash scribbles like the aforementioned “My Fabulous Toaster,” a cheery send up of vintage educational cartoons in “Ricky The Rocketship,” and Chris Allison’s melting-and-drooping John Kricfalusi-esque figures. Produced during an era in which video games and CGI have greatly expanded the animated palette, a few inventive looks peek through: The hallucinatory paranoia of “Late Night With Bootfucker McGuillicutty” is heightened by careening camerawork and roughed-up graphics; “Cave Of Sorrow” sets a low-key, character-based scene in a cut-out fantasy land straight out of the Game Of Thrones credits. Had TripTank wound up in a quarter-hour format, these highlights would shine even brighter, but they tend to get lost in the 22-minute deluge.
As an anthology, TripTank is a mixed bag by default. If the good stuff doesn’t stick around long enough, the silver lining is that the stinkers and the duds don’t last much longer. And, if you’re in the show’s heavily suggested state of mind, you won’t remember the crappy segments, anyway—the onslaught of content begs for some external medium to dull the overstimulation. As far as prospective programming goes, the recurring, Brett Gelman-starring “Jeff And Some Aliens”—which finds Gelman playing “Earth’s most average guy,” the test subject/plaything of three goofball ETs—has the greatest potential for a spin-off, though that would require the aliens to develop personalities as distinct as sad-sack Jeff. Regardless of whether it has a Beavis And Butt-Head lying in wait, TripTank shares one characteristic with its spiritual predecessors: Like Spike And Mike’s and Liquid Television, most of the segments will eventually fade into hazy memory. The roadshow moves ever forward, in search of new taboos to tweak and novel fluids to fling.