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

Wall Street avengers and little Hitlers: An oral history of Wonder Showzen’s “Beat Kids”

Wonder Showzen
Screenshot: MTV2, Graphic: The A.V. Club

When Wonder Showzen premiered on MTV2 in 2005, it came with a disclaimer: “Wonder Showzen contains offensive, despicable content that is too controversial and too awesome for actual children… If you allow a child to watch this show, you are a bad parent or guardian.” As viewers of the short-lived sketch series know, though, that doesn’t mean children were precluded from actually appearing on the show. On the contrary, kids made up the vast majority of Wonder Showzen’s on-screen talent, often appearing alongside puppets voiced by the show’s co-creators, Vernon Chatman and John Lee.

One instance where kids flew solo, though, was in the much-discussed segment Beat Kids, in which precocious elementary school students played investigative reporters. Armed with microphones and clad in Kermit The Frog-style trench coats, the Beat Kids ventured into adult spaces like butcher shops and racetracks, sidled up to grown-ups, and asked the tough questions. One kid reporter set up on Wall Street and asked traders, “Who did you exploit today?” Another threw on a tiny Hitler costume and—in a move that certainly wouldn’t fly 15 years later—asked passersby on a New York City street, “What’s wrong with the youth of today?” All of the questions were fed to the reporters by an on-site Chatman, but that didn’t stop the adults answering them from appearing agog, startled that anyone so cute would make them question their very existence.

That was the shtick of Wonder Showzen, though, and of Beat Kids. To commemorate the show’s full-series DVD release, and to get a better look at how the segment’s anarchic antagonism came together, we talked to Chatman, Lee, and three of the original Beat Kids—Trevor Heins, Madison L’Insalata, and Tahmel Morton—about the highs, the lows, and the horse racing.

Wonder Showzen was birthed at San Francisco State University, where Vernon Chatman and John Lee met. Originally called Kids Show, it was conceived as an adult-skewed take on shows that the two had grown up with, like Sesame Street and The Electric Company.

John Lee: We wanted to make an annoying show because we like to annoy people. I guess the original goal was to just have a kids show where the opening theme song lasted for 90% of the show. Just imagine [the theme is] 19 minutes long and never gets going. Clearly, that would never be made, but that was the idea.

Vernon Chatman: I believe [we had the idea] within a week or two of meeting. We were just joking around and talking about how Sesame Street is the best sketch show, and then we started joking around about this stupid idea, which, when you’re an 18-year-old kid at San Francisco State, that’s the level of stupidity you have, to think you could get that show. I was like, “Yeah, we could get that show on the air!”

From there, the two set about crafting what the show would actually be. They knew they had to have puppets and they knew they wanted the show to feature stock footage. They also knew they’d have to figure out a way to get actual children involved—a prospect that’s easier said than done when you’re a couple of college students. When it came to crafting Beat Kids, though, the pair say the idea was a blend of archetypal investigative reporter segments they grew up watching and the visual joke of a little kid in a trench coat.

John Lee: We always really liked investigative journalism and 60 Minutes, and so we always thought that putting a little tiny kid in a trench coat and having them ask questions is a perfect vehicle for jokes. We also always had all kinds of questions and moments that they could do, but we never had a format or a packaging. Then we came up with a song one day. [Sings.] “Kids on the beat, kids on the street, Beat Kids!” And we just loved the idea of something called Beat Kids. That really gave these two ideas a purpose, that we could tell our jokes through little kid investigative reporters.

That idea opened up the show, and we realized, “Everything has to be from a kid’s perspective. You need to hear it from a kid. You need to have a kid saying as much of it as possible.” So, many of our days were spent trying to figure out Clarence [the puppet] segments and Beat Kid segments, and always trying to justify and reason and give purpose to those segments. All of them had to have a purpose, which is the key to those things.

Vernon Chatman: I’d worked on a couple of talk shows and shows where you had to have comedic segments, so I realized that desk pieces were a thing you could constantly do. So as soon as we had [the Beat Kids] package, I knew it was going to be a good replicable thing to actually do on a show.

John Lee: The thing I realize now is that we put these kids in a little trench coat—I still have the trench coat—but no reporter has worn a trench coat for probably 50 years. No one grows up with that as a cliché anymore. That was just Mike Wallace.

Vernon Chatman: It was already old in the ’70s when Sesame Street did it.

John Lee: Why do we do that? I have no idea.

Although Wonder Showzen was initially pitched to USA, the network declined, citing the show’s risqué content. Around the same time, Viacom was rebranding MTV2 and made the show part of its Friday night lineup alongside shows like Jackass spinoff Wildboyz and the British prank show Dirty Sanchez. It wasn’t necessarily a great fit—a kid-centric satirical take on educational television paired with two shows that feature adult men getting physically hurt—but it was something. Now Lee and Chatman just had to crew up and cast the kids. The show started bringing in child actors, but only a small portion of the precocious pipsqueaks were deemed wry enough for Wonder Showzen.

John Lee: Each season we would audition maybe three to five hundred kids. It would be a two-week process. That was probably some of the most fun days of the season, because we would just sit in a room and interview these kids just as real kids, and we’d have them repeat stuff to see if they could do it.

Vernon Chatman: We gravitated to little kids that had genuinely charismatic personalities, but always with this real naiveté about them. But we also wanted them to just robotically repeat whatever we put in their ear. 

John Lee: There would always be a couple kids who had this little anarchic spark in their eyes, and you could just tell that they were both funny and smart and they were unique. They had their own rhythm. We got plenty of Disney-type kids, but we rarely liked them. We would say, “Is your little brother or sister annoying or weird or crazy?” And they’d be like, “Yes.”

Vernon Chatman: “He always makes fun of me when I practice my Disney speeches.”

John Lee: We’d say, “Get that kid in here.” So we would start to rank these kids like, “They do funny, goofy voices, so let’s have them do the stock doc stuff. They’re cute. Let’s have them do this thing.” But if there was just something strange or unique about them, those were usually the best kids, or the ones that we thought had the most potential. They were the ones who were on it and could come up with their own jokes, or they would interpret our jokes in their own rhythm. Those were the kids who would get promoted to Beat Kids. And there were only a couple of them. 

Vernon Chatman: [Being a Beat Kid] is the toughest thing because it takes some actual bravery in the real world and being fearless, but still somehow seeming innocent. You had to be able to roll with any punches because everything else you can just do with takes and editing. We also found there was a point where [some kids] would pass the window of perfect kid naïveté and would be too savvy, too devilish, too willing to try to add their personality and not be a sort of weird vessel. It always needed that awkwardness of “something’s wrong here.”

One of the most common faces in Beat Kids was a red-haired tween named Trevor Heins. He appeared in eight different segments of Beat Kids, including “Butcher Shop,” “Blood Drive,” “Racetrack,” “Am I Going To Hell?” and the infamous “What’s Wrong With The Youth Of Today,” in which he donned a kid-sized Hitler costume and paraded around New York City.

Vernon Chatman: Trevor looked like a Skippy-Jif ad. He’s a little red-headed kid with freckles. Just the cartoonish picture of innocence, but he had a real devilish spark. He was a little fucker and he loved it. He’s one of those rare ones where he looked physically younger than he actually was. So he was a little more mature than [someone who looked like that] would normally be. He just totally understood how to play it.

Trevor Heins: [In the audition] they asked, “If you were ruler of New York City for one day, what would you do?” And I said, “I would go up to the Naked Cowboy, pull down his pants and say, ‘Ha ha, who’s naked now?’” And that was my answer. So I think at that point, they pretty much fell in love with me.

John Lee: The thing that stood out for Trevor is that he understood the emotions behind the jokes. A lot of kids don’t understand those bits. [In the butcher shop episode] even if he hasn’t seen Rocky, he knew he was punching a side of meat and it’s supposed to be emotional. Trevor just immediately knew what we meant when we said, “Just keep punching.” I think he eventually says, “I hate you, Daddy. I miss you, Daddy. I love you, Daddy.” He understood the arc of that joke within a second. And he was, like, 9 years old.

It’s hard to find that natural emotional connection to a joke, and he just had it. Most of the jokes that we would give him, he would understand. He would basically do our stuff word for word, but he would bring this little life to it that just made it so appealing, because he’s just a good actor. He instinctively knows how to connect to the material, and that’s why we kept inviting him back.

Trevor Heins’ first appearance was in the “Birth” episode of Wonder Showzen, the first to be aired on MTV2. In it, Heins interviews a butcher (actually two butchers at two shops, but they only aired footage from one) about his job, asking questions about meat, kissing a pig’s head, and ultimately kicking a chicken carcass down the street like a soccer ball. Apparently for Heins, it was a dream come true.

John Lee: We were like, “Take this chicken carcass and kick it down the street like you’re playing soccer.” Trevor looked at us and he was like, “Oh, my god. I’ve always wanted to do this.”

Vernon Chatman: He kicked it all the way down the block until eventually we had to yell, “Trevor! Stop!”

Trevor Heins: One of the butchers actually gave me $20 to give the raw pig head a kiss, so that was pretty sweet.

John Lee: He was smart enough that when we gave him that little tray of blood—of course we’d replaced it with soda or something—but we said, “We’re going to have you drink it and say…” something about the devil or “I love the taste of blood,” or something, and Trevor was like, “You’re going to pitch my voice down, right?” He would know where we were going with the jokes.

Trevor Heins’ also went with Lee and Chatman to a horse track for Wonder Showzen’s third episode, “Ocean.” There, he chatted up elderly gamblers (“Why don’t you just cut out the middleman and give your social security check straight to the mafia?”) and threatened the horses (“It’s always been my dream to punch a horse in the face. Can you make my dream come true? You be the horse and I’ll be the dreamer!”).

Vernon Chatman: I remember for that one, [the producers] said, “The racetrack is willing to do it on one condition: that you don’t joke around about how it’s, like, mostly old people and senior citizens that gamble.” And I was like, “I wasn’t aware of that, and thank you for our best jokes.” We would sometimes say, “Is there anything that’s off limits?” Just so we would know what exactly was going to be the best joke.

John Lee: [The track] actually let us announce a race. They let Trevor go up there, but then we couldn’t air it. Once we did it, they were like, “Nope, you can’t use that footage.”

Vernon Chatman: I think we probably made horse meat jokes or something.

Trevor Heins: At the racetrack, they gave me $20 and asked, “What horse do you think is going to win?” At the end of that segment, I’m actually celebrating because the horse that I picked won, and they let me keep the money. There’s also a segment at the horse track where they wanted me to flush a dollar bill down the toilet, and I really didn’t want to flush the dollar bill down the toilet because who does that? So they were like, “We’ll give you a dollar if you flush that dollar bill down the toilet.” And I was like, “Deal.”

Beat Kids worked in part because of the sweetly off-putting interactions between its reporters and interviewees. In “Racetrack,” for instance, Heins is throwing barbs at wisecracking old men who genuinely seem to like him. They can’t wrap their heads around the fact that the cute kid they have their arm around is insinuating they have a serious gambling problem. It was that dichotomy that made the show really sing.

Vernon Chatman: We always wanted that weird discomfort. That’s always what was right, that something is wrong here. Something is amiss.

John Lee: I mean, the segment is called Beat Kids.

Vernon Chatman: The biggest thing we learned was when you have a kid sitting there with a little microphone in a trench coat, everyone thinks that they know what this is. “This is sweet. What a generic, sweet category of thing that I’m about to engage in.” And then you whisper something insane in the child’s ear and the child repeats it. The way we would do it was it was just the three of us: me, John, and the kid. Everybody else would have to stay back. I would whisper into the kid’s ear what to say or what to ask, and the person [we were interviewing] saw me whispering in the kid’s ear. But then, they would look shocked at the child [when they asked the question] and would look at both of us.

John Lee: It was like, “Can you believe what this child is saying to me?”

Vernon Chatman: There’s some weird process where if you just filter your madness, silliness, insanity, anger, whatever through a child, it worked in this really weird way almost every time. Sometimes I would whisper to the kid, they would say the thing, and then the adult would look at me like, “What’s wrong with this kid?” I’d say, “I don’t know. I have no idea…”

We hid behind the kid. We’d tell people, “Hey, come talk to a kid! Will you do a show with a kid?” We had to tell them it was MTV, and we told them stuff and they knew the title, especially during the second season. But as soon as people see a kid, you can tell them anything and they just think, “Oh, yeah, I get it.”

Wonder Showzen also ran all of its jokes past an actor’s parent or guardian. They had final cut and could dictate what jokes they did or didn’t want their kid to do.

John Lee: [Trevor’s] mom came with him on every shoot, and she would see the script first. She was so kind and thoughtful and really understood our mission. We would clear any jokes and any scripts with parents first, and she would say the ones she didn’t want him to say, and we would respect that. But she really understood the purpose of the show, and it showed in how she raised her kid. He was a really thoughtful, smart but kind of anarchic kid and all the stars aligned for us to be together.

Madison L’Insalata, Beat Kids reporter on “Muscles Vs. Brains” and “Statue Of Liberty”: I think I was supposed to do a couple more episodes and my mom pulled me off because she was like, “They make fun of things on this. I just don’t know if I want this to be something that you’re known for,” which, as a kid, I was always like, “You’re ruining my career! I could have been famous as a kid!” I was so annoyed about it.

Trevor Heins: I’m not sure [my mom] realized the magnitude of what the show was until I was already in it. She did take precautions and reviewed the lines. She would get them a few days before we were set to shoot, and she would cross out some and then okay the rest of the set of lines. Sometimes there are lines that were too outrageous or she didn’t agree with. I’m not sure the percentage she crossed off because I wasn’t a part of that process.

She actually tried to get my name off of the show after the beginning. In the butcher shop segment, they called me Trevor and then there’s a bleep over my last name because they refer to me as Trevor Heins. From there on, they don’t refer to me as Trevor. In the beginning of the segment [they had] a name they used instead, like Ray Ray or High Fly Chicken Guy. There were just random names that didn’t make any sense introducing me. My name was still in the credits at the end, but she kind of wanted to mask my identity just a little bit.

It’s a move that’s understandable considering one of Heins’ more controversial appearances. In “Health,” Heins appears in a full Hitler costume goose-stepping across New York City. It’s a move that Heins says would probably get him canceled now, but that came out of a fluke either/or-style compromise Chatman and Lee tried to make with the network. 

Vernon Chatman: By that time we knew Trevor, and we figured Trevor was the one to do the Hitler. We wanted to do little Hitler. We just thought we had to. So we said, “Okay, the network’s not going to like this. So we’ve got to come up with another one that they won’t do for sure, so then we’ll compromise, just like any negotiating tactic.” That’s how we came up with the Ground Zero one. We thought a great goal would be, only a few years after 9/11, to do a comedy bit at Ground Zero. So we hit our heads on the wall for like a week saying, “How do we do comedy at Ground Zero?” And then we finally were like, “Wait. How do you do comedy at Ground Zero? That’s the bit.”

We knew that [Beat Kids correspondent] Jacob Kogan was a real comedy nerd and comedy fan, so he would be great at that because it’s about a goofy comedian. He was more of a comedian, and Trevor was more of the actor. He took it seriously.

So anyway, we pitched those two and the network agreed to both of them, to our shock, and so we were like, “Well, we’ve got to do this.” Since we had a relationship with Trevor’s mom, we knew we had to explain it to her special and that, of course, any thoughts that she had, we would respect, but then she was really great.

John Lee: She understood. He was actually studying Hitler in school, so she was like, “Oh, he knows who Hitler is. Of course. Why wouldn’t he?” She understood the bit right away, and was like, “He’s going to love this.”

Vernon Chatman: I remember the day started with so much danger. We hired security, which I think was the first and only time we hired a security guard. I remember we met down wherever it was near the Federal Building or something, and [Heins] went into a Starbucks bathroom to put on the costume for the first time.

Trevor Heins: We had two plainclothes bodyguards protecting me for that skit and [other Beat Kids bit] the Little Dead Pope.

Vernon Chatman: I just remember sitting at the Starbucks going, “Little Hitler is going to walk out of the bathroom right now. Who knows what’s going to happen? This is fucked up.” It was a little bit scary. I thought, “People are not going to like this.” And then he walked out and people were just drinking lattes. Nobody gave a shit. So, we do this thing on the street asking people to talk, and overwhelmingly people did not know who he was supposed to be. They were like, “Oh, who are you dressed as? Are you like a Disney character?”

John Lee: The true tragedy of that whole bit is that most of the people he interviewed in that segment that were under 40 didn’t know who he was dressed as. They would go, “Is he some kind of Korean dictator?” It was a bummer. Our main question was, “What’s wrong with the youth of today,” and it was very apparent, because none of them even knew who Hitler was. Most of the people in that bit ended up being older people because they could actually interact with them and we got some jokes out of it.

Vernon Chatman: At least they were reacting to something.

Trevor Heins: My favorite part about that segment is definitely the guy who is going along with it saying, “Remember me? I was in WWII.” That’s just such a wholesome moment in the show. I was like, “You want a rematch?”

John Lee: We finished that segment and all of us, the whole crew, were just kind of saddened by the fact that we’re there in New York City right in front of [City Hall] and a lot of people had no idea that there was this little Hitler right there.

Another sketch that drew a lot of attention but not until more recently featured 7-year-old Beat Kids reporter Tahmel Morton pacing Wall Street asking traders and brokers questions like “Who did you exploit today?” and “When the revolution comes, where will you hide?” The clip went viral independently of Wonder Showzen in 2017 and continues to have legs online even now.

John Lee: We picked a young Black girl on purpose for that. It’s for a reason.

Tahmel Morton, via email: If I am being honest I was super young and do not really remember much about the audition process [for Wonder Showzen]. At that time, I auditioned up to four or five times a week.

John Lee: I think a big appeal to [“Wall Street”] is that it’s kind of the reverse way of thinking about it. It’s not that there’s a little child asking these white men these questions, but it’s actually that these white men don’t realize what they’re teaching this little Black child about life through their capitalism. And so the segment has two sides. It’s not just this little girl asking these questions. It’s that this is what we’re teaching our children. These are the values that we’re teaching them. So I think that’s what gets you past the cringiness of it, because it’s not just cringe, it’s actually kind of tragic. And as we know, tragedy and comedy go hand in hand.

Vernon Chatman: I don’t think we ever had a thing where you were cringing at a child. I think we did things where you’re cringing at a grown-up who was flummoxed by such a basic question that clearly they have never asked themselves.

John Lee: They’ve never looked in the mirror.

Vernon Chatman: They haven’t folded any of this into their perspective, into any kind of philosophy, and they’ve never been confronted with this at all. They kind of stammer and mumble around and say some shit and try to kind of get away from a little child asking the most basic questions or provocative questions that they just have no armor for because they’ve never even considered it.

Tahmel Morton: The episode was so fun to shoot because the producers really allowed me to be myself. I was a rambunctious child and had a lot of personality and they could see that so they allowed me to make up some stuff as I went. Originally they fed me some lines to start off and then kind of said, “Make it your own,” and, “We are going to follow you around with the camera.” My mom was with me the whole time and was a huge part of my process. Having her present while filming made it so comfortable and I think it made being myself really easy.

Vernon Chatman: With the Wall Street one, you think, “Does this girl have a complex understanding and a specific perspective on Wall Street and stuff?” And that’s exactly what we wanted, both from the standpoint of a kid who has an elemental view of things and is innocently asking questions to guilty people, essentially, who then have to sort of stammer, but it inspired us [and the viewers] to take a more elemental approach to our view of capitalism and go, “No, Wall Street’s evil. Full stop.” It’s kind of freeing to have everybody take this elemental naive perspective, which is probably just more pure and true.

Tahmel Morton: The show was well beyond its years with tackling important topics and allowing children to be the facilitators, which makes it less combative.

John Lee: In most of the segments, there are adults who clearly are playing along with the child. I always thought that was important in those segments, to not be just cynical. It’s not just idiots in the segment. Even in that one with Tahmel, they are people who are joking around with her in a way that shows the kind of full spectrum of reactions. There are clearly people who think and who understood the bit and would participate. And then there are people who would literally feel uncomfortable and need to walk away. We want both of those people. We want the people who enjoy life and the people who are in a little shell and just don’t understand the world for what it could be.

Vernon Chatman: By including the sweetness and having some grown-ups react appropriately, like, “This is a sweet kid and I can play along and I’m a dimensional human being,” it highlights when people are just literally afraid of the child.

Wonder Showzen ultimately only aired for two seasons on MTV2. Although Lee and Chatman had started discussing a third season, it became clear the network wasn’t interested, and the two walked away. Both have gone on to successful careers elsewhere in Hollywood, with Chatman and Lee co-creating other shows like Xavier: Renegade Angel and The Heart, She Holler. Chatman was also a producer on Louie, and has done several voices on South Park, including Towelie. Lee has directed and produced shows like Delocated and Neon Joe: Werewolf Hunter, Jon Benjamin Has A Van, Broad City, and also helmed Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday for Netflix.

Still, though, the pair are often asked about Wonder Showzen, and specifically about Beat Kids. For this oral history, Chatman called the segment “the only part of the show that anybody cares about.” So with 15-odd years of perspective, what do the creators and stars of Beat Kids think is the legacy of the segment?

Madison L’Insalata: It is a really funny show. I just don’t think it got the attention that they had anticipated.

Tahmel Morton: I would argue Wonder Showzen became big later on, so I do not know that it necessarily did anything for my career. At the time we shot Wonder Showzen I was also working on other projects and doing kid activities like T-ball, so the experience at that time did not impact my life as much as it does now.

Vernon Chatman: I think we changed the world. Everything’s good.

John Lee: Yeah, we solved it. We saw Wall Street change. All the reform that’s happened is because of that segment.

Vernon Chatman: A couple of months ago when racism finally ended, passed away, passed into glory…

John Lee: Check! Thank you, Wonder Showzen. We’ve got a liberal pope now. Thank you, Wonder Showzen. And thank you to the church for acknowledging your violence against children. Thank you, Wonder Showzen.

Trevor Heins is now 27 years old and works as a software developer. Madison L’Insalata, 24, is still acting. She also teaches acting to children, and caused some righteous controversy as Miss Staten Island in 2020. Tahmel Morton, 23, is just finishing up her second year of law school at Rutgers.