With few exceptions, TV seeks to be broad, accessible, and inoffensive. Boundary-pushing shows do exist, but there are unspoken lines that most don't even bother approaching. Enter Wonder Showzen, a half-hour MTV2 program that feels like Sesame Street reared by smart, cynical, degenerate wolves. (A disclaimer before each episode states, "The stark, ugly, and profound truths Wonder Showzen exposes may be soul-crushing to the weak of spirit. If you allow a child to watch this show, you are a bad parent or guardian.") Sure, but what about the kids that are actually on the show? The first season—out now on DVD—features mostly young children interacting with evil (or stupid, or both) puppets and the occasional guest star (Amy Sedaris, Flavor Flav, Christopher Meloni). A smiling kid saying "I want to punch God in the face" may be one of the weirdest things on TV this year, but it isn't even close to the show's funniest or most offensive moments. Regular features include Clarence, a puppet that harasses people on the street; cartoons on everything from a heroin-shooting Bible to a canine gynecologist; and the amazing "Beat Kids," in which precocious preteens (most notably a red-headed scamp named Trevor) ambush unsuspecting people with bizarre, biting questions. (To a stockbroker: "Who did you exploit today?") Just prior to the second season's debut, The A.V. Club spoke with joke-prone Wonder Showzen creators John Lee and Vernon Chatman.
The A.V. Club: How did Wonder Showzen get started?
John Lee: It was an experiment. Vernon and I locked ourselves in a box with no light and sound to learn God's language, and it worked pretty good, because that's the show. The show is broadcast live in God's language.
Vernon Chatman: And then here we are talking to you.
JL: The first thing we came up with was a song, "Kids' show, kids' show, oh good Lord, a kids' show," that never ends. The concept was that the opening song was gonna last like 20 minutes, and then it was gonna be just a minute of television. And I totally remember thinking, "If we wuss out on this idea, then we just suck. I hope I never get to that point, where I sell out, where I actually do the show and not just the song."
VC: But the older you get, the more your spirit dies, and the more you like money.
JL: We've lived on the street for too long not to be doing this show. But I think slowly we're turning the show into something just that annoying.
AVC: Maybe the last episode can be just the theme song.
JL: We've tried to end the show many times, but it doesn't seem to work. We tell MTV, "Buy us out," but they're not doing it. This season, there were three episodes that we were like, "This episode should totally end the show."
VC: I don't know if you've seen all the episodes, but last season we had the "Patience" episode. [The show's second segment was simply the first segment played backward. —ed.]
JL: Our assistant editor—our show-boy, we call him, but he doesn't like to be called show-boy, so make sure you print that…
VC: He thought we weren't getting more than three minutes on the air.
JL: That's just a sign of network desperation. They said, "We need another episode," and we jokingly said to the executive, "Hey, we'll just run the thing backward," and he came back the next day and said, "Let's do it." And then we're like, "Shit, we have to turn this into something."
VC: It was originally gonna be just 21 minutes of a guy and a puppet saying, "Patience."
JL: We've learned we don't need to make an interesting show.
VC: We can just make MTV put anything on the air.
JL: Because that kind of worked, technically.
VC: It actually made it to air, and nobody got fired. They actually promoted some people because of it.
JL: Our goal all along has been to get people fired, and it hasn't worked. We can't even get ourselves fired.
VC: We got a couple of people to quit.
AVC: How much work does the show take on an episode-to-episode basis?
VC: Way too much. We overwrite, overshoot, over-everything.
JL: Vernon and I do all the writing, all the directing, all that stuff, so it takes about nine months to make six shows, which is a ridiculous waste of time. I calculated what we get paid per hour, and I think I'd be doing better if I worked at Cinnabon, because you get free Cinnabons. We don't get free Cinnabons in the situation we have now. There are deals being made as we speak. Cinna-deals.
AVC: Once you have an episode done and you take it to MTV, do you have to compromise with them about what gets on the air?
JL: We've got 'em pretty much on a leash. We try not to have stuff that's blatantly awful, and we try to have some point to the comedy. We hide behind the flag, the Bible, and the Constitution a lot, and that lets us get away with whatever we want.
VC: We shit all over the back of those things.
AVC: How often do they say no?
JL: How often do they want us to clean that up? We did this thing called "Little Hitler: What's Wrong With The Youth Of Today." We dressed a 9-year-old kid up like Hitler and put him out on the street. We wrote that as a joke, thinking, "Okay, that'll be something that they'll throw out, and then we'll get this other thing." And they liked it.
VC: They were like, "Great!"
JL: And now they won't air that episode any more, because they aired it on Holocaust Awareness Day or something. So you'll only see that episode on DVD, or you can download it from iTunes. They don't have standards when it comes to buying it.
VC: It's not standards, it's protection. Everyone's protecting themselves. Standards are such a weird thing at a network like MTV. What's your moral standard when you're celebrating 16-year-old kids spending $2 million on a party? That's always our argument—"You show this stuff that's actually offensive!"
JL: There's not even any satire to it, just people yelling at workers.
AVC: Is there anything they've said no to flat-out?
VC: We had a real shotgun really shooting a crucifix, and we shot it, but they wouldn't let us air it.
JL: We did it the day before Cheney, our vice president, shot a man in the face, and they thought it was too insensitive. And we're like, "It's the cross' fault. He should have warned us." Usually, if it's something we really want, we just childishly never give up fighting. They have this weird thing on MTV. You can do almost anything, but you can't do a suggestion of oral sex. You can do fucking, you can do eating ass, but you can't suggest oral sex. It was this hard-and-fast rule, and we were like, "Okay, how do we get around this rule? Who do we talk to?" They were like, "This goes all the way to the top." Apparently somebody who owns the network, and I don't want to say who, is allergic. I'm assuming he got caught blowing a priest. That's the only answer.
VC: The only answer we'll accept.
JL: That was the one time we said, "We're not cutting this. If you guys want to go in the show and change something, you can," and they did. They went and dropped out a double entendre or something. We actually had to bring in puppets and show them how puppets don't have genitals. I think they thought our puppets had actual genitals. They were like, "You can't have that puppet put his penis in that other puppet's mouth."
AVC: But they allowed you to cook and eat God.
JL: Yeah, not a word about that.
VC: And they encourage us to show God having oral sex.
JL: We can't do stuff about Jesus, but we can do stuff about God. The rules are so weird. You can say, "Jesus, he's my friend," but you can't say, "Jesus! He's my friend." They don't like exclamation points when it comes to Jesus.
AVC: Do you get a lot of angry letters?
JL: I've been writing Vernon for years, and mine ain't working.
VC: Will you tell John I'm continuing to not speak to him?
AVC: Is there anything on the DVD that didn't get on the air?
JL: We did a "Story Time With Flavor Flav" that was not quite up to our high standards of comedy. Flavor Flav became America's retard; he had a regurgitation of fame.
VC: We shot him right before his little regurgitation.
JL: He stole all the clothing from the shoot.
VC: We're doing wardrobe for The Surreal Life from now on. That's gonna be big for us. Naturally, we have Gordon Lish doing an audio commentary, former fiction editor of Esquire and—
JL: Father of Don DeLillo and Raymond Carver.
VC: And appreciator of old vaudeville comedy.
AVC: Does he have anything particularly enlightening to add?
VC: He does. He actually tells you how to get ladies, and he insults another audio-commentator guy. We think we set a world record—the first audio commentary where the guy giving the audio commentary, during the session, fell asleep watching the show. And the only people doing audio commentaries are over 70.
JL: MTV was like, "Can you do audio commentary with young people?" They're always trying to push us to get young people, so we said, "Perfect," and we got all white males over 70.
VC: White males over 70, except for Dick Gregory. But he fell asleep during the session. You can't really hear it.
AVC: What's in store for the second season?
JL: We're trying to top the annoyance level, and trying not to run the formula into the ground. We're trying to learn to stop hating ourselves and try to love ourselves. We shot this bit in front of St. Patrick's Cathedral called "Little Dead Pope." We had Trevor, our superstar—he'll be more famous than anyone we ever know—dressed up as the corpse of the Pope, and he asked people if he was going to hell. That ended up being really fun. We usually know it's gonna be a good bit when we hire bodyguards.
VC: We've had no incidents. We did have the cops tell us to go away, and then we had a lot of angry Catholic doctors, but what the fuck are Catholics gonna do? And then we shot a hilarious comedy bit at Ground Zero called "Can We Ever Laugh Again," with the stench of death still in the air. So that's pretty wacky.
AVC: How do you guys coach Trevor?
JL: All we do is whisper, "Say some crazy bugged-out shit! Go hog-wild on this motherfucker!" And then he's like, "All right," and he usually gets a little piece of paper and he works out some perfectly honed comedy gem.
VC: With the timing of a whip-crack. A whip cracking a diamond into shape.
JL: Against the eye of the American viewing public. All in the tear of an eagle.
VC: We just give him a camera, and he and his friends make the show. We're just old enough to get paid. No, we feed him lines, but when he's interviewed, he doesn't admit that. I like it, 'cause it makes him look like a badass. I would like to say we don't feed him the lines. He really gets the humor. We try to go around the joke, but he knows right away. He's like, "Oh, that joke's about shitting on a nun's chest." And we're like, "Trevor! Come on!"
JL: Most of the kids don't know. We have them say something, and we know we're gonna cut it together. Most kids don't figure that out, but he's starting to get a little savvy. We're gonna have to cut him loose. Make that the pull quote: "Trevor, we're cutting you loose."
AVC: How do these kids' parents feel? Do you show them the show?
VC: When we audition, they see the show; they know the content.
JL: If we don't get along with the parents, we don't bother dealing with the kids. The only way we relate to the kids is personality. We see if they can read lines and we just start tormenting them, kind of the way we're tormenting you. If they handle it, they're good, and if they throw it back at us, they're awesome. I think we asked Trevor, "Would you want to go to Times Square and yell at people?" And his eyes lit up.
VC: He's like, "Let's go to Times Square and yell: 'I'm the king of this town! I'm the king of this town! Kneel before me!'" The kids we go for are the kids who, when we say, "Would you like to smash a guitar against a brand-new car?" are like, "I've been dreaming about this, please let me do that!"
AVC: There's a lot of anti-meat sentiment on the show. Are you guys vegetarians?
VC: No. Meat is visually compelling. Meat works. Meat works for America. Meat is like a diamond. It's the perfect metaphor for whatever you need. Do you need a new metaphor? We'll hook you up.
JL: Meat is pretty compelling to look at. It's just solid murder, rock-hard murder. It's murder crystallized into pure meaty form. And that's just fun. When we do research and watch PETA videos, we're like, "Okay, we're not eating meat for a couple weeks."
VC: When you see a pig just kicking and looking in the camera, and blood's pouring out of it, and it's looking you right in the face…
JL: But ultimately, all the deliciousness beckons, and you gotta go back to meat. It's a siren song. It's kind of like alcohol, but in a more solid form.
AVC: Do you have to chase down the people you bother on the street for releases?
JL: It depends on the bit. The amazing thing about those kids' bits that we've learned is, it's really hard to offend somebody through the vessel of a cute child. So we keep pushing further and further. Even though they see us whisper in the kid's ear, and the kid turns and says the biggest insult, they're just like, "Oh, look, it's a cute child that just said that." It's really hard to get people mad through a child. You should try it.
AVC: They do seem to get mad at Clarence, the puppet.
JL: Clarence is totally different.
VC: We're doing Clarence naked. You can't see that offscreen, but that's why. The whole idea is to try to get people angry, to get unwilling straight men.
JL: People actually get angry at Clarence. We'll have people put their hand over his mouth to stop him talking, or cover his eyes so he can't see them. We don't look at the guy, we just stare at the puppet like, "What the hell is this kid doing?" And it's maybe one out of every three people who get angry. Certain people, there's just some magic that they believe in the puppet.
VC: They believe in it enough to hate it.
JL: They kind of realize, "I'm not gonna get a rise out of these two guys, but somehow this puppet should be responding to me, so I'm gonna direct my anger to him."
VC: I think they're right to go after the puppet, because if we didn't have the puppet and we were doing that to people… We should do one where it's just a bare hand and see how they respond. But people who block his eyes, people who just have real anger—it's not like they say, "Clarence, you're getting me riled up," although people have—there's some people who just truly hate puppets. I assume that something happened to them as children.
AVC: Have you ever been physically assaulted while shooting?
VC: We've had knives pulled on us about three times. We've been punched, I don't know, 20 times. And kicked.
JL: Some guy had his forearm against my neck and had me pinned against a wall.
VC: I remember that, because I was running, about two blocks away.
JL: My favorite moments are when you see someone lash out at the puppet, and then we have the guts, after he hits us, to move closer. There's so many times that someone hits us and we just run away like babies. There's a guy who pulled a knife on us, and we kept going toward him.
VC: We ran away, and then from a distance, we said, "Okay, now let's learn to love each other. What will it take? We'll take baby steps."
JL: And he's holding the knife out.
VC: And then we took little steps closer, and within five steps, he started to go for us, and we took off.
JL: That guy was saying to himself, "I just don't want to go back to jail." And that was our protective bubble.