So begins Liam Lynch’s 2002 hit “United States of Whatever.” Remember it? “Well this is MY United States of Whateverrr!” If you do, you’ve already been unwittingly introduced to MTV’s The Sifl and Olly Show. That tune was one of many that Lynch and lifelong friend Matt Crocco cooked up for their cult classic lo-fi sock puppet variety show. It’s the perfect introduction. “United States of Whatever” encapsulates just about everything that makes the show great: low fidelity, wacky humor, and a rock and roll nonchalance. Most importantly, it is expertly crafted. Like Sifl and Olly and its creators’ numerous other projects, "United States of Whatever" seems like something that anyone could have whipped up in their bedroom, but under that spontaneous, devil-may-care veneer is a calculated labor of love with everything in its right place.
Yes, Sifl and Olly is a variety show hosted by sock puppets. Each episode features the titular hosts (voiced by Crocco and Lynch, respectively) having seemingly-stoned1, almost definitely improvised conversations in front of a green screen populated with psychedelic patterns between entertaining “calls from the public” and chats with other bizarre puppet-guests (including the sun, an orgasm, and a spaced out regular named Chester, whose puppet is made from an inverted Buddha mold.) Their topics run the gamut from the inane (ninjas) to the philosophical (love), but most straddle the line between both -- Just who does a prostitute’s laundry, anyway? And, like any variety show worth its weight in variety, each episode’s got plenty of musical numbers.
Before even watching it, the thought of something like that being on network television is just mind-boggling. And having watched it, the mind is even more boggled. This is a truly, madly, deeply weird show, and it looks grainy enough and sounds reverby enough that it probably could have been produced on a Hewlett Packard running Windows 95 (It may well have been). After more than a decade of late night non sequiturs with Space Ghost and Master Shake, the low budget antics of Sifl and Olly are less jarring than they must have been in 1998, but no less hilarious or brilliant. The faux-public access steez of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! sure owes The Sifl and Olly Show a great debt. And before Adult Swim? Forget about it. As far as I can tell, this show was unprecedented -- downright peerless, maybe barring the other weird shit MTV was peddling at the time. This is a testament to the cajones and vision of Lynch and Crocco.
And MTV, who definitely deserve props for backing this thing. Well, MTV-UK, if you’re splitting hairs. Lynch and Crocco sent some tapes of the show (which originated as visual components to comedy routines the Hudson, Ohio natives recorded at Kent State University) in its embryonic form to both the stateside and British versions of the channel. For all of our sakes, MTV-UK bit. In 1996, The Sifl and Olly Show debuted as part of station identification bumpers. By 1998, it had its own half hour slot. After it became successful enough in the UK for consideration, regular MTV picked it up as well. You know, MTV, that channel with all the shitty reality shows. So much can change in ten years.
Maybe the MTVs were taking a risk, but they bet on the right horse -- Liam Lynch is basically a prodigy. His might not be the most recognizable name in show business but he has been attached to a whole bunch of notable projects over the last couple decades -- he has released several albums, directed a bunch of music videos by the likes of the Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age, and “Weird Al” Yankovic, collaborated at length with Tenacious D and Sarah Silverman, and last but certainly not least animated the video for Dan Deacon’s viral hit “Drinking Out of Cups.” Sifl and Olly, in fact, regularly appear on his popular LynchLand podcast. The man is a visionary. He was one of only forty applicants to get into Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (LIPA), and one of only five to be personally selected to train in music theory with Macca himself. Not too shabby! It shows in his work. Lynch rarely misses a note or skips a beat.
The show has a cult following that can be predictably described as “rabid. They prefer to describe themselves as “the sockheads.” A Google search for “Sifl and Olly” reveals a sea of age-old fan sites hosted on Angelfire and Geocities. Its IMDB and Wikipedia pages are ridiculously detailed and well-kempt -- no stubs, no seeds, no sticks. The Onion’s A.V. Club named it the second best show that “Proved MTV actually brought some good into this world,” right after The State and right before 120 Minutes2 ; elite company for any TV, but especially for what I remind you is a sock puppet variety show. If any show deserves a cult following, it’s this one. For some reason, it hasn’t really made its way into the television canon. Yet.
Lynch and Crocco created a world -- one with its own lingo (“crescent fresh”, “rock.”), music, and memorable cast of characters. Beyond that, they created an aesthetic. Their show may have came out in the 90s but their sense of humor, with its perfect blend of the awkward, scatalogical, and pop cultural, was a harbinger of the “alternative” comedy shows that were to come. It sure seemed like they didn’t give a hoot, but the unlikely, consistent quality of their strange little show proves otherwise. Lynch once declared that his and Crocco’s goal was, simply, to “rock 3.” It’s safe to say that they succeeded, and made groundbreaking television in the process.