I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Wonder Showzen: We Hardly Knew Ye (But Man, the Stuff We Did Know!)

by Thomas Michalski
March 8, 2014

The history of television is littered with programs that pushed the envelope and paid the price for it, burning brightly for a season or two before disappearing from the airwaves forever (but not, thank god, from the Internet). The story of timid network executives pulling the plug on an ahead-of-its-time show before it has a chance to build an audience is so familiar as to be almost perfunctory, but sometimes there’s more at play than fearless creative types butting heads with stodgy suits. Watching Wonder Showzen, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the transgressive kids show parody, delivering biting satire out of the mouths of babes, only ran from 2005 to 2006 because it was just too real for the pablum-slinging, money-hungry fat cats at the new millennium MTV, but in reality its cancellation had little to do with its gleefully offensive content and everything to do with being on the wrong network at the right time.

Launched in 1996, MTV 2 was initially envisioned as a return to its parent network’s focus on music-centric programming, but soon came to resemble regular the other MTV, leading to a series of re-launches and re-brandings that endlessly attempted to recapture the anarchic, anything-goes atmosphere of the channel’s 1980s heyday. Of course, a bunch of square television execs had little idea how to accomplish that and were, for brief periods, willing to try just about anything before ultimately giving up and falling in line with MTV classic’s uber-profitable business model of idiotic reality shows. That included throwing money at Brooklyn-based art collective/band/production company PFFR, whose members John Lee and South Park writer Vernon Chatman had a vague idea for a severely deranged children’s show and suddenly found themselves with the means to make it happen. Enjoying the unexpected opportunity, the duo were keen to see what they could get away with, which, as it turns out, was a lot.

In all honesty, there’re plenty of kids shows that are fucking insane as it is, but Wonder Showzen twists all their conventions into grotesquely hilarious indictments of capitalism, media and politicians, having cutesy puppets and cherubic children spout acerbic, absurdist blasphemies, often to unsuspecting strangers on the streets of New York. One of the few MTV 2 productions to capture any of the old MTV magic, the show gained a loyal cult following and received some warm critical reception as well. “‘Wonder Showzen’ is a messy mix of animation and live action,” wrote the New York Times’ Virginia Heffernan, “Part Sesame Street parody, part stoner indulgence, part lazy censor-baiting, part pure inspiration…anyway at every turn there's something hypnotic about the show's fleeting visual risks.” Attention inevitably turned to all the ridiculously offensive things being spouted by innocent young’uns, most famously the angel-faced but foul-mouthed Trevor, but it’s all in service to some very subversive and very smart comedy.

Since Wonder Showzen seemed on a mission to mock everything Americans hold dear, going so far as to cook and eat God, all with a wink and a smile, you’d think it’s creators would have been locked in a constant battle with the censors, especially with impressionable children as their stars. To hear them tell it, though, the creatively desperate MTV execs were mostly willing to accommodate nearly any crazy idea Lee and Chatman came up with, including just running a previous episode backwards and calling it “Patience”. “We've got 'em pretty much on a leash,” John Lee told the AV Club in 2006, “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”, with Vernon Chatman adding, “We shit all over the back of those things”

In the end it wasn’t Wonder Showzen’s outrageousness that caused its demise -- in fact that was probably a ratings point in its favor -- but rather MTV’s inevitable slide back to its well-established equilibrium of My Super Sweet 16 reruns and Proactiv commercials. It simply wasn’t the place for something original, and Adult Swim head Mike Lazzo, realized that right away. “Lazzo loved it so much he ran promos for Wonder Showzen on Adult Swim,” said Lee, “That was his way of reaching out to us, on air, telling his audience to change the channel to watch our show.” With Wonder Showzen over, the pair was free to develop the new The Heart, She Holler, a zany, unsettling supernatural soap opera parodying both Twin Peaks and Dallas, for Adult Swim, a channel that is in many ways the spiritual successor to the beloved MTV of yore, the perfect home for Lee and Chatman’s daringly provocative, but cheerfully playful, sense of humor.

1. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9902E2DE133FF932A05750C0A9639C8B6

2. http://www.indiewire.com/article/television/pffr-interview-vernon-chatman-john-lee

3. http://www.avclub.com/article/wonder-showzen-13983

4. http://www.uproxx.com/tv/2014/01/hear-christian-preacher-go-insane-watching-mtvs-satanic-wonder-showzen/

Thomas Michalski is a writer and radio host from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. You can keep up with his comings and goings over at http://www.voodooinspector.com/