New "Harvey Birdman" Funny Beyond the Shado of a Doubt
Unlike network programs Simpsons and Family Guy that have broad appeal, cable adult comedy animation tends to target a very specific audience. Either you get it or you don’t. Although if you’re in college and inebriated the odds are probably in your favor. Occasionally there’s a show that is just down to earth enough to interest the mainstream, if only someone could tear them away from American Idol and plug their brains back in. One such series is Harvey Birdman Attorney at Law, which will debut three new episodes on Adult Swim starting July 24th.
Anyone who grew up in the 60s, 70s, or 80s can probably recall spending enough time watching the loathsome creations of Hanna-Barbera to make their blood boil. Recently I’ve been able to come to terms with my anger, thanks to the soothing and hilarious therapy of Seanbaby’s Superfriends website and the magnificent Harvey Birdman. My eyes have been opened to the tremendous potential for riotous parody that Hanna-Barbera’s cruel incompetence offers, and Harvey takes full advantage of it.
Beginning life as a terminally lame superhero in the 60s, Birdman now takes other Hanna-Barbera dinosaurs to court and exposes them for the freaks and nutcases they truly are. Generally speaking I find this to be inspired comedy, with standouts like the Scooby Doo marijuana trial moving me to tears. Sometimes the show drifts into Adult Swim Bizarroworld, however, where weirdness for the sake of weirdness is job one and comedy a distant second. The first of these three new episodes is handicapped by this tendency, although it is not without its moments. The second and third episodes manage to stay on target though, and deliver virtually wall-to-wall hilarity. It’ll help if you have your Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hanna-Barbera D-listers of Yesteryear on hand.
Episode 21, or “Booty Noir,” is the most surreal episode and follows two stories. In one Birdman represents pink alligator Wally Gator, who has degenerated into a violent redneck with penchants for beer and cursing at WalMart. In the other diminutive evil scientist Reducto falls hard for the generous posterior of Black Vulcan’s girlfriend Norlisa, which he is unable to resist enlarging with his resizing ray. The two segments are tied together by brief narrative scenes in which Birdman’s boss Phil Ken Sebben ruminates on the nature of love.
In Episode 22, Murro the Marauder files a suit against Birdman for the physical and emotional suffering inflicted upon him in their battle years ago. Birdman is represented by the lecherous and barely competent purple hippo Peter Potamus, while Murro retains telepathic leprechaun showoff Shado the Brain Thief, who soon grates on the nerves of similarly powered ex-supervillain Judge Mentok the Mind Taker. Eventually the trial snowballs into a huge class action suit against Birdman as dozens of his old enemies come forth to seek reparations for injuries past.
Episode 23 sees Birdman lose his magical crest to old nemesis X the Eliminator in a game of gin. He subsequently plunges into unkempt desperation whilst defending hyperactively destructive sheriff Ricochet Rabbit from charges of defacing private property. Meanwhile X is surprised to find the crest he planned to use to rule the world instead compels him to do good deeds, and he becomes the darling of the talk show circuit.
As usual, there is a fair amount of social commentary to be found in these episodes. Wally Gator is an amalgamation of every redneck stereotype you could possibly imagine, which the show is only too happy to poke fun at. Maybe NASCAR needs an anti-defamation league. Reducto’s absurd romance plays off the clichés “love is blind” and “big is beautiful.” The case against Birdman seems to be an indictment of frivolous lawsuits, although there is a brief moment of actual drama when Birdman reflects on whether he just might have ruined the lives of countless villains. It would be interesting to see that idea explored further in a serious superhero story. Ricochet’s case, in which he earns the animosity of the very townsfolk he is trying to protect, is vaguely analogous to the Iraq situation. Finally the business with the crest might be a cautionary tale about placing faith in false gods, as Birdman finds losing it isn’t quite the end of the world, while X discovers gaining it to be less than fulfilling.
Office Space/Kim Possible veteran Gary Cole anchors the proceedings with another slab of great deadpan humor as the slightly clueless and generally luckless Birdman. Birdman’s slow descent into madness after losing his crest is not to be missed. The Daily Show‘s Stephen Colbert provides capable support as the creepily paranoid Reducto and completely insane Phil. John Michael Higgins and Toby Huss create a hilarious rivalry with Mentok and Shado respectively, the latter aided by a plethora of pricelessly goofy expressions and gesticulations. I would more than gladly watch a series starring just these two. Shado effortlessly steals every scene he’s in. Ally McBeal‘s Peter MacNicol camps it up as the megalomaniacal but very swishy X, and Mark Hamill lends a very brief and unrecognizable cameo as Ricochet.
Somewhat less appealing is the annoying drawl of Wally, who looks nothing like his HB incarnation and might as well be another character. Call it a matter of preference, but Norlisa is more than a little unsightly (especially once Reducto is done renovating), and Black Vulcan is embarrassing as a feebleminded cuckold. I would much rather have seen him played as a smooth Shaft type who speaks tough and scores big. Lastly I just couldn’t really warm to Potamus. His rampaging libido is mildly amusing, but the guy has little characterization beyond being a self-absorbed jerk. He repetitively raves about “that thing,” which must be an obscure reference I’m unaware of.
These episodes are jam-packed with laughs, so I can do little more than skim the surface here. There’s a great romantic montage of Reducto salivating over Norlisa’s buttocks at various date spots, including one clip in which they are sculpting a clay replica of her asset a la Ghost. Birdman tells Speed Racer that he can help him out with his speeding charges, but is less confident about “the monkey in the trunk.” He worriedly covers his crestless mask as if he had a bald spot, and gets a shoddy hair transplant to cover it up. Mentok and Shado engage in a ridiculous parlor trick competition in the courtroom, mostly consisting of exposing people’s underwear. Dragged out of bed and quite literally through the door when the crest senses danger, X’s first involuntary crime-fighting mission turns out to be apprehending a white-collar employee who stiffs the office coffee fund.
Viewers know better than to expect stellar animation from an Adult Swim production, and they won’t be surprised here. Not that superb animation is necessary for the dialogue-heavy Harvey, especially since it pays tribute to characters that were horribly animated to begin with. From what I’ve heard the show has switched from recycled classic animation to all new flash animation, and it is more than adequate for the task.
Harvey Birdman Attorney at Law fans and recovering Hanna-Barbera victims should mark their calendars now for another three rounds of hilarity. Or two and a half anyway. They might even get a few Simpsons fans to join them. Where else can you see Dick Cheney run Speed Racer through a buzz saw? And why for that matter? Is it because Speed’s DVDs are increasing the trade deficit, the Mach 5 is a weapon of mass destruction, or Cheney has his eyes on Trixie? Nah, knowing Harvey, it must be the monkey.