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Hi, I'm horror and science fiction author Steve Kozeniewski (pronounced: "causin' ooze key.") Welcome to my blog! You can also find me on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Amazon. You can e-mail me here, join my mailing list here, or request an e-autograph here. Free on this site you can listen to me recite one of my own short works, "The Thing Under the Bed."

Friday, March 23, 2018

Re-Animated #16: Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law

Over the last two installments we talked about early [adult swim]'s recurring oeuvre of rehashing Ted Turner's recently acquired Hanna Barbera library, so we won't go over that again in great detail.  "Space Ghost Coast-to-Coast" was the pioneering show in this regard, and due to its budgetary limitatons, relied on a cheap-to-produce talk show format and surreal humor in equal measures.  Its spiritual successor and (sort of?) spinoff "The Brak Show" took the tack of relocating its characters from a superhero-populated galaxy of wonder to suburbia, and allowed the natural strangeness of the juxtaposition to inform a great deal of the humor.  "Sealab 2021" took perhaps the most obvious approach to repurposing an old adventure show as a comedy: keeping the setting and characters the same, and essentially continuing to write situational comedy, but where the situations are bizarre and the reactions are hyperbolic.

And then there's "Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law."


"Birdman" took perhaps the strangest approach to this unique opportunity to play in a pre-existing sandbox: they played it, for all intents and purposes, straight.  Birdman was the same Birdman who had fought crime in the sixties.  He had just decided to get a new job as a criminal defense lawyer.  As with Space Ghost, no one's long-simmering affection for Birdman was going to hamper a show making fun of him.  Nobody remembered who the fuck who he was, and he hadn't been that great in the first place.

And what about all of Birdman's supervillains from the sixties show?  They had all, similarly, taken on unlikely careers as judges and prosecuting attorneys, allowing for them to remain "enemies" in the adversarial courtroom system, while also having many coyote-and-sheepdog moments after they punched out for the day.  Harvey Birdman and such luminaries as Myron Reducto or Mentok the Mindtaker might snipe at each other over drinks, because they still sure as shit didn't like each other, but they weren't typically going to bash each other's brains out.

While the humor remained bizarre, it was never quite surreal or bizarro the way "Sealab" and "Brak" were.  In fact, while its contemporaries often and loudly smashed the reset button at the end of each episode, "Birdman" technically remained in continuity throughout the whole run of the show.  For instance, when Judge Mightor, who sat on the bench for most of the first season, runs into hiding to evade mafia don Fred Flintstone, he is replaced by Judge Mentok the Mind-Taker.

Oh, did I just kind of gloss over that Fred Flintstone reference?  Because I was just getting to that.  "Birdman" doesn't just remain internally consistent.  It also presupposes a world where all of the Hanna Barbera characters coexist and intereact.  This gives Birdman a chance to defend Fred Flintstone as a mafia don, as mentioned, but also to take up the case of the poor young marijuana addicts Scooby and Shaggy, Quickdraw McGraw/El Kabong for carrying a concealed weapon (a guitar), the custody battle for Jonny Quest, Atom Ant for being a terrorist, and so forth.

I guess what I'm saying is, "Birdman" was ambitious.  Damn ambitious.  It presupposed a world full of characters the audience was more or less going to vaguely remember from their wasted youths watching Saturday morning cartoons in the den.  It gave you a chance to catch up with those characters, see what they're up to these days, and what their behavior would have resulted in had they lived in a real(ish) world.  

And in keeping with such ambition, "Birdman" had a shockingly impressive voice cast, full of already-theres and soon-to-bes of the turn of the millennium.  The title character was Gary Cole (you know, Lumbergh from "Office Space?") but other voices included Lewis Black, Peter MacNicol, Michael McKean, Phil LaMarr, and a just-before-he-became-world-famous Stephen Colbert as Birdman's boss.  As with his character in "The Venture Brothers," Colbert disappeared from "Birdman" after he got his own show.

"Birdman's" ambition would also influence the burgeoning [adult swim] in other ways.  Having decades worth of characters and material to draw from, the writers took a kitchen sink approach to gags (doubtless, much to the chagrin of the animators.)  There's what the characters are saying - which is clever - and then there's what the characters are doing - which is often in contradiction to what they're saying - and then there's a veritable army of background characters watching, while pulling faces, tripping over banana peels, and anything else you can imagine.  Every 11-minute episode of "Birdman" was packed with a cornucopia of densely layered gags.  Where thirteen years before it was often said that you would be rewarded for paying attention to what was going on in the background of "The Simpsons," starting with "Birdman" you practically had to take repeated viewings on slow motion to catch everything that was going on in [adult swim.]  

This meant that "Birdman" was eminently rewatchable - a clear advantage on a channel which replayed all of its shows twice a night and was mostly watched by stoners and college kids who weren't paying a terrible amount of attention to begin with.  It would also seep into the [adult swim] ethos and deep into the DNA of shows like "Superjail," "Metalocalypse," and "China, IL."

But we're not done with the original hourlong block of [adult swim] shows yet!  And we've save possibly the best - certainly the longest lived - for last.  See you next time, Reani-matey-os!  That's your new...that's your new term for yourselves.

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