For all my pretensions, all my attempts to present myself as a literate, knowledgeable, and discerning fellow, I’m really a lowest-common-denominator guy at heart. I don’t often allow that to come through. I know that a fart joke is just about the basest, most tasteless thing in the world, especially during Holy Communion, but it can also be the most freakin’ funny thing in the world, especially during Holy Communion, especially if it’s insinuated that it was the monsignor who stepped on the duck.
I’ll tell you about it someday.
That may explain my fascination with the Kids’ WB! animated series Freakazoid!, produced by Steven Spielberg back in the rip-roaring mid-’90s. Warner Bros. Television Animation had been through a resurgence of sorts, propped up by the success of the moody, atmospheric, and terrifically written Batman: The Animated Series. They suddenly had the rest of the entertainment world paying attention, so much so that Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment came to call. From there, a succession of fondly remembered series tumbled out: Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs, and Pinky and the Brain. The word came down that Spielberg’s next series should be a superhero show, so Bruce Timm, an integral part of the Batman show, started spitballing ideas, working up a premise and designing characters. The result was a show far more earnest than Spielberg planned, so he sent back the message to crank up the humor. He should have been more careful with his direction.
Freakazoid! debuted as a Saturday-morning program on Kids’ WB! but was also in syndication from the start, meaning that affiliates could run it anytime they had a slot, from three in the afternoon right up to prime-time hours. The show was frenetic, all over the map, sometimes following a story structure, sometimes just goofing and riffing along. It handled spoof and tribute with the same amount of subtlety, which meant none at all.
At the center of the show is Dexter Douglas, a teenage nerd who’s more comfortable with his high-tech equipment than he is with “the real world. He receives the gift of a memory-chip upgrade, but the problem is that the chip has been engineered to be a portal to a strange, powerful cyber-world. The code to get to that world is a closely guarded secret, so it’s fortunate that Dexter’s fat cat accidentally walks across his computer keyboard and enters the code, sending the geek into the mystic.
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The previous statement was, essentially, pointless; it got the car in the garage. The real merit of the series comes when Dexter emerges from computerland transformed into Freakazoid, who is by most standards criminally insane. He breaks as much as he repairs. He causes equal amounts of mayhem saving the day, and even that has nothing to do with the show. The show is about teaching conversational Norwegian, or learning how to say “cut the cheese” in French (giggle, giggle), or figuring out which of the apes in the movie Congo is real and which is a guy in a suit. It’s an excuse to have a full-on parody of the beloved Jonny Quest show even though Toby Danger would rather be sneaking into casinos to gamble. Supervillain the Lobe, voiced by veteran character actor David Warner, breaks into a musical number in a restaurant as the waitstaff sings “Hello Lobey,” while in another episode Ricardo Montalban sends up his best Wrath of Khan quotes.
If this sounds utterly juvenile to you, don’t worry — it is, it really is. In defense of the school dance after his mind is taken over by a Harvard-educated caveman, Freakazoid sits on his head and bellows like a Hassidic yodeler, capping it with a Jerry Lewis-like “Aloha, lady in the dress!” He also leads the hostages in a warped mash-up between folk mainstay “Erie Canal” and the famed Animal House “Shout!” scene. [We don’t know what he’s talking about either. -Ed.] Freakazoid’s left hand falls in love with his right hand and gets married, to the chagrin of his feet, who hate each other. His sidekick, Foamy the Freakadog, abandons him in his time of need, preferring the company of a dry, welcoming fire hydrant.
Juvenile, dumb, inventively crude at times, but fun. It helps to have some knowledge of pop culture circa the ’90s to get all the references and in-jokes, but little explanation is necessary when Lonnie Tallbutt (giggle, giggle) comes to the Douglas home, seeking a cure for his chronic case of being a werewolf. The cure: Freakazoid shaves him and drives him crazy, just before sending him to the digital netherworld for a tough-love session.
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My fascination with the show stems from my secret love of the puerile as well as when the thing originally aired. It seemed like everything was serious in the ’90s; everybody was talking about their pain and misery, singing confusing non sequiturs in order to sound like Beat poets, and trying to find redeeming values in their entertainment. We were dealing with Olympic bombings, O.J. Simpson, grunge, talk-show overload, and a growing concern that, without the Cold War looming over us, everything else was out to get us, from aliens to cancer to reanimated dinosaurs. So to have a program thrown at me where nothing was sacred, not even story structure, was to offer a brief outlet from real insanity via animated insanity. I’m grateful, yet slightly more screwed up than I was before. Freakazoid!‘s first season is now available on DVD as a two-disc, three-sided set, and not a moment too soon for my impending earnestness. It may never be revered by a massive cult following or spawn new franchises after the fact, but we few, we happy, deranged few, are glad to have the ol’ nut job back.