Saturday, October 1, 2011

Dat Freak

It’s a story a lot of us 90s kids are familiar with: going back over a cartoon we loved as a kid, only to discover we missed all the adult-targeted humour that was fuel-injected into every episode. At the best of times, it adds a new dimension to a show that’s still entertaining to us, years later, making it even better.

It’s been over a decade since I’ve watched Freakazoid! on TV. I caught some episodes on YouTube a while back, but apparently that wasn’t enough for the final click, for it wasn't until a short while ago I was hit with the sudden and very powerful impulse to rebuy and rewatch the entire series. Now I totally love it all over again.

Freakazoid! has always been my favourite of the Amblin/WB animated comedies, ranking above Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain. I don’t know what it is, but I keep being drawn to superhero spoofs, even though I’m not that big a fan of superheroes. I’m smart enough to know that not all superhero stories are endless tales of black-and-white morality and shallow characterization, so it’s not a misplaced mean-spiritedness that drives my interest, either. Nor is it feeling that superheroes are somehow more absurd than the rest of SF and fantasy. I don’t know what it is, but I love The Venture Brothers, Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law, The Tick, Mystery Men, and so on.

The appeal of Freakazoid! is easy to discern: it’s just the type of humour I grew up with and still love when it's done right. Just when I feel I’ve become exasperated by the endless tide of pop culture parodies, fourth-wall breaking, and celebrity impersonations, another good cartoon comes along to remind me that this type of humour can still be used effectively. Freakazoid! is a great example, even if it might be the nostalgia talking.

However, it’s the characters that really sold this show to me, then and now. I loved the character of Freakazoid, and it ain’t hard to see why. Yeah, people hate “random” humour too, but Paul Rugg plays Freakazoid with such loud earnestness, there’s no way I’m not going to think he’s awesome. Ed Asner, western animation’s quintessential Grumpy Old Man, is wonderful as Sgt. Mike Cosgrove, the guy whose reaction to the must absurd situations is always his crotchety deadpan. Freakazoid’s family is also great, bland sitcom-folk with the occasional bouts of weirdness.

The only weak link in the good guy” cast is Freakazoid’s girlfriend Steff. While the joke probably is supposed to be, “She’s Freakazoid’s girlfriend with almost no personality, you know like superheroes have”, given that the rest of the characters, male and female, are funny in a more individual way (Dexter’s mother may have a creepy Stepford grin, but she’ll also eat 24 pizza rolls offscreen), I still wish Steff had actual characterization instead.

Not keeping to a steady viewing schedule in my childhood, I had no idea that The Lobe was Freakazoid’s arch-enemy. It makes a lot of sense: not only is The Lobe ostensibly the rational mind to Freakazoid’s silly insanity, but often The Lobe seems like he believes he lives in a world that takes itself more seriously than it actually does, while Freakazoid knows exactly what the score is.

David Warner gives The Lobe a voice full of grandeur and conviction that fits this perception of the world, and it makes him even funnier. Of course, The Lobe can delve into comedy with the rest of the cast, including the entire “Bonjour Lobey” musical number, but the idea that he takes things more seriously than anybody, even Gutierrez, (who is a weenie) remains strong. This gives Freakazoid and his arch-enemy the kind of opposite dynamic that apparently makes for good hero/villain conflict.

The Lobe is probably my favourite villain in the series for these reasons (though it’s a little disturbing that his hands and his head are a different colour, and that he thinks a pterosaur is a dinosaur). Up behind are Cobra Queen and Cave Guy, even before they were a couple. The reptilophile in me says that casting reptilian characters as evil is usually a bad thing, but there are so few female reptilian characters that I’ll give Cobra Queen a pass. It doesn’t hurt that she isn’t protected from slapstick, and unlike Steff, she’s funny as an individual character (I also positively love the design of her tusked, horned cobra). Cave Guy, well, he’s just hilarious because he’s a snooty, pretentious caveman in a loincloth, though I still wonder why he’s blue. In short: I ship it.

I don’t miss any of the back-up segments from season one, and I still can’t say whether I prefer Freakazoid! in a shorter or longer episode format. If I were to pick the back-up character I liked the most, it would have to be Lord Bravery. As a kid, I totally didn’t get that he was a Monty Python pastiche, but now it’s perfectly obvious and awesome. It’s just that I don′t mind jettisoning any of them for a Freakazoid-only series.

I want to give a special shout-out to the episode “House of Freakazoid/Sewer or Later”. At some point, my household TV stopped getting Freakazoid!, save for a channel that had perfect audio but extremely distorted picture. However, on a day when the station came through, I managed to watch and tape a rerun of this episode, and watched that thing into the ground. Since it had a werewolf (albeit based on the Wolfman rather than the more wolf-headed werewolves that I prefer) and giant snakes, I considered it the best of a bad situation.

Freakazoid feels like a cartoon made by funny people, for funny people, to please themselves, and thankfully coming out with something the rest of us could watch. The names of the writers and I loved it as a kid, and I love it again now. What the hell was I waiting for, taking so long to buy it?

Picking out the voice acting greats is also fun, and recognizing the names of writers well-known in nerddom.

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