Questions in a World of Farts

Oddly, no one seems particularly upset or even concerned that David Lynch is now voicing a recurring character for The Cleveland Show on Fox.  It’s a testament to just how completely all media and all cultural hierarchies have collapsed into one another.  If Blue Velvet-era Lynch had done even a cameo on The Cosby Show back in the day, perhaps in a very special episode featuring a battered and bruised Lisa Bonet showing up on the Huxtable stoop crying that a neighborhood boy had put his seed inside her, that would have been a big deal.  But when Inland Empire-era Lynch takes a semi-regular role, not on Family Guy, not on American Dad, but on the third and so far most unstable outpost in Seth McFarlane’s animated empire, no one seems to even notice.  And yet, until American Idol can secure Yo Yo Ma as a judge or Kim Kardashian somehow figures in the solution to the Lost enigma, this has to stand as the most bizarre collision of taste cultures currently on American television.

This may seem like a knock on the McFarlane/Mike Henry empire, but really it’s not.  I was a late convert to Family Guy, and with the exception of its inexplicably brutal penchant for paraplegia jokes, generally find it to be consistently amusing.  And American Dad, despite a shaky start, has gradually developed its own credible identity, especially after arriving at the perhaps inevitable realization that its real hook is McFarlane’s intergalactic Paul Lynde shtick as Roger the bitchy alien.  And with the addition of The Cleveland Show last year--- a spin-off of Family Guy—McFarlane introduced hardcore structuralism to the American public with a clarity that had somehow eluded a half-century of Levi-Strauss scholars.  Suddenly, anyone with a TV, a computer, and electricity shared the astounding insight that all three McFarlane franchises were extremely similar in their structure, emplotment, and character distribution.  Most hilarious is a chart from the Cracked website (yes, that Cracked, the one boys used to buy when they couldn’t find the latest issue of Mad).  As you can see, the editors here provide a Morphology of the McFarlane Folktale, revealing to us just what a scam that rich bastard is trying to pull by remaking the same show over and over again! 

Backlash is inevitable, of course, especially in the consistently neurotic and overly-charged affective playpen of television fandom. But I’ve never understood how people who watch so much television could be so clueless as to the factory logic that must eventually take charge of all programming, no matter how “ground-breaking” it may have once seemed.  For years we have suffered with Simpsons fans irate that the now 50-year-old franchise abandoned the template established in the first three seasons, as if the nation could stand decade after decade of “heartwarming” stories about a family that never ages.  The same has been true of Family Guy, its earliest fans angry that the show no longer amazes them in the same way it did when they were ten years younger, and who seem to think the world really would be better off if Fox canceled the show to make more room for another shot at a Brad Garrett vehicle. 

I may be mistaken, but I think Family Guy even did a little meta-commentary on this issue in a recent episode.  In a rather bizarre B-plot a while back, Stewie cloned himself to create a clumsy and stupid “bitch-Stewie” to do all of his menial labor.  Brian then demanded his own clone, and before you knew it, both were plagued by the moronic antics of their slightly deformed genetic cousins.  Is Bitch Stewie really American Dad?  Is Bitch Brian actually The Cleveland Show?  I’d like to think so. 

But back to Lynch.  As a semi-regular on The Cleveland Show, Lynch voices the character of “Gus,” proprietor of “The Broken Stool” (the requisite sitcom watering-hole that allows the eponymous Cleveland to shoot the shit with his equally requisite “three buddies"). Stranger still, Gus is drawn to resemble Lynch—an insider joke aimed at that miniscule audience segment out there who might actually recognize a pen-and-ink rendering of the director.  Actually, Lynch is proving to be one of the more inspired additions to the program.  His characteristically nasal deadpan is certainly much funnier than the baroque vocalizing of the three sidekicks originally assigned to Cleveland (idiot redneck guy, short-guy living with his Mom, and that insufferable Russian Bear character).  If Lynch, like Patrick Stewart over on American Dad, is willing and able, I’d much rather see “Gus” become Cleveland’s regular foil than these other three—all of whom remain, even well into the show’s first season, painfully mannered and unfunny (their only real contribution is to make viewers appreciate just what an inspired sidekick Quagmire is). 

But the question would be: can Lynch stand the stench?  In the most recent episode, for example, Cleveland follows in the footsteps of so many other fat-guy TV husbands by acceding to his doctor’s demand that he change his diet.  Adding “high-fiber” items to his daily repast has the unintended but hilarious side-effect of making Cleveland particularly gassy, and soon Cleveland is farting with wild abandon.  Now understand, Cleveland is no stranger to farting.  He farts frequently and with great gusto on the program, taking full advantage of the landmark comedic victories won by Peter Griffin’s carnivalesque colon on Family Guy.  But this time Cleveland’s new diet creates such copious farting that he can no longer control his gas; indeed, one might say the gas begins to control him, a recurring cheap gag elevated here to be the central engine of the plot.  This leads to a series of diverting vignettes in which Cleveland farts, both discretely and explosively, in a number of inappropriate situations.  One fart, delivered in a car with the windows rolled up, is so egregious that it causes his co-worker to run off the road and crash!  As one might imagine, all of this farting eventually begins to annoy Cleveland’s family and friends, leading finally to a crisis wherein Cleveland’s riotous bowels threaten to derail his participation in a karaoke duet competition with his wife.  Things look bad as the wind begins to break during their rendition of “Love Will Keep Us Together.”  But then the fast-thinking Cleveland realizes that if he sticks a rubber hose up his ass, he can manipulate his farts to provide accents and coloratura to augment the old Captain and Tennille standard.  This improvisation proves a huge success. 

Keep in mind, all of this occurs under the watchful eye of bar-keep David “Gus” Lynch. Other stuff happens after that, but once you’ve seen Lynch, celebrated director of Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and Mulholland Drive, presiding over a protracted spectacle of musical toots, it becomes a bit hard to pay attention.  Given the typical practice in contemporary animation wherein voice actors simply read their lines in sequence without the participation of other characters, one has to wonder if Lynch knew his dialogue would eventually be intercut with a man blasting 70’s MOR pop-farts from his asshole. And truthfully, I don’t know if I’d respect Lynch more for knowing or not knowing.

It’s a strange bit of stuntcasting, and next to McFarland and Alex Borstein’s oddly straight take on a live-action variety special last year, this has to be weirdest symptom of McFarlane’s continuing clout at Fox.  To preserve my own sanity, I’m going to pretend Lynch isn’t actually on a show that is 80% farts (Cleveland’s home town, by the way, is called Stoolbend.  Stoolbend!), but is instead lending his talent to a program that is engaging in a sustained critique of scatological humor through various forms of “meta-farting.”  And I will also hope that whatever Fox money is flowing his way for these appearances will eventually help fund another Lynch feature or TV project, one that can perhaps resist the temptation of using a lighter-assisted butt-cheek flamethrower as its comic topper. 

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