Penthouse Retrospective

by Paul Provenza Originally Published: june, 2010

With All Disrespect | 10 Years Ago This Month

I myself sometimes agree with him. It doesn’t matter to me if my audience knows when that is, but I do sometimes agree with my character. But generally speaking, if you slap me across the face at 3 A.M. and say, “What are you?” I’d say I’m a liberal.

Can people not take the point seriously since it’s just from a quasi-fictional character? And if they hold views you mock, can’t they just say to themselves, “Oh, that guy’s just a joke”?

COLBERT: I try to wear his mask lightly, but never really take it off fully, because it allows me to say things that you would not forgive me for saying. For instance: “That Rosa Parks is overrated. Let’s not forget she got famous for breaking the law, okay? Last time I checked, we don’t honor lawbreakers. I think that gets lost in this whole back-of-the-bus thing. Don’t get me wrong, it took a lot of courage, but I think we’re burying the lead here. She’s a criminal.” I can get away with that through the mask of my character.

I suppose many comedians keep some level of mask between themselves and the audience, and the audience agrees to let them get away with it, but I wear it all the time on my show, to various thicknesses. That’s how the character helps me. I can get away with shit. Most of the time.

Vernon Chatman & John Lee

Vernon Chatman was a consultant on South Park(and gave voice to the lovable Towelie), won an Emmy for The Chris Rock Show, and wrote for Late Night With Conan O’Brien before joining creative forces with John Lee to cocreate, write, and produce the now-defunct MTV series Wonder Showzen, the brilliantly twisted anti-Sesame Street for the nihilist child and bipolar Muppet in all of us. They are the team behind the ethereally funny Xavier: Renegade Angel, and the deadpan unreality show Delocated, both for Adult Swim. Along with their partners in PFFR, their production company/ band/art collective kinda sorta, they just may be the darkest, most inventive, imaginatively subversive minds working in television comedy today.

CHATMAN: On Wonder Showzen, we put all our darkness and cynicism through the vessel of a child. That’s it. That was the entire premise of that show.

LEE: Because if we do it, we’re assholes, but if a little kid does it, it’s cute and funny.

CHATMAN: Ironic and deep.

LEE: It says something.

Well, you know… It does, actually.

CHATMAN: But we weren’t like, “This is an important thing.” Mostly, it was, “These are scrappy little shitty, cynical things we want to say and if we get a kid to say it, it’s funny.” I don’t think we ever think much about a point. We’re not that smart. The degree to which we put any statement in is “just enough to keep things interesting.”

That show grabbed me right away, because I despise prepackaged, one-size-fits-all sentimentality. To be cynical about it in the context of a kid’s show I think is substantive.

CHATMAN: We want to smash those smiles off people’s faces.

We’re always surrounded by so much artificial sentimentality, which I find vulgar. Whenever I see those sweatshirts with cute little kittens and puppies on them, I think of the factories where five-year-olds make them for two cents a month.

CHATMAN: All the emotions that go into all that are fuel, sure, but it’s also a dark black hole to go down; it’s not that creative. It wasn’t just cynicism with Wonder Showzen. A lot of it was that kids are just funny and fun. They’re anarchic and goofy. Their personality and energy bring out the kid in us.

Was your voice as a stand-up similar to your voice on TV?

CHATMAN: I definitely indulged in rape and abortion jokes and the darkest, bleakest shit. But there are limits when you have a live audience. When you’re on TV, you’re not in the room, so they can’t punch you.

LEE: Were you punched onstage?

CHATMAN: I’ve been punched as a result of Wonder Showzen. Doing the Clarence puppet with strangers in Central Park, we got knives pulled on us; I got punched in the head in a restaurant —

It seems endemic for many of us in comedy that, for some twisted reason, it’s more compelling when someone gets upset about something we think is funny than just to see them enjoying themselves.

LEE: Somehow what you’re talking about is kind of sad. Being cruel and pushing somebody is much more somber than someone going, “Hey! Here’s ten jokes about rednecks.”

Are we just hiding cruelty because it’s funny enough on the surface?

LEE: We just can’t think about it. People ask us, “Should you really have little kids saying stuff like that?”

And we’re like, “Yeah, it’s fine; they know about it.” But really, ultimately, probably not.

From the book iSatiristas! Comedians, Contrarians, Raconteurs & Vulgarians by Paul Provenza and Dan Dion. Copyright© 2010 by Paul Provenza. Photographs by Dan Dion. Reprinted by permission of It Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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