The creators that the radical, riotous MTV comedy series were additionally warning united state how bad things were around to get. And also they walk it with puppets, tiny kids, and some deeply messed-up animation. Fifteen year later, lock recall the do of among the weirdest and most profound shows ever.
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The warning first aired so late on a Friday night, accompanied by one ominous drone and the sound of faint screams: “Wonder Showzen,” it read, “contains offensive, despicable content that is also controversial and also too awesome because that actual children. The stark, ugly, extensive truths Wonder Showzen exposes may be spirit crushing to the weak the spirit.”
That dire heads-up turned out to it is in a bit of one understatement. When Wonder Showzen debuted 15 years ago, it was unlike noþeles that had actually been on TV before. Affected as much by Sesame Street as it was by Noam Chomsky, the short-lived MTV2 collection was a visually jolting, politically pungent faux kids’ show featuring puppets, man-on-the-street interviews, animated segments, and kiddie-voiced “documentaries.” Throughout two hilariously stark seasons, the display exposed ugly, profound truths around sexism, racism, capitalism, and organized religion—sometimes all in the very same episode. ~ above Wonder Showzen, characters played rock-paper-scissors through God (who kills self after losing), while middle America was stood for by a dim-witted, over-reactionary puppet (named, of course, “Middle America”). The present was therefore frantic and strange that it sometimes took repeated viewings to realize just exactly how gleefully seditious Wonder Showzen yes, really was. “Every second,” notes cocreator Vernon Chatman, 48, “we to be like, ‘They’re walk to take it this away, for this reason let’s get in as much as we can.’”
Chatman and also his Wonder Showzen partner, man Lee, first came up through the idea for a demented kids’ display in the early ’90s, as soon as they to be prank-pulling students at san Francisco State. Yet it took number of years, and also many setbacks, before the series finally arrived in march 2005. By then, the Wonder Showzen team was living in brand-new York City, whereby they’d endured the horrors the 9/11, and the disappointment of George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection. “The political climate was no that favorable,” says Wonder Showzen character designer Jim Tozzi, 52. “And the kind of radical comedy that John and Vernon were doing was favor a punch in the face.”
Those huge swings consisted of segments choose “Beat Kids,” in i beg your pardon a pint-sized reporter approached white-collar employees on wall surface Street and also asked, “Who go you manipulate today?” another segment found a young boy dressed as Hitler, quizzing passersby ~ above the state of America’s youth. There were likewise warped animated segments such together the G.I. Joe parody “H.O.B.O. OPS”; a bouncy musical number around the background of slavery; and also retro mock-documentaries, including a tour of a warm dog factory that find one young narrator adorably cooing, “Delicious murder.”
But Wonder Showzen’s best-loved moments to be the ones featuring Clarence, a googly-eyed, squeaky-voiced blue puppet that would harangue random new Yorkers. Sometimes he’d merely annoy them because that a banana, or ask what democracy smells like; various other times, he’d posture existential concerns on the nature of television itself. The town hall the accosted interviewees react to a goofy puppet—and they’d regularly do therefore angrily, periodically yanking turn off Clarence’s eyeballs—revealed a lot about human nature. “Early on,” says Lee, 48, “one guy ordered Clarence’s mouth and also held that shut. I was like, ‘We have actually something good. We’re such an infantile country that people think they can control this puppet.”
Wonder Showzen wanted no such regulate over the audience. In fact, it urged viewers to increase up versus everything they’d watched before: In one early-episode musical number, its fuzzy heroes implored those at home to “smash your TV and also have adventures.” and also it yielded the sort of dull truths about racial, class, and also gender disparities seldom seen ~ above the tiny screen, doing for this reason years before terms prefer “peak capitalism” and also “patriarchy” became talking points. “Most TV-show staffers space white guys,” notes art director Alyson Levy, a key Wonder Showzen creative figure. “I’m Jewish, John’s Chinese, and Vernon’s half-black. … and the ladies working ~ above the show had a genuine voice ~ above Wonder Showzen. We’re a very diverse group of people.”
The members of that scrappy Wonder Showzen team would eventually assist shape the future that TV comedy: Lee, Chatman, and Levy walk on to oversee such gonzo Adult Swim collection as The Heart, She Holler, and Xavier: Renegade Angel; various other staffers i graduated to together late-night staples as The Late display With Stephen Colbert and The Tonight display With Jimmy Fallon.
And despite Wonder Showzen’s on-air run was brief, the show’s giddily subversive sketches live on—often in unexpected, slightly discombobulated ways. Also if you’ve never ever seen an illustration of the show, you’ve more than likely seen sketches like “Wash your Hands” pop up digital (and you’ve virtually certainly checked out the long-running “That’s Racist!” GIF, which to be taken native the show). Critical month, a truncated version of Wonder Showzen’s brutal stereotype sing-along “Celebrate our Differences”—a parody, Chatman says, “of clueless honkies patting themselves on the back”—was discovered by Twitter. Later, it inspired a image on TikTok, whereby young viewers reacted to the track with shock and confusion, plainly unaware they to be watching a decades-old satirical clip.
It to be proof the Wonder Showzen is as jarring and also unvarnished as it to be 15 year ago—and that its targets remain simply as fresh. “Injustice and inequality never change,” states Lee. “That’s the tragedy that Wonder Showzen.” Here, in the creators’ very own words, is the story the a display that was as well controversial and also too awesome because that TV—and was gone as well soon.
Part 1: “We began Fucking through People”
Vernon Chatman (cocreator): I grew up in mountain Jose, California, which is very suburban. My dad’s black, and my mom’s white, and also there were incidents that would piss my father off incredibly, choose when world didn’t know we were a family. Ns remember as soon as going ~ above vacation, and someone didn’t want to provide my parental a room together. Nobody of this was deeply scarring, but I’d get fired up about how stupid and also silly lock were. Like, why would certainly you do that? It appeared mockable.
I to be the youngest in my family, and a the majority of times, the youngest is the comedian. Therefore I might stand back, lob comments, and wind human being up. And also I to be obsessed through comedy from as beforehand as I deserve to remember: Bob Newhart, George Carlin, Monty Python.
John Lee (cocreator): I flourished up in a tiny, small town: Castroville, California, the artichoke resources of the world. It’s a city where, when we acquired a burgess King, us were like, “Yes! We’re legit!” I grew up fifty percent with hillbillies, and fifty percent with migrant workers, and also I was one of those children who was friends v every group.
My parents owned a liquor keep together. Mine dad to be a very funny person, and also a little bit the a prankster. I slowly understood, over time, that ns was the butt of his jokes—later ~ above in life, i was like, “Oh, that’s a really an excellent joke, man!” yet my family never really had actually discussions around politics. The many political we ever got was watching 60 Minutes every week.
Chatman: I checked out San Francisco State partly since I knew that there was a great stand-up scene there. I met man in the dorms. Ns was a an innovative writing major, i m sorry is the can be fried scam, and John was a movie major, which is the penultimate scam.
Lee: We began hanging out and also seeing comedy together. Climate we started fucking with people. Vernon used to perform pranks—not to scam old people out the money, however for the art and also spirit the pranks. We probably did pranks an ext than we did homework.
Chatman: us didn’t perform prank phone call or stuff like that. Our model for comedy was Errol Morris. That ask a question, and let
John had a camera, and also we go a documentary about mall cops for an assignment. We got this arrogant shopping mall cop and told him, “If we ask you a question, keep talking—even if we’ve gotta go perform something.” we asked him around his inspiration, and about the risks of the job. Then us walked roughly the corner, and also watched as he kept talking to the camera. I remember laughing for this reason hard.
Chatman: One day, we were in the student union or wherever, and also we had this idea for a prank of a show: it was dubbed Kids’ Show, yet you’d simply sing “kids’ show” over and also over again for 20 minutes, and then have actually the closeup of the door credits.
Lee: Kids’ shows, as a genre, can have so numerous different things. Lock true selection shows. And also whenever wednesday talk about comedy, us both secretly admitted our favourite sketch present was Sesame Street.
Chatman: Ernie and Bert has constantly been my favourite comedy team.
Part 2: “Let’s carry out It v a Puppet”
After graduating, Chatman would take trip as a stand-up, later arriving in new York City in 1999 to take it a job on The chris Rock Show. Lee was additionally in the city, play in the band Muckafurgason, and eventually cocreating the art collective-slash-band PFFR.
Alyson raise (art director, Wonder Showzen; cofounder, PFFR): I relocated to brand-new York in 1994. That’s whereby I met John and Vernon. The ’90s were particularly carefree—we had actually no expectation of success. Because that 10 years, it to be like, “Be in a band, make art, execute stupid jobs, it is in creative.”
We would fulfill every week, document a song, and do all these drawings. That was in the lead-up to Wonder Showzen. But we were never part of the comedy scene—we were sort of a bubble unto ourselves.
Chatman: throughout The chris Rock Show, I’d satisfy John during my having lunch hour, and we’d walk shoot approximately the city.
Lee: we did a video called “Please don’t think we’re crazy, we’re simply trying to meet the neighbors”—probably the many evil thing we’ve done. We’d get in random huge buildings with a camera, punch on a stranger’s door, and also have a video clip camera on together they opened it. And we would certainly not speak a word.
Chatman: It was that very same Errol Morris technique—put a camera ~ above someone, and see what drama lives inside the person. Some people would say, “Do you want me to fucking beat you in the mouth?” and also some would certainly crack up and say, “This is crazy! perform you recognize my sister?”
Lee: us were make the efforts to leave one place, and people called downstairs. Security caught us and also took our tape. The was the minute the Kids’ display idea opened up up. We were like, “Fucking doormen. Let’s go attack their space—and let’s carry out it with a puppet.”
Chatman: I had actually a couple of puppets I’d bought in ~ a Salvation Army. Yes something you naturally connect to with a puppet: This thing’s talking to you, and it’s gained eyes, and it connects girlfriend to as soon as you to be a kid. So they speak to it.
Lee: We come up v a Clarence bit called “You Can’t movie Here,” despite Clarence was called Arthur in ~ the time.
Chatman: that was john holding the camera, me through the puppet, and also both of us daring each various other to no puss out. Doormen are easy, due to the fact that they have their machismo, and also their task is to safeguard the space. So they’d be required to engage with the puppet, and also that would attract out your personality. And also people gaining aggressive v a puppet was constantly the funniest.
Jim Tozzi (character designer; cofounder, PFFR): Vernon is very anarchic, and always pulls some social commentary out of his comedy. And also John is an extremely playful and absurd. That’s a an excellent combination. And the thing I learned working v them is that you want to polarize people. Girlfriend want fifty percent the world to hate what she doing.
Chatman: Eventually, we had actually all these tiny pieces—a little cartoon the was simply stills, some real kids telling hoax that us bleeped out—and we gained Chris Milone, the main editor on The kris Rock Show, to edit this eight-minute tape for free.
Lee: Vernon and I started talking around pitching this tape as a show. Among our agents said, “When space you males going to protect against fucking around and also make a real show?” <Laughs.> But they were supportive, and sent the tape out.
Chatman: It gained to Stephen Chao at USA. That
Lee: that was our ideal acting job: “Yeah, we’re exactly what you’re looking for.” however we made a pilot the was a little more elaborate.
Levy: I’d been a visual artist, so as soon as John and Vernon were putting together the Kids’ display pilot, i was like, “I’ll it is in the manufacturing designer.” A girlfriend of mine and I acquired a book from the library on how they made the puppet sets for The Muppet Show and also Sesame Street, with all these behind-the-scenes photos, and we figured the out. We wanted the display to look really homemade—like early-’70s Sesame Street. us were wary of the being too slick.
We make the pilot best after John and I obtained married in 2000, in an office in some building in west midtown. We had actually maybe six people working on it, and also we shot several of it in a super-tiny storage closet.
“Barry Diller acquired a few minutes into the tape, pressed Stop, and also said, ‘Not only are we no doing this show, we’re no doing comedy anymore.’” — Vernon Chatman
We had loads the flag-burning scene in the show, and I was an alleged to light them top top fire. But I was constantly putting castle out as well quickly, due to the fact that I to be afraid the whole room to be gonna walk up. Us only had two flags, and also I ruined both shots. Castle teased me about it because that years.
Chatman: we’d heard a story the Stephen Chao had been
Lisa thomas (media producer): We entirely freaked them out. They wanted nothing to do with us afterward: “Get escape of this wackos.” and we were like, “Oh, i guess we’re the end of the job.”
Chris Milone (editor): ns think John and Vernon were secretly happy around it. We would have been handcuffed in ~ USA. And we all knew Wonder Showzen to be going to fly at one point—we simply didn’t know where.
Part 3: “We have actually Something Good”
In the years the followed, Chatman and Lee operated on such mirrors as MTV’s Doggy Fizzle Televizzle, while copies of their unaired Kids’ present pilot circulated amongst comedy fans.
Aaron Augenblick (animation director): before the hatchet “viral” was yes, really in existence, the Kids’ Show pilot was acquiring passed around the internet: “Oh, my God—you’ve acquired to see this crazy shit.” It to be on this tiny little video player, however what I could see, I remained in love with. That was prior to I to be even associated with the show.
Tom Calderone (executive evil president for music programming and also talent for MTV and also MTV2): MTV had obtained into music-reality shows prefer The Osbournes, therefore the concept of MTV2 was to protect the network’s music image: “If friend still love 24-hour music videos, that on MTV2.”
Jesse came right into my office for our weekly development meeting with a ice cream of the USA pilot and also said, “You gotta clock this.” mine heroes were civilization like Lorne Michaels, chuck Barris, Monty Python—people the really driven the envelope. So when they played the Wonder Showzen tape, my jaw dropped: “We have to perform this.”
But we did readjust the title, due to the fact that Kids’ Show would have been tagged “kids show” on people’s DVRs. And we had to make sure Wonder Showzen wasn’t in there in between Sesame Street and Dora the Explorer.
Work top top the very first season of the recently revived, freshly rechristened Wonder Showzen began in the loss of 2004 in New York City.
Levy: We never had various departments, i m sorry is weird because that TV. So i did everything—I was in charge of hair and makeup, wardrobe, and art. Wonder Showzen was a truly magical time period for every one of us. And also for a the majority of people, the was your first-ever job.
Chris Tartaro (assistant camera): i was super-young—just 22 year old—and I’d interned and also worked as a PA at MTV. They were like, “We’re law a kids’ show, and also we desire you to help get John and also Vernon up and running as a production.” I had actually no idea what the meant.
Jessica Vitkus (supervising producer, Season 2): everybody in Wonder Showzen was an extra in something. You didn’t need to be a good actor—they just needed bodies. They knew ns was a crafter ~ above the side, so for one scene, i made some puppets out of stove mitts, or whatever I can find.
Lee: The Wonder Showzen budget was around $400,000 an episode, and we were smart enough to it is in on time and also on budget. Us didn’t desire to be the squeaky wheel, because that means we’d acquire away v more. Our line producers would say, “This is a $40,000 joke.” and also we’d say, “No, no—we desire the $500 version of this joke.”
Chatman: ~ the show got picked up, we wanted a few more main puppets, so we could have an ext story lines and have a small team that characters. We uncovered this male who’d do puppets because that Sesame Street. He had actually a large shock the white hair and this stunner workshop down in the Lower eastern Side, and he walk really an excellent work. But after 35 years of adhesive inhalation, his mind was gone. He obtained mad about a shade of color we want for a puppet and also threw united state out that the studio.
We found the world of puppet people is yes, really weird. They to be so offended that us were not professionally trained: “Who room going come be your puppeteers?” and also we were like, “We’re walk to do it ourselves. Don’t you simply open her hand?”
Levy: We never made any puppets at Wonder Showzen. Castle were done by Geppetto Studios in brand-new York, who were weirdos in their very own right.
And I never went on the shoots with Clarence. I couldn’t manage what was around to happen.
Tartaro: John and also Vernon to be so great at drawing out people’s problem beliefs—getting them come say, like, “I nothing pay fist to that,” or, “That’s not important.” it was every either privileged stuff or racially tinged ideas people no realize castle had. The beauty of it to be they always played it because that comedy; it wasn’t like, “We’re walk to take it this human apart.” despite at time I thought those dudes got a lot much more pleasure the end of fucking with human being than i did.
Chatman: We obtained kicked and also punched a lot. We gained knives traction on united state twice in one day.
Tozzi: and also after they’d obtain chased by civilization with knives, Lisa Schiller would have to go ago and acquire releases
Lisa Schiller (production assistant): I had actually to explain to world what had actually just happened. And also there were a lot of upset people. Not everyone was happy with a puppet in their face.
My strategy changed from human to person—I had actually to be able to read them. For this reason when human being were like, “Fuck those guys,” I’d agree through them: “They’re awful, ns know! but it’s my first job, and also I’m therefore nervous, and also would you please do this because that me?” Most human being signed the release, therefore the small 25-year-old girl would store her job. That worked, due to the fact that trying to define the display to civilization in that state the anger doesn’t work.
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Lee: One man
Chatman: He was going, “I don’t want to go back to Rikers. You males are gonna do me go back to Rikers.”
Schiller: John and also Vernon would usually warn me as they walked far whether the human being was walking to it is in agreeable or not. But that man came after united state so fast, ns didn’t also have time come react prior to Vernon was steering me right into a cab through the 2 of them. And they screamed, “Just drive!”
Chatman: The only thing ns regret space those moments us wussed out, like, “We should have actually ran toward the man with the knife, not away.” To have actually a puppet coming at a man with a knife—how funny is the going to be later on, when you get out that the hospital?
Part 4: “Ever Think around Smashing Stuff?”
The flesh-and-blood stars of Wonder Showzen were the son actors lugged in to warm up with Clarence, mouth incendiary one-liners, or to walk the roads as one of the “Beat Kids.”
Julie smith Clem (casting director): We’d always send the scripts in advance, and that would filter the end people prior to they even auditioned. John and also Vernon weren’t trying to find your usual commercial or theater kids. They were looking for real kids. That didn’t matter if they were experienced—in fact, it was probably far better if they weren’t.
Lee: Those were few of the many fun days we ever had. Certain kids would have actually the spark in their eye. Wednesday ask, “Do you ever think about, like, shattering stuff?” “Yeah!” “Would friend love to do that ~ above camera?” “Yeah!” and we’d it is in like, “OK, save him because that later, save her because that later.” The special kids were the little anarchists, prefer Trevor.