I Like to Watch

With no end to the writers' strike in sight, charmingly weird Internet shows, from "The Maria Bamford Show" to "Clark and Michael," take center stage.

By Heather Havrilesky

Published December 16, 2007 2:00PM (EST)

Grok didn't trust fire. It was "too bright" and "too hot" and "too unpredictable." Florence didn't like the radio. It was "too loud" and the radio hosts "never shut their traps" and sounded like "a bunch of angry mockingbirds." Lois hated the television set. It was "big and ugly" and "served no purpose" and made people into "drooling halfwits." Dick didn't trust the Internet, the graphical portion of the World Wide Web. It was "full of nothing but junk" and "too hard to read."

Heather didn't like Web shows. They were "too short" and "not funny enough." She didn't want to wait for the shows to download, and she didn't want to keep adding more and more plug-ins to her already-beleaguered computer. Plus, the shows she watched kept stalling in the middle. Her computer kept crashing. She kept searching massive "comedy" sites, watching "comical" shows about wisecracking singles, and not laughing.

And besides, she didn't want to sit at her desk to watch narrative entertainments, she wanted to lie completely prone with only her empty head propped up, like a misshapen eggplant leaning against the weedy garden of her unmade king-size bed.

See how grandiose Heather's prose got when Heather got frustrated? Heather, like Grok and Florence and Lois and Dick before her, was old and crusty and slow to adapt, but still arrogant enough to think that her personal preferences were somehow more salient than the preferences of a whole new generation of portable media users. In truth, she always felt a little sad whenever she saw them, on the sidewalks and in the cafes of her city, connected to their musical pods and gaming consoles, watching Yugoslavian teenagers dance on YouTube or texting each other or using their onboard navigational systems to locate other hot young pieces of ass wandering around in the same ZIP code. Seeing youngsters so consumed by their little electronic micro-worlds filled Heather with contempt, but it also made her worry about her increasing irrelevance, a lone Luddite meteorite floating aimlessly in the big, busy media universe.

"How did this happen?" she asked herself. You see, back when she was young and full of hope and still smelled fresh, Heather used to read Wired and Macworld and make pointless animated movies with Macromedia Director. She leapt headfirst onto the Internet bandwagon. She embraced blogs in all of their haphazard glory. She gleefully posted stupid puppet shows online.

Somehow, over the years, Heather went from early adapter to reticent, sluggish fish, fighting against the tides of change, soon to get beached on the Island of Has-Beens in the Sea of Insignificance, just north of the Ocean of Obsolescence.

Don't be afraid of the dark
Then Heather discovered "The Maria Bamford Show" and everything changed. This strange Web show, which appeared on the comedy Web site Super Deluxe with a bunch of other strange but less funny shows, appeared to be filmed entirely in the attic of this person named Maria Bamford's parents' house in Duluth, Minn. According to the opening screen of the show's first episode, Bamford had been doing stand-up for several years in Los Angeles when she suffered a breakdown onstage in 2006, and eventually retreated to her parents' home to regroup and regain her sanity.

Bamford spins a strange comic web indeed, playing all of the characters in the sad little drama that is her life as a lost, half-crazy, sometimes depressed single woman in her late 30s. Among the other characters Bamford inhabits with total conviction and authority are her passively judgmental but supportive mom ("Listen, if you want to get breast implants, we will support you"), her skeptical sister, her nerdy dad and a selection of odd but disturbingly familiar acquaintances from the town of Duluth. My personal favorite is her archenemy from high school, who tells her, "So we saw you on TV or whatever. It's just like in high school -- it's like you're not funny, you're weird."

But no recap of Bamford's weird tales or the clever dialogue she writes can do justice to "The Maria Bamford Show," because Bamford herself is such a good performer, churning out hilarious impressions with convincing accents, verbal tics and great comic timing. Her central conceit -- that she's crazy and something of a loser -- is a common one these days, but it works because Bamford is so inventive and giddily odd in her presentation. She manages to expose the most interesting quirks and flaws of her entourage without actually coming out and suggesting that she has a nasty attitude about any of them. Bamford's family, friends and enemies usually get the upper hand, while Bamford herself is continually kicked in the teeth by life's little foibles.

Like the gullible, dumb hunk of literal-minded astral rock that I am, after watching all 10 episodes in a row, I wondered if Bamford's Web show was a funny but sincere cry for help from some poor thirtysomething in the Midwest. Maybe I should e-mail Maria Bamford at her parents' house in Duluth, to tell her to hang in there, because, damn it, this little dog-and-pony show she'd created for the World Wide Web was the best thing I'd seen so far ... not that I had looked for very long, since that required sitting upright at a desk like someone who has a job.

Well! Imagine my chagrin when I discovered that Maria Bamford was actually a reasonably well-known, successful stand-up comic right here in Los Angeles! Why, she's probably sane and fun-loving and I bet she even pays rent and has friends and a full set of teeth in her mouth, damn it! Why can't she be a loser who lives with her parents? It's so much more exciting if she's a sad little shut-in, making these desperate videos for the world.

But I bet Maria Bamford isn't even unhappy. I bet she's a quirky genius who's totally hot in Hollywood right now, maybe she even made up the name "Maria Bamford" on a road trip with her boyfriend, and her real name is Jill Jones but she's very spunky and special because she's under 30 and she has cool tattoos and her whole life is totally random -- in an ironic, self-conscious, premeditated way -- like she became a stripper because she thought it might be good for her blog.

Or maybe she's actually a 23-year-old actress named Kimberly who totally loves playing "Maria Bamford," because even though "Maria" is depressed, her vulnerability is totally inspiring.

But I should really try to support Kimberly in her new project. Because the truth is, just as Grok distrusted fire and Thor was suspicious of wheels and Angelica didn't "believe in" vaccines and Carrie had nightmares about wheat gluten, most people don't like shows about weird, desperate, thirtysomething shut-ins.

In truth, most people prefer shows about people who are young and full of hope and still smell fresh. They like to see those fresh-smelling whippersnappers flirting and rolling their eyes and moving into cool apartments together and forming adorable little circles of photogenic but angst-ridden bestest friends. That's why most people are destined to eat "quarterlife" hook-up, pick-up line, and heart-sinker.

But what's kind of funny in a typical, Hollywood, not-funny way is that this thoroughly modern Web show about twentysomethings was created by Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick, two people who wrote for "thirtysomething" something like 30 years ago. OK, fine, 20 years ago. But if they wrote for thirtysomething 20 years ago, doesn't that make them ... fiftysomething? Not to sound as ageist as I actually am (which is why I hate myself more each year) but isn't that a little bit queer (in the 50-years-ago sense of the word, as long as we're having fun with time travel)?

Don't get me wrong, I understand why these two really dig the freedom that the Internet affords. Herskovitz told MTV, "For two aging adolescents who have problems with authority, this was good for us."

Herskovitz later explained, "What we haven't adapted is the notion that you can do real storytelling with deep emotional values. No one's tried that on the Internet before. I think that's what's been missing."

Hmm. Aren't Web shows like "Something to Be Desired," just to name one long-running example, at least trying to tell stories with "deep emotional values," and haven't they been doing so for years? And didn't Herskovitz and Zwick only rework their show and put it online when ABC rejected the pilot?

Maybe it was these comments that prejudiced me against "quarterlife." Or maybe it was the earnest video blogging, the deep sighs and the stuttering and the yearning looks of the lead character, a young woman who just wants to find herself, damn it! Maybe it was the tired "my mainstream corporate boss steals all of my really groundbreaking, alternative ideas!" story line. Maybe it was all of the little clandestine crushes, where our blogger heroine is secretly in love with her hot, witty, intellectual, creative neighbor Ned, but Ned is secretly in love with his best friend's girlfriend. Now let's see. Did they get that story with deep emotional values from ABC's crappy twentysomething soap "What About Brian" or from the lyrics of "Jesse's Girl" by Rick Springfield?

And just when "quarterlife" was breaking new ground on the World Wide Web, guess what? NBC picked it up, which made it the first Internet show that ever got picked up by a major TV network. Now "quarterlife" isn't just the freshest, most innovative, most groundbreaking derivative twentysomething rejected pilot ever -- it's also making TV history!

But let's not get too cynical here, because old people who stink don't wear cynicism nearly as well as the young lovelies do. After watching several episodes in a row, it became clear to me that "quarterlife" was reasonably well-written and occasionally charming, at least. Even if this is just a matter of a rejected pilot that managed to get some good press and get picked up by a network, all by going online and then trumpeting itself as a groundbreaking and important (which Time columnist James Poniewozik sums up rather nicely here), so be it. Maybe writers with good material will no longer find themselves at the mercy of network executives ruled by the whims of their fickle focus groups -- at least until those writers sell out (Ah, such a '90s concept! There must be a recession coming) and leave their picket-line pals in the dust.

Even so, if talented writers and directors can take their work directly to the people and build big audiences that way, then it's hard not to believe in the magic of the Internet, at least until your head starts swimming and your carpal tunnel kicks in and you have to lie down.

Profess up
But after several hours of watching more stuff that wasn't interesting or funny, all while being forced to sit upright at a desk like some kind of productive member of society, I didn't believe in the magic of the Internet at all.

At least, I didn't until I stumbled back over to Super Deluxe, where I found, among the truly strange, outrageous and incomprehensible shows there, a really funny show that will never make it to prime-time TV: "The Professor Brothers."

The show is about Frank and Steve, two professors who are, like a certain subset of the professorial population, pretentious, pathetic, porn-loving weenies. They teach classes that are profane, juvenile and absolutely brilliant.

In the first episode, "Bible History #1," Steve lays out the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in riveting detail: "Lot said 'No one can fuck my strange guests! However, I have two beautiful virgin daughters; you may have them instead. Do unto them whatever you want!'" But "the throbbing mob didn't care about the virgin daughters," and God ended up destroying the town. The sinners "ran like goats on fire," but Lot's wife looked back and God turned her into a pillar of salt and then God and Jesus high-fived. Now what could be better than dizzyingly fast, slightly profane stories from the Bible?

But it wasn't until the next episode, "History Lesson #1," that I was transformed into a serious "Professor Brothers" groupie. If I even try to describe this one, I won't do it justice, so please, do me a big favor and watch "History Lesson #1" right now. I can only tell you that it concerns John F. Kennedy, it's delivered entirely through song, and after you take a few minutes out of your busy schedule to watch it, you'll say to yourself, "I'm really glad I listened to her and watched that, because that was one of the most eye-opening, life-changing bits of Internet entertainment I've ever seen, and now I'm going to write to Comedy Central and suggest that they turn 'The Professor Brothers' into a half-hour show that runs late at night, perhaps after some foul frivolity like 'Drawn Together.'"

I would write to Comedy Central myself, but that would require me to look around for the proper development executive's name, and then that development executive would totally bring my great idea to his or her boss without ever giving me credit, and then I'd be forced to start a video blog so I could whine to total strangers about the whole thing.

Be sure to tell them to check out "The Maria Bamford Show," too, OK?

Hide and geek
You don't need to tell them about "Clark and Michael" because CBS actually financed this one, which should give you some indication of how nervous the major networks are about the potential for new media and the World Wide Web to blow their old-school operation right out of the water.

"Clark and Michael" is another professionally produced show about young losers, which is certainly becoming a common theme among Internet entertainments. Written, produced, directed by and starring Michael Cera (the kid from "Arrested Development," "Superbad" and "Juno") and his friend Clark Duke, "Clark and Michael" follows the two aspiring writers through a series of desperate attempts to get a life in Hollywood.

Once again, that probably sounds as bad as the story of a woman living with her parents or two pretentious, pervy professors, but it only takes about two minutes to understand and enjoy the mood of this show. Cera and Duke both have great deliveries and timing, and their parody of the self-importance of young writers in Hollywood is absurd but also hauntingly accurate.

"They don't deserve our show and they're not ready for it and neither is any other network at this point," Michael says after another failed meeting.

Another episode begins with Michael and Clark working out at the gym. "I just finally took the time to respect my body," Michael explains as he's working out. "My body is my tomb."

Yes, "Clark and Michael" might be financed by The Man and created by a well-known actor, but I'll take free funny wherever I can find it.

The future is finally here!
Back when I spent a lot of my time looking for good stuff for Video Dog, all I ever found were skits that wouldn't even make the cut on "Saturday Night Live." I half-assumed that all of this talk of Internet shows would lead nowhere, just like it did back in 1996 when I wrote for Suck.com, and everyone in our offices (which we shared with HotWired) spoke breathlessly about the endless promise of Internet content. But here we all are, 10 years older and smellier, and the Internet is finally spilling over with a wealth of lively amusements, exactly the sorts of willfully odd entertainments that most of us have longed for whenever we tuned in to the same repetitive, lowest-common-denominator sitcoms year after year.

If the writers and the studios never come to any kind of agreement -- and honestly, if you read some of the more thorough reports on the subject, it looks like the studios don't plan to give an inch anytime soon, to such an alarming extent that half of Hollywood might be out of work indefinitely -- then people could end up relying on the Internet to distract and amuse them. The networks and studios could find themselves waving goodbye to big chunks of their audience, particularly the younger ones who don't leave their apartments without wearing their full music, gaming and narrative entertainment libraries on their bodies.

As for the rest of us? We'll be at home, lying prone, shoveling Chubby Hubby ice cream into our gullets and watching "E! True Hollywood Story" reruns while the modern world passes us by. And we wouldn't have it any other way.

Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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I Like To Watch Television