This was one of those acquisitions where after watching the first few episodes, I wondered what the hell I was thinking. I had rented this season of Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law years ago, watched some of the episodes and raved about them, then was given my own copy as a gift some time later.
I happily threw in the first disc, but was shocked to discover they felt utterly flat. Was I over-caffeinated when I last saw these or something? My memories were hazy, so I couldn’t tell if I’d seen these particular episodes before. But their aimless, witless surrealism turned me off and I put the show on the backburner for a while.
Harvey Birdman was one of Cartoon Network’s early Adult Swim shows. Like Space Ghost Coast to Coast, it resurrected some forgotten Hanna Barbera animated superheroes from the 1960s and placed them in a mundane setting ripe for neurosis and absurdity. Space Ghost became a talk show host, and Birdman (of Birdman and the Galaxy Trio!) became Harvey Birdman, a hapless attorney whose one-time villains have become fellow attorneys, judges, or washed-up evildoers trying to reclaim past, inane glories.
The show is a melting pot for legal show satire, energetic surrealism, one-off jokes that don’t fit anywhere else (at one point Harvey’s sidekick Peanut is jackhammering in the office for no reason, says “we’ve hit bedrock!” and Barney Rubble pops out of the hole). What I liked about the show when I first saw it was the breakneck pace of the gags, but the pace wasn’t to disguise their flatness. Already funny, the jokes became hysterical when thrown at us with such frenzied gusto. Recurring jokes in one episode would reappear in a subsequent one with no warning or explanation, just because it’s funny. The passage of time would be vandalised to make a repetitious joke work. Harvey Birdman had a precise rhythm and relentless drive that was surprisingly endearing.
But the early episodes feature less of this. The pace is still there, but much of the humour falls flat. The voice work is solid from the start, with Gary Cole as Harvey and Stephen Colbert as his boss, eyepatch-wearing lothario Phil Ken Sebben. Michael McKean and the perennially amusing John Michael Higgins recur as judges and lawyers, and everyone’s clearly having a lot of fun. But the early material they’re given has no resonance: it’s just people saying weird stuff and doing stupid shit again and again.
I finally gave the show another try, and in the two-parter that closes disc one, which sees Harvey framed for mangling a rival’s sidekick dog in a photocopier and sent to prison, the various elements of the show finally click. Pitching that frenetic pace effectively obviously took some practice, and as I started watching disc two I realised I’d seen these episodes. These were the ones that made such an impression. I clearly put the second disc in the player by accident all those years ago…
So although I’d reassessed Harvey Birdman as cut from the same cloth as the other Adult Swim shows whose surrealism does nothing for me (Tim and Eric Awesome Show and Space Ghost), it turned out to be the genuinely funny, batshit crazy show I’d remembered. This is a highwire act of comedy, where the writers pump out as many jokes as they can at great speed before they reach the other side or fall, and the pressure to succeed harmonises the writing with the animation and acting at just the right frequency.
I may just get Volume 2 at some point, but I have way more DVDs in this impractically large and neglected collection to watch first. Look for more Finishing School entries soon.