There is no denying the impact television plays within our lives. People often gather around it with friends, or discuss the latest episode, some people even use it as a sleep aid. So it only seems natural that television itself would use television within the shows it shows. This is a device called a show within a show. These would be things like “Itchy and Scratchy” on “The Simpsons,” “TGS with Tracy Jordan” on “30 Rock,” or “The Muppet Show” on “The Muppet Show.”
This is a concept that has been used nearly as long as television has been around. I think Dick Van Dyke’s character on “Dick Van Dyke” worked on a television show, or he worked in advertising. I really can’t remember, though I did watch that show a lot as a kid, thinking about it now I am not sure why. Anyway, television existed which meant people on television had to be aware of it.
Lately I have been thinking a lot about the shows within shows, mostly about if I would watch the show. “Itchy and Scratchy?” most likely. “TGS?” Probably. “The Muppet Show?” Doi! But my brain is not satisfied with simply considering if I would watch the show or not, so I pieced together some of the other thoughts about a few of the shows within shows that have sprung to mind often. Now sit back, relax, and don’t touch that dial.
The Local News
Something I have noticed that has become a standard in prime time cartoons is a regular news program with the same news anchors. As with nearly every prime time cartoon, it started with “The Simpsons.” Kent Brockman at Channel 6 is a regular, first appearing only to help a move a plot along, but slowly he just became another character.
What followed were reoccurring news shows and anchors on “Futurama,” “Family Guy,” “American Dad,” and “South Park” (kinda). Including these news programs in a show helps ground the setting of the show and makes things a bit more realistic, as far as cartoons go. When you live in an area you familiarize yourself with the local news personalities, so it only seems natural that such things should appear on television shows. And as stated before, it is an easy (read: lazy) way to progress the plot, or let the audience know what is going on. I cannot think of any live action shows that uses the news like these cartoons.
By far the best one of these is “√2 News” only because they employee the best news anchor ever, Morbo. Morbo is great with his yelling and his much vocalized intent to destroy all humans. Let’s think about this though, this is someone on network television yelling about hating a specific race and threatening violence. The future appears to be even less tolerant than the present despite constant interaction with weirdo alien races, jerk ass robots, and disembodied heads of famous people.
Sick Sad World
By far my favorite show within a show and the one I would most likely watch if it were a real show. “Sick Sad World” came to us courtesy of “Daria.” “Sick Sad World” was a news exposé show similar to “A Current Affair” or, what the hell modern show is like “A Current Affair?” But “Sick Sad World” was more on the ludicrous side with such topics like Malibu’s Mopiest Millionaire, Ghost Hookers in the Sky, and Under-age Road Rage to name a few.
I don’t think it would possible to make “Sick Sad World” a show of its own and have it be good. “The Onion News Network” is probably the closest there is, and despite the brilliant humor of The Onion, this show feels a little to aware of itself. Also how would you do a ghost hooker episode without it being incredible cheesy?
In reality, it is the shortness and the lack of pictures that makes this work. The human imagination is incredibly powerful. On the Reservoir Dogs DVD there are shots of the ear cutting scene where the actual slicing is shown and it is by far less gruesome than the image I conjured up in my mind. Think about reading a book and the picture you create as you read it, then the picture you see when the movie is made. 9 times out of 10 whatever you created you’ll like a lot more. So when you hear, “Is your toll collector wearing pants, a skirt, or nothing but a smile? Cold breeze on the interstate, next on Sick, Sad World.” You decide what the tool booth is like; what the collector looks like, how old they are, how ugly they are, the way they smile. Maybe you actually visit a toll regularly and know a specific toll collector. The you start to picture what’s going on down below. Boxers with hearts, a g-string that reads “Fuck the World,” his old ball hair blowing in the breeze. This mental picture is going to be so much more fucked than anything some TV creator will be able to come up with, and you know standards and practices would stick their god damned heads in and ruin it.
The briefness also works well in this case. “Daria” is filled with a lot of cynical, dry, and sophisticated humor. “Sick Sad World” helps lighten things up with a goofy one liner. Yet it is over quickly and doesn’t detract from the story. “Family Guy” does those cut aways, and while they may be funny, they sometimes drag on and you forget what was going on, or why they cut away in the first place. Or maybe that’s just me and my low attention span. “Sick Sad World” makes the joke and let’s you get back to Daria hating the teenage world of Lawndale.
“Tool Time” is the show within a show that inspired this article. I was recently watching “Home Improvement,” as it turns out my favorite things to watch are old sitcoms. I’m Nick At Night’s wet dream. For those of you who don’t know, “Tool Time” was the show on “Home Improvement” starring Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor and Al “Tim’s Insulting Nickname” Borland.
“Tool Time” is a show sponsored by a tool company (Binford), designed to be a home improvement type show along the lines of “This Old House.” I watched a lot of “This Old House” as a kid. My dad loved that shit. And actually “Tool Time” is not like “This Old House,” but I don’t know another show to compare it to. Tim Allen reminds me a lot of my dad, same sense of humor, way into cars and tools, and kind of looks the same, and my dad once had to take over the job of Santa Claus when the real Santa fell off our roof. Anyway, Binford sponsored this supposed home improvement show as a thinly veiled 30 minute commercial for their new tool (which always ended in two zeros, like 6400 or 3200, weird). In theory this should work and isn’t a bad plan by Binford. After all they took their best salesman and found a way to put him into a ton of homes at once.
The part that concerns me is how little home improvement and such is done on the show. If you tune in hoping to learn how to make a table or fix some wiring you’re probably going to be disappointed. However this show seems to have enough of a following to keep in on the air for years and bring in guest stars like Bob Vila or the boys form K& B Construction. So what is the secret to its success? Unintentional comedy and the hope of seeing the star of the show get hurt. This was almost like “Jackass.” I believe the majority of “Tool Time’s” audience couldn’t care less about home improvement type shit, but just want to see what kind ass Tim makes of himself.
Also Tim uses the show to air his grievances about the problems at home, 90% of which involved him not listening to his wife. Only to share how he solved things on the next episode when he screws up the language of the advice from Wilson, causing him to sound like a mad man. Tim hurts himself like he doesn’t know a thing about home improvement then talks like a crazy person; I’m sure there are people tuning in for the first time who believe that some escaped mental patient has wandered onto the set and no one knows what to do so they just go with it.
Actually that is probably exactly what happened.
But we all know there is only one show within a show that you have to watch: “Everybody Loves Hypnotoad”
See ya in the studio audience…
09 Jun 2011 Lee S. Hart