The warning first aired late on a Friday night, accompanied by an ominous drone and the sound of faint screams: “Wonder Showzen,” it read, “contains offensive, despicable content that is too controversial and too awesome for actual children. The stark, ugly, profound truths Wonder Showzen exposes may be soul crushing to the weak of spirit.”
That dire heads-up turned out to be a bit of an understatement. When Wonder Showzen debuted 15 years ago, it was unlike anything that had been on TV before. Influenced as much by Sesame Street as it was by Noam Chomsky, the short-lived MTV2 series 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 show exposed ugly, profound truths about sexism, racism, capitalism, and organized religion—sometimes all in the same episode. On Wonder Showzen, characters played rock-paper-scissors with God (who kills himself after losing), while Middle America was represented by a dim-witted, over-reactionary puppet (named, of course, “Middle America”). The show was so frantic and strange that it sometimes took repeated viewings to realize just how gleefully seditious Wonder Showzen really was. “Every second,” notes cocreator Vernon Chatman, 48, “we were like, ‘They’re going to take this away, so let’s get in as much as we can.’”
Chatman and his Wonder Showzen partner, John Lee, first came up with the idea for a demented kids’ show in the early ’90s, when they were prank-pulling students at San Francisco State. But it took several years, and many setbacks, before the series finally arrived in March 2005. By then, the Wonder Showzen team was living in New York City, where they’d endured the horrors of 9/11, as well as the disappointment of George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection. “The political climate was not that favorable,” says Wonder Showzen character designer Jim Tozzi, 52. “And the kind of radical comedy that John and Vernon were doing was like a punch in the face.”
Those big swings included segments like “Beat Kids,” in which a pint-sized reporter approached white-collar workers on Wall Street and asked, “Who did you exploit today?” Another segment found a young kid dressed as Hitler, quizzing passersby on the state of America’s youth. There were also warped animated segments such as the G.I. Joe parody “H.O.B.O. OPS”; a bouncy musical number about the history of slavery; and retro mock-documentaries, including a tour of a hot dog factory that finds one young narrator adorably cooing, “Delicious murder.”
But Wonder Showzen’s best-loved moments were the ones featuring Clarence, a googly-eyed, squeaky-voiced blue puppet who would harangue random New Yorkers. Sometimes he’d simply annoy them for a banana, or ask what democracy smells like; other times, he’d pose existential questions on the nature of television itself. Watching the accosted interviewees react to a goofy puppet—and they’d often do so angrily, sometimes yanking off Clarence’s eyeballs—revealed a lot about human nature. “Early on,” says Lee, 48, “one guy grabbed Clarence’s mouth and held it shut. I was like, ‘We have something good. We’re such an infantile country that people believe they can control this puppet.”
Wonder Showzen wanted no such control over its audience. In fact, it encouraged viewers to rise up against everything they’d seen before: In one early-episode musical number, its fuzzy heroes implored those at home to “smash your TV and have adventures.” And it delivered the sort of blunt truths about racial, class, and gender disparities rarely seen on the small screen, doing so years before terms like “peak capitalism” and “patriarchy” became talking points. “Most TV-show staffers are 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 women working on the show had a real voice on Wonder Showzen. We’re a very diverse group of people.”
The members of that scrappy Wonder Showzen team would eventually help shape the future of TV comedy: Lee, Chatman, and Levy went on to oversee such gonzo Adult Swim series as The Heart, She Holler, and Xavier: Renegade Angel; other staffers graduated to such late-night staples as The Late Show With Stephen Colbert and The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon.
And though Wonder Showzen’s on-air run was brief, the show’s giddily subversive sketches live on—often in unexpected, slightly discombobulated ways. Even if you’ve never seen an episode of the show, you’ve probably seen sketches like “Wash Your Hands” pop up online (and you’ve almost certainly seen the long-running “That’s Racist!” GIF, which was taken from the show). Last 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 unearthed by Twitter. Later, it inspired a meme on TikTok, where young viewers reacted to the song with shock and confusion, clearly unaware they were watching a decades-old satirical clip.
It was proof that Wonder Showzen is as jarring and unvarnished as it was 15 years ago—and that its targets remain just as fresh. “Injustice and inequality never change,” says Lee. “That’s the tragedy of Wonder Showzen.” Here, in the creators’ own words, is the story of a show that was too controversial and too awesome for TV—and was gone too soon.
Part 1: “We Started Fucking With People”
Vernon Chatman (cocreator): I grew up in San Jose, California, which is very suburban. My dad’s black, and my mom’s white, and there were incidents that would piss my father off incredibly, like when people didn’t understand we were a family. I remember once going on vacation, and someone didn’t want to give my parents a room together. None of this was deeply scarring, but I’d get fired up about how stupid and silly they were. Like, why would you do that? It seemed mockable.
I was the youngest in my family, and a lot of times, the youngest is the comedian. So I could stand back, lob comments, and wind people up. And I was obsessed with comedy from as early as I can remember: Bob Newhart, George Carlin, Monty Python.
John Lee (cocreator): I grew up in a tiny, tiny town: Castroville, California, the artichoke capital of the world. It’s a town where, when we got a Burger King, we were like, “Yes! We’re legit!” I grew up half with hillbillies, and half with migrant workers, and I was one of those kids who was friends with every group.
My parents owned a liquor store together. My dad was a very funny person, and a little bit of a prankster. I slowly understood, over time, that I was the butt of his jokes—later on in life, I was like, “Oh, that’s a really good joke, man!” But my family never really had discussions about politics. The most political we ever got was watching 60 Minutes every week.
Chatman: I went to San Francisco State partly because I knew that there was a great stand-up scene there. I met John in the dorms. I was a creative writing major, which is the ultimate scam, and John was a film major, which is the penultimate scam.
Lee: We started hanging out and seeing comedy together. Then we started fucking with people. Vernon used to do pranks—not to scam old people out of money, but for the art and spirit of pranks. We probably did pranks more than we did homework.
Chatman: We didn’t do prank calls or stuff like that. Our model for comedy was Errol Morris. He’d ask a question, and let [the interviewees] hang themselves and talk themselves into this crazy place. And we loved Coyle & Sharpe, who were from the Bay Area. They’d wear suits and carry tape recorders, and they would draw people out in these absurd conversations. They were so funny, but the people [they were interviewing] never even knew it was comedy.
John had a camera, and we did a documentary about mall cops for an assignment. We got this arrogant mall cop and told him, “If we ask you a question, keep talking—even if we’ve gotta go do something.” We asked him about his inspiration, and about the dangers of the job. Then we walked around the corner, and watched as he kept talking to the camera. I remember laughing so hard.
Chatman: One day, we were in the student union or wherever, and we had this idea for a prank of a show: It was called Kids’ Show, but you’d just sing “kids’ show” over and over again for 20 minutes, and then have the closing credits.
Lee: Kids’ shows, as a genre, can have so many different things. They’re true variety shows. And whenever we’d talk about comedy, we both secretly admitted our favorite sketch show was Sesame Street.
Chatman: Ernie and Bert has always been my favorite comedy team.
Part 2: “Let’s Do It With a Puppet”
After graduating, Chatman would travel as a stand-up, later arriving in New York City in 1999 to take a job on The Chris Rock Show. Lee was also in the city, playing in the band Muckafurgason, and eventually cocreating the art collective-slash-band PFFR.
Alyson Levy (art director, Wonder Showzen; cofounder, PFFR): I moved to New York in 1994. That’s where I met John and Vernon. The ’90s were especially carefree—we had no expectations of success. For 10 years, it was like, “Be in a band, make art, do stupid jobs, be creative.”
We would meet every week, record 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: During The Chris Rock Show, I’d meet John during my lunch hour, and we’d go shoot around the city.
Lee: We did a video called “Please don’t think we’re crazy, we’re just trying to meet the neighbors”—probably the most evil thing we’ve done. We’d go into random large buildings with a camera, knock on a stranger’s door, and have a video camera on as they opened it. And we would not say a word.
Chatman: It was that same Errol Morris technique—put a camera on someone, and see what drama lives inside the person. Some people would say, “Do you want me to fucking punch you in the mouth?” And some would crack up and say, “This is crazy! Do you know my sister?”
Lee: We were trying to leave one place, and people called downstairs. Security caught us and took our tape. That was the moment the Kids’ Show idea opened up. We were like, “Fucking doormen. Let’s go invade their space—and let’s do it with a puppet.”
Chatman: I had a few puppets I’d bought at a Salvation Army. There’s something you naturally connect to with a puppet: This thing’s talking to you, and it’s got eyes, and it connects you to when you were a kid. So they talk to it.
Lee: We came up with a Clarence bit called “You Can’t Film Here,” though Clarence was called Arthur at the time.
Chatman: It was John holding the camera, me with the puppet, and both of us daring each other to not puss out. Doormen are easy, because they have their machismo, and their job is to protect the space. So they’d be forced to engage with the puppet, and that would draw out their personality. And people getting aggressive with a puppet was always the funniest.
Jim Tozzi (character designer; cofounder, PFFR): Vernon is very anarchic, and always pulls some social commentary out of his comedy. And John is very playful and absurd. That’s a good combination. And the thing I learned working with them is that you want to polarize people. You want half the people to hate what you’re doing.
Chatman: Eventually, we had all these little pieces—a little cartoon that was just stills, some real kids telling jokes that we bleeped out—and we got Chris Milone, the main editor on The Chris Rock Show, to edit this eight-minute tape for free.
Lee: Vernon and I started talking about pitching this tape as a show. One of our agents said, “When are you guys going to stop fucking around and make a real show?” [Laughs.] But they were supportive, and sent that tape out.
Chatman: It got to Stephen Chao at USA. He [worked on] Cops, and is super-successful. He loved the tape, and he bid aggressively—kind of against nobody. We were told, “USA wants to turn itself into a comedy network, and this is going to be the cornerstone.”
Lee: That was our best acting job: “Yeah, we’re exactly what you’re looking for.” But we made a pilot that was a little more elaborate.
Levy: I’d been a visual artist, so when John and Vernon were putting together the Kids’ Show pilot, I was like, “I’ll be the production designer.” A friend of mine and I got a book from the library on how they made the puppet sets for The Muppet Show and Sesame Street, with all these behind-the-scenes photos, and we figured it out. We wanted the show to look really homemade—like early-’70s Sesame Street. We were wary of it being too slick.
We made the pilot right after John and I got married in 2000, in an office in some building in west midtown. We had maybe six people working on it, and we shot some of it in a super-tiny storage closet.
We had loads of flag-burning scenes in the show, and I was supposed to light them on fire. But I was always putting them out too quickly, because I was afraid the whole room was gonna go up. We only had two flags, and I ruined both shots. They teased me about it for years.
Chatman: We’d heard a story that Stephen Chao had been [president] at Fox, and during his first meeting, he hired a male stripper to show how Fox was going to be different. Then he got fired. So we hired a male stripper named “The Hurricane”— because he “dances up a storm”—to hand-deliver the pilot and do a dance for Stephen Chao. Later, he called and said that Barry Diller got a few minutes into the tape, pressed Stop, and said, “Not only are we not doing this show, we’re not doing comedy anymore.” [Chao has no recollection of saying this: “I doubt [Diller] saw or commented on Kids’ Show,” he says.]
Lisa Thomas (media producer): We totally freaked them out. They wanted nothing to do with us afterward: “Get rid of these wackos.” And we were like, “Oh, I guess we’re out of the job.”
Chris Milone (editor): I think John and Vernon were secretly happy about it. We would have been handcuffed at USA. And we all knew Wonder Showzen was going to fly at one point—we just didn’t know where.
Part 3: “We Have Something Good”
In the years that followed, Chatman and Lee worked on such shows as MTV’s Doggy Fizzle Televizzle, while copies of their unaired Kids’ Show pilot circulated among comedy fans.
Aaron Augenblick (animation director): Before the term “viral” was really in existence, the Kids’ Show pilot was getting passed around the internet: “Oh, my God—you’ve got to see this crazy shit.” It was on this tiny little video player, but what I could see, I was in love with. That was before I was even involved with the show.
Tom Calderone (executive vice president for music programming and talent for MTV and MTV2): MTV had gotten into music-reality shows like The Osbournes, so the concept of MTV2 was to protect the network’s music image: “If you still love 24-hour music videos, it’s on MTV2.” [Eventually], we decided to go more male. We repurposed some stuff, like Jackass. But me and [music programming and talent execs] Michele Megan Dix and Jesse Ignjatovic were charged with finding edgy, quote-unquote “male-driven” content for MTV2.
Jesse came into my office for our weekly development meeting with a tape of the USA pilot and said, “You gotta watch this.” My heroes were people like Lorne Michaels, Chuck Barris, Monty Python—people that really pushed the envelope. So when they played the Wonder Showzen tape, my jaw dropped: “We have to do this.”
But we did change the title, because Kids’ Show would have been tagged “kids show” on people’s DVRs. And we had to make sure Wonder Showzen wasn’t in there between Sesame Street and Dora the Explorer.
Work on the first season of the newly revived, newly rechristened Wonder Showzen began in the fall of 2004 in New York City.
Levy: We never had different departments, which is weird for 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 all of us. And for a lot of people, it was their first-ever job.
Chris Tartaro (assistant camera): I was super-young—just 22 years old—and I’d interned and worked as a PA at MTV. They were like, “We’re doing a kids’ show, and we want you to help get John and Vernon up and running as a production.” I had no idea what that meant.
Jessica Vitkus (supervising producer, Season 2): Everybody in Wonder Showzen was an extra in something. You didn’t have to be a good actor—they just needed bodies. They knew I was a crafter on the side, so for one scene, I made some puppets out of oven mitts, or whatever I could find.
Lee: The Wonder Showzen budget was around $400,000 an episode, and we were smart enough to be on time and on budget. We didn’t want to be the squeaky wheel, because that way we’d get away with more. Our line producers would say, “This is a $40,000 joke.” And we’d say, “No, no—we want the $500 version of this joke.”
Chatman: After the show got picked up, we wanted a few more main puppets, so we could have more story lines and have a little team of characters. We found this guy who’d made puppets for Sesame Street. He had a big shock of white hair and this crazy workshop down in the Lower East Side, and he did really good work. But after 35 years of glue inhalation, his brain was gone. He got mad about a shade of color we wanted for a puppet and threw us out of the studio.
We discovered the world of puppet people is really weird. They were so offended that we were not professionally trained: “Who are going to be your puppeteers?” And we were like, “We’re going to do it ourselves. Don’t you just open your hand?”
Levy: We never made any puppets at Wonder Showzen. They were done by Geppetto Studios in New York, who were weirdos in their own right.
And I never went on the shoots with Clarence. I couldn’t handle what was about to happen.
Tartaro: John and Vernon were so good at drawing out people’s problematic beliefs—getting them to say, like, “I don’t pay attention to that,” or, “That’s not important.” It was all either privileged stuff or racially tinged beliefs people didn’t realize they had. The beauty of it was they always played it for comedy; it wasn’t like, “We’re going to take this person apart.” Though at times I thought those dudes got a lot more pleasure out of fucking with people than I did.
Chatman: We got kicked and punched a lot. We got knives pulled on us twice in one day.
Tozzi: And after they’d get chased by people with knives, Lisa Schiller would have to go back and get releases [signed]. That’s real bravery.
Lisa Schiller (production assistant): I had to explain to people what had just happened. And there were a lot of angry people. Not everyone was happy with a puppet in their face.
My strategy changed from person to person—I had to be able to read them. So when people were like, “Fuck those guys,” I’d agree with them: “They’re awful, I know! But it’s my first job, and I’m so nervous, and would you please do this for me?” Most people signed the release, so the little 25-year-old girl would keep her job. That worked, because trying to explain the show to people in that state of anger doesn’t work.
Lee: One guy [we videotaped] had this look in his eye and was standing in a way that made Vernon and I go, “Uh-oh.” He started coming toward us aggressively, and we started backing up with the puppet.
Chatman: He was going, “I don’t want to go back to Rikers. You guys are gonna make me go back to Rikers.”
Schiller: John and Vernon would usually warn me as they walked away whether the person was going to be agreeable or not. But that guy came after us so fast, I didn’t even have time to react before Vernon was steering me into a cab with the two of them. And they screamed, “Just drive!”
Chatman: The only thing I regret are those moments we wussed out, like, “We should have ran toward the guy with the knife, not away.” To have a puppet coming at a guy with a knife—how funny is that going to be later on, when you get out of the hospital?
Part 4: “Ever Think About Smashing Stuff?”
The flesh-and-blood stars of Wonder Showzen were the child actors brought in to cozy up with Clarence, mouth incendiary one-liners, or walk the streets as one of the “Beat Kids.”
Julie Smith Clem (casting director): We’d always send the scripts in advance, and that would filter out people before they even auditioned. John and Vernon weren’t looking for your typical commercial or theater kids. They were looking for real kids. It didn’t matter if they were experienced—in fact, it was probably better if they weren’t.
Lee: Those were some of the most fun days we ever had. Certain kids would have the spark in their eye. We’d ask, “Do you ever think about, like, smashing stuff?” “Yeah!” “Would you love to do that on camera?” “Yeah!” And we’d be like, “OK, keep him for later, keep her for later.” The special kids were the little anarchists, like Trevor.
Trevor Heins (Beat Kid): I was in sixth grade, so I was 12 at the time. I went to the audition, and they asked me, “If you could rule New York for a day, what would you do?” And my response was, “I would go up to the Naked Cowboy in Times Square, pull down his pants, and say, ‘Ha-ha! Who’s naked now?’” From that response, they were like, “We want this kid.”
Clem: Much of my job was talking with the parents of the children. We would be very open with the script: “These are the parts they’ll be saying, but they won’t see this part.” Once parents saw how we were coordinating everything, they trusted the process. There were two types of parents: Either they were a little checked out and weren’t looking into it that far, or they had a sense of humor and totally got it.
Deborah Copaken (mother of “Beat Kids” star Jacob Kogan): I had no problems with the material. I was more worried about having my kid involved in some dumb Disney show with canned laughter and sexist jokes. And I definitely did not want him doing commercials. Wonder Showzen was the opposite—it was radical for the time. I was like, “If you’re going to do any sort of acting, let it be for something that is either totally out there or really beautiful.” Wonder Showzen was pushing boundaries in some new way. That was exciting.
Heins: Some of the jokes were a foreign concept to me. There was one about the Kierkegaard notion of identity, and I was like, “Who the hell is this?” But you could pretty much say anything, and as a kid, I thought that was pretty cool. And John and Vernon were pretty much goofy grown-ups. They didn’t treat me differently than they would a friend [their own age]. That’s how they got such good reactions out of us.
Chatman: I’d whisper lines to the kid, or I’d have them ask a horrifying or offensive question. It was another way to have our voice come through something cute and tolerable.
Clem: It was always better not to draw attention while filming the “Beat Kids” segments, so we tried to stay small and were always in a dash. But with the Hitler [bit], we were like, “This is not going to end well.”
Chatman: We’d made up an expression: “purple dog.” It’s the sacrificial lamb, a bargaining chip—the [offensive joke] you prop up just to die, so you can get something else. The Hitler sketch was supposed to be a purple dog. We were like, “We’re going to come up with a bit they definitely don’t want, so we can do a different one.” So we said, “Let’s dress a kid up like Hitler.” And MTV was like, “OK, great!” And we thought, “Oh, fuck. Now we’ve gotta tell a kid about the Holocaust.”
Heins: That was around the time we were studying World War II in history class, so I knew who he was and that he wasn’t a good person.
Chatman: We met at Starbucks to fit Trevor into this little costume. He goes into the bathroom and comes out as Hitler while people are sitting there, drinking their coffee.
Lee: We had our PAs tell people, “Hey, we’re doing this show where you’re interviewed by a little kid.” And of course, people are like, “Oh, it’s for kids! I’ll do this.”
Heins: I had two plainclothes bodyguards. Most people were cool, but there was one person they had to back away, because he started yelling—I guess he got triggered by my outfit.
Lee: Eighty percent of the people under 30 did not know who Trevor was dressed up as: “So, who is he? A Korean dictator?” In New York City, of all places! We all left being like, “Oh, fuck.”
Chatman: It was one of those rare times that spending the day with Hitler was depressing.
Part 5: “We All Had a Little PTSD”
Having come together amid the contentious, calamitous George W. Bush administration, the Wonder Showzen team members were eager to mount their small-screen protest. But MTV’s standards-and-practices team sometimes put up their own resistance.
Levy: If you’d asked me in seventh grade what I wanted to do, I’d have said, “I want to start a revolution.” [During the Bush years], there was a lot of stuff going on that was anticapitalism, anti–World Bank, anti-IMF. All those protests were happening.
Jon Philpot (editor): It was a tough time. We probably all had a little PTSD. The towers fell, and nobody had any metric for how to recover from that. And the Bush administration had been a fucking disaster.
Lee: The day after Bush won reelection, I don’t think anyone did much work. We malaised into “Okay, let’s get into the political beta state we all need to get to to survive four more years.” And then we came up with the bit where the letter W would get shot. We were the only show that could’ve done that: A letter of the alphabet got killed, and you gotta replace it.
Levy: That bit was a big argument between everybody.
Calderone: It was a nonstarter with the standards department. In the opening credits of Wonder Showzen, we had John John saluting the casket of his dad—which had already created a little bit of an issue. We got through that one, but standards didn’t feel comfortable with assassination, whether it’s a puppet or not.
Levy: We self-censored on that one. We didn’t do it. And I regret that to this day.
Calderone: I have a full binder of all the Wonder Showzen standards notes. They’re so freakin’ funny. A lot of them had to do with what the kids were saying on-screen. And some of them were about the racial humor, like when they were calling out stereotypes. I was always very clear with John and Vernon: “Look, guys, these three things I will fight for, these two I won’t.” So at least they knew we had their backs on most of the content. But we definitely had some heated conference calls on both sides.
Vitkus: It was my job to have these amazing conversations with the standards and practices people. It was like a debate club. MTV would be like, “I don’t think your show can say that a police officer’s gun tastes like candy.” And I would sit on the phone and argue: “Well, there’s not an actual child with an actual gun in their actual mouth, so no one’s getting harmed. These are just words. They’re talking about candy!”
I would use my best skills of sophistry to defend their work. If it’s a taboo topic, it’s even more interesting to John and Vernon. They’re poking the bear, and the bear needs to be poked. Like in pieces like “Slaves”—that song was fantastic.
Chris Anderson (music composer): I lived in the East Village, and a lot of the music for Wonder Showzen was recorded on this crappy $150 Yamaha keyboard that had sounds on it. There was no Pro Tools or anything like that, so I had a limited supply to draw from. But it was all supposed to sound dinky, so that actually helped.
I recorded “Slaves” in my apartment, and my next-door neighbor was this sweet old African American lady who I talked to occasionally. I was in my bathroom screaming “Slaves!” over and over: “Slaves! … built the pyramids! Slaves! … built the Parthenon!” We put blankets over the doors to deaden the sound. The next time I saw her, I was like, “Hi, how you doing?” It never came up.
Season 1 of Wonder Showzen debuted on MTV2 on March 11, 2005—though viewers would have to do a little work to find it.
Levy: We premiered on “Sic ’Em Friday” with Wildboyz, the offshoot from Jackass. It was a terrible idea—they never understood the show, and they didn’t promote it. What they did promote was the launch of MTV2. So the posters that went up all over the city were of that two-headed dog logo.
It was a profound lack of support. We didn’t know better, and for the first season, we threw this incredible premiere party at an elementary school in the East Village. No press were allowed to be invited.
Calderone: If there’s a regret looking back, it’s probably that we could have fought harder to get more marketing around the show—that’s a legitimate complaint. We couldn’t give it a launch like The Osbournes. But the support was there.
Lee: One tiny thing that helped was when MTV put up this short clip of a “Mr. Body” cartoon on the internet, and it got a million views, which at that time was bonkers. I think they started to wake up a little bit and saw there were people who actually wanted to see shit like this. Eventually, we paid to make our own posters and hired our own PR team.
Levy: I have an old-timey scrapbook with all the Wonder Showzen press, and it was amazing—just endless, incredible press. But we always had terrible ratings.
Calderone: One of the difficulties was that Wonder Showzen was TV-MA, so we couldn’t run it all day. So we were pretty happy with the numbers, but we weren’t doing Wonder Showzen necessarily for the ratings—we were doing it for the loudness of the show to drive eyeballs to MTV2.
Reviews for Wonder Showzen were largely positive: The New York Times dubbed it “freaky and funny,” while the Chicago Tribune’s Maureen Ryan noted the show “made me laugh out loud. But I promise, I won’t let my kid watch it. Until he’s at least 40.” Other viewers weren’t as enamored, with one Southern pastor devoting an entire sermon to condemning the show. He was hardly alone in voicing his displeasure.
Catholic League (from an October 2005 press release): Many quick and cheap shots at the Church are taken by Wonder Showzen. In one skit, a scrolling tape reading “Catholic Church approves condom-flavored breath mints” runs across the screen during a mock newscast. A segment in which a little girl writes a letter to her dead grandmother includes mention of a priest feeling granny’s breasts while she was in the coffin. In another, a child answers the question “What is your greatest wish?” with “To punch God in the face.”
Calderone: There was a miniprotest after Season 1 in front of the MTV building. It was less than 10 people, and they were there for like an hour. By the time we walked downstairs to see it, they were gone.
Thomas: When the show first came out, I was back in Seattle, watching it with my dad. He was like, “Uh, is there anything redeeming about the work you’re doing back in New York?”
Tozzi: After the first season, I was wearing a Wonder Showzen shirt in a Home Depot, and the kid working there was like, “I know that show. That show is filth.” I was like, “Yeah, awesome!”
Part 6: “This Is Not Cool”
Season 2 of Wonder Showzen arrived in March 2006, with sketches that included a “Beat Kids” trip to Ground Zero, a Southern slave-rape trial, and “Horse Apples,” a dark-hearted Hee Haw parody. Meanwhile, the show’s daring animated and fake-doc segments grew even more ambitious. It all made for eight visually assaultive, emotionally devastating episodes—culminating in the death of Wonder Showzen’s most beloved character.
Chatman: On the second season, we realized, “Oh, we know how to do this a little bit more.” And we realized you can only do so much—you’ve only got so many tricks. But in a weird way, that becomes motivation and inspiration: “We’re driving into a wall. Let’s floor it and see how big the smash can be.”
Philpot: I got kind of beat up on Season 2. It was a mountainous task to get it all done. And I was super into cutting things up and making things as crazy as I could. There was no limit with John and Vernon. It was kind of a reciprocal relationship: “I’ll push you, you push me.”
Milone: On Wonder Showzen, there were so many segments, and some were only a few seconds long, and we had to figure out how to transition between them. So I was experimenting. I would do all these wacky wipes and effects—like, a picture might come out of a kid’s eyes or ear. My goal was to make it as confusing as possible but still have transparency. It was a mindfuck: You don’t know what you’re looking at, and your mind can’t process it.
Thomas: I was in charge of all those stock-footage segments, like the kids who were in the hot dog factory. I licensed a lot of them from a guy down in North Carolina who had a bunch of educational films. They were being thrown out of the school systems and were being donated to him. Or he was salvaging them out of dumpsters. At one point, I went down there for the better part of a week and sat in a hotel and watched those movies for eight hours a day.
It was kind of an insane job. But when John and Vernon wanted some grotesque thing—like, I don’t know, the close-up of an eye being poked—I would always be like, “Oh, that’s tape FX42 LA from Getty Images.”
Levy: So many different bits from the show have gone viral over the years, which is always fun. Right now, “Wash Your Hands” is having a moment. But no one even knows what it’s from.
Chatman: “Celebrate Our Differences” came from us having snot-nosed fun by making a slight, ridiculous amplification of the condescending tenor of diversity cloy-ploys from vanilla, corporate campaigns. I don’t know whether to be depressed or psyched when folks under 25 can’t tell that it’s satire; just to fit in with the times, I’ll go with depressed. But it is sorta amazing and heartening to see a bunch of folks of all ethnicities not bothering to get furious, but just laughing and playing along at how dumb the world is.
Calderone: Nowadays, the animation on Wonder Showzen would have several million hits on YouTube and TikTok. It was way ahead of its time.
Tozzi: John and Vernon would find this obscure ‘60s and ‘70s animation and say, “We like this.” One of the early things I did for Wonder Showzen, was Pottymouth, this toilet-head-based character—he makes this giant rainbow of potty mouths that go on to infinity—and that was very ‘70s. For “D.O.G.O.B.Y.N.,” John and Vernon wanted it to look like a comic, like Spider-Man—though I don’t think it really turned out that way. And “Mr. Body” was an instructional video that had a UPA animation style.
So it was fun, because I got to parody lots of obscure animation styles. I’d do designs, and then they would give those to Augenblick Studios, and they handled the bulk of the animation.
Augenblick: We were getting thrown curveballs every week: “Could you make this look like G.I. Joe?” Or, “We want this to look like Bratz dolls come to life.” We did a segment called He-Bro, which looked like He-Man. And if you’re going to really truly commit to parodying a style, you have to go all in: What kind of camera did they use? What frame rate were they working at?
We were trying to deconstruct the looks of these cartoons in a way that had never been done before. And we were starting from scratch with every segment, which—from a production standpoint—is almost not sustainable. Wonder Showzen was definitely a work-all-night, work-on-the-weekends kind of project.
Tartaro: It was a relentless schedule, and John and Vernon poured their entire lives into the show. Looking back, I don’t think it was sustainable. I’m positive they were tired and smelly from all of that puppet work.
Levy: We never became good puppeteers. And we all sort of hated the puppets. For years afterward, people developing shows would reach out to us and say, “We have this crazy idea for a puppet show.” The last thing we would ever want to do is work on a puppet show!
Lee: We didn’t experience any kind of burnout until halfway through Season 2. Like, “We need to come up with another fucking Clarence idea?” “Jesus Christ—another ‘Beat Kids’?” We needed time off in a way we probably didn’t understand.
In the season’s eighth episode, Clarence questions random New Yorkers about the sad state of TV and challenges them on camera to do better. Ultimately deciding “there’s no such thing as compelling television,” he takes a fateful trip to the skies.
Vitkus: The last episode was spectacular. They had a sense they may not come back, so they went bizarre, and it shows in the best way.
Chatman: We’d met this homeless guy who was so funny and charming and forthcoming—he had this great personality. We were going to track him down, and pay him $5,000 to dump $5,000 out of a helicopter onto the Statue of Liberty.
Nobody liked the idea. We had this whole staff of people concerned about this person and that we were going to do this kind of crazy, awful, fucked-up capitalist joke with him.
Thomas: We weren’t talking about prop money. They wanted to take [from the] savings we’d had on the show, because we didn’t go over budget. I drew the line: “Guys, this is not cool.”
Lee: We were literally taking corporate money and throwing it away, and people were like, “You could give it to them.” And we said, “That’s the point!” The joke is that corporations could do a lot for the world, but they don’t—they’d rather throw it down the spring break toilet of the American psyche.
Chatman: Usually, when you spend $10,000 on a shot, nobody even notices. So when you put it in the forefront, you can’t ignore it. And that’s what we were joking about, in that KLF way. It’s morally uncomfortable, which is interesting. Because it’s hard to make something that’s genuinely a moral conundrum without actually physically hurting somebody.
It was a full-time job trying to find this guy—we even hired a private detective. But we couldn’t find him, and then the helicopter appointment came up. We were still gonna throw the money, but the helicopter pilot was like, “You can’t throw shit out there.” So we ended up doing this thing where Clarence jumps out of the helicopter.
Vitkus: It was post-9/11, but you could still fly in more places than you can now. The pilot was taking us all over New York City, and it was gorgeous. Then we threw Clarence into the water and watched him drift away.
Lee: It was this sad little moment: “Oh, right—our show is just a shitty puppet floating in the green mire of New York City, in the snot-green sea of the Hudson. This is a burial at sea, and no one gives a shit.”
Chatman: We tried to hire Philip Glass to do an original score for the episode. He was like, “I’m busy. But I would recommend one of my protégés, Nico Muhly.” He was an incredible musician. We paid him this full rate to write this incredibly lush, rich original score with a small orchestra.
Nico Muhly (composer): When they approached me, I’d not seen Wonder Showzen. But within about four seconds, I realized it was a totally strange and brilliant thing. It reminded me, for better or for worse, of some kind of deranged media-criticism version of Meet the Feebles, that batshit crazy Peter Jackson joint. John and Vernon are a click older than I am, but a lot of that anarchic ’80s–’90s semireality information—remember the Jerky Boys?—and the beginnings of what would now be reality TV was deeply ingrained in me.
The score was a really large piece for a chamber orchestra—not the obvious thing one might do with a show like this. [At the time], I was still working for Philip Glass, and I had access to this lovely, if small, studio in SoHo. They came over and we watched segment by segment. One of the first things we agreed on was that we wanted there to be some antagonism between the score and the interviewees—but also, sometimes, a great deal of compassion. There’s a man who talks sort of Eeyore-ishly about taxes, and the bad version is to do it kind of cartoonishly; instead, we settled on this very lyrical cello solo with celesta and harp and trombone and strings.
Lee: Afterwards, we did find the homeless guy. We set him up in an apartment for a year, and sadly, he was there for like four months and then he was gone. We tried to get him treatment, and a place to live, but he needed more than that.
Part 7: “Getting Knives Pulled on You Is a Young Person’s Game”
Lee: At the time of the [helicopter scene], we were debating: Are we going to do a third season? The first season DVDs did so well. … But when Tom Calderone left to go to VH1, we were like, “Oh, fuck.”
I would always do the budget negotiations with MTV, and they were always pressuring our show: “It’s so expensive!” We kinda got the sense a third season wasn’t going to happen. And at that point, we wanted to do something else. Fighting and getting knives pulled on you is a young person’s game.
14 years ago, on March 11, 2005, Wonder Showzen was gloriously birthed by PFFR, manifesting itself on MTV2, and forever burrowing itself into our minds and feasting on our subconscious. PFFR Forever! pic.twitter.com/Tp2aNWynmg— Wonder Showzen No Context (@NoContextWonder) March 11, 2019
Augenblick: Wonder Showzen has definitely had a major impact on television. We’re at a point now where people are seeing things that were influenced by Wonder Showzen—like Tim & Eric, or Eric Andre—and don’t even realize it. When I speak at schools, I still get asked about it. And of all the shows we’ve done, its fans are probably the most eccentric and the most nihilist.
Tartaro: In 2016, it became very fashionable to become a political comedian. I was talking to John, who said, “Yeah, we were trying to tell people about this in 2004.”
Lee: After Trump got elected, big comedians would say to us, “You’ve got to bring Wonder Showzen back! Now is the time.” And the next day, I’d see them on some fucking Burger King commercial. It’s like, “Fuck you! You can’t want Wonder Showzen back and also want to do a Burger King ad! Take all your money and give it to the New York City public schools.”
And when people are suddenly like, “Let’s do political stuff in our work,” I’m like, “Where the fuck have you been for the last 15 years? What is work, but to be that?”
Levy: A lot of comedians are ashamed of things they made in the past, but there are very few things on Wonder Showzen that don’t hold up. Anticapitalist behavior never goes out of style, and intrinsic racism hasn’t been stopped.
Lee: At one point during Wonder Showzen, we pitched a movie to MTV called Trevor Heins 2028.
Chatman: That was the [election] year Trevor would have been 35. We thought, “We start this kid running for president right now. We try to get some weird small town in, like, Ohio to elect him mayor, and start making lobbying groups.” If the movie had worked, we’d have kept doing it as a TV show where he keeps running.
It was this long-term project—like Boyhood, but about the presidency. And I genuinely believed that if we spent this kid’s entire childhood and adulthood doing this as a joke, he’ll definitely be president. By 2028, people would have to vote for him.
Lee: And that’s what happened. Donald Trump is who Trevor was going to be. He’s the redheaded Beat Kid.
The quotes in this piece have been edited for clarity and condensed.
Brian Raftery is the author of Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen. His work has appeared in Wired, New York, and GQ.