Thursday, February 09, 2006

TV (Comedy): The Frantics

I have always been a fan of radio comedy. My all-time favourite comedy group is The Goon Show, edging out even Monty Python. I grew up listening to the Royal Canadian Air Farce on CBC Radio (before they moved to TV) and, of course, The Frantics.

The Frantics are Peter Wildman, Dan Redican, Rick Green, and Paul Chato. Rick Green's probably the best known outside Canada, given his recurring role as Bill on the Red Green Show. Their radio sketches were in the best absurdist tradition -- things like Theatre of the Ideas That Come To You in the Middle of the Night So You Get Up and Write Them Down But Can't Make Heads Nor Tails Of Them in the Morning (this week's episode: "Little Fuzzy Bits of Junk"). They had a few recurring characters, such as Canadian superhero Mr. Canoehead -- a man who took up a life of crime fighting after an aluminum canoe was welded to his head by lightning -- and Todd Booster, a spoof of kids' adventure heros like Tom Swift.

The Frantics were obviously heavily influenced by Monty Python (you can really hear it in, for example, the host character in the Architecture Today sketch), and used a similar mix of bizarreness, idiocy, and writing for a knowledgable audience. One of my favourite examples of this is their sketch "The Human Race", which presents evolution as a horse race announced by Chuck Darwin: "Into turn one, arthropoda is showing surprisingly solid form, and even the long-shot chordata is displaying real backbone!"

In 1985 they moved to TV with the show Four on the Floor, which reworked many of their radio sketches, then went their separate ways. Recently, they've teamed back up for a TV special that was aired a couple of weeks ago and an up-coming two-week stage show, "The Frantics: Still A Disappointment To Their Parents".

I caught the TV special, of course. It had a number of good sketches, but it got me thinking of why I'm so fond of radio comedy. TV is hampered by the need to show stuff. Mr. Canoehead is much less convincing on screen. In fact, in the Mr. Canoehead number that they did on the special, Canoehead spent the entire sketch sitting in a chair behind a desk (with a few flashbacks to villains being whacked with his canoe). Their classic sketch about a guy who tunnels to the centre of the world to become king of the mole people would have been prohibitively expensive to do on TV.

This isn't a problem unique to the Frantics... The Goons tried a couple of TV versions (Telegoons, which retold Goon Show stories with puppets, and The Idiot Weekly, Price 2p, a live sketch show) without much success; the Air Farce lost a lot of its energy when it moved to TV as well. It took a completely fresh group, Monty Python, to successfully move Goonish humour to a visual medium (though Goon Supreme, Spike Milligan, did anticipate them with his Q series). Likewise, the Canadian sketch comedy group who most successfully turned Frantics-style humour into a TV series was not The Frantics, but The Kids in the Hall.

The special also suffered a little from the group leaning on a few past successes for material. Their most famous sketches are the two "Boot to the Head" sketches from the radio show: Last Will and Tempraments and Ti Kwan Leep -- the first concerns the reading of a will in which all beneficiaries are left a boot to the head (or several), the second tells what happens when Ed "I Wanna Beat People Up Right Now" Gruberman crosses his sensei (Ti Kwan Leep is often played on the Dr. Demento Show. The reunion special featured a new "Boot to the Head" sketch about an Australian motivational speaker. Unfortunately, the sketch was rather limp overall, with no real resolution or laughs beyond the slapstick. Ed Gruberman also made a reappearance in the "Army Recruiting Office" sketch, which was a good sketch -- but the applicant character didn't really need to be Ed Gruberman, except for the recognition laugh he got.

What I'm really looking forward to from The Frantics are the upcoming re-release of the original Frantic Times album (which has been out of print for decades, even while the Boot to the Head album has been available continously) and the 3 MP3 CD set collection of the original Frantic Times radio series.


M@ said...

A couple of years ago, a CBC (radio) series on Canadian comedy put the Frantics almost alone in the surrealist comedy landscape. While some KITH sketches tread a similar ground (specifically the Bruce McCullough sketches (the darkness, line pig)), the Frantics pretty much own the surrealist tradition. And if you look at the few groups that have found enduring, relatively mainstream success (Corky and the Juice Pigs, the Vestibules), you'll see that no one was as detached from reality as the Frantics.

And I think you're right about the effect of TV on their comedy. Not That There's Anything Wrong With That, but the need to show rather than tell does damage it. The show was a funny special, but not special.

But most of all, I agree with you on the Goon Show. One of the great, profound regrets of my professional life is that I didn't have a chance to burn my Napster-downloaded Goon Show mp3s before I was laid off by my employer in 2001. Of all the things they took from me, this was among the worst.

Anyhow, great post.

James said...

The Frantics were certainly the most out there -- definitely my kind of comedy. I never really got into the Kids in the Hall, though I appreciate their skill.

I think one of the biggest problems with translating The Frantics (and the Air Farce, and the Goons) to TV is just how long it takes to do things when you have to see them. Though some of the sketches did make good use of visuals -- the "Street Hockey on King Street" mini-sketch, for example.

Of the surviving Goon Shows, about half are available on CD from EMI and the BBC. You can also get MP3s of just about all the surviving shows at the Goon Show Depository. The quality is generally not as good as the official CDs, but they do contain some bits that have been edited out in the official releases, and some episodes which will likely never be published on CD because the quality is just too poor for a professional release.

Definitely a must have for Goon fans.