Separated at Birth?
by: Justin Wyatt / ABC Television Network
MTV’s The Andy Milonakis Show presents an overly-enthusiastic, chubby ‘teenage’ host from a rather bleak New York locale creating his own half-hour weekly makeshift show, complete with appearances by his pets, neighbors, and various household objects. At once curious and deeply disturbing, the show fascinates for presenting the silly and seemingly innocent musing of a pre-pubescent, albeit one equipped with MTV cameras and CGI effects. While at first glance the show’s crazy hi-jinks and pratfalls dominate, in a hit-and-miss kind of way, The Andy Milonakis Show actually harbors something deeper and more profound — dare I say, a wistful appreciation for human potential and folly, all set in a cramped apartment in New York.
Milonakis’ cult fame began online with his many short ‘films,’ most notably ‘The Superbowl is Gay’ in which ‘folk singer’ Andy flatly defines the Superbowl, as well as a myriad of other obsessions and household items as ‘gay.’ This debasement is at first funny, in a sub-sophomoric manner, then dull, then almost exhausting as it continues on with its litany of ‘gay’ things. (It’s available on iFilm.com and currently ranked #6 among comedy clips). This curious brand of humor was repeated in several dozen more of his online shorts. Milonakis also emerged from the stable of occasional characters on Jimmy Kimmel Live, ABC’s late night talk show hosted by the acerbic former Man Show co-host. Kimmel continues as co-producer of Andy’s new show.
The format for Andy’s show is very similar week-to-week. Man-on-the-street interviews alternate with skits in Andy’s apartment and an occasional foray into nearby parks and neighborhood locations. The one-on-one interviews are actually more like ambushes on old, often deeply out-of-it residents who barely get to utter a word or two in response to Andy’s jubilant pronouncements. “Your smile looks like rainbows!” he screams at a bedraggled senior barely able to move let alone mimic rainbows. As with most of these encounters, Andy barely waits for a response before skipping away merrily.
Most of the ‘action’ takes place in Andy’s apartment. He apparently lives alone, despite being a teenager and acting much of the time years younger. Most often the show revolves around Andy’s obsession with food or with small pranks enacted in the apartment. For instance, one recurring segment has Andy greeting a take-out delivery person with some unusual circumstance — such as meeting a tied up Andy or being the recipient of a fake coupon obviously stenciled in crayon. Additionally, Andy’s pets, especially his beloved dog Woobie, are also an ongoing concern. Usually Woobie is imbued with magic powers, and Andy has to coax Woobie off the ceiling or reprimand him for using his telekinetic powers inappropriately. The rest of the show is essentially random: neighbors drop by to borrow household items, Andy dresses up cats as ‘Satan Kitty’ and ‘Jesus Kitty’ and visits with the even more obese Cousin Ralphie. On occasion, a guest star will also come by, usually in an utterly fantastic and unbelievable manner: Snoop Dogg makes Andy substitute for him in an interview since they ‘look so much like each other’ and John Stamos, submissive as a little kitten, needs Andy and a local fireman’s help once he is stuck high in a tree (unfortunately John Stamos turns out to be rabid and must be shot after hugging Andy).
Of course, the show follows in the well-worn tradition of sketch comedy projected through a precocious child star a la Mason Reese from The Mike Douglas Show fame in the 1970s. Yet, The Andy Milonakis Show holds greater appeal for me. It’s been one of those shows that I actually remembered later in a fond way. Why? For me, the show taps into some different chords that always resonate. For one, the minimal aesthetic and evocation of the everyday offer boundaries that let Andy’s creativity run wild. By setting the space of the action primarily within the confines of Andy’s apartment, Andy is ‘forced’ to invent, to turn everyday objects and actions into the realm of the extraordinary. At first this may seem banal, but rest assured that Andy creating a drama from, for example, competing peanut butter jars and salsa truly does hold interest. An extended skit on the ‘uses of spoons’ illustrates all the different food and non-food items that you can place in your mouth through the inspired use of a spoon. Continuing the tour of the banal, Andy offers us ‘how water is made’ — a quick shot of his hand turning a faucet, nothing more. In some ways, Andy celebrates the quotidian almost offering a New York/MTV perspective on those whose work shines light on the ‘beauty’ within the banality of daily life. Is it heresy to mention Andy Milonakis in the same breath as the masters of the quotidian such as Andy Kaufman, Chantal Akerman (Jeanne Dielman) and Krzysztof Kieslowski (Three Colors trilogy)? Anyway, Andy is able to make his stifling environment seem most provocative and compelling in a completely child-like (and childish) way.
At its core though, a large part of the appeal of the show derives from its very absurdity: the fact that this chubby, exuberant apparent teenager warrants his own show and that these very minor stunts and gags constitute ‘entertainment.’ The absurd nature of the enterprise is multiplied when one discovers that Andy Milonakis is, apparently, an adult — born in January 1976. Andy’s age has been one of the canniest publicity ploys of the show, with Andy sidestepping the issue by claiming to be “between 10 and 30.” Julian Dibbell of The Village Voice set the record straight: “For one thing, this overweight teen is in fact a 29 year old with a growth disorder.” (Julian Dibbell, “Yay Wacktards!”) This uncovering has created a veritable firestorm online – check out ‘Andy Milonakis Age Rumor’ or the endless speculations in the lively discussion on Katie’s Blog. The postings are definitely polarized — from thinking that this is a betrayal (‘sobrino’ writes, “He sucks, doesn’t he freak ya’ll out a 29 yr old guy running around town harassing old people. It was funny when I thought he was 12 but 29, c’mon get a job! What a loser’) to evidence of Andy’s amazing talent. Someone aptly dubbed ‘andy_milonakis_Lover’ chimes in, “What’s up people!? Yeah, at first I was getting irritated at this show but then I found myself laughing. Now I think it is sheer genius, especially since I found out today that Andy is 29 years old.”
Suddenly, what was endearing and cute in a young teen becomes bizarre when enacted by a 29 year old. The connection of Andy to the lineage of Mason Reese, Gary Coleman and Danny Bonaduce is severed. Suddenly, Andy becomes a millenial variant of Steve Martin’s character in The Jerk from the late 70s or, perhaps more precisely, another Pee Wee Herman, with a more subdued ‘playhouse.’ Nevertheless, the show becomes increasingly jarring when you realize that this ‘kid’ or ‘teenager’ is, in fact, an adult who is so in touch with his inner child that the performance is eerie, regardless of any physical or developmental issues. If Andy was, in fact, a teen or pre-teen, the antics would smack of youthful enthusiasm. Since Andy is an adult pushing 30, the dynamic is more complex: he evokes youthful enthusiasm through his humor but the jokes are not really funny enough by themselves to be entertaining or to justify their existence. A large part of the absurdity derives from how precisely Andy is able to evoke being a mischievous imp on the verge of adolescence. The confused logic and bizarre juxtapositions that seem wonderful and transgressive to a pre-teen are entirely preserved by Andy. The convoluted and largely absent logic is perfectly encapsulated by these lines from Andy’s theme song:
“Pancake on my face makes me extra happy I like shampoo bottles that sit on my lappy ‘Cause it’s my show you can’t tell me what to do When life hands me lemons, I make beef stew.”
Apart from Andy’s appreciation for the everyday and his streak of absurdity, the show fascinates also for the essential optimism and positive outlook personified by Andy. His love for food, his neighbors, and, of course, his pets is infused throughout the show. The end result is a hero who comes off as so young that he is oblivious to all stresses and life challenges. In Andy’s universe, all revolves around him and the world is just fine. While Andy’s random comments bewilder the neighbors on the street, they are never designed to humiliate, taunt, or embarrass. In fact, the humor seems based on creating a separation between ‘Andy as child’ and the rest of the adult world. By positioning himself as a child, Andy is exempt rules of decorum and behavior from the adult world, and this exemption is the basis for much of the humor.
As with many ‘obsessions,’ to uncover the source of fascination is to destroy much of the fun. After watching the first episode, I was left wondering why I had chosen to DVR all the remaining shows. After much reflection, my mind returned over and over again to another media event: Peter Hall’s production of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, presented at the Arts Theatre in London last year. Beckett’s masterpiece is centered on Winnie, a middle-aged woman, who prattles on endlessly about matters small and large while sinking into the earth under an unbearable sun. Winnie clutches her parasol and rifles through her purse, playing with her toothbrush, her hair comb and other items. Winnie’s body is increasingly obscured by the earth as the play progresses — she is, in effect, being buried alive at a slow pace. Despite this awful trajectory, Winnie maintains complete optimism and courage. Relying on the objects around her and her amazingly positive attitude, Winnie creates her own reality, oblivious to the harsh world surrounding her. In effect, Winnie’s everyday life is celebrated despite the strange, surreal circumstances of her predicament. Beckett constructs an absurd situation then normalizes it through Winnie’s everyday routine and innate resolve.
Could Andy Milonakis be channeling Samuel Beckett? After all, both offer a bizarre premise, the fantastic within the everyday, and the (foolish? courageous?) hope for the future despite overwhelming evidence of a harsh environment. In fact, both Andy and Beckett seem to operate from the Russian Formalist function of art — ‘to defamiliarize our habitual perceptions of the everyday world’ (Kristin Thompson, Breaking the Glass Armor: Neoformalist Film Analysis. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1988: 11). At their core, Sam and Andy make you question your own everyday life and routine through presenting these worlds that are more than a little askew. And, for Andy, that’s not a bad accomplishment for a ‘kid’ who thinks the toaster gets jealous when it’s unplugged so he can use the blender instead.
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