“Freak Show” fails to realize potential

Cartoon Network was not interested in “Freak Show,” a cartoon about a group of circus freaks who moonlight as second-string superheroes for the Pentagon. David Cross (Mr. Show, Arrested Development) and H. Jon Benjamin (Home Movies, Dr. Katz), the show’s creators, think it was a mistake that Cartoon Network wrote it off as a “Justice League” parody.

Cartoon Network made the right decision. If last night’s premiere on Comedy Central didn’t sell you, wait until the second episode airs. While the first episode might leave you thinking that “Freak Show” has potential, you’ll know by the second episode that it was all in your imagination.

Here is what you imagined: any show written by David Cross, one of the best comedians working, and H. Jon Benjamin, who was involved in one of the best cartoons of the 90s, “Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist”, has to be good, right? When you have folks like Jeanine Garofalo and Will Arnett (Arrested Development) lending their voices, it seems too good to be true, and it is.

Cross and Benjamin voice Benny and Tuck, leaders of the Freak Squad, a pair of conjoined twins whose super power is splitting. To their credit, their characters evoke the most laughter, but this stuff won’t have you rolling out of your chair. Other freaks, like the “World’s Tallest Nebraskan” and the “Log Cabin Republican” (“A gay republican has always seemed freakish to us,” remarked Cross), are concepts that put smiles on your face, but ultimately fail in execution – their screen time sacrificed for Cross and Benjamin’s twins. Rounding out the freak squad are Garafolo’s “Bearded Clam,” (secret power: shoots “bitch juice”), and “Primi,” a fetus who’ll puke on you if you don’t watch your step. Arnett represents a multi-national corporation trying to buy out the mom-and-pop operation that owns the freaks in question.

The sum of these folks’ considerable talents makes a disappointing whole, but if you think about it, this isn’t a surprise. Cross is a multi-talented comedian and writer, but he really shines when he has room to improvise. Improv comedy doesn’t translate as well to animation, probably because the physical aspect of the form is so important. Unfortunately, this doesn’t really stop the voice actors in “Freak Show.”

“We encourage everybody to riff around,” David Cross told a gaggle of college journalists during a conference call. The “riffing” amounts to little more than sophomoric gags and over-the-top jokes that don’t work. Comedy Central has chosen to air “Freak Show” immediately after “South Park,” a show that has turned this sort of humor into an art form during its last few seasons. This scheduling choice will only emphasize the ways “Freak Show” falls short.

During the roundtable discussion, each of us could only ask one question. So, I asked Cross and Benjamin if they could talk about how the idea for the show evolved. My affiliation with GW prompted Benjamin to share an anecdote before answering the question. “The first time I got drunk was at GW,” he said. His big sister was a Colonial, and she took him to a crew party. He was 11, and blew chunks on the Lincoln Memorial. Awesome. But the idea for “Freak Show,” according to Cross, came to him after he walked out of “Crash,” the Academy Award-winner for “Best Picture” last year. He asked himself, “What’s a dumber, more poorly executed idea than this movie?” He wasn’t kidding.

“Freak Show” will air Wednesdays at 10:30 p.m. on Comedy Central (Began 10/4).

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