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The Animated Sitcom Was Rarely More Subversive Than in Home Movies Season 1

Loren Bouchard and Brendon Small's cult series is almost anarchic compared to contemporary animated shows.
  • Brendon Small, holding court (Screenshot: Home Movies)
    Brendon Small, holding court (Screenshot: Home Movies)

    The animated sitcom as it exists today — The Great North, Krapopolis, Rick and Morty, the list goes on — enjoys a level of quality that animators might have sold their drafting tables for in the 1990s. Fluidity and fidelity are the first two qualities you'll notice about these types of shows, regardless of how offbeat their character design is or how extravagant their vocal cast might be. Even South Park has finessed its famously crappy house style well beyond anything we could have imagined. The animated sitcom is now so polished with hypercompetence and homogeneity that it makes older series like Home Movies feel anarchic by comparison.

    That's not just nostalgia talking. By the time Home Movies premiered on UPN in 1999, the animated sitcom was nothing new. The spaces for primetime animation were plenty filled up by then, too; Fox and MTV had The Simpsons, King Of The Hill, and Daria, among other notable series — and heck, Seth MacFarlane's Family Guy dropped months before Home Movies could squiggle its way onto network TV. Yet cheap techniques and its pedigree of outsider creatives, which resembled the lineup of a comedy open mic more than a roster of animation titans, gave it an edge. Given the competition, its smallness was subversive, and Home Movies was never more subversive than it was during its first season. 

    Of course, it seems ridiculous to refer to Home Movies co-creators Loren Bouchard and Brendon Small as outsiders today. Even suggesting the same for Tom Snyder, the producer behind Home Movies, The Dick & Paula Celebrity Special, and the Peabody-winning Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, is pushing it. Yet there they were: Tom Snyder Productions (later rechristened Soup2Nuts), a Massachusetts-based outfit operating outside the larger animation industry and making a name for themselves within it, charting a course that would lead to future projects like Bob's Burgers, Metalocalypse, and that aforementioned Great North. "It [was] more like being in a rock band," said Bouchard, who spoke to NewEnglandFilm.com in 1998 about the animation studio's earlier incarnation.

    Home Movies emerged from its competition thanks to its vocal talent — a cast of regional comics like Small, Paula Poundstone, Jonathan Katz, Melissa Bardin Galsky, Ron Lynch, and H. Jon Benjamin — who gave their characters specificity while simultaneously sounding untrained to the ear. (In fact, this was Small and Galsky's first voiceover credit.) The dialogue in these first five episodes is distinctively raw, thanks partly to an improvised recording process called "retroscripting." This method was also used in Snyder's Dr. Katz, which leaned into the awkwardness and vulnerability of live performance to maximize character personality.

    As a family sitcom, Home Movies had personality to burn. It followed the story of Brendon Small (Small), an 8-year-old kid who makes movies with his friends Melissa (Galsky) and Jason (Benjamin) in the basement of a home he shares with his baby sister and divorced mother, Paula (Poundstone in the first five episodes, later recast with comedy writer Janine Ditullio). When Brendon isn't making movies with his precious camera, he trades barbed nonsequiturs with his alcoholic soccer coach, McGuirk (Benjamin), and mustachioed teacher, Mr. Lynch (Lynch). Through these relationships, we discover contradictions in Brendon: he's driven creatively but a lazy student, socially furtive but a total control freak behind the camera.

    Modulation harnessed Small's nervy, rapid-fire cadence and turned it into the voice of preadolescent Brendon, who, like Melissa and Justin, often sounded wise beyond his years. As a child lead, Brendon could also be refreshingly sensitive, as was apparent from the pilot episode, "Get Away From My Mom" (air date: April 26, 1999), in which Paula goes on a date with her son's coach. One bit occurs after their disastrous night out, with Brendon hopping on the phone while Paula navigates McGuirk's fumbling attempts at another shot. The actors, riffing together in front of live microphones, speak in the broken, layered, chaotic way three people would in life, not a TV show. It's a scene that shouldn't have worked, yet it did so marvelously, cementing the vocal rhythms that define the series. 

    Home Movies was clearly in the early stages of invention judging by its first five episodes, which aired on UPN before being unceremoniously axed from the network. But its blend of vocal and visual havoc — retroscripting plus "Squigglevision," another Snyder innovation popularized in Dr. Katz — established an untamed, punkish rhythm that would get sanded down the following year; as Season 1 progressed, squiggles were downplayed to be less frantic than they were on Katz. However, the constant movement of figure lines gave characters an onscreen dimension separate from the flat, abstractly designed backgrounds that provided Home Movies its sense of style and place.  

    Squigglevision also lent the character designs by animators Chris Georgenes and Kim O'Neil some reality, if not sense, in this world. Later seasons aired during Cartoon Network's mature Adult Swim block would iron it out completely with Flash animation (as was the cheap and preferred method of the day; see also Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Sealab 2021). The characters' bodysuit clothing, created almost by accident by O'Neil ("None of us were professional animators, and we just did stuff because we liked it," Georgenes has said), came alive in Squigglevision like a sock puppet show with a light dose of acid. Without it, they looked like lenticular trading cards — still appealing to look at, and oddly more lifeless. 

    Even with its early limitations, Snyder, Bouchard, et al. found ways to work around their limited budget to get the first five episodes animated, as they did on the episode "We'll Always Have Tuesday" (titled "Yoko," depending on who you ask), in which McGuirk takes Brendon and his classmates on a cheap camping trip. The episode's first third, set at night when most of the campers should be asleep, is almost entirely in black, the only animated asset onscreen being the character's distinctive eyes, blinking here and there. 

    According to Bouchard, the idea was Georgenes': "Even with just five episodes, we were running out of time [...] Then [he] said, 'What if the whole Episode Five takes place in the dark?' I was like, 'I like this guy!'" It's hard to imagine UPN, who hoped Home Movies would appeal to a young male demographic and seemed to love Jason's snotty nose more than anything else, was thrilled by this creative choice.  

    The series's transition from UPN to Adult Swim would take a year and bring further refinement from Dr. Katz writer Bill Braudis, who, with Small and Bouchard, conceived a tighter structure for the show. No doubt there's a sophistication to the first Adult Swim episode, "Director's Cut" (air date: September 2, 2001), that simply did not exist in the first five. For instance, its parallel storylines — Brendon has creative differences with local rocker Dwayne during a musical production of "Franz Kafka" while McGuirk notices the competency of his assistant coach is making him look bad — converge in ways that appreciably inform Brendon's (and McGuirk's) character for the seasons to come. 

    Before, Brendon came off like an arrogant kid; here, we understand his control issues stem from his father's absence. That emotional trauma begins to take shape in the episode "Brendon's Choice," where Brendon expresses interest in finally speaking to his dad. This is brought about by a series of interview questions from a local newscaster, who introduces ideas of theme and metaphor to his work along with the suggestion that his creative inspiration might have come from his parents, one of whom he barely remembers.

    Later, Brendon demonstrates the new film he's working on to the newscaster and lays out a meandering, fantastical plot about princesses, mobsters, and minor league baseball teams — when he calls out "action!" Jason pops into the scene dressed as a mobster and declares, "I miss my daddy!" "And, cut!" Brendon declares, satisfied with the work and seemingly oblivious to his film's text. It's a hilarious joke and a deeply sad one, two ways to describe Home Movies in total. "Brendon's Choice" ends with a question that demands an answer — will Brendon reconcile with his father? How will this decision change the show?

    The answers came later in the more confident and polished future seasons. Squigglevision was gone by this point; its aesthetic was cleaner, but its temperament remained just as rowdy. Home Movies continued to be strange, periodically off-putting, oddly affecting — everything we'd come to love about the series in its earlier form. "Squigglevision was wonderful and charming, but it was definitely a Dr. Katz thing," Small said in an oral history for Cracked last year. "I thought Home Movies should be its own thing. It wasn't that dramatic a change, though. We were still punk rock."

    Small is correct that the visual change didn't break his show, and his refinement of the story made the show a better one. But there was a quality lost in the transition from UPN to Adult Swim that made Home Movies cleaner, less raw, and, yes, less punk. But for one season and five episodes especially, Home Movies took the animated sitcom, smashed it to bits, and reassembled it into something almost alien in design, endearing in concept, and hilarious, a combination that's leagues away from what the genre has become. Season 1 of Home Movies might have flaws, but it is the type of weird, wiggly television that's worthy of remembrance.

    Home Movies Seasons 1 through 4 are streaming on Max. 

    Jarrod Jones is a freelance writer currently settled in Chicago. He reads lots (and lots) of comics and, as a result, is kind of a dunderhead.

    TOPICS: Home Movies, Adult Swim, Cartoon Network, UPN, Bob's Burgers, Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, The Simpsons, Brendon Small, H. Jon Benjamin, Loren Bouchard, Animation