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A Love That Seems Strangely Un-Manly

Is it so wrong for a woman to love The Man Show?

This is the kind of question I wrestle with each Wednesday night at 10:30 as South Park dims and the brash opening lyrics about a nurse named Heather begin. I wonder if I'm supposed to switch to Lifetime in the name of sisterhood, or at least VH-1. I uneasily wonder if I'm not betraying some sort of educated-woman compact by watching scantily dressed women shimmy for the delectation of the college-aged audience.

Then I sit back and snicker uncontrollably at how uncomfortable Jimmy Kimmel and Adam Carolla look as they stumble through the kind of comedic monologues that could only be possible if a group of drunken frat boys took over open mike night at the local komedy klub. I imagine Kimmel generating excuses to his wife and to Ben Stein as he mouths every mildly misogynistic one-line; I wonder if Adam Carolla prays to his creator that his punch lines don't come back to haunt him as listener call-in problems on LoveLine. And for me, the magic begins anew.

I love The Man Show because the hosts appear obsessed with coming off as smoother and more macho than they actually are. All of the segments are designed to simultaneously showcase and send up the kind of swaggering bravado young men sometimes mistake for masculinity. The Man Show is the televised equivalent of Maxim; in fact, in a nice bit of synergy I hope someone other than me actually caught, the same man whom Maxim profiled in 1998 for installing D-cup breast implants on a dare was recently on The Man Show mashing Jimmy Kimmel's face into his manly cleavage. This is a show that knows its audience and panders to it unabashedly.

So what's a woman in her twenties doing watching a show targeted toward nineteen-year-old boys? I watch The Man Show because it's an extended homage to women. Perhaps it's not an homage in the way most women would prefer -- there's no segment called "Household Tips from NASA's first female astronaut class" wherein Rhea Seddon and Kathryn Sullivan share their secrets for keeping kitchen floors as smooth as a spacewalk, nor are the girls on trampolines replaced with WNBA stars doing jump shots -- but it amuses me to no end that a show ostensibly about male culture spends so much time focusing on how to woo and win a woman.

Consider the so-called features of the show. When Kimmel asked 100 different women if they'd sleep with him (and got shot down 100 different ways), he was testing the persistent myth that if you beg long enough, fate eventually throws you a bone. Score: fate, 1; Jimmy, 0. The popular segment "Household hints from adult film stars" might as well be called "We resolve your Madonna-Whore complex for you." In the sickest and most inspired segment I've seen thus far, Carolla stars in a vignette called "Oedipal Trouble," where we see him primping for a date with his Mommy. As the evening progresses, he puts the moves on Mom and the skit culminates with her using a disciplinary tactic -- grounding the post-coital Carolla -- to subdue him between the sheets.

It's a sick, sick, sick sketch, but it's also wickedly funny because it enumerates all the reasons The Man Show fixates on women: for the virulently heterosexual target audience, women are associated with comfort, care, desire, and frustrated effort. The neater the package for resolving those drives, the less energy is expended and the more is saved for chugging beer and watching sports events. This brings me to the second punch in The Man Show's one-two appeal: in addition to being an homage to women and the wooing thereof, the show is a paean to inertia. The less effort expended toward anything -- shotgunning beer, running a kingdom, marriage -- the better. Dating your mother is the ultimate energy-saver. Not only do you not have to waste energy to make her love you, you don't have to expend any effort in psychologically moving beyond age four.

What other show so bluntly sizes up the unshaven, beer-belching, crotch-scratching demons lurking in the American culture's take on manhood -- then makes fun of them?

That's what ultimately sold me on The Man Show. Whether or not the creators intended, the funniest thing about it is that it sends up the whole idea of manly men. What may be intended -- or even interpreted in some quarters -- as a tribute to good ol 'fashioned politically incorrect masculinity is instead a wicked satire of everything it professes to hold dear.

In an era where gender humor is unsubtle and militant, those of us who prefer our punch lines slyly subversive and self-mocking have little to look at -- Lifetime movies notwithstanding. The Man Show accomplishes the slyest of punch lines while distracting the viewer to look at girls on trampolines, and if loving that kind of comic brainpower is so wrong, well... I don't want to be right.


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