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Puppet, Sidekick, Sitcoms

It's easy to mock Fox. Fox was once your home of shitty reality fare like World's Wildest Police Videos and Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?, and now it's the home of shitty reality fare like Celebrity Boxing.

But Fox is also a network to be admired. Not just for its ability to crack the "big three" and transform them into the "big four," but for its generation of some groundbreaking TV series that would never have seen the light of day at ABC, CBS, or NBC. The Simpsons is one of the best shows ever made -- arguably the best. The X-Files, despite outliving its welcome, is perhaps the most commercially successful sci-fi TV series ever. (Aw, c'mon -- Star Trek isn't a TV series. It's a multimedia monstrosity.)

This year, who had the best slate of new series? You guessed it -- Fox. 24 is one of the year's best new dramas, as everyone has been told repeatedly. But the Fox comedy slate has also been impressive. The Tick was fantastic, and is now gone. But two other oddball, genre-busting, single-camera comedies have just arrived on the scene. Both are appealing in their own ways, and both have great potential (especially when paired together), but one's clearly made of better material than the other.

The more problematic of the two series is Greg the Bunny, a comedy about a world in which puppets are alive and live as a somewhat oppressed minority among us. The titular Greg becomes the star of a kid's show called SweetKnuckle Junction, a Sesame Street clone with both human and puppet stars. The puppets have drinking problems, potty mouths, and just about every other hang-up you'd expect from human TV stars, which can lead to some fairly bizarre moments when you realize you're laughing about the serious drinking problem of a car wash shammy who's got buttons for eyes.

Anchoring the human cast is Seth Green, who played Oz on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dr. Evil's son in the "Austin Powers" movies. Green plays a likeable slacker type, which is pretty much what he always plays. He's Greg the Bunny's pal, and his dad (the great SCTV alum Eugene Levy) is the director of SweetKunuckle Junction.

Greg the Bunny is funny, no doubt about it. But it's also got a touch of crudity that's unnecessary and uncomfortable. It's as if the show's writers decided that a sitcom about puppets just couldn't be carried off without a little extra helping of that famous Fox attitude. Toss in a puppet making references to genitalia and we're cooking with gas!

But perhaps Greg's biggest flaw is its reliance on TV industry jokes. SweetKnuckle may be populated by potty-mouthed puppets, but it's not that far removed from The Larry Sanders Show. The plots, at least in the show's first episodes, tend to center on the TV show itself -- and while I find that extremely amusing, I have to remind myself that generally shows about the entertainment industry tend to sink beneath the sea before you can say "and starring Jay Mohr at Peter Dragon."

Andy Richter Controls the Universe, on the other hand, is simply a joy to behold. Conan O'Brien's former sidekick plays a regular joe who writes technical manuals for a big company in Chicago. He's got an ex-girlfriend as his boss, a shifty-eyed guy to share his office with, a some-guys-have-all-the-luck Handsome Man as his best pal, and Handsome Man's girlfriend as his object of desire.

Standard Workplace Sitcom fare, all. But Andy Richter lays on a series of Walter Mitty-like (that's Ally McBeal-like, for those of you under 50) daydreams that really make the series thrive. Through Andy's daydreams, we get to see not only what Andy does say, but what he should have said. Often in multiple variations, each one funnier than the one that came before it.

However, the producers of the show aren't quite confident enough in the intelligence of their audience. Every time we finish with a daydream/hallucination, we're treated to the sound of a scratched record (the sound from an audio format prior to CDs that's used as a sound effect a lot in rap and hip-hop, for those of you under 30) to clue us in that what we just saw didn't really happen. Uh... if you can't figure that one out, it may be time to disconnect the ventilator.

The real reason I prefer Andy Richter to Greg the Bunny comes down to the humanity and likeability that Andy Richter has. The characters are generally good people, and in the end we can count on Andy to do the right thing, even if he happens to come by that right thing by a less than ideal path. His heart's in the right place, and we know that -- after a long series of painfully funny incidents, of course -- he'll end up all right in the end.

Before I come across as sounding a bit too much like Steve Allen, let me say that it's not as if Andy Richter Controls the Universe doesn't have its share of what could be considered crude humor. Yes, in one episode a man wearing a spandex suit with the word "penis" on it does deck another man wearing a suit with the word "brain" attached to it. (The payoff? In the end, a gigantic guy in a suit labeled "guilt" beats the crap out of Penis, thus ending Andy's conflicted thoughts about his anti-semite hottie girlfriend.)

But even when Andy Richter's personified penis is on display, grappling with his brain in a greco-roman wrestling contest for the ages, Andy Richter Controls the Universe is sweeter than anything over at SweetKnuckle Junction. Much to the chagrin of Fox programming executives, I'm sure.


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