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Comedy Central Stand-Up Show Stands Out

I don’t watch much TV, so I don’t usually know (or care) about the new programs that occasionally tumble down the network pipelines. Still, I have to admit: when I caught a commercial for Comedy Central’s new show Mash Up, I was intrigued. TV-headed people with pixellated scowls loitering around a desert in slow motion while outrunning explosions, trailing long wings of VCR tape off their arms, and enduring bare-chested paintball blasts? Uh, you have my attention.

Admittedly, my hope that the video game elements used in the promo represented a motif of the show, rather than mere ornamentation, may have been naive (although major points for the 16-bit Character Select screen introducing each new comedian, complete with menacing battle poses). Once I overcame my disappointment, though, I was treated to a decent half hour of comedy with a format that differentiates it from the myriad other stand-up spotlight shows.

Hosted by comedian T.J. Miller, Mash Up delivers a mix of sketches and stand-up sets that rotate with a frequency befitting the show’s title. For the pilot, Miller shared the stage with up-and-coming comedians Hannibal Burress and, to a lesser extent, Jared Logan. Their routines were mostly solid, with some highlights (Burress harassing Canadian cops), some duds (oh the pain of a silent studio audience), and, as is far too common with modern stand-up, some tasteless attempts to be edgy (The woman who creeped out the bar-hopping Burress by citing rape statistics to him, then persisted after him when he turned away? She was “raping” his ears! Hyuck hyuck hyuck!).

Content aside, what made their stand-up really stand out was that most of the jokes were paired with silent video skits illustrating the scenes being described. When done well, embedding clips into the monologues gives the comedians’ words an extra layer of visual humor, such as when Burress uses a kiddie pool in a parking lot to represent “whatever body of water is closest to where I’m performing this joke.” They don’t always work, but even when a clip fails to add anything to the joke, they hardly detract.

Comedy Central used a similar format several years ago on the animated show Shorties Watchin’ Shorties. Shorties didn’t feature the comedians themselves, instead overlaying recordings of their stand-up with cartoon shorts depicting their material in a deformed, garishly bright style. The difference in medium makes it hard to compare the two clip formats, but both play to their strengths: whereas Shorties reveled in fantastical renderings of the comedian’s words, Mash Up mostly played its depictions straight, getting mileage out of exaggerated facial expressions and performances. At any rate, the difference in medium also makes Mash Up sufficiently different from its predecessor that the format still feels new. If the first episode is any indicator, Mash Up won’t have any trouble building its own identity out of its amusing dub work and sometimes-clever sight gags.

The sketches made a weaker inaugural showing. The best one, “Word Mash Up,” certainly had an intriguing concept: take a group of words or titles that syntactically overlap, string them together, and act out the resulting mash-up. In this instance, Bad Boys, Boyz II Men, and Men In Black convened to form Bad Boys II Men In Black, a shoot-out between drug lords and government agents fearing they might be aliens, musically narrated by guest star Nick Cannon. The concept is rife with possibilities, and this first incarnation competently demonstrated the segment. It was more clever than funny, relying on the absurdity and thrill of recognition rather than any new humor inserted into or arising from it.

The second, shorter sketch, “A girl trying to be sexy in a wind machine that’s going way too fast,” warrants no set up and just as much praise. The silliness of the concept wasn’t executed with the exaggeration it needed to achieve its comic potential, and she never even developed the G-Force jowls typical of wind tunnel slapstick. C’mon, it’s a classic!

Based on the pilot, Mash Up has a solid creative core and looks poised to adapt its formula to whichever comedians grace the next few shows. As only seems appropriate for a show based on mixing things together, there were some smooth patches and some lumps, but the overall concoction showed promise. It just might take a few tries to nail the consistency.

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