D.C. Follies: I Watched 44 Episodes Of This Shit
Humblebrag time: I’m friends with Phil Gonzales. Yes, THAT Phil Gonzales. He’s such a mensch that when I offhandedly mentioned I wanted a DVD of something called D.C. Follies, he sent it to me. His stipulation? That I determine whether or not it “held up”. D.C. Follies, if you don’t know, is basically an American Spitting Image (British puppet political “satire” program) if you added Fred Willard as a seen-it-all-before bartender, with puppets provided by the Krofft brothers (of nightmare inducing children’s programming fame). See, D.C. Follies is not only the name of the show, it’s the name of the bar at which the show takes place. I’ve been to a lot of bars in my time on this Earth, and I would never, ever, ever go to something called D.C. Follies, and that’s without knowing within there resided hideous puppets meant to represent political and pop cultural figures. Yet I nonetheless punished myself with the better part of the show’s 44 episodes, all to answer that eternal question Phil posed. I can say now with certainty that…no, I don’t think D.C. Follies holds up. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth seeing, for it is a weird, wild adventure. Not since I drank an entire bottle of cough syrup and watched the pilot to FOX’s New Amsterdam in someone’s attic have I had such a strange, disorienting experience with media.
“fun”, “satire”, “opinion”, “social comment” ???
Fred Willard runs the “hottest club” in Washington D.C., so says the opening sequence, and he appears in every show (44 of them! 44 goddamn episodes) as the straight man to a variety of caricatures of popular figures. First things first: the puppets are terrifying. Although they technically are accurate to those they mean to parody, that doesn’t change the reality that watching these things for a sustained period of time is a goddamn freakshow. The Tammy Faye Bakker puppet alone beats the hell out of Annabelle. For the most part vocally the impressions are fine; John Roarke does the majority of them and he’s got a credits list that includes Silence of the Hams and impersonating Alan Dershowitz in S.F.W. so you know he’s a master of parody. (Maurice LaMarche is credited throughout; D.C. Follies wisely deploys the literary device LaMarche’s Gun. You know, if Maurice LaMarche is in something, by the end of it there’ll be an Orson Welles impression? It happens in like episode 2.) The conceit of it taking place at a bar strains credibility when clearly D.C. Follies wants to be a loosely connected series of sketches like “inspiration” Spitting Image. I guess it works because a bar unites people from all walks of life via a shared alcohol dependency issue, but one does wonder why born and bred New Yorker Woody Allen would be spending time at this bar. Yes, that’s the aspect that breaks my suspension of disbelief.
Will Graham voice: THIS IS MY DESIGN
Of course, not just puppets frequent D.C. Follies. Nearly every episode features a special guest star and boy is it a time capsule of people who used to be somebody. Charlie Callas, Robert Klein, Joyce Jillson (who correctly predicts Cher will win an Oscar but incorrectly predicts she’ll shirk it for an Oscar tattoo… sure, whatever), Mort Sahl, Steve Allen, Mary Hart, Jimmie Walker, Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger…you really have to wonder what blackmail the Krofft brothers had on these people to compel them to participate in this nonsense. My favorite absurd guest spot is Bob Uecker, voice of my Milwaukee Brewers and sports legend. If I ever get a chance to talk to him, I want to ask if he remembers the time he sat at a table with Fred Willard and a Richard Nixon puppet. As is expected, these interactions are stilted and awful and rarely add anything to the proceedings, though it’s hard to tell amidst the overall miasma that is D.C. Follies. The show hit a particular low when Richard Belzer showed up to promote the Louie Anderson movie The Wrong Guys. During it, the following exchange occurs:
Richard Belzer: “I’m thinking of opening up a comedy club in Washington.”
Fred Willard: “Comedy club? Gee, we’ve already got one, it’s called Congress.”
You have to come out of the show feeling bad for Fred Willard, a consummate professional of a comedian who can normally enliven even the dullest of projects but is saddled with the worst punchlines possible here. (The show is awful with him, but without him it’d be the film in John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns.) Another instance. Sean Penn: “That divorce talk about Madonna and me wasn’t reality, it was just People magazine.” Fred: “See, with you involved I think it’d be more Boxing A Ring Magazine.” Then he and the puppet high five. I’ve spent tens of minutes ruminating and I don’t know how the fuck anyone thought that was a joke, let alone funny. Overall, the humor in this is so broad Borscht Belt comedians would ask for a little subtlety. Do I have to mention that an overly generous laugh track filling in every speck of dead air?
My friends after my 34th post about the show on social media.
The show does require a learning curve of 1980s sociopolitical ephemera; dated is an understatement. God help you if you don’t know who Jessica Hahn is. While I’m sure it was easy to “get” at the time of its airing, a good portion of the humor is bewildering in 2020, and the timeless stuff is likewise bewildering albeit for different reasons. It is funny to see how perceptions change over time. Nowadays Sean Penn is a liberal blowhard who writes awful prose, whereas the D.C. Follies version is a jailbird who speaks exactly like Spicoli. It’d be as strange as today depicting Russell Crowe as a guy who repeatedly throws phones at people. Cher’s jokes exclusively revolve around her dating younger men. Also, while it helps me, it’s probably not a good sign most celebrity puppets are introduced with Fred Willard going “hey, it’s ______”. It’s the equivalent of doing a celebrity impression and preceding it with “It’s me, _______”. Besides the most obvious ones (the presidents, Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, etc.) the puppets do require naming lest the audience not know who the fuck they’re supposed to be. Caricatures are meant to be recognizable sans additional context by design. Good caricatures at least.
The Kroffts would actually enlist newspaper cartoonists to provide caricatures that would serve as a basis for the puppets. Unfortunately, they got the Steven Spielberg from Der Sturmer’s in-house artist.
D.C. Follies never really reckons with the reality of itself. That is to say there’s never a real acknowledgement that these are puppets, fake people, not even for a lay up of a “politicians are PUPPETS of special interests, am I right?”. The closest the show comes is a sequence featuring Don King and Mike Tyson, the real ones, as themselves. Tyson beats Bush in a boxing match (don’t ask) and King says this will mean Dan Quayle will become president. “It’ll be a national nightmare.” Then puppet Don King wakes up, having fallen asleep at the bar. Do puppets dream of fleshy sheep? Oh, who gives a shit. In another episode, they repurpose the Whoopi Goldberg puppet as the real Whoopi’s Republican doppelganger, Yuppie Goldberg. In the final ever episode, Reagan tells Fred he’s planning on doing a TV show using puppets of famous people instead of real actors. Nixon claims it will never work. The show never got a third season so he was right. Ha ha!
Move over, remake! There’s a more embarrassing piece of Nightmare on Elm Street ephemera!
Within the show a sinister atmosphere lurks. Inexplicable choices abound. There are parodies that seem like they’re generated from Mad Libs. Ronald Reagan stars in The Ronniemooners and George H.W. Bush asks Bill Cosby for money in a parody of the favor asking scene in The Godfather. Dan Quayle dreams he’s in a parody of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, with Fred Willard portraying Lou Grant in an egregious instance of baldface. (They would not get away with this in 2020, let me tell you.) Starting about halfway through the first season the cold opener always ends with someone saying “I’m going to D.C. Follies!”, as though this shit is Saturday Night Live. Actually, the nicest thing I can say about the bits on the program is that some of them are competent enough to be bad, overly long SNL sketches. “What if Yasser Arafat was a crazed used car salesman?” “What if Ed Meese was Ed McMahon?” “What if Ronald Reagan starred on Eightysomething?” Yeah, I could see Jon Lovitz sweatily trying to make those work.
haha what if they were rappists
You’re probably wondering “there’s no way this show could be any worse”. Well… How about puppets singing, you little victim? For some ungodly reason there are musical moments about once every three episodes, and they range from a rap by Reagan/Oliver North/John Poindexter to doo-wop by the ex-presidents. “The Supreme Court Shuffle” imagining Quayle appointing Stallone, Morton Downey Jr and Clint Eastwood is a particular lowlight. These musical numbers kill momentum so dead I thought I was watching Spike Lee’s School Daze. Musical parody is yet another tool in their shitty toolbox, yet guest “Weird Al” Yankovic never participates in one. Curious.
Yasser Arafat is a literal towelhead. You know, I did muse during my watch that the show was really skimping on the racism, but they made sure to rectify that swiftly and heartily.
There are few changes with the second season; the biggest comes with the introduction of Dan Quayle, who becomes the recipient of the “childish dumbass” jokes left over from Ronald Reagan. Whereas Season 1 encompasses 1987 and the first half of 1988, Season 2 concerns 1988/1989 and thus the presidential election. Yet besides some expected jokes about Gary Hart (and Ed Koch trying to sell himself as “Hartless”–get it?) D.C. Follies is content to trot out the same old Nixon jokes. The show stubbornly refuses to evolve, using the Bakkers well past their sell by date because, hey, somebody has to use those puppets. Perhaps most inexplicable is the midway Season 1 to introduce Sid and Marty Krofft as puppets who run a newsstand and engage in sub-Smothers Brothers, sub-Statler and Waldorf “banter”. Who is this for? What is depicting two pothead scumbag puppet wranglers in foam form doing for the show’s satire? Did they stipulate “you can use our horrifying monstrosities but we want a little screentime to be as unfunny as Dick Nixon and Ronnie Reagan?”. Unfortunately, Fred Willard is dead and the Krofft brothers are on death row so we’ll never get real answers.
I would have difficulty overstating how much this show despises women. With female characters the joke is either they’re whores or they’re fat and/or ugly. Almost exclusively. Christ, at least the Madonna/Whore complex has a ‘Madonna’ in it. Barbara Bush is compared to Jabba the Hutt for no apparent reason. I think Jim Goad was an uncredited writer on the show.
It’s evident that the show’s politics are left-of-center–the Krofft brothers definitely evince an air of, so to speak, “pothead burnout freakdom”–and the Iran-Contra scandal is frequently lampooned, never defended or mitigated. The most frequent political topics discussed are the issue of homelessness and the national debt. Everything else reduces to “looks like those clowns in Congress did it again” level of sophistication. Fine. But what separates great satire and whatever the fuck this is supposed to be is an originality. D.C. Follies needed to separate itself by putting its own identifiable spin on political figures. Instead the show goes with the flow and resorts to the common jokes associated with them. Nixon is a devious, scheming crook; Reagan is a childish idiot who has difficulty separating his movies from reality; Bush is a pussy; Ford is dumb. After about four Ford pratfalls it became evident D.C. Follies was cribbing from Saturday Night Live instead of doing something unique. There’s no dimension to any of these “characters”. Everybody has one or two jokes and those jokes are repeated across 16 hours. 16 fucking hours. It’s not a good sign when the episode title is encapsulates the entire joke. You needn’t watch “Nixon Impeached From Cub Scouts” or “Nixon’s Presidential Library Is A Bookmobile”. Just read that shit and you’ve got it. “Lee Iacocca Becomes Lee Ayatollah And Opens A Chrysler Plant In Iran”. What the fuck. I’m not one to believe in the Zhdanov Doctrine, that art drives culture, or that softball satire normalizes troublesome figures to the extent that it impacts “the system”, so I’m not going to lecture about the irresponsibility of it all, but can this shit at least be funny?
D.C. Follies predicts bimbofication.
I was curious about the prestige of the show’s writing staff, such as it is, so I did a little IMDB searching. First of all, there’s no fun trivia like “Charlie Kaufman wrote for Get A Life”. No one went on to anything necessarily “better” than D.C. Follies. Secondly, there are some truly dire credits on the collective resume of the D.C. Follies crew. Saturday Night Live 80? Joan Rivers’ talk show? Grace Under Fire? Multiple Joe Piscopo specials? Several varietals of Leno? Name a comedy atrocity in the 1980s or 1990s and someone from Follies is there. It’s Jack Nicholson at the Overlook 4th of July ball. The writers coming from the sewer of late night talk shows and celebrity roasts does explain why there are so many comedian puppets in the show. Like, there will be moments where a Rodney Dangerfield puppet will show up and fire off some Rodney jokes. Or Bob Hope or Woody, you get the idea. At first it was confusing. What the fuck is that satirizing? Then it dawned on me. “Oh, these are jokes the writer sent to Rodney/whomever that got rejected.” They’re recycling joke packets! That’s the only thing that makes sense, because there’s no spin, no second level to these comedian puppets’ presence. It feels kinda like plagiarism to take a comic’s established persona and just…write jokes for that persona. At least when I write my comedic character Jay Renal, it has a premise: Jay Leno if he was experiencing renal failure. Come on, Kroffts, give Bob Hope Legionnaires’ disease. Something.
That feeling when you wake from a daze to see you’re still only on disc 2 of 4.
In the interest of fairness I ought to mention the jokes or premises I found promising. There’s three. 1. The British press treating the potential dissolution of Charles and Di’s marriage as “The Royal Divorce”, with all the pomp and circumstance of a royal wedding or birth. 2. A “call this number to donate” chyron follows Pat Robertson wherever he goes, much to his chagrin. 3. Morton Downey Jr has a hotline where he verbally abuses the callers. That’s it. Even then, in retrospect that third one loses its luster as I trudged on and witnessed the sheer breadth of MDJ content, which repeats the same joke. Here’s the thing about overusing an annoying, abrasive personality: it’s not enjoyable to watch. The rest of the show is a vast wasteland of me being stonefaced as puppeteers painstakingly deliver another “Ronald Reagan doesn’t remember shit” punchline.
Fred Willard actually jacking it in that adult theater would be less embarrassing than having D.C. Follies on his resume.
The official Sid & Marty Krofft website boasts two pieces of trivia for the show: it “seemed to have helped restore” Richard Nixon’s reputation (why would you brag about that you fucking assholes?) and “Marty would threaten potential guests that if they didn’t come on D.C. Follies he would simply make a puppet of them”. What kind of incel creep threat is that? “Won’t come on my shitty syndicated puppet show, huh? Well, I’ll turn you into a puppet!” Marty Krofft definitely has anatomically correct puppets of every girl who’s dumped him. It does explain why the likes of Rodney Dangerfield and George Burns show up. Every comedian and celebrity that isn’t actually satirized but nonetheless hogs screentime is someone who turned them down. Good for Rodney! He’s got too much self-respect to interact with these monsters.
Me in my room after a week of watching D.C. Follies to the exclusion of anything else.
Admission time: I shotgunned the entire series over the course of a week, and thus my objectivity may be strained. I did not bond with my captor, but it did alter my brain chemistry much in the way the Videodrome signal gave Max Renn brain tumors and a stomach vagina. I’m not sure I can watch non-D.C. Follies content anymore. It dawned on me that one could easily resurrect this show for 2020. Find and replace Reagan’s dementia jokes for Biden and find and replace Nixon’s scheming jokes for Trump. Replace Fred Willard with, say, Paul Rudd. Stick it on after SNL and watch the tepid ratings flow in. Spitting Image came back for this atrocious year, why not D.C. Follies? By the way, there is one Joe Biden joke and one Donald Trump joke over the course of the series. In the first episode, an Andy Rooney puppet says to a Geraldo Rivera puppet: “Joe Biden is a strong believer in freedom of speech. If other guys give a speech, he wants the freedom to steal it.” Donald Trump, in episode 40, is mentioned amongst other rich guys such as Ted Turner and Aristotle Onassis in service of the punchline that Robin Givens is a gold digging whore. Great!
Me in the future.