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More Animation Should Have Weird Songs

Home Movies was the best show on television and I will fight you if you say otherwise

A scene from "Home Movies:" character Dwayne dressed as a bug, with a halo and wings, while bug claws reach up to praise him

Home Movies

Last night, I was burning some scones that are still good because they’re scones while playing Home Movies in the background. Home Movies, if you don’t know, was an Adult Swim cartoon that ran from 2001 to 2004, by creators who would go on to make animated shows like Bob’s Burgers and Metalocalypse. If you ask me, it was the best show on television, especially the musical episodes, which more cartoons should learn from.

I constantly assume that everybody remembers the existence of Home Movies and can quote all of its best jokes, but looking up details about it for this blog reminded me that it was relatively short-lived and pretty niche. (Back when Netflix was just DVDs, I actually signed up for it solely to watch Home Movies.)  It might be something of a cult classic, but its vibes persist to this day in the semi-improvised humor of co-creator Loren Bouchard’s shows like Bob’s Burgers; I can’t hear the deadpan presentation and hilarious tendency to drag a conversation out one sentence too long in the performances of animation mainstay H. Jon Benjamin without thinking of his role as Home Movies’ Coach McGuirk. Home Movies itself shares a pedigree with another show you might not remember, Dr. Katz Professional Therapist, whose “Squigglevision” animation style defined Home Movies’ first season. 

Home Movies follows three elementary school kids–Brendon, Jason, and Melissa–who make strange, pretentious movies in their basement after school. They take their work overly seriously, and they grapple with adult artist issues like work-life balance, funding, and accepting feedback. The movies themselves are usually hilarious and weird, classic film genres or tropes misinterpreted through the eyes of kids, and their content often has something to do with whatever is happening in the kids’ outside lives. 

As Erik Adams wrote at The AV Club (in an article that kept me from writing this article for years because he said everything I’d say better than me, and which caused me to shout, “Fuck you, Mr. Autumn Man!” at my desk),  

Behind the camera, Brendon has a preternatural eye, but he lacks an intuitive grasp of the world around him. His naïveté is important to Home Movies, because it shields him from some harsh realities. It’s a deeply funny show, but one with a melancholy streak below its surface: There’s always a sense that the world as Brendon has seen it on screen has failed him, his peers, and the people who raise them… Home Movies’ depiction of childhood doesn’t give in to nostalgia. Brendon’s life is not made easier by the fact that he’s still in elementary school, nor is that elementary school any sort of respite from the chaos and uncertainty of his day-to-day life. The show’s humor is wrapped up in the kids being both innocent and wise beyond their years, but they can be cruel and petty beyond their years, too [.]

You can read Erik’s article to get a good overview of where you should start with the show, which you can watch as part of the Adult Swim catalogue on HBO while being crushed by the fear that Warner Bros. will one day decide to axe it. There isn’t much of an overarching plot, so I’d encourage you in particular to check out some of the episodes that feature music.

The pinnacle of this, if you ask me, is the season 1 episode “Director’s Cut,” which features the kids’ teen friend Dwayne, who makes the music for their movies, asking them to film a rock opera he’s written that blends a biography of Franz Kafka with Kafka’s book The Metamorphosis. What we see of the rock opera is ambitious and a bit nonsensical, but catchy as hell; the lyric “He grew up very poor, he’s fearless to the core/ Born in 1883 died in 1924” used to reduce an old boyfriend of mine and me to tears whenever we randomly recalled it. The episode’s subplot is that Brendon, jealous of Dwayne, wants instead to make a movie imagining if Louis Pasteur and Louis Braille met, the joke being that they’re both French inventors named Louis. Both works show a kid’s misunderstanding of historical figures that is hilarious as an adult, but also takes the whole concept of “great men” down a peg. 

Other episodes aren’t as straightforwardly musicals as “Director’s Cut” but feature some great songs, including the songs in season 2’s episode “History” as part of the kids’ action movie Starboy & The Captain of Outer Space and the song in season 1’s “Mortgages and Marbles” about not putting marbles in your nose.

But I think Home Movies comes into its own both musically and in its art style in the fourth and final season, which opens with a slew of musical-inflected episodes. The second episode, “Camp,” sees the kids go to a performing arts camp, where they’re sure their talents will be recognized. Instead, they’re insulted by their counsellors and put in a bit of a loser troop, which is overseen by music counsellors Dwayne alongside Mike and Miguel, voiced by They Might Be Giants’ John Flansburgh and John Linnell. The actual best part of the episode is probably the subplot about McGuirk escaping a men’s empowerment retreat in the woods (“We will walk through the forest and we will look at the treetops and we will cry”), but the episode also features some hilarious songs by the music counsellors. “What’s up guys, I got here late” remains a lyric I sing to myself whenever anyone shows up late for a meeting I’m at.

“Camp” is followed by “Bye Bye Greasy,” where Brendon is directing a school musical that combines the vibes of Grease and Bye Bye Birdie into a plot I still could not summarize despite having seen the episode countless times. All the songs are great, but the highlight for me is McGuirk’s weird, nonsensical song after he disastrously drives his car on-stage. “Bye Bye Greasy” is such a good sendup of teen-focused musicals, capturing their overly serious emotions and weird stories.

I’d be remiss to not call out whatever the hell the musical is supposed to be in “The Wizard’s Baker” and the Tommy sendup in “Temporary Blindness,” but the other season 4 standout for me has always been the Simon & Garfunkel-esque rendition of the monster theme song the kids’ friend Fenton writes for the monster movie they’re making. The nonsense lyrics and how much fun it is to hear the word “Septopus” brings a kids’ lens to the episode’s actually pretty heavy plot about how to end relationships that aren’t working for you.

Home Movies’ musical legacy has lived on in the subsequent work of its creators; obviously in Small’s work on Metalocalypse, but also in Bouchard’s shows Bob’s Burgers and Central Park. I didn’t fall in love with Central Park, an Apple TV show about a New York City park ranger, but I was hugely impressed with its ambitiously scored and animated musical numbers, perhaps a no-brainer for a show whose cast includes Leslie Odom Jr. and Daveed Diggs from Hamilton and Josh Gad from The Book of Mormon

While Central Park is unabashedly a musical, Bob’s Burgers is practically one as well (I have no proof of this, but have always sort of seen Central Park as a place for Bouchard to live out his musical ambitions outside of the narrative confines of Bob’s Burgers). The most Home Movies-like song is probably the Thomas Edison musical from the episode “Topsy,”  which feels like a clear reference to the Kafka musical to me. But there’s also the hilarious oeuvre of the show’s boy band Boys 4 Now, Gene’s Die Hard/Working Girl musical, and the songs that play over each episode’s credits, which I always stick around for.

As someone who thinks all shows should be musicals, and also that all shows should be animated, I love all this. And since shows like Bob’s Burgers and Home Movies aren’t strictly musicals like Central Park or Disney movies, their songs don’t have to be confined to big plot moments. Instead, they can be off-hand jokes or small soundtracks; as Bob’s Burgers often notes, it’s fun to just break into song whenever you feel like. I imagine that many of us  (or maybe just me?) have little songs we sing to ourselves to brighten up our days or help us remember things. 

More musical numbers in everything, please, but especially in animation. Or in the comments below, which I expect you to fill with examples.

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