Comedy Central Viva Variety show has plenty of punch
By Richard Byrne
THE INITIAL promo ads for Comedy Central's Viva Variety should have warned viewers about the show's penchant for rampant oddity. The show's three "hosts"--Meredith Laupin (Thomas Lennon), Agatha Laupin (Kerri Kenney), and Johnny Blue Jeans (Michael Ian Black)--were greeted by a reporter (played by VV writer Ben Garant) as they embarked on a mission to bring "one of Europe's most successful variety shows" to the United States. The ads were weird, more than slightly surreal, and yet almost believable--just what you'd expect from four cast members from the acclaimed MTV comedy series The State.
The viewers hooked by those offbeat ads were treated to one of the more wittily written comedy series ever to grace American television--a knowing lampoon of kitsch (both European and American) with sexy dancers (the Swimsuit Squad), cool music, and odd stunts thrown in.
"You know it's a great job," says Thomas Lennon, "when Run DMC are on one side, and someone's throwing spears on the other side, and the dancers are warming up."
The comedy on Viva Variety seems to thrive in the circus atmosphere.
Where else can you find Star Trek notable Walter Koenig (who played Chekhov) involved in a skit called "Chekhov Play Chekhov," a Russian drama that magically sprouts Klingons? Where else can a studio-audience member play a quiz game titled "French or Gay"? When's the last time Saturday Night Live did something as inventive as tell the story of Oedipus Rex in trucker lingo? And can anyone resist "live" pitches for sponsor products like "Fishibar," "Baby Tastes Like Soup," "Baby Quotes Castro," or a Mace that's lovingly called "Not Tonight, Not Ever"?
"It's the best job ever," says Lennon of Viva Variety. "We hang with dancers and freaks and musicians."
Viva Variety actually grew out of a sketch that Lennon wrote. "Mine and Kerri's roles, we'd always had in mind," he says. "They were in the original. Ben played a character called the Secretary General. The show used to have a villain."
That conflict eventually shook out to a more subtle conflict between cultures, embodied by a new character-- Johnny Blue Jeans--who obsesses over the minutiae of late-'70s and early-'80s culture and revels in his role as a more-than-incompetent sidekick.
"We knew we wanted somebody out of sync," Lennon explains. "We talked about it a lot."
Garant adds, "We thought about what these characters would do to make the show American. What would Europeans do? Blue jeans!'"
Black's combination of broad physical comedy and staggeringly hip idiocy (think of an over-the-top version of John Travolta's turn as Vinnie Barbarino in Welcome Back, Kotter) as Johnny Blue Jeans is one of the show's most appealing elements. Few actors would so brazenly, for instance, work with animals for laughs, as Black did in last season's "Monkey Sports" spots, in which he double-dates with a chimp and, eventually, takes on pro-wrestling duo Harlem Heat.
Lennon also notes that Johnny Blue Jeans, as a character, "is the way for us to get everything that we love into the show from the early '80s." (Seeing Fred "Rerun" Berry and Dick Clark yuck it up with Black is a particularly wicked laugh sensation.)
The relationship between Lennon's Mr. Laupin and Kerri Kenny's Agatha, however, is the linchpin of the show's humor. The characters were once married but are now divorced; Agatha's boundless contempt and hatred of Meredith and Laupin's slow, agonized burns as yet another verbal missile hits make for a hilarious parody of shameless celebrity couples.
Why host together despite the hate? "In their divorce settlement," Lennon explains, "they each got one-half of the show. If they quit, they lose their rights to the show."
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From the May 7-13, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.