I was recently asked by my friend Audrey Chan to guest lecture in a class she’s teaching about gender roles in art. She was planning on showing the students my own creepy, grief-and-pathos-laden grad school video piece Give Thanks as well as Mike Builds A Shelter by Michael Smith, and asked if I could suggest any other videos. Audrey had also thought of Family Tyranny/Cultural Soup, the collaboration between Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley (featured in Season 5 and Season 3, respectively, of Art in the Twenty-First Century) in which the (loosely interpreted) act of making soup in a cooking show format is made analogous to the abuse of one’s son. It’s probably telling that my contribution was the comedy duo Tim and Eric’s internet short Just 3 Boyz, a sitcom parody which represents the cancellation, if not annihilation, of middle class American manhood in popular culture.
Like Pop Rocks and Coke, the combination of watching Family Tyranny followed immediately by Just 3 Boyz is, if not lethal, at least nauseating and generally ill-advised. In their own way, both works explore the mental space that results when mass entertainment commingles with interpersonal abuse and dysfunction; the cooking show and the sitcom revisited as sites of trauma.
In Just 3 Boyz, Tim and Eric assume parental roles. Shades is a lampshade puppet voiced by Richard Lewis, and Zach Galifiniakis plays the prodigal son, a roommate who is returning from college. Much is left unexplained: Why are these “boys” living together, especially when one of them actually went away to college, and is now returning? Why are Tim and Eric acting simultaneously like the Three Stooges and an old married couple? It is inferred that this is one of many episodes, and the awkward situation of three presumably platonic male friends sharing a suburban house echo the elaborate and unlikely means by which sitcoms keep their casts on one set.
When Zach returns home from college, the air is thick with tension. He is dressed in a Juicy couture tracksuit (actually, “Saucy” couture in this instance) and pigtails. Zach is extremely impatient and verbally abusive. Given Galifiniakis’ “That’s so Raven” jokes in his standup routine, we can safely assume Zach is playing the role of the uncompromising teenage diva; but this attitude, when assumed by a surly, overweight bearded middle aged man, is intimidating and scary. Decidedly not Raven.
Despite his outfit, Zach is the most masculine of the three. Tim and Eric have bowlcuts (the most neutered of hairstyles) and have smooth, soccer-mom like makeup on their skin. This is a classic Tim and Eric theme: copious amounts of naively applied makeup, only serving to magnify ugliness. They wear enormous pants that erase the idea of a penis.
Zach brings them dildos back from college, yet refuses to eat chicken because one of his roommates had sex with a rotisserie chicken in their dorm room. At this point the nightmarish qualities of both American Pie and Family Tyranny are summoned in a slow-motion flashback. Other horrors include Tim and Eric dressed up as a horse, giving Zach an abject “happy ending” in a desperate attempt to “please” him. Zach insists their level of self-sacrifice is unnecessary, and Eric replies “This is just what happens in a boy’s house.”
I don’t quite have the time or facility to unpack all this in one blog post, but I actually do have a point I want to make. We’ve been hailing the work of certain bad boy artists of the ’70’s and ’80’s for decades, and they’ve spawned legions of disciples (I include myself among them), but we have reached the point where the conflation of mass cultural forms, self-reflexive critique and quasi-Freudian deconstructions of homosocial relationships have entered mass culture itself. While Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy broke television down and reconstructed it as a monstrosity in the art context, comedians like Andy Kaufman, shows like SCTV, and other dark comedies allowed for a brand of creepy monstrosity to flourish inside of entertainment. Over time this mix of sexual nihilism, violent anxiety, and love-hate relationship with the comforts of television has spawned a new generation of boy sensibility. Immersed in an even denser soup of video signals than their parents, thanks to YouTube and various other internet venues, coupled with raging hormones and conflicting social signals, kids “get” Tim and Eric, and their parents are left to ponder,”How is that funny?“