Viscous Television!

Seeing people vomit is a singular human experience. Should you have the opportunity, take it in; there’s nothing quite like it. Watching in person, it’s profoundly unsettling, producing intense empathy for this person made fully vulnerable—literally and figuratively exposing their insides. Of course, it’s also deeply disgusting. It’s viscerally upsetting: a body out of control, at its wit’s end, reversing itself. There’s a certain underlying terror to it; yet, somehow, it’s bizarrely cathartic for all involved—“The expulsion of the contents of the stomach through the mouth links gut and face, bowl and rim, deep bodily space with orifices that open to the outside, and it therefore hovers between structures of interiority as they are riddled through by unknowable, unspeakable, unfathomable exteriorities.”  Experienced in media, it flowers into a multi-layered, gut-busting Je ne sais pas: It’s inexplicably hilarious—a unique, savage jouissance—and, of course, it is also disgusting, although not quite so intensely, which is probably why it’s often ludicrously embellished. It’s such a primal thing, it lays bare the mediating gap in all its glory. In the disparity between partially-digested lived experience and mediated entertainment, striking elements are filtered-out and altered, and new impressions are grafted on—similar events take different scenic paths through the wiring of the mind. As seen on TV, it’s easier to turn the empathy off—the innate diffidence and distance and conceptual flexibility ingrained in the boob tube medium is effectively measured.

Dr. Steve Brule, quack-host-cum-escaped-mental-patient-cum-belligerent-infant at the helm of the sublime 11-minute postmodern-garbage-art opus Check it Out! With Dr. Steve Brule, is a master at the vomit take. In Reilly’s hands, regurgitations are wielded with the deftness of an avant-garde maestro, savoring “vomit’s gagging richness.” He’s the La Monte Young of barf, with a poetic off-note rhythmic sense that is merciless. His is a full-body heave; it helps that he stands a looming, exaggerated 6’2”, so he can let gravity do its thing. His craft cuts through layer upon layer of mediation, and you really feel it. The Check it Out! brand of absurdism seeks to expose the divide and turn it inside-out. The specific sensation of this Gesamtkunstwerk might be described as gleeful nausea. TV’s as passive a media form as ever there’s been; this is not that. There are moments when Brule knicks the inner Ekel at the heart of the human condition, eliciting not just disgust, but core-deep, existential revulsion; and damn if you don’t respect that.

 Take: 4.2—“Eggs.” Given the pedigree, the episode’s title alone is enough to instill enigmatic fear at a molecular level. Among other delights, the episode devolves during a segment featuring Brule as corporate lackey: He eagerly, unflinchingly consumes a diseased-chicken-and-egg combo canned meal at the behest of diegetic-sponsor, low-rent grim grocery store magnate, and singularly off-putting presence, Pablo Myers. Consider a meal consisting of chicken and egg: On their own, no worries; together, all manner of disturbing potentials seep in. Add to that: a grotesque disease afflicting the chickens with open sores, hastening the preparation of this meal with eggs unlaid; now we’re going places. Put it all in a creamy stew within a can, and slap a generic label on it, and we’re phasing through unspeakable planes of existence. The goosed sound effects of the slurping and chewing of the heavy, bone-filled spoonfuls are truly soul-shattering. Then, in the following segment, he ingests half-a-dozen (perfectly edible) deviled eggs at once to break the camel’s back; and the rest basically writes itself.  How many shows in the universe actively strive to turn viewers’ stomachs, let alone orchestrate this tantalizing combination of gut-punch low-brow, and primeval high-art? And shouldn’t we relish such visceral sensations and strident nastiness? Disgust serves a specific evolutionary function; Brule complicates it until it’s unrecognizable. Gore effects and your occasional indulgent Kitchen Nightmares skirt the abject, more as sensational jolts of contrast, though. Much other Adult Swim fare has actively attacked TV’s ambient pleasantness. Abso Lutely lives there—the progenitor in many respects. There are few shows in the history of the medium that produce the effect of Check it Out!. Most of them are Abso Lutely joints, courtesy of peddlers Eric and Tim for over a decade now. Their warped oeuvre is, in various mixtures, a sadistic, fun-house amalgam of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Mr. Show, The Found Footage Film Festival, “Winnebago Man,” America’s Funniest Home Videos, deranged blue-sky public access, and “the most unsavory tropes of late-night infomercials.” The only way to reproduce the fettered throb of Check it Out! is to bang on the VHS player; it’s a violent artistry we’re confronted with here, seventh-circle Dadaism at its finest. The vernacular is uncut alienation, the stuff of “nightmare television”—“darkness, discomfort, confusion and things that shouldn’t exist.”

Check it Out!, in line with its gonzo ancestry and rearing, doubles-down on its aesthetic unease: Grainy footage with in-tact scan-lines consume the television screen, and they are put in service of documenting the fringes of society—dim, florescent-lit, grimy, everyday locations littered with an off-putting populace. As an avant-garde, pseudo-educational program, its carefully cultivated garbage aesthetic makes it claustrophobic. Dr. Brule examines various fundamental aspects of human civilization—his good intentions always go sour. Of course, Stevie’s backstory has trickled out over the four seasons—his search for an absent father frequently present, his mother’s (Doris Pringle-Brule) unique brand of abuse (consisting of soft-spoken criticism and poison to slow him down) shading his various impediments. His most human quality is his surface-deep trauma. Despite all his posturing, he cuts a strangely innocent figure, a hollow vessel running on unbridled, misguided, tragic curiosity—his alien-otherness made terrestrial but no more relatable. He’s a man with a tin-ear for poetry and a propensity for random vowels. He’ll garble names and simple diction into an incomprehensible soup, steamroll non-actor guests with indignation, and he’s prone to dozing-off frequently when the world fails to hold his interest.

On paper, it’s not that far off the register for a typical talk-show host, really, or the myriad and mounting parodic takes (see: Comedy Bang! Bang!, The Eric Andre Show, Between Two Ferns, Tim and Eric Nite Live!, Brass Eye, et al.). Brule’s dementia is a curious one though. He’s not really pulling one over on rubes, he’s trying and failing to keep up. He’s striving for some masculine ideal but his brain is irreparably porous. He cuts a figure that is pugnacious but malleable and dangerously suggestible. The easiest explanation is the simplest: The good doctor’s an alien entity—some unfathomable being is stuffed into an ill-fitting person-suit, that’s itself stuffed in a cheap, ill-fitting suit; and he’s ungracefully probing the human condition. At first blush, it’s not a very convincing disguise; then we see the smudged fringes of the world through his eyes and the gonzo vérité breeds an eerie discomfort about humanity and the unnatural natural world. It’s probably the best body snatchers derivative we’ve seen in some time. He’s one of the genius character creations in the Western canon. Brule is dropped into this world and improvises his way through an ethnography of everyday human waste; viewers’re transported to an alien realm without a tether or a cypher. In our symbiotic nausea, we become one with the dingus savant.

In recent days, the walls have started to close in around the warped center; the rogues gallery that gives the fringes of this world its pale, queasy color have darkened the edges—Doug Prishpreed excitedly announced plans to undergo a procedure to have his teeth removed and placed in individual jars; Scott Clam’s camera has been consumed by some demonic, lingering specter freezing his round visage onscreen as he declares the river is polluted and the clams all rotten; Pablo Myers’ exits the season promising an impending apocalypse; and Carol Krabit readily tells of cutting fish heads from her husband’s esophagus, then professes her reverence to the Dark Lord in the finale. As ever, the gelatinous aesthetic amplifies the discord and decay in the Dr.’s mind and the world that surrounds him. Even a brief transition to the sunny morning show format of Stevie! proved that the carnage of the horsemeat-fueled fever-dream is inescapable. Liquid television has fully coagulated! Peak TV means more projectile retch than ever before in the history of media. What a time to be alive!

This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine. 

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