The Q&A

'Wonder' Boys

Crazy talk with the ''Wonder Showzen'' guys: The co-creators of the kiddie-show parody tell Josh Wolk about picky puppeteers, their parent network, and more

Wonder Showzen | FEELING BLUE Clarence the puppet sees eye-to-eye with a stranger on the street
FEELING BLUE Clarence the puppet sees eye-to-eye with a stranger on the street

Wonder Showzen on MTV2 has puppets, kids, and cartoons, but it's about as appropriate for kids as a crack-stocked vending machine at a strip bar. The insane and insanely funny satire of Sesame Street (not to mention religion, politics, and all of society) features puppets who shoot up and get oral sex, kids asking pressing questions like ''Would you kick a pony in the face to end world hunger?'', and a cartoon called ''D.O.G.O.B.G.Y.N.,'' starring a pooch who performs caesareans with his teeth. It's simultaneously chilling and hilarious, and it all makes more sense when you sit down to interview co-creators Vernon Chatman and John Lee, who write and direct every episode. (The second season airs Fridays at 9:30 p.m., starting March 31; the first season is now out on DVD.) In conversation, the 34-year-old college friends (who met when making fun of a comedian performing at their dorm) play off each other relentlessly, trying to see who can swerve their answers in a more corrupting direction. If you like irreverence, profanity, and the glee of two people biting the network that feeds them, read on.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Wonder Showzen has some of the most insanely cutting, graphic, and adult comedy out there. It seems odd that it's brought to you by the same network family that brings you TRL. Do you get the sense that the MTV bosses even know you're on?
CHATMAN Our executives watch the show, and we get a lot of positive lip service, so I guess that's the best you can ask for.
LEE How do you get positive lip service when they don't talk to you?
CHATMAN ''Positive Lip Service'' was our new wave band, by the way, in the '80s.
LEE I would say at least one and a half executives watch this show. I feel secure in saying that.
CHATMAN It has some kind of veneer or aura about it that it's a cool thing, because the execs like to tell us, ''Oh, I like the show.'' As if, ''I'm the one who likes the show. I'm on board, don't worry.''
LEE ''We've got all these other crappy shows, I'm just thankful this show's on the air.''
CHATMAN You can see the shame in their eyes when they talk about it. F---ing [My Super] Sweet Sixteen and stuff. Nobody's proud.... I think we're actually kind of lucky to be at MTV, where we're bastard stepchildren who can do what we want. We're at the point where they're just like, ''All right, go ahead.''

Was it that way at the beginning?
CHATMAN They were a little careful, but we'd worked with them before [on Snoop Dogg's sketch show Doggy Fizzle Televizzle]. The advantage of MTV is that they don't have any scripted shows. We can't send them a script in a script program because they can't read it — they don't know how to give notes, they don't know how to think about it. [MTV is] all reality and videos. So if we say, ''We know what we're doing,'' they're just like, ''Okay, we'll see what happens.''
LEE It's called creative freedom...from their eyes.
CHATMAN They gave it to us, but they would really love to not. They just don't know how to take it away. They'll learn....

The show's humor is pretty daring and provocative. It's like you're baiting family-values and right-wing groups to try to get you off the air. Is that why you think MTV didn't promote you very much when you first launched?
CHATMAN No. All they were worried about is they didn't know how to judge satire. Is this show actual satire, or totally f---ing around? They couldn't tell the difference between us and Stankervision [the since-canceled prank show that premiered at the same time]. Were we guys who were just trying to take down the network? Or when we do a joke that's racist, does it come off as actual racism, or is it something the audience will get? They just didn't know if people would get it. Once they figured out people would get it [after a positive New York Times review came out], they could defend it.... That's all that mattered. That's what [MTV Music Group president Brian] Graden said: All he wants is to feel like he can go on Larry King Live when the s--- goes down.
LEE Luckily I think most of our comedy can be justified and explained.
CHATMAN We do outrageous or shocking things, but it always has a clear satirical point, maybe even to the point of hamfistedness. You have to be really dumb to miss the point.

Does MTV's standards-and-practices department ever get in your way?
CHATMAN We have fights all the time. This season hasn't been as bad, but we had some really fun fights.
LEE We really enjoy them. In the middle of the day, after eight hours of editing the same thing over and over, it's like, ''Standards! Finally, some energy!'' It's just entertaining, because you have to make up nonsense to justify nonsense, to the point where they're like, ''I can see that...''
CHATMAN The best line we got from them is, ''If you're gonna call a cougar a fruit, he must be humping the strawberry.'' That was our requirement.
LEE We saw that, and said, ''We're done for the day, that's hilarious. I could not write a better poem.''
CHATMAN We get a list; we can say certain words. We can say ''Jesus'' but we can't say ''Jesus!'' You can't say it as an exclamation. You can say ''Jesus is a despicable person and I'm gonna kill him,'' but you can't say, ''Jesus, He's a despicable person and I'm gonna kill him.''
LEE But can you say, ''Jesus, Jesus is despicable person and I'm gonna slaughter his guts''?
CHATMAN Starting at the second Jesus, feel free.
LEE What if you said this: ''Jesus, I'm gonna slaughter your guts,'' and Jesus said, ''Jesus!''

For your show, you get kids to do the most bizarre and, at times, awful things. For ''Beat Kids,'' where you have trenchcoated kids interview adults, you had a boy at a racetrack tell a senior citizen, ''I do an impression of you... 'Gamble, gamble, gamble, die.''' And then there are your Q&A segments, where, for example, kids answered the question, ''What is heaven?'' with ''That's where drunk daddies drive to,'' ''I'll never know,'' and ''That's where Whiskers went when he died! My brother, Whiskers.'' How do you get these kids to do this stuff without forever scarring them?
CHATMAN Sometimes in the foreground of the shot you'll see just the top part of a fist come in, maybe with some teeth [stuck] on the fist.
LEE We cover it up, but it says, ''DO IT...NOW.''
CHATMAN Sometimes you'll see it imprinted backwards on a kid's forehead.
LEE No, we auditioned like 300 kids.
CHATMAN We just go to the crazy ones. We say, ''Hey, would you like to go to Times Square and smash a car with a guitar?'' And they're just like, ''Is it possible that this could be that world that I could be in?''
LEE ''And I get rewarded with ice cream?''
CHATMAN Some kids are just like, ''What are you talking about?'' or ''No.'' But the kids whose eyes light up, we're like, ''All right, you're in.'' There are some really legitimately funny, talented kids.
LEE Who would probably have no chance on Disney or a grape-juice commercial. Because they're their own quirky selves, which is basically nerds, and we're like, Let's get those freaky little nerds on the show. It's more authentic.
CHATMAN We have this kid, Jacob, who we dressed up as Uncle Sam last season. This season he's a ''Beat Kids'' reporter. He did ''Can we ever laugh again?'' at Ground Zero. We met him when he was like 9 1/2. He's a huge Monty Python fan, he can recite all of [their sketches]. For whatever reason, that's what he's into. They're not gonna hire him. He hasn't gotten any other jobs. He's the most talented kid. He's way funnier than us.

Do parents ever freak out when they see what you're asking their child to say?
CHATMAN Sometimes we'll have a casting session, and the parents come and they don't know what the show is. If they're not sure, we can't risk it.They have to trust us, so we usually don't hire their kid.

Are you amazed what the kids are able to get away with in ''Beat Kids''?
CHATMAN The amazing thing about kids is you cannot piss people off through a kid.
LEE A child could come up right now and punch you in the groin, and you'd be like, ''Awww. Kids.''
CHATMAN You can whisper something into a kids ear, and even if [the interviewee] saw you whisper, they look at the kid. Even if they get mad, they never look at me and are like, ''What the f---?'' It confuses everything. And sometimes it gets to the point where you're like, ''What can I have this kid say that would actually get to this guy and you'd see anger on his face?'' It's tough.
LEE We use children as chicken wire to block the bottles that would normally be thrown at us.

People aren't as forgiving when it comes to Clarence (the blue newtlike puppet with which Vernon drives people on the street crazy). Last season he asked passersby to explain ''patience'' to the kid viewers and then wouldn't stop interrupting them, and in your season premiere, someone actually pulls his eyes off.
LEE One guy recently pulled a big knife on us.
CHATMAN We've had knives pulled on us before, but this was a serious throat-slitting knife.
LEE We saw him again weeks later. We wanted to do something like ''Clarence wants to be friends again.'' Like, ''We hated each other at one point, but we can grow!'' But he knew that that wasn't our plan. We had our script girl go up to ask him, and he said, ''If they do that, I'll be guilty of murder.''
CHATMAN The tragedy is so often we've had knives and things pulled on us and it just doesn't look good [on tape], so we can't use it.
LEE We should just tell people: Visually, a swung bat works well on camera than knives.
CHATMAN Dip it in silver paint, too. Gives it a nice gleam on it.

Tell me about how you came up with the puppets.
CHATMAN Chauncey is based on a handmade puppet I bought at a thrift store that we made our original eight-minute demo tape with. Him is like a gyro, basically, and he's also partially based on John's dog Littlejeans, a Brussels Griffin. Wordsworth is the nerd, the smart guy, supposedly educational, so he has an exposed brain. And for Sthugar, we wanted the most sweet, girly girl.
LEE We don't really know anything about girls, so we figured pink, and one tooth, right?
CHATMAN Passive. Eyes set apart like a doe, waiting like prey. That's all we know.
LEE And they don't bruise easily.
CHATMAN We designed them and worked them out with the puppet makers. The original makers were from Sesame Street. The problem is they've been spending their whole lives sniffing glue and have gone crazy. We had a guy flipping out on us and screaming because he didn't want to make Sthugar this color pink.
LEE We had a distinct color, which most of them want. And we give it to him, and he yells, ''You don't dictate to me color!'' And he hung up and we never talked to him again. I didn't realize we were the Hitlers of color.
CHATMAN We wanted ''a'' color, which was totally fascist.
LEE To me, I thought that was totally capitalist. But I guess those two are pretty close, right? [They high-five exaggeratedly]
CHATMAN They're proprietary about everything.
LEE When we showed them drawings, they asked, ''Who's gonna puppeteer this?'' We said, ''I guess we'll do it.'' And they said, ''Do you have puppeteering experience?''
CHATMAN [Sarcastically] It's like, ''I can go like that.'' [He mimes opening and closing his hand like a mouth] I've talked to a baby before. Yeah, I think I can do it.
LEE I think they found that condescending. They wanted to do all the classic stuff, but we wanted it to be more homemade.
CHATMAN It's better to have little creatures and f---ed-up things. It's sweeter. Which then allows us to make them vomit, and it's funny. To have a realistic-looking puppet vomit is not as funny. We're heavy into early Jim Henson, not the Dark Crystal years and lamentable Fraggle Rock era...
LEE I'd rather Vernon s--- down my throat than have to do that.
CHATMAN And we tried it. You don't believe him? There's proof of that theory.
LEE The proof of that pudding was indeed in the eating.
CHATMAN I had a lot of pudding the night before to prove the amount.

So you are actually Sesame Street fans, and not just ironically?
LEE Yes. In terms of a variety show, it's probably the best. Early Sesame Street, they had education, which is, like, whatever in our case, but good for that show. But for comedy, the humor in Sesame Street is surprisingly well-done and funny. You watch it now, they take out all the jokes, it's all these really condescending puns to children, it's just embarrassing. They used to experiment, and hire people to do weird animations. But there's all humor involved in it. We were like, ''That is such a good idea for a show, because you get to be experimental and comedic.'' So it was our favorite show at the time. Now it's America's Funniest Home Videos, because as you get older, you get wiser.

Originally posted Mar 30, 2006