old ‘Wonder Showzen’ clips on injustice (and handwashing) going viral
A sendup of '70s and '80s kids shows, Wonder Showzen aired late night on MTV2 in 2005 and 2006 and was definitely not for children. "If you allow a child to watch this show, you are a bad parent or guardian" read the disclaimer at the start of every episode the series. The show included the recurring "Beat Kids" segment featuring kid reporters asking adults surprising things, like a young girls asking Wall Street workers "Who did you exploit today?" and "When did you sell your conscience?" There were also segments with blue puppet Clarence who antagonized people on the street (sometimes to the point of near violence), and segments that repurposed vintage educational and instructional films for new, twisted purposes. Created by PFFR's Vernon Chatman and John Lee, Wonder Showzen remains one of the most subversive things to ever air on commercial television in the last 30 years.
It's also having a moment right now, thanks to social media, even though people who share the clips may not have any idea where they're from, let alone the context. That "Beat Kids" segment in Wall Street has been making the rounds on on Instagram and Twitter in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests that have been constant since the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police:
Before that a clip on obsessive hand-washing that uses old educational films made the rounds during the height of COVID-19 lockdown (though germs didn't seem to be what the kid in the video was trying to scrub off):
There was also a segment called "Celebrate our Differences" (a parody of "of clueless honkies patting themselves on the back" says Chatman) that has inspired a TikTok meme.
Those segments are really just the tip of the Wonder Showzen iceberg. The show regularly targeted institutional racism, big business, capitalism, organized religion and more via the darkest humor imaginable in its puppet shows and cartoons. Beyond that, the series aimed though humor to make everyone watching as uncomfortable as possible. It was brilliant.
The Ringer published a terrific Wonder Showzen oral history this week, that includes interviews with Chatman and Lee, fellow PFFR cofounder Alyson Levy, editor Jon Philpot (who would go on to front indie band Bear in Heaven), composer Chris Anderson, MTV programming exec Tom Calderone, and more. Here's Anderson on recording song "Slaves!" in his East Village apartment:
I lived in the East Village, and a lot of the music for Wonder Showzen was recorded on this crappy $150 Yamaha keyboard that had sounds on it. There was no Pro Tools or anything like that, so I had a limited supply to draw from. But it was all supposed to sound dinky, so that actually helped.
I recorded “Slaves” in my apartment, and my next-door neighbor was this sweet old African American lady who I talked to occasionally. I was in my bathroom screaming “Slaves!” over and over: “Slaves! … built the pyramids! Slaves! … built the Parthenon!” We put blankets over the doors to deaden the sound. The next time I saw her, I was like, “Hi, how you doing?” It never came up.
You can read the whole Wonder Showzen oral history over at The Ringer. Episodes of Wonder Showzen can be rented through Amazon, iTunes and most other digital service providers, and you can watch a few more classic clips below.