Wonder Showzen creators talk the show’s lasting impact, indie rock guests & more in BV interview
Airing in the middle of the '00s (and the middle of the night) at the tail end of George W Bush's second term, MTV2's Wonder Showzen took the basic constructs of Sesame Street and other educational shows of the '70s and '80s -- kids, puppets, cartoons -- and twisted them to their own agenda, shedding a light on the dark corners of the American Dream, be it corporate greed, institutional racism, social injustice, or man's general inhumanity to man.
Creators Vernon Chatman and John Lee took inspiration from dadaist art, experimental composers, documentary filmmakers like Errol Morris and the Maysles, and other unlikely sources in addition to Jim Henson and The Children's Television Workshop for a show that was often shocking and uncomfortable, but also very, very funny. Wonder Showzen remains one of the most subversive series ever to air on basic cable, and feels wildly prescient to the current state of the world.
Coming from the world of music as well as comedy (Lee was in '90s band Muckafurgason; his bandmate Chris Anderson did the series' music), Wonder Showzen also has some surprising cameos, including Will Oldham, Bill Callahan, John Oates, Rick Springfield, Devendra Banhart and Sleater-Kinney's Corin Tucker. There's also the rather avant garde final episode, "Compelling Television," that features an original score by Nico Muhly.
All this makes Wonder Showzen's arrival both on new streaming service Paramount+ and via a new Complete Series DVD set very timely. While Paramount+ only offers 14 of the series' 16 episodes, the DVD set has everything, including unused segments (like "Storytime with Flavor Flav"), commentary tracks, and and few DVD menu booby traps designed to confound and exasperate fans. To celebrate and hopefully move some units, I talked with John and Vernon -- who, full disclosure, I've known since before the Wonder Showzen days -- to talk about the show, its many musical guests, the dangers of annoying people with puppets, and more.
Head below for the full interview.
So when Paramount+ launched last week, and I knew that this DVD set was coming out, I also went to see if they maybe had some new, special, warning intro. But it just has... the normal Wonder Showzen "WARNING" disclaimer intro.
Vernon: That pretty much covers everything. Right?
John: Was it all the episodes? Because I know there was an episode that they wouldn't show on replays. I don't remember which one it was or why.
[NOTE: Unlike the DVD set, which is complete, Paramount+ only has 14 of the series' 16 episodes available to stream. Not included: Season 1's sixth episode, "History," and Season 2's second episode, "Time"]
Vernon: Was it a "H.O.B.O. Ops" sketch where they...
John: It probably had been because of the burning flag. Yeah.
Vernon: They, without our knowledge -- was it for the DVD?
John: Not the DVD. It was just on air. They let us have it on the DVD. But on air, they won't show that episode because of it.
Vernon: It was like a little kid crying after a whole thing about veterans being treated like garbage and everything. And then we had the image of a burning flag, animated in the reflection of a child's tear, and they cut that.
John: Not even an actual flag burning.
Vernon: Not even...and it was reflected in a child's tear.
John: Art! Art! Literally a definition of art.
Vernon: Beautiful art. Child's tears, which are the ultimate art, censored!
John: Child emotions.
When I first turned it on, on Paramount+, for whatever reason my captions were on. And during the opening credits of the first episode... I never realized that the background noise in the warning/disclaimer that precedes the episode is someone screaming, "Please don't eat my baby."
Vernon: Did they put that in the captions?
Vernon: Oh, that's funny. We would do a different one each time. I think that we had a little arc, right? It was like, "Please, don't eat... Oh no, you ate my baby. Oh no! Now you're digesting my baby, and you're pooping my baby!"
John: I think we started an arc, but then stopped... because we didn't really have time to spend on the opening credits.
Vernon: That's funny that a caption person just had to... I guess they've got the hawk ears. I thought we really buried it.
John: It's buried. But they got the split tracks -- you can isolate all that other sound. So they're just hearing that track. That's why.
Vernon: Makes me angry. That's unacceptable. That's worse than censorship. It's exposership. They're showing what we've done.
John: Exposure culture. We've got to kill exposure culture.
Vernon: Yeah. We have to cancel exposure culture.
John: We're telling the truth about exposure culture.
The captions also describe the music and stuff. Like for the final episode, all of Nico Muhly's different pieces all have descriptors like "sweeping orchestration," "sad," "surprising."
John: We spent so much money on that music. I'm glad that someone spent their time to describe the feelings of music.
So I want to go through some of the music stuff on the show, I don't think I knew who Nico Muhly was back in 2006, so it didn't hit me. But watching last night, I was like, "Oh my God. A) this music is amazing and B) Where did they get this from?" And then at the end, the first credit is "Score by Nico Muhly." And then I went and looked up... Is it true that you tried to get Philip Glass?
Vernon: Yeah. So the idea was that in the first season, we had an odd number of episodes. And then they said, "Hey, can you do..." Is this how it went? They said, "Hey, can you do another episode?" And we kind of realized we had them over a barrel because they needed... they were asking us for an extra episode. So we kind of did whatever. Maybe that was "Patience." So it was just the thing we were messing around, and he said, "Oh, we can kind of pull one out of our ass, and get a bunch of money, and spread that money to all the other episodes" because everything was a scam to try to just maximize our budget. So, the next season we're like, "We can get them to ask for another episode for whatever reason." So we started shooting that, "Compelling Television," not knowing if it's going to go anywhere. And then when they asked, we're like, "We have a ton of money, but we will never return it." The worst thing in the world is to return money to a giant corporation. To give money back to Viacom, because you're under budget, is a crime.
John: It's maybe the top five worst things.
Vernon: The original bit was we were going to get a homeless person to throw $10,000 from a helicopter onto the Statue of Liberty, $10,000 cash.
John: We found this really funny guy. He was just really funny while we're making it, just really interesting. And it was really enjoyable. So it was a very specific person.
Vernon: Harry was a homeless guy. We were going to pay him $10,000 to throw $10,000 out of a chopper.
John: But then we told our crew and our staff. And they were like, "What the fuck are you talking about? I make $10,000 a year." And we were like, "You can get in a boat, and go under the chopper, and collect the money. You can do whatever you want.
Vernon: It was our bootleg KLF idea.
John: It was very elaborate. We hired a private investigator...
Vernon: But we couldn't find him because he didn't have an address. And we had our staff looking for him, and ultimately hired a private detective to hunt down this guy, and then we said, "Well, we now have to document this." So we had our assistant producer doing a documentary about the detective hunting down the homeless guy. We ended up not finding him, or finding him too late, after we'd booked the chopper.
John: It got too late.
Vernon: It was too late. We ended up trying to take care of him. And we got him an apartment and stuff.
John: Yeah. We checked him into a really great facility, but he left early. He didn't stick around.
Vernon: He was a troubled guy. And you know, we were trying to not exploit him...
John: Or exploit him in the kindest way possible. If they're going to give us hundreds of thousands of dollars to make a Clarence episode which essentially cost us like $5,000 to make. So we had all this money, and we were like, okay, this episode, "Make Compelling Television" -- it was moodier than anything we'd made. It had of contemplative moments. So who do you think of when you think of like, how do we score this? We're not going to put our "kids' music" on it. And so you think of Philip Glass. And when you think of like... We have... I don't know, 40 to $80,000 to spend...
Vernon: We were like, "We can pay Philip Glass his rate, and he's in New York, and let's do it." We reached out to Glass Studios, which was just two blocks down from where I am right now, and he was like, "I'm busy, but my protege would be really good at this." And that was Nico. And he was incredible. We sat with him and we worked out what each piece should be, and the mood of each thing. And he brought in these incredible musicians, and recorded it. And it was the most lush, ridiculous indulgence. But it was totally beautiful music. And that guy's obviously insanely talented, and he totally got it, and enjoyed it. The weird thing about that, it was the very last episode, and it was exactly the type of bullshit John and I were doing in the dorm in college. Like, the elevated version of this bullshit little dinky pranks that we were doing in the dorm.
John: Who you calling "dinky"? Who are you calling "dinky", motherfucker?
Vernon: It was dinky until you get lush orchestration behind it, original, beautiful compositions. So yes.
John: The DVD, you can hear it, just the music.
Vernon: They're full songs too.
John: Yeah. I wish I had those. I often think about them. He recorded it, I think, in Glass Studios. And we went, and it was like, he had a mini orchestra, people doubling up. It was probably like eight people that he had double up on things. So, you know...
Vernon: It was like two different sessions over a few hours over a couple days.
John: It was really funny to see just how intensely they were playing these songs while you're watching the footage of a puppet. The contrast of high and low couldn't get more extreme. And to us, that was like a dream come true.
Vernon: A guy in the park with like tuna sandwich on his face, just going, "Get out of here!" -- and the most like highbrow music.
John: Avant garde musicians, really giving it their all.
Vernon: Yeah. It was beautiful.
[NOTE: You can listen to snippets of Muhly's compositions HERE.]
Every time, you guys would just keep the camera on the people, and the music would start, and they would at some point always just look away. And that's when the music... it became super poignant. You know?
John: To us, any movement could have epic potential. What we would work with Nico, we'd be like, "Oh, actually, start the big, heavy beat on that second look. The first look..." And then suddenly, you'd discover this sadness, which is like cinema. You just take these tiny little moments of someone doing something. And if you put a big score, it's just... You put so much emotion on the things that... "Get the fuck away from me," is what they were thinking.
Vernon: It's total minimalism. But they really were going through something quietly gigantic inside, which is like contained fury, embarrassment, get the fuck away, all these things that we were dickishly provoking in them, stirring up in them. But they weren't trying to show it because they were trying to get us to go away. So they weren't trying to emote. So they were internalizing all these emotions, and we were like, let the music just... It has it all.
There are also a few jokes, too. The're one guy who when Clarence says "OK, make Compelling Television - 3, 2, 1...go!" He's looking down, and just looks up and he's like, "Hi, kids." And it's just a Bernard Herrmann type of sting. And you immediately cut to the next one.
John: We were just getting bored, and you just have to think of every version of lush comedy. So you hit things like that. And you're like, "Okay, that's at least the bit here, is just to do a tiny little blip of music as opposed to this whole song that evolves."
Vernon: The main reason we thought of Philip Glass was that... John and I met at college. We loved Errol Morris movies, and we went to see him at a screening of A Brief History of Time in Berkeley. He was saying he has all these tricks of drawing people out through minimalism, through just letting them hang themselves, or giving them the space to bring themselves out. And so his big thing was just give them the room. Don't give them too much. Make them have to fill the space. And so we in college did a little documentary about...
John: Mall cops.
Vernon: We called security guards. Mall cops. John did it as one of his projects. And we would just get these mall cops to like... "God, you're so tough. It must be dangerous. You're basically like... You're like my hero." Like, get them all filled up with their ego, and then just talk about what it feels like, knowing that...
John: You keep your place secure.
Vernon: ... you keep the public safe, whatever. And then you get this mall cop, puffed up ego, to start talking. And then we would just not look at him. We did this one where we just walked. We said, "Oh, sorry, we've got to go." And we'd walk away, but said "keep talking." And just this guy who has to then fill the space and build it up... Anyway. So that was... Those are those things that we were dicking around with. So it was exactly a Philip Glass thing that we realized we should do.
Other musical moments? What do you remember about the "War Never Solves Anything" song, sort of a "We Are the World" thing that had John Oates.
Vernon: We wanted Hall & Oates. So we called them, and Hall & Oates... they were in town doing a show or something.
John: Yeah. They agreed to do it.
Vernon: And then at the last minute they said Hall & Oates have to cancel. They can't do it. I'm like, "Well, what's going on?" "Well, Hall got sick, and he's just not feeling well. He's feeling really bad and he can't come." And then we're like, "Well, what about Oates?" And it's like, "What do you mean?" "What about Oates?" "Well, you don't want just Oates." And we're like, "What the hell is wrong with Oates?"
John: Have you seen our show?
Vernon: They're like, "Really? You really will just take Oates?" And we're like, "Yeah, we'll take Oates. That's better. That's so much better." So then Oates showed up, and he was so nice. And in my head, I imagine he was like, "That is so nice that someone appreciates Oates. Hall's not here." And he was so sweet. I felt like he had like Hall off his back for one day.
John: I felt like we gave him the gift of freedom. And he was super funny. He got the joke, and he totally got into it. And then who did we get...
Vernon: Rick Springfield. He was the first person I ever asked for an autograph. When I was a little kid, I got Rick Springfield's autograph.
John: Oh, I didn't know that!
Vernon: Yeah. But it's was a coincidence.
John: Our producer was recording something with Rick Springfield, and we asked him, would he do it? And he said yes. And then Rick Springfield drew what he thought was a peace symbol on his hand.
Vernon: But it ended up being more like a Mercedes-Benz logo. That wasn't our joke.
John: But when we saw it, we were both confused but elated at the same time.
Vernon: It was exactly what we would have done. If we were smart, or dumb enough to be that dumb.
Vernon: And then who else was there?
Corin Tucker and Devendra Banhart.
Vernon: Devendra threw up. Remember? He was so sick. He had a bender or whatever the night before. I mean, he was just totally cool and totally sweet and funny and a nice guy. But he was like, "I'm sorry, I'm really sick." He sang a couple of times, we shot it. He said, "Excuse me." And then he came back, and he was a little better. And then he said, "I just want to tell you that when I was in the bathroom, I threw up, like everything, like I've never thrown up before."
Devendra and Corin are in little green screen bubbles. It seemed like they had filmed it remotely somewhere else.
Vernon: Yeah. Corin was filmed remotely, but Devendra came into our studio.
While we're speaking about Devendra and the arty folk world, Will Oldham is in the "Horse Apples" episode as the preacher.
John: Not just Will Oldham. There's also... What do you call it? Smog. He was the voice of God.
Vernon: Smog. Bill Callahan was the voice of God.
John: We reunited those two. And I don't think they were... They weren't talking at the time.
Vernon: Is that true?
And now, they're doing a song a week online.
Vernon: I'm friends with Dan Koretzky at Drag City, and Will Oldham just loves weird, great shit. He might have come into town just to do that. He's so funny. What's great about him -- we did a bit with Zach Galifianakis. Zach and Will met on "Horse Apples," and then they became friends and they shot a Kanye West video, that "Can't Tell Me Nothing" video, which they shot at Zach's ranch. My theory is...so they're doing all country stuff like Zack... You know, big bearded Zack, and Will Oldham to do this hip-hop "Can't Tell Me Nothing" Kanye video. That video comes out. And then, what's the biggest song in the world? Lil Nas X, which is a country hip-hop thing. I think he saw that video and stole it. I think we have a lawsuit.
John: I think we were responsible for both their careers.
John: Tell me, and then send us a check. Send us a check, please.
Vernon: Well, speaking of Will Oldham, with that "Slaves" song -- me and Jon Philpot, one of our editors on Wonder Showzen, we went to go see Will Oldham like a year later. And he was nice enough to put us on the list, and me and John -- Jon Philpot from Bear in Heaven -- who was our editor by the way, another music connection. And then we were sitting there, and in the middle of the concert, Will Oldham starts singing this weird song. I'm like, "This song, is he singing 'Slaves'?" And he fucking did a cover. I'm like, "Am I crazy?" And Philpot's like, "You're crazy. Like, that's crazy." It was in the middle of a song, like a breakdown of a song, he starts singing the lyrics to Slaves. "Slaves built the Parthenon." Philpot was like, "You're fucking crazy egotistical. He's not singing Slaves." And the next day, The New York Times reviewed the show, and it said, "And then he did a breakdown, and he sang Slaves from Wonder Showzen in the middle." So he covered it in his show.
Because he knew that you were there?
Vernon: Yeah, yeah. I think so. I don't think that's a regular thing that runs through his head. I think it was just a little shout out. His next album was called The Wonder Show of the World, by the way. (Laughter). I'm just saying. We get a lot of money coming to us.
John: We get ripped off all the time. We get no credit. We get no respect. No respect.
Ok so speaking of "Slaves," I know there's another story, about Chris Anderson, who did the music for Wonder Showzen.
John: Chris Anderson, when he sang that song... because he recorded all the music in his room, in his bedroom in his East Village apartment.
Vernon: And his bathroom is where he had the best audio, right?
John: The best audio to record vocals is in his bathroom. So he lived next door this elderly black woman, and he was having to sing, "Slaves!" And he just wouldn't sing it that loud. He had to sing it just... If you listen to the recording, you can hear the restraint. You can hear the restraint in his voice. And like... he just wouldn't. [Laughter]
Vernon: I just got kombucha out my nose. Chris Anderson's pure exuberance, just cut with a little white guilt.
John: You hear the white guilt. I want to see the video of that woman just trying to sleep peacefully in her life and then she's awoken to..
Vernon: "SLAVES!" We were always pushing him because I'm sure he recorded it late at night. She just didn't sleep.
John: Were there any other musical people on the show?
Flavor Flav is in it, briefly.
John: Oh yeah. That was in the pilot. That was in the pilot that we never... I don't think we aired the bit. That's just a DVD extra. But then Jimmy Kimmel does the exact same bit. And who was on Jimmy Kimmel Show? Kanye West, and Lil Nas X. It's all... this is just like, what's that show? What's that movie with Tom Hanks? Where every...
Man with One Red Shoe?
Vernon: Well, Flavor Flav did steal the shoes.
John: He stole the whole outfit.
Vernon: He requested all this stuff. "I need these things." I remember running through Midtown, thinking "Fuck! All the kids are here. He needs these like..."
John: Penny loafers. He wanted penny loafers.
Vernon: Whatever they were, I remember racing, running, sweating through Midtown, going in and trying to buy these shoes, getting a pair of shoes, running and then giving them to him. I mean, do you see his shoes? Do they matter in the thing? But he just took them home.
John: Took it all home. He took the clothing he had. That clothing shows up later when he's on his own TV show.
Vernon: And then after that, he wasn't on TV then. Then he got the show on Viacom, but like VH1 Flavor of Love, which blew up huge and made a lot of money. But not us.
John: Look at our places, Bill. We've got nothing. This is dirt. We live in dirt.
Vernon: By the way, this was before Public Enemy. Right? We discovered him.
John: Just right before.
I was going to ask you if I missed anybody who appeared on Wonder Showzen
Vernon: Snoop Dogg is a voice... Is he a voice?
John: He's in Xavier. He might not be in Wonder Showzen.
Vernon: Oh, right. Yeah. Yeah, yeah. We had just worked with him in between, I guess, the pilot and the show getting picked up probably?
John: Mm-hmm. Yeah. I'm surprised we didn't have him do a voice on a cartoon. To answer your question, there's other musical connections, just not on the show.
Vernon: We ended up directing a Will Oldham video after that. Put that in the hyperlink section where you link to Lil Nas X, and "Lay and Love," and our video with "Horse Apples."
Vernon: But I was going to say that having David Cross and Zach Galifianakis and Will Oldham on the "Horse Apples" episode, Will Oldham totally held his own as just a straight comedian. Like, he's an actor, and he's this very interesting, compelling, charismatic performer. But it's just... those guys, there's nobody funnier, just in comedy than David Cross and Zach Galifianakis. So the three of them were so great and, I think, mutually intimidated a little bit.
John: David and Zach were nervous to meet him.
Vernon: Yeah. They were nervous to meet Will, and then Will was a little bit trying to be on his game in terms of comedy. And we just sort of played that energy, and just had them do stupid shit. Put them in the bed with all of the left feet.
John: Oh yeah, we had all those feet. Alyson Levy ordered the feet, and they came and they were all left feet.
Vernon: It's another example of perfect accidents.
John: She was like "They're all left feet. Oh my God."
Vernon: "Alyson, no, no, no. You saved the day. This is...
Vernon: All these hicks, fucking inbred hicks all have only left feet.
Vernon: And he's hilarious. Hmm. Other than music connections? I don't know.
When we posted about Wonder Showzen being on Paramount+, on our Facebook, one of the former kids on your show, Evan Seligman...
John: Oh yeah. He was in a punk band. Yeah.
He commented and said, "Hey, I was on Wonder Showzen. Isn't that crazy?" And then he commented a second thing, "By the way, check out my band," which is called Moonunit.
Vernon: Oh wow. That's funny.
Based out of New Paltz. I was expecting more of a punk sort of thing, but it's more of like a jazzy folky thing.
John: He was in a punk band for a while. I think after we made the show, he played music then. Right? He was a musician. And so I think he was in like a short song punk band for a while. Not screamo, but that kind of energy.
Vernon: He's a totally unique... Yeah.
His "Pills!" bit is a very memorable kid moment on Wonder Showzen.
John: One thing we did, one of the commentary tracks on the DVD was John Zorn inspired, based on his "Cobra" shows where he holds up the cards and the colors for the musicians, it's like a game. So we broke an episode down and made rules. That was our goal, but none of us were good enough musicians to do that.
Vernon: Yeah. We sort of loosely worked out some parts, and then somebody sort of held up the cards, and we... it's like a...
John: An audio commentary of just noise music.
Oh, I didn't know that.
John: Yeah. That's on one of them. I forget which one.
Vernon: Are there special features in this re-release? Do you know?
The DVDs themselves look like the same ones from the original '00s releases. I will admit I didn't spend too much time with them this week. I was scared of clicking the wrong thing and falling into one of your booby traps.
Vernon: We tricked people. We have a couple of traps for you to break your...
John: One turned your DVD player off.
Vernon: I know. I don't know how we did that. You got caught in a loop, and we did another one that was this nightmare of the zooming in. We cut all the zooms from "Horse Apples" together. I had such a headache when we were editing that. Like, I almost thought I was going to throw up, just editing that.
John: That stuff is deadly.
Vernon: But back to the commentary tracks, we had budgets. It was the last era of budgets for the DVDs. Who did we have on there. Samantha Power, who's now in the Biden administration again. She was in the Obama administration.
John: Well, she got kicked out
Vernon: Got kicked off the campaign for calling Hillary Clinton a monster.
Who else played in the band that did the commentary?
John: It was our other editors.
Vernon: Chris Malone and Chris Tartaro, who is currently the director of The Tonight Show. And he was our editor/Ninja effects guy.
John: And then Alyson was in there. You were there. I was there. Jim Tazi was there. I feel like there were a couple of ringers.
Vernon: I think we didn't want too many ringers.
John: Chris Anderson was there.
Vernon: Chris might have been helping. It was like we didn't want the kind of competence that Chris brings
John: That competence that comes with Chris Anderson and his bathroom.
Vernon: Not that kind of confidence. But that cleanliness. I mean, the thing with Chris is he was amazing, but he could never... Like, when I was like, "Do a punk song. Like, fucking get out of your skin! Just fucking go for it!" And it always had this sort of tint, a melancholy, kind of bittersweet sweetness. You cannot pound the puppy dog out of his music.
John: It was a lot of people in a tiny room in that commentary session. Remember that studio that's in Williamsburg? I want to say it was called the Book Room.
The Rare Book Room, which is not there anymore.
John: We recorded there. Yeah. We had like an afternoon. And we were all in the tiny... I would say there was like at least 10 of us in that tiny...
Vernon: It really stank for a while.
So Paramount+ is doing all this nostalgia programming. They're bringing back Rugrats. They're doing this Real World reunion and new episodes of Behind the Music. Has anybody approached you about rebooting Wonder Showzen?
John: Yeah. A few years ago, Tom Calderon did. He was our executive who was really was responsible for pushing us to make the "Patience" episode, and really embraced us to make the "Compelling Television" episode. He was like, "Give us the weirdest, the most interesting stuff you've ever thought of. We're open to that." So a couple years ago he asked us if we would be interested in it. And it just felt... I mean, [Vernon] and I talked about it very briefly. It was the shortest conversation of like, "No. No, no, no." It just felt like A) I'm not interested in getting a knife pulled on me anymore, or some bats swung at us. And then B) it felt like it had been absorbed. The show has been absorbed into the comedy world and the culture. I don't know if it we'd get away with it as much anymore. Like right now, I think it would be hard to get away with some of the bits we did.
Some things that you watch from 20 years ago that used to be shocking, they just sort of seem normal now. And Wonder Showzen is still very... It feels very of the moment in a lot of ways, and still button-pushing.
John: In general, we never tried to do topical jokes. Like, the nightly talk shows have a great advantage that we don't have. They can come out right now. They can make a joke about whatever you want that day. We couldn't do that. So we would always make sure our jokes just avoided that. So inherently, then you talk about a universal experience as opposed to a specific experience.
Vernon: Even if it's inspired by something that just happened. It's that Monty Python thing where you can watch Python and it's still great. It exists in this evergreen vacuum.
John: Yeah, alongside injustice, and people being harassed, and beat up, and oppressed. It's evergreen.
[This interview has been edited for clarity and length.]