In "Mike Judge Presents: Tales From the Tour Bus," a shaggy-dog documentary series premiering Friday on Cinemax, the creator of "Beavis and Butt-head" and co-creator of "King of the Hill" and "Silicon Valley" finds the dark, crazed heart of country music and turns it into a cartoon, literally.
As a historical meditation that adds new visuals to a soundtrack of casual speakers, it is a kind of ensemble cousin to "Drunk History," with the difference that here the speakers — represented in cartoon form — are straight and the subjects messed up. It does come with a caveat: "Due to the passage of time, and in some cases indulgence in both controlled and illicit substances, details of some tales are a bit hazy." And those telling the tales — band members, managers, hairdressers, kinfolk and sundry other survivors— played a part in the story; they often speak from firsthand experience, as witnesses and participants.
For a genre that conspicuously associates itself with cleanliness and godliness, country has always had a wild streak, with many of its most beloved stars engaged in behaviors from the merely self-destructive to the actually criminal. The excesses of Led Zeppelin and every rock band that took "Hammer of the Gods" as an instructional manual are nothing compared with the exploits of an unchecked Johnny Paycheck, whose story kicks off the series. Other artists featured include Jerry Lee Lewis, Blaze Foley, Billy Joe Shaver, Waylon Jennings and the team of George Jones and Tammy Wynette, duetting in marriage and divorce. There is some overlap between them; Nashville is a small town.
It is true that these events, for the people who lived them and were seemingly powerless to do otherwise, are often tragic; they are full of drug addiction, alcoholism, violence, incarceration, hospitalization, heartbreak. Guns are fired, people are sometimes hit. Musicians swallow amphetamines, as one recalls, and "stay up for three or four days just to get in tune and then jam for three or four more."
Jones does too much cocaine and grows two additional personalities, the "old man" and "the duck," who fight with each other as Jones tries to mediate. Paycheck steals cars, his manager shoots his tour bus driver in the ear over a sandwich. Lewis marries his 13-year-old cousin. ("I was the thinking adult in that relationship," recalls the current Myra Gale Brown.)
But like all war stories, and like the people who tell them — old enough to have been around, but young enough to still be around — they have ripened and mellowed with age. What might have been far from amusing as it was happening is something to marvel at now, not in a spirit of offended propriety but of head-shaking, affectionate wonder on the part of those who have managed to outlive the past.
Comedy is tragedy plus time, as the saying goes, here multiplied by funny drawings. The animated segments have the feel of a less elegant "King of the Hill," and though elegant isn't the first word one would use to describe that show, this is less so. But it suits the material. It gets the job done.
Judge himself hosts and narrates – he was the voice of Hank Hill on the Texas-set "King of the Hill," and it is nice to hear him again. (Like all the speakers, he has been translated into cartoon form.) As a former touring musician himself, he knows at least the edges of this territory firsthand. And clearly, he loves the music – the pre-industrial, still-regional, honestly twangy country music of the last third of the 20th century -- and wants you to love it, too. ("King of the Hill" featured cameos from many country artists; Wynette for a time played Hank Hill's mother.)
That's the real value of this highly addictive, strangely thrilling little series. (Eight episodes are too few; may I have some more?) Fun's fun, but Judge does not forget the considerable art that makes these performers worth discussing in the first place. With well-chosen archival clips salted among the cartoon reminiscence, "Tales From the Tour Bus" makes the case for its subjects as well as any PBS biography or big-screen biopic.
Come for the comedy, stay for the singing.
'Mike Judge Presents: Tales From the Tour Bus'
When: 10 p.m. Friday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
Follow me on Twitter at @LATimesTVLloyd