Humor thrown into a mosh pit
“Metalocalypse,” premiering Sunday as part of Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim franchise, is a new animated series about an American-Scandinavian heavy metal band called Dethklok that in addition to being the most popular musical group in the world is also one of its major economies and a cultural force powerful enough to make the leaders of ordinary nations quail and quiver. When it records a coffee jingle, which it premieres in a one-song concert before a Woodstock-size audience in the Arctic Circle, it puts all competing coffee companies immediately out of business; when it is late delivering an album, world markets totter.
It is, of course, a fantasy.
Barring a few old-school superstars such as Metallica and some younger mega-giant hybrid acts such as Korn and Linkin Park, metal in the early 21st century is a truly underground music, more vital and varied than the average salaryman might suspect but still essentially (and pointedly) marginal. And it’s reliably funny to take something that has a relatively small constituency and pretend that it’s the most important thing in the world.
There is an element of wish fulfillment here. Brendon Small, who created the far more benign cartoon series “Home Movies” (also on Cartoon Network) is -- with partner Tommy Blacha, who has written for “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” and “Da Ali G Show” -- the mind behind “Metalocalypse” and behind its music as well, which is not so much a parody of the furious white noise of modern metal as it is a slight exaggeration. (Dethklok includes the world’s fastest and second-fastest guitarists.) Small is himself a shred-head guitar player who takes his metal seriously, and though the humor here runs to the gross, gory and puerile, amplifying every cliche about the music -- those assigned from without and promulgated from within -- to its disgusting extreme, it is also made with love.
“Metalocalypse” is at once incredibly, willfully stupid and weirdly pure, which is to say the actual metal world will likely approve of it. (Dethklok has its own MySpace site, with a lot of friends already attached.) Drawn in a faux-epic style that borrows equally from comic books and the kind of things that a disaffected kid with cartooning chops might draw on his notebook when he should be listening in class, the show has a ramshackle charm, if charm is the right word, and an almost free-associative logic. Things bump along, at the slack pace common to Adult Swim cartoons -- with occasional adrenalinized metallic intervals -- and then just stop.
The joke within the joke is that even as Dethklok achieves the world domination that for real-life bands is merely a metaphor, they are incapable of ordinary things like feeding themselves. This is thematically consistent with such neighboring Adult Swim shows as “Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law,” “Space Ghost Coast to Coast” and “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” (among others), which get laughs by portraying the lives of superheroes as rife with boredom, confusion, awkwardness, hatred, self-hatred, pettiness, unfulfilled longing, embarrassing secrets and bad decisions.
Yet though the members of Dethklok are idiots, they are idiots with high standards, a sense of exclusive brotherhood and a deep commitment to their music, even if it means recording an album at the bottom of the ocean for the proper metal effect. This is what makes them, in some perhaps not fully intended way, heroic. There is also the commitment of their fans, for whom attendance at a Dethklok show might mean dismemberment or death. (They are made to sign “pain wavers.”) The show includes quite a bit of graphic mayhem, though on the whole it is no worse or much different than the stuff of your average first-person-shooter video game.
I’m sure many won’t find the series funny at all and will find it just as offensive or negligible as they find the music it concerns, and in a way it’s hard to argue with that view. Most of us can agree that a man slipping on a banana peel is amusing, but a man slipping on a banana peel and bashing his brains out on the pavement, say, will tickle fewer funny bones. Is a man being hacked into pieces by the blades of a Hovercraft funny? Is a rock band pouring giant carafes of scalding hot coffee over its audience funny? It depends on the context, of course, and, as in all comedy, the timing -- and quite possibly the age of the viewer.
“Metalocalypse” is funny strange, one might say, rather than funny ha-ha. But nowadays these often amount to the same thing.
Where: Cartoon Network
When: 11:45 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (unsuitable for children younger than 17)