I never really intended this blog to turn into an exercise of rethinking noise and jokes from the before times in the middle of a global pandemic, but here we are. In the middle of a pandemic. And when your job is mostly to sit around and think about things and then write about those things, living through a pandemic will definitely lead you down this path.
Last time we talked about noise, so this time let’s talk about jokes. Specifically, let’s talk about the Dress Up Gang, the show that is going to easily be my favorite from this year.
Sometime around 2015, my best friend Gus showed me a web series she had found called My Roommate, My Friend, created by an LA comedy troupe called The Dress Up Gang. When she first sent me the link for the Burger Buddies sketch from this series, she said that it would be my favorite thing ever and she was right. Five years and dozens of re-watches later, I’m convinced that the skit is as close to perfect as any piece of comic writing I’ve seen.
The set up for My Roommate, My Friend is incredibly simple, ridiculous, and endearing, all at the same time. Set within a nostalgic and pitch-perfect aesthetic of a modernized 1950’s family sitcom (along the same lines of what Brick did for noir), the series centers on the familial dynamic of the father-like Cory and the child-like Donny. Most of the episodes rely on a pretty basic structure: Donny runs into some sort of conflict, Cory imparts some parental wisdom (both good and bad, but always well meaning), and then both Donny and Cory learn something along the way. Pretty standard for the form.
But while this description may evoke images of Leave It to Beaver or The Andy Griffith Show, absolutely nothing else about the show matches those reference points. Instead, the show leans into a dry and understated absurdism that subtly upends the reality created by the series. For starters, Donny owns the house where the show takes place and Cory only crashes on his couch without paying rent. Yet despite the obvious power dynamics that would normally form between a homeowner and a couch crasher, the fact that Cory acts like the parent throughout the series never gets questioned. Instead, the show piles on more layers of absurd details while every actor sells the normalcy of this weird universe with a calm but overwhelming confidence that makes you just buy everything at face value.
It’s a simple gesture, but they do it so well that it carries the entire web series (and the subsequent television show).
Burger Buddies, my favorite piece by the group, provides a perfect example. The story behind Burger Buddies is incredibly simple and also incredibly ridiculous, masterfully building one non-sequitur after another into key plot points or character attributes until the credits roll. Written out, the plot reads like a bizarre dream: Donny decides that he wants to go to McDonald’s by himself, but his friend Frank snitches on him to Cory. Cory reminds Donny that he can’t go to McDonald’s without a burger buddy because eating at McDonald’s alone will make the other patrons sad. But since Donny did such a good job on his taxes, Cory will be his burger buddy later. Before they have a chance to go, Donny asks Cory (who is trying to measure his own blood pressure) if he can borrow his own headphones back from Cory, but Cory says he likes to keep them in the bathroom. Cory finally relents and let’s Donny borrow them. Donny plugs he headphones into his Walkman and starts practicing the walk from Genesis’ “I Can’t Dance” music video outside the house. Christian, their neighbor and another “adult” character (one that Cory trusts because he is a professor at the junior college), sees Donny dancing and then tells Cory about this apparently offensive behavior. Cory then responds by revoking his offer to be Donny’s burger buddy, essentially grounding Donny.
I’m going to stop the plot synopsis there, since it’s getting long and I’m still only halfway through the skit. Not to mention that we haven’t even touched on the vernacular of the Dress Up Gang (Shakespeare only ever dreamed of writing something as profound as “Professor of what? Snitching and ding sucking?”). In perfect 1950’s TV Land fashion, the conclusion perfectly resolves the story and everyone learns a valuable lesson. But only if you accept those ridiculous non-sequiturs at face value. And since everyone in the skit sells the premise as hard as they do, it’s easy to buy in.
Despite the ridiculousness, the show never loses that misty nostalgia. Which means that every ridiculous choice made by the writers lands perfectly. But most of the goofs almost slip by undetected, at least until you realize the absurdity of it all seconds afterwards while the troupe has already moved on to the next absurd turn.
Jump to 2018 and the troupe has landed a deal with TBS to turn My Roommate, My Friend into a 10-episode sitcom, rebranded as simply The Dress Up Gang. They write some new bits and polish some old ones, get Andi MacDowell to play herself/Donny and Cory’s neighbor for… reasons, and shoot/edit the whole thing. And then TBS shelves the show. I didn’t even know the show existed until after it had been canned. I hear about it on Twitter sometime last year, get incredibly excited that it exists, and also incredibly bummed that I probably won’t ever see it.
But then 2020 decides to do a 2020. I can’t say for sure, but I’m going to guess that TBS was hard up for new content in the middle of a pandemic that shut down every single professional TV and movie set and realized they had a goddamn brilliant show sitting on their shelves. So in the middle of the pandemic, this beautiful piece of comedy starts streaming.
Holding true to the roots of My Roommate, My Friend, the show grounds itself in classic family sitcom situations and relationships. But the TV show delves even deeper into this context, turning classic television plots into new absurd tropes. A “very special episode about drugs” makes an appearance when Donny’s friend starts pushing desserts on him, the gang steps up to the plate after Donny comes down with a bad case of six pack abs (which you can’t show off at the pool because it makes people feel self-conscious), and Donny shows his bravery by sticking up for Frank who got “big leagued” by Christian at the mall despite Cory’s warnings of that challenging Christian will be too dangerous (since everyone was using Christian’s HBO Go password).
The “dealing with a bully” plot gets a particularly clever reworking. All of the plot points of that trope exist in the episode: the kid gets bullied, the dad shows him how to stand up for himself and fight back, a montage ensue, and the kid builds confidence from training with his dad but then finds a more diplomatic way of dealing with the bully that both resolves the conflict and helps the bully come to terms with their own insecurities. But in the Dress Up Gang, Cory serves as both the father figure and the bully since he keeps picking fights with Donny whenever he gets black out drunk. The rest of the episode milks this dual personality conceit for everything its worth, building gag after gag around the set up.
The show is both delightfully silly and unexpectedly heartwarming throughout. The only possible misstep happens in the second half of Episode One when the writers throw in a “dude in a dress” joke. From my perspective, they contextualize the joke well (the set up comes from the plot and the writers make it clear that a man wearing a dress isn’t the punchline). However, my perspective isn’t really the one that matters in this case, so I’ll let others who have lived experience and more authority make that call.
But other than that, the universe of the Dress Up Gang provides an incredible place to call home for 200 odd minutes. The brand of absurdity created by the group draws more from shows like Nathan For You than Tim and Eric, a dry and straight faced (but fully committed) silliness that only lands with an airtight sense of confidence that eschews all self-awareness. In that regard, The Dress Up Gang proves unwavering.
I know for a fact that I would have eaten this show up if it had come out in 2018 or even if it came out post-pandemic. But I want to argue that the show hits especially hard now because of the current condition.
This impact rests in the tradition of absurdity within film, literature, and especially theatre that the Dress Up Gang mines. There’s lots of ways to do absurdity, but the approach taken by the Dress Up Gang seems fairly akin to Eugene Ionesco’s take on the genre. Broadly speaking, we can break Ionesco’s career into two chunks: his early works where the author took a post-structuralist approach to language by hollowing out all meaning from written/spoken communication (see: The Bald Soprano, The Lesson) while his later works go back to letting language do its thing and instead grow from seemingly ridiculous narrative conceits to explore other cultural themes via narrative structure (see: Rhinoceros, Exit the King, Amédée or How to Get Rid of It).
While the former often devolves into nonsensical shouting matches that reveal the precarious nature of the social fabric, his later plays prove much more grounded. In other words: the latter plays make sense as a story. Still, that doesn’t meant they aren’t absurd: a play about everyone in the world turning into Rhinos is just as ridiculous as it sounds, but the reliance on a conventional narrative structure lets Ionesco use this plot device to examine issues in the world at large (in this case, the rise of Naziism via unwavering and unchecked nationalism) through alternative means. In both approaches, the author creates worlds defined by their own rules and allows the work to unfold through an exploration of these universes.
I see the Dress Up Gang aligning itself, in part, with both of these approaches to absurdism. The overwhelming and unapologetic use of seemingly meaningless non-sequiturs allows the troupe to build the series on top of an empty void where a foundation should be, creating space for the actors to explore what signifiers mean in the absence of the signified. Additionally, the upended tropes of the 1950s sitcom create another lens for the Dress Up Gang to explore modern life, but this time through narrative structure. Together, the absurdity of the show produces a fun house mirror effect: some parts of the world reflect back on us undistorted, allowing the viewer to recognize themselves in the picture. But everything else twists and stretches in alien ways, begging the question of why the world outside the mirror looks the way it does in the first place.
Because of this, I found myself thinking about the nearly arbitrary nature of western familial structures (and, subsequently, social structures) while watching the show. The central conceit of the Dress Up Gang (the nonsensical father/son relationship between Cory and Donny) plays directly into this investigation. The show constantly evokes the dogmatic understanding of patriarchal families in 1950’s sitcoms, but undermines that reference at every turn: flipping the family roles of Cory and Donny, randomly casting certain characters as “adults” and others as “kids,” and inserting meaningless/absurd phrases into stereotypical (and easily recognizable) coming of age moments and interactions all undermine the western take on the nuclear family or neighborly community.
And with that core so easily unraveling, the show poses a simple question: why does western civilization still buy into this ridiculous concept of a family? Or, to put it in 2020 terms, why are we trying to “get back to normal” when normal was ridiculous at best and actively harmful at its worst?
To this end, the Dress Up Gang seems to pose a challenge to build a new normal but also invites us to keep what proved meaningful. Yes, the social structures that dictate out lives come from virtually arbitrary (although not random) decisions made centuries before any of us were alive. By exposing those structures in crisis (something absurdity does exceedingly well), we can move past them and imagine a different and better world. But the fact remains that the show is equal parts heartfelt, revealing true moments of compassion and care between the characters that ever so gently pull on the heartstrings for the briefest of moments. If we throw the baby out with the bath water, we risk losing what family could mean.
So maybe an unrelenting devotion to the nuclear family assumed into 1950’s media, one enshrined by laws that mask the heteropatriarchal/white supremacist logics behind these institutions, isn’t the normal we want to return too. But the genuine care and compassion that those shows pushed needs to hold a place in the world beyond the pandemic. We just need to figure out what “family” can and should mean first.
Or maybe the show was just a bunch of people getting stoned and writing dumb jokes. Either way, it’s funny. Go watch it. And then tell your friends to watch it. I really want them to make a second season.