Farting with impunity

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If the animated offerings of 2003 were wines, “The Triplets of Belleville” would be an Old World Cotes du Rh퀌�ne: infused with subtle flavors, filling the palette with the history of its region, tasteful and complete. “Finding Nemo,” on the other hand, would be a California white: fruity, forward and bold, sweet with no subtlety at all, but great with fish. And Spike and Mike’s Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation? Well, Spike and Mike’s is like that half-empty bottle of grape-flavored Mad Dog 20/20 you found under the easy chair in your dead uncle Lloyd’s apartment. You weren’t sure about it but, after you were through, nothing was ever the same again.

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Spike and Mike’s isn’t for everyone. In fact I’m amazed it has the following it does. For almost fifteen years, it’s been reveling in fart and menstruation jokes and, for some reason, people keep showing up. It serves as an outlet for those cartoons too deprived for the mainstream and is the birthplace of the lowest of the lowbrow, having featured the original “Beavis and Butthead,” “Southpark” and “Powerpuff Girls” shorts.

Spike and Mike’s premieres in more than 50 cities throughout the country annually and has a following including the wrinkled bag containing Robin Williams and the fifteen minutes of Jack Black’s fame. This year’s press release promised to “showcase animation of the highest quality” and featured 18 new cartoons from around the world but, with a sense of humor analogous to that of a thirteen-year-old boy, it’s unfortunate for promoters that the festival is rated 18-and-up.

The shorts were, as a whole, dismal in their offerings: stories about boners and camel toes, dead forest creatures and humping marshmallows. I noticed most of the pieces were products of university animation programs, which definitely accounted for the festival’s dorm room aesthetic. I couldn’t help but picture sexually-frustrated and emotionally-stunted college students drawing erections between giggle fits and bong rips. Standouts in the “particularly bad” column were Robert Rhine and Frank Forte’s “Sickcom,” and the Spike and Mike-produced “Hut Sluts.”

Rhine and Forte’s two-minute “Sickcom” was a pathetic satire of television sitcoms, featuring a family of degenerates and a canned laugh track. The choppy animation and trite debauchery gave it the feeling of a middle school flipbook and lacked even one creative punch line. Its theme, more effectively executed for decades by everything from “Natural Born Killers” to “Saturday Night Live,” was so stale not a single laugh was heard for the entirety of the short.

“Hut Sluts,” animated by Miles Thompson for Spike and Mike, was so steeped in 1990s stereotypes that I was surprised its soundtrack contained neither Jesus Jones nor Vanilla Ice. In fact, the feeling of having “seen this before” was pervasive throughout the festival, the majority of the humor and animations being reliant on jokes pioneered by outlets like the Cartoon Network and MTV’s now defunct “Liquid Television.”

Veteran animators Craig McCracken (“Powerpuff Girls”) and Bill Plympton (“I Married a Strange Person”) each offered a couple of cartoons to this year’s festival but these also fell short. McCracken’s “No Neck Joe” was an audience favorite and holdover from past festivals, but its one-trick-pony punch line barely extended beyond the title. Plympton’s pieces, “Old Folks Love” and “Petting in Park,” felt awkwardly phoned-in. Each cartoon was only a minute long and animated with Internet Flash software, losing the delicate flair of his previous colored pencil works.

There were a couple of standout shorts featured in this year’s festival. Both the shortest offering, Shane Acker’s “Mr. Grenade,” and the longest, Breehn Burns and Jason Johnson’s nearly eight minute “Here Comes Dr. Tran,” were both greeted with wild laughter.

“Here Comes Dr Tran,” featuring the funniest 3D segment I have ever seen, was far and away the best addition to the festival, exploiting its dry cues and simple animation to their utmost with outstanding results. “Mr. Grenade” was a 45-second one-liner with perfect comedic timing, something severely lacking throughout the rest of the festival.

With the proliferation of simple animation software and personal cartoon web sites, Spike and Mike’s is an institution with no real feeling of urgency anymore. Why haul your pizza-laden ass to the theater when infantile fart and sex humor is just a mouse click away?

As well, comedic animation has had a renaissance since the early ’90s, and it’s hard for poorly animated dick and fart jokes to commercially compete with the combination of sophisticated satire and lowbrow humor found on DVD and cable gems like “Space Ghost Coast to Coast” and “The Family Guy.” Where Spike and Mike’s was once a mainline to underground humor, it now feels like a dinosaur, its relevance lying only in its history and offering a viable reason to spend your Saturday night in the theater. Unless, of course, you’re looking for an excuse to wear that stretched-out Primus T-shirt, reminisce about Lollapalooza and pretend 1993 never ended. Actually, that doesn’t sound all that bad; at least Clinton was still in the White House.

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