The CollegeHumor Show (MTV, Sundays at 9:30 p.m. ET) isn’t actually about college, but nor was its debut episode particularly humorous, so let’s not get too hung up on nomenclature. A shaggy synthesis of workplace sitcom and absurdist sketch show, the program purports to take us behind the scenes of CollegeHumor.com, which has been serving funny video clips reliably since 1999, when its founders were still in high school. Working on location in the site’s real Manhattan office, mop-topped editor-in-chief Ricky Van Veen and the core members of his staff play themselves, roles they don’t seem entirely cut out for.
The bread and butter of CollegeHumor on the Web is pop parody, college boy humor of the sort informed by a little learning about the comedic uses of Modernism, a lot of close study of The Simpsons, and vast tracks of leisure time spent sitting on a futon talking smack. In their original videos—which often bring in trained performers to help desecrate a broad swath of cultural touchstones—these twentysomethings have generated ha-has at the same level as their elders at the sites Funny or Die (though without the same interest in politics) and The Lonely Island (though without the same tacit, polymorphously perverse approach to sex).
Greatest and latest hits include a deadpan Dadaist take on Mad Men that twits the self-seriousness of that new sacred cow and a reimagining of a Will Smith sitcom that gets its heat from the friction between the integrationist ideals of some hip-hop artists and the minstrel-show sociopathology of their peers. In “Mad Libs Men,” when Don Draper says, with his wince, “Campbell, I want you to work with two partners on this project—Peggy and this smelly red microwave,” Campbell scoffs that he’s not working with a woman, and the spoof of vicarious sexism is perfect. Meanwhile, when the bling-mouthed protagonist of “Fresh Prince Theme: Gangsta Version” rages against resettling in Bel Air—”Yo, fuck Uncle Phil and his high tax bracket / I ain’t got a sports jacket and Carlton’s a faggot”—a couple ideas about the slumming of cultural tourism go tumbling. Elsewhere, in “Brohemian Rhapsody,” CollegeHumor assesses the beery atmosphere of campus life by rewriting the Queen classic, a project with a high degree of difficulty all these years after Wayne and Garth banged their heads to it. Staggering around a party with a Solo cup in hand, its central figure croons, “Damn you Gamma Pi! / I sometimes wish I never had pledged at all.” The number is clever enough to crack up the very baseball-capped fatheads whose frat-pig ideology it mocks.
If any theme connects those three clips, it is a gleaming aggression. The same unruliness animates the videos in the “Hardly Working” series of Web bits that dovetail with the TV show. Last week, they reconstructed Christian Bale’s on-set Terminator tantrum, with the difference that the offended thespian was wearing, for reasons blissfully unexplained, a frog costume. Also, the Bale figure changed his tune when he got a satisfactory answer from the errant crew member: “You’re not tryin’ to ruin my scene? … I’m sorry.”
But on the tube, CollegeHumor does not reach such giddy heights, possibly because it is more interested in the comedy of embarrassment than in farces of hostility. It is perhaps too collegial. Notably, the debut episode did perk up whenever cast member Amir Blumenfeld, whose owlish mien contrasts nicely with his aggro demeanor, started acting out and when the face of Sarah Schneider was serially shoved into plates of food. But most of its nonsense was, unfortunately, just a whole lot of nonsense. The plot concerned Van Veen’s vanity and his attempt to mollify his entitled staffers with office perks including a Mexican food stand among the cubicles and the installation of a play center filled with plastic balls, as in a McDonaldland.
Not incidentally, that vague satire of quirky corporate benefit points toward the most perplexing thing about CollegeHumor’s awkward transition to the tube. The amateurism of the performances, which gives the show a feel of simultaneously trying too hard and not trying at all, is one thing, and the sloppiness of the plotting is almost endearing. But to sit in your living room and see these young people cavorting freely under fluorescent-tube lights is jarring, as if this show had been unearthed in a time capsule buried in the year 2000, as if—forget the recession—the tech bubble had never burst. It wouldn’t be fair to expect The CollegeHumor Show to meld the comic dread of The Office with the surreality of 30 Rock, but if a farce about the workplace is to have any edge, then it at least needs to take the psychology of cubicle life seriously and save the lazy gamboling for a day of Frisbee on the quad.