August 16-22, 2006

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Cult Leader

Get Brak: Adult Swim's cultiest show gets its due

By Steve Palopoli

FOR SOME reason, the '90s was the decade of ironic recycling. From Mystery Science Theater 3000 to The Brady Bunch Movie to Tom Jones' comeback record, never had current pop culture been so much about making fun of past pop culture.

Somewhere in the second string of this Moebius strip of kitsch was the Cartoon Network's Space Ghost: Coast to Coast. It took one of Hanna-Barbera's least-remembered cartoon TV characters, the titular interplanetary crime fighter from the '60s, and made him into a talk-show host, with amusing enough results. But one day my Big Lebowski-loving friend Sarah (the first person I know of to have donned The Robe at a public screening, along with myself) told me about how one of the Space Ghost mainstays, Brak, had been given his own show.

"Oh yeah," she said, "you don't know Brak? Brak's the money character!"

How right she was. Over two seasons, The Brak Show was the funniest and cultiest thing on the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim block. The premise was to give Space Ghost's formerly vicious enemy, who looked like a space cat in a blue jumpsuit, the voice and demeanor of a relentlessly friendly, hyperactive teenager, and depict his life growing up as a satire of 1950s TV. As he describes himself in a song (Brak does love to sing!) in the episode "Bully": "Everyone knows he's not a jerk/ Your new buddy's Brak/ He'll make your bed/ Shine all your shoes/ Play him at chess/ You'll never lose/ Brak doesn't know how to play chess/ But he knows how to play dead!"

Both seasons are finally on DVD, after a lot of waiting from impatient fans. The 15-minute episodes perfected an absurd, non sequitur humor within plotlines that got increasingly bizarre as the show went on. Side characters like the next-door-neighbor-battlebot Thundercleese and Brak's evil best friend Zorak (a praying mantis also originally from the Space Ghost shows) developed their own followings for their idiosyncrasies, and eventually Brak's dad—named Dad, just like his mom was named Mom—became more and more a focus. It's even a little unnerving how the shift of attention from Brak to Dad on this show vaguely mirrored The Simpsons' move from Bart to Homer as the main attraction. But some of the episodes mainly featuring Dad are among the best, so you can't begrudge the little guy, however much you might miss a marginalized Brak in some of the later eps.

A quick rundown of my five favorite episodes over the two seasons:

1. Time Machine Brak and Zorak, having been denied a trip to Brak's favorite restaurant Fish Pockets because they spent all weekend playing the video game Headkicker rather than do their homework, use a time machine to recruit previous incarnations of themselves to do the homework while they spend the same weekend playing the game over and over. Things do not go as planned. I have watched this damn episode at least 25 times—it's sheer genius. This one little Brak show has better time tricks than The Terminator and is way, way funnier, to boot.

2. Brak Street This episode about a rap contest is probably the best remembered. All of Brak's raps are hilarious, but the best rap moment is Thundercleese breaking it down about his military might: "War! It's good for me! What's my name? Thundercleese!" Bonus trivia: If you've been hearing Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" everywhere—and how could you not—you may think something in this episode sounds familiar. That's because Cee-lo guested in this episode as the alien rapper Prime.

3. President Dad Just one of many great Dad episodes; in this one he runs for president of the neighborhood association with a campaign that can only be described as disastrous. See also his turn as a secret agent in "Shadows of Heat" and his time as a staring champion in "The Eye."

4. Mother, Did You Move My Chair? You won't believe the shocking answer!

5. The Feud Dad and Thundercleese face off, and end up in the belly of a giant worm. Weird Al Yankovic's guest appearance as "Petroleum Joe" is a beautiful thing.

Cult Leader is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback or your favorite Dad quote here.

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