Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Bouchard Buffet, Part 4: Saddle Rash & Lucy, the Daughter of the Devil

I was sort of worried about Loren Bouchard for a while. That's probably too strong a way of putting it, but there were a few years when I was concerned that his career was just going to fizzle out with Home Movies.

Home Movies was cancelled in 2004. By 2006,' Bouchard's collaborator Brendon Small had a new show on Adult Swim called Metalocalypse, which hit it big almost immediately. It got better ratings and much more press than Home Movies, its soundtrack became the highest charting death metal album on the Billboard 200, as of today it (supposedly) has a fifth season on the way, et cetra. Bouchard, however, would have to spend another few years wandering in the desert of late-night cartoon obscurity before landing a prime time network hit with Bob's Burgers in 2011.

Today we're going to take a quick look at the two shows Bouchard worked on between Home Movies and Bob's Burgers, beginning with...


Saddle Rash actually aired in 2002, when Home Movies was on its second season. It was Bouchard's first project not to have been produced under the banner of a Tom Synder company, the first for which he could claim complete credit as creator, and the first for which he was the primary writer (though he had help from Holly Schlesinger, who had worked on Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist and Home Movies as a production assistant, and who returns as a writer in Lucy, the Daughter of the Devil and Bob's Burgers). It was also his first (and so far only) rejected pilot; Adult Swim didn't greenlight it for a series, but Saddle Rash was fortunate enough to be aired a few times instead of just getting stuffed into a Cartoon Network vault like some of the unluckier pilots.

Bouchard seems to have had film on the brain from working on Home Movies: both of his next two Adult Swim cartoons are congenitally cinematic. Saddle Rash isn't exactly a sitcom in an Old West setting; it's more like a Western flick in miniature, animated in Flash and voiced by standup comics. When it premiered, I remember expecting it to be a spoof of Western cliches, but it doesn't really qualify as a parody. But really—why would it even try? The Western has literally been done to death; satirizing it would be less like beating a dead horse than taking whacks at its crumbling skeleton.

Nevertheless, the Western is still coded into the genetic matrix of American pop culture. It's like a cell that lives and reproduces for so long that its DNA falls apart; it forgets what it's doing, what's it's supposed to be, and all that's left is kitsch and pastiche. Saddle Rash is pastiche, but it's as earnest as pastiche can be; it's not merely a sitcom dressed in a cowboy costume. (To give credit where credit is due: much of Saddle Rash's mythical Old West atmosphere emanates from its soundtrack, engineered by the Elegant Too out of harmonicas and drum machines, and its closing theme, a rocksy-bluesy take on "Home on the Range.")

So we have Saddle Rash, a remote frontier town with unpaved streets and buildings made entirely from wooden planks. On a day that might otherwise seem like any other in the sleepy little village, a stranger rides into town. A gunman. He's got two six shooters, the laconic swagger of a young Clint Eastwood, and a score to settle with local bandit boss Tommy Morgan. What he doesn't have are arms.

There's your twist. But after that it's back to the formula: the rugged avenger stirs up the coop, beats up Morgan's cronies and rallies the town's spirits, giving Morgan no alternative but to ride into town and take care of business personally. The stranger and Morgan duel in the street, and here's the twist you saw coming: the stranger reveals the reason for his grudge against Morgan. Justice prevails, Morgan and his gang are tied up and hauled off, and the stranger rides out of town alone.

Like any Bouchard project, Saddle Rash has a very high dialogue to action ratio. There's definitely more of a plot in here than we're accustomed to, but loose, unaffected conversation is still the main engine. We won't bother with an extended cast list this time, but most of Saddle Rash's voice actors are former Dr. Katz and Home Movies guests. Sam Sedar voices "Slim," the square-jawed goodguy gunslinger with no arms. H. Jon Benjamin doubles up as Old Gummy, the local coot (and habitual sidekick) who provides the exposition and narration, and as gang boss Tommy Morgan. Mitch Hedburg and Todd Barry play Muscular Mel and Kitty the Kid, two of Morgan's henchmen. Cowgirl babe Hannah Headstrong is voiced by—wait, Sarah Silverman? Where was Laura?

Of all the chitchat in Saddle Rash, I'd say the highlight is the exchange between Todd Barry and Mitch Hedburg's outlaws as they ride into town to get drunk and start a fight. Excerpt:

Kitty the Kid: He's all pissy because now every time he leaves the hideout, someone's always trying to turn him in or kill him....It's outlaw stuff, man. Sometimes you gotta do it.

Muscular Mel: Yeah.

Kitty the Kid: There's downtime.

Muscular Mel: Yeah.

Kitty the Kid: There's hurry up and wait.

Muscular Mel: Yeah!

Kitty the Kid: I mean, when you look at "wanted: dead or alive," you can't just see "wanted: dead." 

Muscular Mel: Naw, naw!

Kitty the Kid: You have to see "or alive," too!

Muscular Mel: You are so right.

I'm not sure how much material in Saddle Rash is retroscripted. Probably not much; at this point, Bouchard preferred to work with a script while giving actors a lot of latitude to change their lines on the fly. But even if the quiet dialogical anarchy of Dr. Katz and early Home Movies is mostly absent, scenes like this demonstrate how much a cartoon (or anything requiring voice talent) gains just from having its actors recording their lines together in the same room.

Beyond its emphasis on conversation, what makes Saddle Rash a quintessential Bouchard production is the mixed success of its hero. Slim gives it a good try, but fails to shoot Morgan. He has to be saved by Saddle Rash's townsfolk, who come up and jump Morgan from behind.

Slim is a representative Bouchard protagonist; a double amputee trying to be a gunfighter isn't that far removed from an eight-year-old with a camcorder trying to be the next Stanley Kubrick or a burger flipper with no business savvy trying to be a restaurateur. Slim doesn't totally succeed, but at the end of the day, he comes out of it alive. Like Brendon Small and Bob Belcher, Slim gets all he can reasonably ask for. And he ends up with the girl in the end—even though he doesn't seem to be that interested, and the girl demonstrates her affection by slugging him in the face. In the Bouchard multiverse, an unalloyed victory is a virtual impossibility.

Of the pilots that aired on Adult Swim during its first couple of years, the one that got picked up was Venture Brothers, and even as a Bouchard fan, I'm constrained to say it is/was the better choice. Saddle Rash is a superb one-shot; I'm not sure it had much potential as a series, especially if Slim was set to return as the protagonist. How many "armless badass" jokes is it really possible to make?

But man...Bouchard mentioned in an Adult Swim message board Q&A that it takes a year and a half to make a pilot. Can you imagine? Working a year and a half on something that basically amounts to an audition, only to have it turned down and get hurled back to square one. Back to the drawing board; draw up a new concept, fund a new source of funds, get a new team together, come up with a new pitch.

But Bouchard dusted himself off and got back on that horse, and went for one last ride with Adult Swim.


The pilot episode of Lucy, the Daughter of the Devil aired in October 2005; its ten-episode first (and only) season didn't make it to television until September 2007. Unlike Saddle Rash, this one was practically an oblation to Adult Swim. It's twelve minutes long, cheaply animated, blasphemous, bizarre, consistently rated TV-MA, and it has H. Jon Benjamin voicing not one, not two, but three major characters.

Bouchard and Small were apparently drinking from the same creative punchbowl at the end of Home Movies' run; their first two post-Home Movies projects take a sharp turn for the dark. Small's darkness led him towards the Heavy Metal meets Emperor meets Scooby-Doo amalgamation that is more or less Metalocalypse; Bouchard followed his darkness into a strange borderworld where South Park, The Omen, Paul van Dyk, and Cliff Huxtable's sweaters are blasphemously combined.

Lucy, the Daughter of the Devil is undoubtedly (and by design) Bouchard's most cinematic project. More precisely, it is the most cinematic vis-à-vis the film sensibilities of Home Movies' young filmmaker Brendon Small. Lucy exists in the ludicrous world where Brendon's films are situated. The hinges are off, thrown out the window, and smelted down in hellfire. Home Movies had to return to something like reality when the camcorder was turned off, but Lucy gets to be grotesque and batshit insane from beginning to end.

One legitimately cinematic touch is in the unique opening sequence of each episode. I won't paraphrase Bouchard when he can best explain it himself:

I guess my feeling is that I want it to feel like these little events. I want it to feel like these little movies. We’re doing a different open for each show....Each episode has a little [cold open] and then a little unique theme song with unique graphics....

It’s gonna be like that every episode. It turned out to be obviously a little bit of work, but they’re sort of low-fi and goofy. For me, I just love that when you’re watching James Bond or whatever. It’s a series, but it’s also a movie. That unique little theme song is kind of our way of making each one, rather than a sitcom, like ‘here you go, here’s your favorite characters and they’re sitting on the couch just like you left ‘em last week,’ hopefully this feels a little more like these 11-minute movies that happen to have these kind of characters across all of them.

Lucy's story is pretty straightforward: the Antichrist walks the Earth, and she's a 21-year-old art school graduate living in San Francisco and working at Tequila Sally's, a Mexican restaurant owned by her father, Satan. She's under pressure from her dad to marry an influential United States senator who's instrumental to his plan to catalyze the apocalypse. Meanwhile, Lucy has been getting involved with Jesus, a meteoric young DJ whom her father can never seem to kill off (unlike her other boyfriends). He's also the Second Coming, so Satan really wants to kill him, but it's complicated because Jesus is the only one who knows how to work the karaoke machine at Tequila Sally's. And as all this is happening, the Vatican has dispatched a kind of ecclesiastical special forces squad to travel to San Francisco and prevent the end of the world by assassinating Lucy.

Okay—it isn't straightforward at all. Let's try to clear this up with another round of bios in brief.


The Antichrist. Twenty-one years old. Recent art school graduate. Works at her father's Mexican restaurant, but is uninterested in doing any of his other work. DJ Jesus's main squeeze. Kind of inconspicuous and mild-mannered, but can be scary when she's mad. Voiced by Jessi Klein (swoon) in the pilot; voiced by Melissa Bardin Galsky in the series.


The Prince of Darkness. The Father of Lies. The Archenemy. Responsible for all evil in the world; has recently expanded into the casual after-work bar and grill business. Malevolent and dangerous, but easily distracted. Wishes his daughter would get with the program and help him get his end of the world plan moving forward. Voiced by—who else?—H. Jon Benjamin.

DJ Jesus

The Second Coming. Lucy's new boyfriend. Wants to take DJing to the next level by doing something that's more than DJing and also less than DJing. Is also an escape/performance/food artist, and dabbles in writing. Not a bad guy, but kind of self-absorbed. Voiced with too-cool-for-school mellowness by Jon Glaser.

The Special Fathers

Paramilitary clerics dispatched by the Vatican to kill the Antichrist before she can fulfill her terrible destiny. Sometimes they moonlight as exorcists and vampire hunters. Father Cantalupi (H. Jon Benjamin) is the field leader; Father Benetti (Sam Seder) is the quiet one; Sister Mary (Eugene Mirman) is the loose cannon.


The Devil's Advocate. Satan's personal assistant. Very serious and committed. Frustrated by Satan's lack of focus. Has a fetish for carnage. Voiced by Melissa Bardin Galsky.


DJ Jesus's unctuous toady. Follows Jesus around religiously (so to speak) and helps handle his PR machine. Tries way, way too hard. Might not be as loyal as he lets on. Another character voiced by H. Jon Benjamin, but sounds very little like the other two.

 Senator Whitehead

An influential United States senator who calls Satan master. Has presidential ambitions and a throbbing lust for Lucy. Knows how to grandstand for the media, but his monstrous temper is a liability. Voiced by Sam Seder, who has white-hot small man rage down to a science.

You expected Saddle Rash to be a Western satire; now you expect that Lucy, the Daughter of the Devil will be rife with theological commentary and barbs directed at organized religion. Strike two. Lucy doesn't try to make any kind of point about anything; it's absurdist through and through. But the myth of the devil—like that of the Old West—strikes a powerful cultural resonance. It's familiar enough to riff on and effective at seizing people's interest, but is also still (or was pretty recently) taken seriously enough to carry some gravitas. And Lucy does need the Book of Revelation gravitas in order to be as creepy as it often manages to be, in spite of how its animation style can best be described as "computer-animated claymation" and all of its extras look like generic Fisher Price "Little People" toys—easy to duplicate and animate, and unlikely to evoke any kind of visceral viewer pity when they're gruesomely killed en masse through Satan's machinations or murdered by a ticked-off Sister Mary. your mother sucks cocks in hell pray to satan pray to satan pray to satan

Lucy, the Daughter of the Devil is an anomaly in the Bouchard canon not because it's so generally bizarre, not just because its bawdy irreverence and ultraviolence bear much more resemblance to South Park than Dr. Katz, Bob's Burgers, or even Home Movies, but because it's so gleefully heartless. There's nary a trace of the WE ARE STRONG TOGETHER, misfits of the world unite in solidarity, be good to the people in your life heartfulness of Home Movies or Bob's Burgers, and the usual recipient of this heartlessness is Lucy herself. Her father has her boyfriends murdered and says insensitive things about her weight. DJ Jesus is clearly more interested in himself than in her, and doesn't really make a secret of it. The Special Fathers are trying to kill her; Senator Whitehead is practically stalking her; and nobody notices when the sex offender busboy at Tequila Sally's ties her up and leaves her in the walk-in fridge. And meanwhile, Satan and Sister Mary are murdering men, women, and children, and we point and laugh. And most of the female extras are voiced by a mock-effete Todd Barry. Nobody really comes out looking good, nobody really empathizes with anyone else, and a lot of people die horrible deaths for no reason. Hell is empty and all the devils are here.

But on a show where Satan is one of the main characters (and God is nowhere to be seen), you can't go in expecting heart. This is a dark comedy. This is a satanic good time. There's little room for tenderness in Tartarus.

But with the exception of heart, it has all the other familiar hallmarks of a Loren Bouchard project: an emphasis on conversation, H. Jon Benjamin making up his own lines, and tight parallel narratives that overlap conceptually, if not directly. Managing to cram three individual and complete plots into twelve minutes is not an unimpressive feat, and Lucy makes it possible. Though she's ostensibly the protagonist, she usually doesn't do very much (because she's a lazy millennial); she's merely the point of intersection between Satan, DJ Jesus, and the Special Fathers, who are the ones moving the stories along. Lucy sits at the center of the apocalyptic whirlwind (more literally she's sitting on the couch), but she isn't the one stirring it up.

So superlatively pure is Lucy, the Daughter of the Devil's cult status that it has no perceptible following. I have yet to speak to a single Lucy fan, but I've seen their tracks in cyberspace. Somebody bought all of the T-shirts; somebody's reviewing the DVDs. But it evidently didn't get the ratings Adult Swim required for a second season, and that was that. (Robert Frost said that hell is a half-filled auditorium, and that's pretty much what Lucy got.) Maybe that's why it never quite amassed an appreciable cult following, even though it's just the type of show that deserved one: there's just not enough of it to fall in love with. Counting the pilot, there are eleven twelve-minute episodes, which amounts to a miniseries spanning roughly two hours. Watching it all the way through is just enough to hook you and make you want more; but like Lucy's unfortunate boyfriends, it got killed off before people had much of a chance to become enamored of it. It's no surprise that after Lucy, Bouchard looked towards places other than Adult Swim to host his next project.


We've only got one left, but there's going to be a bit of a delay. April is coming up, and you know what that means. We'll wrap this up in early May.

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