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What the hell was Strassman?

For what felt like a clean decade Strassman was the most popular comic in New Zealand, despite being very, very bad. How? Why? And all other relevant questions answered by Sam Brooks.

His most popular puppet is called Ted E Bare.

In our editorial meeting a few weeks ago, I brought up casually, as a joke, because I consider myself quite funny sometimes, “Whatever happened to Strassman?”

And then, in an act of cruelty which I’ve never been subject to (and I was a gay guy at an all boy’s Catholic school), I was told to watch minutes, ‘if not hours’ of Strassman videos.

I did what I was told to do.

But who is Strassman, I hear the beautifully naive amongst you ask?

David Strassman is a comedian that captured the eyes, and somehow the brains of New Zealand in the early aughts.

If you’re my age, you might remember that your parents didn’t let you watch it, or they might let you watch it after a few wines, and you’d brag at school about being allowed to watch it and repeat the jokes. If you’re older than me, you probably watched it and thought it was diverting, or maybe you thought he was the funniest thing ever. But you knew who Strassman was, and 15 years later he’s still a dull memory in the back of your mind, like algebra, or your overdue fees at Blockbuster. If you’re younger than me, well done! You have dodged a bullet.

Strassman had a late night talk show named Strassman that was filmed here, because he was a big enough name to have a show named after him that a lot of people would watch. He continues to tour here regularly, including a tour that wrapped up this week. He uploaded a video of his character Buttons, who appears to be an alcoholic clown, rambling around a park in Christchurch:

But how did this happen?

I have no goddamned idea.

He’s a ventriloquist. In the hierarchy of artforms, ventriloquism sits alongside street magician and street mime for easily derided, and slightly above playwright and lip-sync artist. There’s only so many times you can try not to look at someone’s neck trying to escape their body while their mouth moves slightly.

And, as every person you kind of hate on Facebook says, he’s not even from here. He’s an American who made it big at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, had a show in the UK, and then became huge over here because apparently what we were missing is a man with an admittedly quite impressive talent for robotics who tells naughty jokes.

This is a sampling of Strassman videos, and what precisely is wrong with them:

This is as bad as you think it is. There’s about a two minute stretch where two puppets talk about eating the pet turtles Strassman got them for Christmas, and the punchline is ‘Is that when they diagnosed you as a bi-polar bear?’ because a pun at the expense of mental illness is not only very fun but very, very funny.

Case in point:

Ted E. Bare: I just have this sadness I can’t get rid of.

Strassman: Well Ted E., you know what I do when I feel sad?

Chuck Wood (another puppet, it’s not important): He shoots heroin.

Ted E. Bare: Who’s heroin? Did they do something bad?

Ted E. Bare is Strassman’s most popular character, apparently, and is also called Ted E. Bare.

This is about as racist as you think it is. This special was filmed in Australia, and Grandpa Fred makes lots of jokes about immigrants to Australia (“Thanks Mr. Howard!” if you need to timestamp when this is filmed), but it’s okay because it’s a puppet, and an old bear, and he makes jokes about every culture, so the fact that he starts off with making jokes about Asian people is okay.

This strange casual racism is present throughout the other puppets’ routines, almost as if the same man is controlling the puppets and writing the jokes. I’m not going to repeat the jokes, but it’s the kind of joke that your uncle nobody wants to invite back to Christmas would make, that uncle that says, “I’m just saying what we’re all thinking!”

The video description reads: “Strassman’s very sexy robot, ANGEL, wants to be more human, more womanly – despite having no legs. ANGEL is missing something in her life and needs Dave’s help. She also has some surprise sexy attributes that will leave you laughing.”

I just… okay. Let’s be quick about this. ANGEL is a bunch of lazy sexist jokes  (‘women are too emotional!’, ‘women are needy!’, ‘women are jealous of other women!’) told by a robot puppet with exaggerated feminine features (this robot has breasts, of course). Like all the other puppets, it’s a chance for Strassman to tell the same pun over and over again, which is essentially, “Isn’t it funny that a machine is talking about other machines like they’re human?” “Isn’t it funny that this machine has human emotions?”. You’ve heard these jokes before. You’ve heard them done this badly before. You just haven’t heard them from a terrifying puppet.

Case in point:

Angel: “My boyfriend just left me. He said I was only using him for his money.”

Strassman: “Is that true?”

Angel: “Well yeah, he’s an ATM.”

This isn’t offensive or bad, it’s just horrifying.

A further list of his terrifying/horrifying/lazy characters includes:

  • Chuck Wood, what I can only assume is a possessed Thunderbird. He swears a lot and is rude. It’s (I can’t always be bothered gendering these stupid puppets) like a stale piece of toast.
  • Kevin the Alien, who is an alien. He swears a lot and is rude. There’s a pattern emerging here, you guys.
  • A little baby called Ricky who has this video if you never want to sleep again
  • Buttons the Clown, the aforementioned clown who apparently terrorized a park in Christchurch this past Saturday
  • Sidney Beaverman, who is a beaver or some shit

And let me repeat, just for posterity, clarity and effect: His most popular and famous puppet is called Ted E Bare.

But let’s get down to it: is he funny?

Answer: I don’t… know? I mean no, obviously. But I don’t know.

You know how your mum figured out that one joke that made you laugh and now every Sunday night when you’re obligated to have dinner with her and she’s opened that second bottle of wine and she won’t stop making that joke. That’s Strassman, except he’s pushing 60 and he’s made a lot more money off that one joke than I will make in my entire existence so who knows?

The problem is less that it isn’t funny – funny is subjective and comedy is subjective, as our Facebook commenters are keen to let me know – but more that it’s terrifying.

This is not a rant against the art of ventriloquism, it’s an artform and every artform has its fans, (remember that people go to university to study sculpture and many other kinds of art!) but jesus christ if you can look at anything else other than this man’s neck while he’s pretending that the robot he has his hand stuffed up is talking instead.

And my god does Strassman let you know that’s what’s happening. It’s like if you were watching Shortland Street and Chris Warner didn’t just turn to the screen and wink, but pressed his face up against the camera, so not only do you know you’re watching a TV show, you are forced to acknowledge you are watching a TV show.

But how did this guy become as famous or as huge as he was? In New Zealand, of all places?

Honestly? It’s easy. This is easy comedy.

David Strassman’s late-night reign in this country was in the early-00s.

Edgy comedy wasn’t huge then like it is now. We didn’t want to be offended, and honestly we still don’t want to be offended – there’s a reason why we all know what the fuck ‘bazinga!’ means. A lot of New Zealanders were perfectly happy to sit and watch Friends at 6:30, maybe The Simpsons at 7, whatever US three-camera sitcom was being dumped off at 7:30 and 8PM, and then after they’d had a few wines or beers, Strassman was cheeky enough to make you feel a little bit naughty, and even a little bit smart. Because for some people, that one second where you’re figuring out the pun, is the most beautiful second of your day.

And also, and this is the part that makes me a little bit ill, this is the kind of comedy that New Zealanders engage in with their mates. It’s a little bit cheeky, it’s a little bit sexist, it’s a little bit racist. It’s naughty. It’s dark like a pale ale, dark enough to make someone say ‘ouch!’ but not dark enough to make someone go home and think about what you said. It’s cheap, it’s easy, it makes you laugh, but it doesn’t make you fit. Strassman didn’t master and sell us the kind of comedy we like to see, but what he did master was the day-to-day comedy that a lot of New Zealanders (to paint not with a brush but with a roller) live.

But hey! He’s good at the very specific thing he does. The robotics are genuinely impressive and I’ve devoted too much of my time trying to figure out how some of them work. I guess he can make noises without moving his mouth (but HE DOES MOVE HIS MOUTH YOU GUYS HE TOTALLY DOES IT’S BULLSHIT). There are jokes. He doesn’t shit himself onstage–I don’t know, you guys. I don’t know what comedy is anymore.

He was huge then, he still tours now, he offered free tickets to his show to Dunedin factory workers just this past week so he must be a pretty cool guy.

His most popular character is called Ted E. Bare.

Maybe we don’t deserve nice things. Maybe we deserve Strassman.

And even worse? Maybe we want him.

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