The way various TV chat shows have coped with quarantine during the pandemic has been fun to watch play out, with Seth Myers and Samantha Bee thriving, Bill Maher and John Oliver barely missing the live audience and the rest basically lost in the ether, making little or no impression for weeks and months at a time.
So I was intrigued at the Disney/Jim Henson Co. pitch “Earth to Ned.” It’s a special effects and puppet-centered chat show, with a single guest each week, lots of produced bits, and is thus somewhat more scripted than spontaneous.
Unlike say, “Space Ghost: Coast to Coast” or “Mystery Science Theater 3000” or even “The Muppet Show” or “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson (puppet-happy),” it’s aimed at kids. There’s no edge, no innuendo, just very adult guests and the occasional zinger — some off-the-cuff — that will fly over the heads of the intended audience.
Chat shows in general always take a while to hit their groove, and one where there’s a lot of technology is sure to have its human-connection hiccups.
But one truism that comes to mind watching “Animaniacs” voice actor Paul Rugg, as the titular reptilian host “Ned,” and his anteaterish alien sidekick Cornelius (Michael Oosterum) interact and hunt for laughs, is that networks put in ALL that time trying to line up the perfect host for a reason.
And they cast stand-up comics, female or male, black or white, Asian or Scottish, because being quick-on-one’s feet is JOB ONE, even when you’re sitting at a desk with a four-armed alien puppet as your avatar.
There are moments when Rugg is interacting with horror director Eli Roth, or “Get Out” funnyman Lil Rel Howery, or Gillian Jacobs or Andy Richter, Rachel Bloom, where something funny comes out. Talking about music with Bloom, Ned, from a species that typically invades and takes over planets it has an interest in, laments that there is “No music, no art, no lacrosse, nothing” entertaining on the planet where he’s from.
Bloom, pretty far removed from TV’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” explains the 12-tone musical scale (It’s an educational show, kids!) and Ned comes back with “I’m sort of an alto, with a baritone rising.”
He tries to make jokes over the culture clash (the set is an environment “buried deep in the Earth’s crust”), or being as ill-informed as say, Zach Galifianakis in “Between Two Ferns.” Gillian Jacobs is “a woman of a thousand voices.”
“I don’t do impressions…at all.”
And they try to make a game out of her impersonating his favorite alien entities. Are there crickets in space? You’d hear them during that bit.
Asking a star “How much money do you make?” seems unrehearsed, as Jacobs bats that away as if she’s teaching the kids at home, and the childish or at least new-to-Earth host, “it’s rude” to ask that.
Richter, Conan O’Brien’s sidekick, is the first episode’s guest and advises sidekick Cornelius (there’s also a female computer voice/CGI screened “mask” face) on what’s required in the job.
“Only swing at the pitch that you think you can hit.”
Roth lists his reasons for getting into horror, his favorite scary movies, and jokes that aspiring filmmakers in the audience need to master “the point” and “The Claw.” Those are the two gestures every director has to make the most on the set, pointing to something that needs to happen, giving notes to actors making this “claw” shape with your hands, as if you’re molding your words into the clay sculpture you want them to become.
The guests talk about “formulaic” college drama programs, how to make any name sound sinister (Hiss-whisper it, “Jesssssssssicaaaaaaa!”) and other tidbits about pop culture on Earth.
“Oh, is that sarcasm? Teach it to me!”
The special effects are more polished than is absolutely necessary. Cheapness and obvious fakery is always funnier. The recorded bits have the occasional Disney Channel (“High School Musical” the latest iteration) plugs, as indeed is Roth’s first “scary” movie experience (“Pinocchio”).
But far too much of the banter is of the “Sorry, sir. I’m still getting the hang of this” variety. The educational material, teachable moments, stand out more than the comic ones. Not that there are many of those, either.
The last time I interviewed Frank Oz we talked of whether those old “Muppet Shows” would play to new, 10-and-under audiences. He didn’t think so. And the last version of “Muppets” to make it on the air, via Disney/ABC and “adult” in tone, was a bust.
“Earth to Ned” may click with kids. But are they really going to sit still for a chat show? Even if the not-that-kid-centric guests have something interesting to say? Even if there are rubbery or computer-generated aliens interacting and attempting wisecracks with them?
I doubt it. If this was a regular network and the first shows landed with the thud that these do, there’d be panic and a mad hunt to recast. Round up a list of funny stand-up comics who might be willing to work a puppet. Josh Robert Thompson (“The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson”) can’t be the only one.
Cast: Paul Rugg, with Gillian Jacobs, Eli Roth, Taye Diggs, Lil Rel Howery,
Credits: A Disney+ release.
Running time: Episodes @:23 minutes each.