As if human beings telling lame Monica Lewinsky jokes wasn’t not painful enough, now we have chimpanzees doing it. Imagine: there are now TV writers earning a living peddling multi-mammal humor. What a clever species we are. Too bad that chimps themselves would be hard-pressed to find this one-joke premise anything close to amusing. Even the laugh track backing “The Chimp Channel” sounds halfhearted. But say this for the opening half-hour of this original summertime series: It has teeth. Lots and lots of ’em. As an advertisement hyping the simian dental-hygiene industry, in fact, it proves flawless. As comedy, it plays somewhat closer to a hot poker to the gut.
Yet perhaps the timing is serendipitous. It speaks volumes that as the millennium winds down to its final few months, one of the most advanced cultures on Earth hopes to entertain its masses by reducing mankind’s evolutionary cousins to the equivalent of special-effects puppets. What seems cute in small doses feels awfully humiliating in this expanded format, sucking out any novelty and leaving in its wake only the uncomfortable entrails.
“Chimp Channel” evolved, so to speak, out of TBS’ “Monkey-ed Movies” series of two-minute and three-minute shorts that served as interstitial sked filler. They satirized movies via costumed chimps and orangutans, who acted out (via exaggerated movements, effects and voice-overs) scenes from blockbuster features including “Titanic,” “Good Will Hunting,” “Jerry Maguire” and “As Good as It Gets.”
“Monkey-ed Movies” proved to be clever stuff, in large part because it was short and sweet. It was just an irreverent little diversion made terrific by some dedicated training and impressive mimicry.
But with “Chimp Channel,” TBS monkeys with an undeniably thin concept and stretches it past the limit.
The conceit here is that apes are running a cable network called the Chimp Channel — TCC for short — that’s all chimps and orangutans, all the time. All the movies, series, newscasts, commercials and promos star, and are produced by, apes. The laughs, unlike bananas, do not come in bunches. The few that emerge trickle out noisily, as if from a leaky faucet.
The opening teleplay lists five scribe credits: Tim Burns, (also co-executive producer), Tom Stern, Dan Redican (also one of the voices), Bernie Keating and Neil Alsip. The quintet laces the pilot with a Lewinsky fellatio joke, a Boy George closeted-gay reference (how naughty!) and a shameless piece of Time Warner synergy that finds them inexplicably inserting a mention of the HBO series “Sex and the City.”
As for the full-on parodies, the debut seg tosses out a “Touched by an Angel” takeoff (“Touched by an Anvil”), a “Baywatch” send-up that’s set in, uh, a tree (“Treewatch”), a truly cloying “Larry King Live” lampoon (“The Murray Price Show”) and such mocking moments as “America’s Most Uncomfortable Videos” and unmemorable comic takes on “Braveheart,” “Xena: Warrior Princess” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
You would figure some legitimate wit might emerge in “The Chimp Channel” just by accident. Alas, it pretty much never does in spite of some sharp, well-organized direction from Mitchell Walker and the uncannily effective animal work from head trainer Bob Dunn, coordinator Mike Morris and their team.
Maybe TBS should have allowed the monkeys to run things for real. They couldn’t have done a whole lot worse. Tech credits are infinitely better than the material deserves.