If you didn’t know Kyle Mooney was behind Saturday Morning All Star Hits, you’d be able to tell within a few seconds. This parody of children’s TV from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s looks back on the sitcoms and cartoons Mooney’s generation grew up on with a mixture of irony and nostalgia, making fun of the low production values and factory-made nature of those shows, while also injecting them with adult emotions and subject matter. It’s not anything we haven’t seen before, but Mooney and his partners Ben Jones, Dave McCary, and Scott Gairdner have a reliably keen eye for detail in both the live action and animated segments; between that and the show’s serialization, Saturday Morning All Star Hits grows weirdly compelling the further you get into it. I felt I knew exactly what to expect from the whole series after watching the first trailer, but Mooney and Co. take this thing to surprising places.
If you grew up watching Saturday morning cartoons on the three major networks—especially once NBC started to filter in live-action sitcoms like Saved by the Bell at the turn of the ‘90s—you’ll immediately recognize what SMASH is going for. It purposefully looks like it was recorded on a VHS tape, with fuzz and tracking issues, and abrupt cuts during commercial breaks, as if somebody hit pause as soon as the first toy ad hit. Mooney plays the fictional Saturday morning block’s hosts, generic SoCal surfer dude twins named Skip and Treybor, as they introduce a variety of recurring cartoons. Those short cartoon parodies include Randy, a “cool” teen dinosaur who skates, wears backwards ball caps, and hangs out with what seem like middle schoolers while struggling with depression over growing up and away from his first girlfriend; Strongimals, an excessively violent ‘toon that’s equal parts Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Thundercats; and the Create-A-Crittles, a Care Bears / Alvin and the Chipmunks hybrid about an ad artist under intense pressure to redesign the logo for a sub sandwich chain. There’s even a Bobby’s World riff starring Mooney’s SNL stand-up loser, Bruce Chandling. They all seem a little obvious and predictable in the first episode, but as the storylines carry over and develop throughout the season they become weirdly specific and absurd. They’re not just vaguely recognizable cartoon stereotypes doing and saying things they’d never do in real cartoons, but defined characters dealing with dilemmas both realistic and ridiculous.
What makes SMASH transcend initial expectations is how absurd those stories become over time. This isn’t just a case of making old cartoons vulgar and violent. Yes, the show tries to get laughs from those played-out, toothless shock tactics, but aims for so much more. Mooney, Jones, McCary and Gairdner create an entire little pop culture world that closely resembles our own without ever ripping anything off too directly or blatantly. They piece together shards of the junk foisted upon kids 30 years ago to make a surreal kaleidoscope that seems like something we know while also feeling unsettlingly off. It’s not a comedy with jokes, per se, but one that gets by on the contrast between familiarity and absurdity, on taking something we think we should know and then upending those expectations.
Like much of Mooney’s work, Saturday Morning All Star Hits has a strong Tim & Eric vibe. It’s not as dada-esque as those shows, though, or as cynical. Nobody would accuse SMASH of being “anti-comedy”—even with a Bruce Chandling appearance. It nimbly walks the line between nostalgia and parody, less interested in mocking the specific shows it evokes than that whole era of corporate entertainment and the youth culture it was both reacting to and helping to create. So if you were put off by something as acrid as Tim and Eric’s sitcom parody Beef House, you might still enjoy the softer, but no less weird, concoction that is Saturday Morning All Star Hits. It’s still a little limited by how many similar projects have come out over the last several years, and by Mooney’s own history with this aesthetic, but ultimately SMASH becomes something more than it needs to be, and that’s why it’s worth watching.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.