Welcome to another Bloomsday, everyone! Glad you could make it!
A chronological appreciation of Rachel Bloom’s musical work is rather difficult in her early career, since her independent video work was often released parallel with her professional writing gigs. Robot Chicken isn’t her first writing credit (that distinction goes to the short-lived/terrible/quickly-forgotten Jonah Hill cartoon Allen Gregory), but it was the first time that she was afforded the chance to write songs for a show, since the motto over there is pretty much “Anything Goes.” Bloom wrote a lot of skits, all of which are available for perusal in a playlist on her YouTube page, so in the interest of time I’m going to highlight only her sketches that are song-based. So here we go.
Independent Robot Woman (featuring Ke$ha)
“Ke$ha sang this music video I wrote! How cool is that?!” – Rachel Bloom.
That’s very cool. In fact, I’d say it’s the perfect cap to Bloom’s Ke$ha trilogy, but the release dates actually puts this sketch airing a few months ahead of “Die When I’m Young” being released online, so this is actually the middle of the trilogy.
Anyway, the skit is a Terminator parody, one where all military robots have turned on humanity, except for the one played by Ke$ha, who has decided that she wants to be a superstar. The song takes up a little more than thirty seconds of a 58 second run time, but even in that small space Bloom manages to convey one of her typically complex jokes about feminist theory in media. The Ke$ha-bot is claiming agency over her own sexuality, stating at the top of the video that she can be whatever she wants. However, there’s the lingering question of her design: she was, after all, designed as a “sexy robot,” with a chassis that explicitly evokes a small waist, breasts, and long blonde hair (but no skin, apparently). Does her design under the parameters of the male gaze undermine the politics of her choice to pursue hedonistic pleasures? What of the fact that her explicit weaponization subverts many of her aspects as a sexual being in the first place? How about how all of this ties into the original “sexy robot” designed to bring down insurrection, the Maria-bot from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis?
None of these questions are answered, of course, because Ke$ha-bot accidentally says the trigger-word (“ho”) that arms and detonates the atomic bomb built into her.
“Never Ending TV Theme song!” – Rachel Bloom
Why, yes, this sketch does pre-date Too Many Cooks. By about two years, in fact. You can’t get the full impact of it, since apparently [adult swim] didn’t want to put the whole sketch up on YouTube, but you get the gist of it: it’s a TV theme song that just keeps going and going and going, the kind of cheesy, bouncy, repetitious theme that can cycle back on itself endlessly. Unlike Too Many Cooks, the skit stays relatively on-point, letting the premise build and twist until it’s utterly unwieldy, but not psychotic. Unusual for a Robot Chicken skit, and in hindsight a major asset to differentiate it following the horrifying Too Many Cooks, the skit never gets too deranged or stark. It gets absurd, certainly, but there’s a weird plausibility to this sketch – this is the kind of joke show that could conceivably exist within a world of fiction. In fact, it kind of feels like the late-season version of a theme song, where there have been so many changes in location, cast, and premise that it’s practically a new show, but somehow the same property. This is also an interesting song/skit because there are clear shades of the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend theme, sharing hyper-upbeat melodies and a lot of information.
Schoolhouse Rock Reimagined
Oh boy… this song.
Being a free-form sketch show, Robot Chicken winds up covering a wide variety of joke styles and tones, though they’re typically all united under the general feeling of “this is what it’s like when a bunch of adult nerds play with toys.” They can range from silly to scathing, inspired to insipid, and cute to filthy, and the show most often comes under fire when it leans too heavily on mean-spirited, unimaginative, crass humor which… this kind of is. (Though that final punchline is kind of brilliant.)
Your mileage may vary, but there’s something off about the execution here. Bloom has written darker songs and skits than this, but there’s a component missing that makes those other songs palatable, one best highlighted in the difference between Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck cartoon. The best Bugs Bunny routines have Bugs retaliating against a bully, and “I Steal Pets” works on the same principle. Her protagonist is certainly doing wrong, but she’s so damaged and everyone treats her so horribly that she has our sympathy. More typically, Bloom works on the Daffy end of the spectrum, where a blowhard seeks to assert dominance, gets beaten down by the world, and refuses to stop. This is most evident in “NOBODY WILL WATCH THE F*CKING TONY AWARDS WITH ME!” where Rachel puts down everyone she comes across and finds herself watching the Tonys alone with a weirdo before ultimately getting tasered by a cop.
“Schoolhouse Rock Revisited” effectively tries to have a trio of Daffy Duck protagonists execute the actions of a Bugs Bunny cartoon, but the violent reactions are disproportionate to the offense and the three Schoolhouse Rock characters come across as rather vicious bullies. It feels like there should be more pushback to their actions, but everyone not committing grammar transgressions seems to be on their side. It doesn’t help that this feels less like a skit and more like a longstanding grievance that turned into a musical rant.
Where The Dirty People Are
Bloom touched on Disney a lot in her tenure at Robot Chicken*, and of course one of the two song parodies is centered on one of her favorite subjects: The Little Mermaid. Bloom herself plays Ariel (apparently the only time she actually sang on the show), exploring the wondrous treasures at the bottom of New York City’s East River. Ariel largely retains her personality from the original film, and Bloom gets a lot of comic mileage out of the classically naive and cheerful Disney Princess interacting with garbage and discarded horrors. Musically it’s a pretty spot-on parody of “Part of Your World,” getting as close as it can without crossing over into “legally actionable,” though she occasionally has to stretch the meter for some of the jokes.
*My personal favorite of which is “The Baloo Identity” – a parody of The Borne Identity that riffs in great detail on the connections between The Jungle Book and its reimagined spin-off Tale Spin.
Horror Friends Forever
“I wrote this sketch as a tribute to true friendship.” – Rachel Bloom
Horror cinema cycles through a handful of iconic villain archetypes, including the Seductive Humanoid (Dracula, the creature from Species), the Deadly Jester (Freddy Krueger, Charles Lee Ray), and the Silent Unstoppable (Michael Myers, Jason Vorhees), and crossover films typically pit disparate monsters against one another. In “Horror Friends Forever,” Bloom wonders what would happen if you threw together two of the same type of horrors, and imagines that the result is Instant Friendship. It’s actually a reasonable assumption for Michael and Jason, especially since the latter is a knock-off of the former. They’re almost literally cast from the same mold, and goes a way toward explaining why, later in the video, they shut Leatherface out of their friendship. Though he never articulates anything, Leatherface still communicates in screams and grunts, betraying feelings of pain, confusion, and fear. Likewise, his mask is a stretched and distorted human face, conveying the twisted inner psyche, clashing against the non-expressions of Michael and Jason. As for his weapon of choice, the loud chainsaw just doesn’t fit with a pair of knives.
The music is incredibly catchy, with that overly clean sound that can only be achieved by having several pitch-perfect singers harmonize. There are several layers of vocals, laying down White Doo-Wop accompaniment and accents, like “oooohh”s, “do-do-do”s, and “ba-da-da”s. It’s difficult to tell how much instrumentation is actually at play, though there is clearly a percussion track, given away by a splashy fill at one point. Lyrically it’s all about juxtaposing violent and cute actions, from stabbing slutty girls to sharing cookies.
The visual highlight of the piece is the contrast of Michael and Jason’s over-the-top body language, contrasted with their utterly blank and stationary masks, but as hilarious as that is it often overshadows a lot of the smart details in the frame. There’s the severed fingers in the yellow case when Jason and Michael are stringing together their BFF bracelets, and the handwritten photo captions in their blood-stained scrapbook, like one depicting Jason impaling a guy on a golf club that says So proud of you Jason!!! “Golf Claps!” and Remember her?! Sorority girls! The best scrapbook detail though, barely visible at the bottom of the page, reads: Our first kill – 1981, which was the year both films premiered their first sequel, and the first time Jason himself was behind the hockey mask. Major kudos to whoever came up with that.
Like “Where The Dirty People Are,” “Grown-Up Halloween” is another Disney parody that comes packaged with one of Bloom’s pet themes; in this case the awkward confrontation of adolescence with adult sexuality. Jack Skellington takes the Mayor of Halloweentown on a tour through an adult Halloween party, where the aim isn’t to scare people, but there’s some pretty scary stuff anyway (namely, unprotected sex, STIs, and vomiting). It’s not exactly a nightmare scenario, but it does paint the hyper-sexualization of Halloween as significantly less cool than advertised.
Okay, I said that I would only cover Bloom’s song-based sketches, but this is so steeped in musical theater behavior that it just feels right. (Plus, “Grown-Up Halloween” is a weak note to go out on).
How do velociraptors coordinate their complicated, multi-front attacks? They train with a fucking choreographer is how! It’s a smart observation, considering how often Dr. Grant talks about the grace of the dinosaurs, and the way Muldoon discusses their intelligence and ruthlessness. It’s not too much of a leap to see those elements in the absolutely brutal world of dance.
Sporting a beret, neckerchief, and leg warmers, our nameless choreographer velociraptor (Choreograptor?) is every stereotypical theatrical dance instructor, relentlessly pushing his dino dancers toward perfection while whipping out a string of devastating put-downs and insults. The Choreograptor is utterly unforgiving, with a mean streak a mile wide – the quintessential characteristics of a Rachel Bloom antagonist. Interestingly, most of Bloom’s protagonists are antagonists. “I Steal Pets,” “I Was a Mermaid and Now I’m a Pop Star,” “Pictures of Your Dick,” and “NOBODY WILL WATCH THE F*CKING TONY AWARDS WITH ME!” all have singers who make life hell for others. None of them, though, are likely to disembowel a park engineer. That’s something.
That’s about it for Rachel Bloom’s (more or less) musical sketches from Robot Chicken. Join me next time when we’ll dive into Rachel’s first album, Please Love Me.