You long haired fat-bellied goofy tattooed 60's throwback Village People wannabe biker freak!

The subject heading is from one of the episodes included in Duckman: Seasons 1 & 2, available this week. This set surprised me, because I usually expect nothing but the lamest presentation from CBS/Paramount home video (home of the bare-bones sets, flimsy packaging and rescored Fugitive episodes). But this is a really well-done set. The special features are extensive: a commentary on the pilot by Duckman voice actor Jason Alexander and Duckman creator Everett Peck (he created the comic on which the series is based; the series was somewhat different — including changing Duckman’s marital status from married to widower — but he was involved with supervising the art direction for the show), a 30-minute featurette about the making of the show and its characters, featuring Peck, showrunners Jeff Reno and Ron Osborn, and most of the voice actors; another featurette on the look of the show and the characters; original promos for the series’ premiere on the then-fledgling USA network; and an “interactive guide” to the Duckman characters. Either there’s a big Duckman fan at Viacom who ordered some money to be spent on this thing, or CBS/Paramount is changing its ways. I’m assuming the former.

The box has Paramount’s usual disclaimers about possible edits and music changes (a meaningless disclaimer, as it turns out; the new Cheers season 10 set doesn’t have that disclaimer and still has extensive music cuts, while other sets have the disclaimer and no edits). I can’t say for sure that no music has been changed, particularly because the first season used music by Frank Zappa (who died while the show was in pre-production) and my Zappa knowledge is limited. (Plus the only first season episode I have for comparison happens to be one that didn’t have any Zappa in it.) But I did hear some real music cues in the episodes, and one good sign is that Zappa’s music credit is still there in the first season credits — normally, when Paramount trashes the music, they change the credits too. Others who are more familiar with the first season than I am will probably be able to find out whether there are music changes and if so how many; I can say that the episodes I was familiar with appeared to be unchanged. Picture quality is fine for an early ’90s animated show; stereo sound.

So, as far as I can tell, a fine set. The show is an acquired taste; I acquired it when Teletoon showed it over and over in the late ’90s. (They never showed the first season, because CityTV had the rights and refused either to show the episodes or give the rights up; so if you saw the episodes on Teletoon, the first 13 episodes will mostly be new to you.) The show it resembles most in tone is South Park, which it pre-dated by several years — Duckman was killing his stuffed assistants, Fluffy and Uranus, long before Kenny was getting killed every week — it combines gleefully tasteless humour with very earnest, sometimes heavy-handed social commentary and literally no limitations as to where the stories can go (aliens, the supernatural and the Ark of the Covenant make frequent appearances). To this it adds some pathos, mostly to do with Duckman’s sad life since his wife’s death (this was something the show added to make him slightly more sympathetic; in the comic, his wife was still alive), and a dialogue style that Reno and Osborn brought over from their years writing and producing Moonlighting: long, long scripts delivered at insane speed. The voice actors, particularly Alexander, Nancy Travis and Gregg Berger (as Duckman’s super-efficient partner Cornfed) are all really good at spitting out dozens of words in a few seconds while making all the words audible and comprehensible.

The comedy still holds up — even today, some of the jokes are pretty shocking — and so does the social commentary. Actually, most of the subjects it deals with have only gotten worse; the second season opener, written by Michael Markowitz, takes part of its plot from an old Moonlighting episode, but after that, it’s a series of nasty jokes about trivial, mindless media coverage in the 24-hour news cycle: “not because it’s important, but because our constant coverage makes it important.” There’s even a throwaway line about “World Trade Centre Terrorists” (1993 vintage). Nothing has changed except in a negative way, but at least that means the show isn’t dated.

I think the show improved as it got a tiny bit less dark and more whimsical — my favourite episode on this set is season 2’s “Inherit the Judgment: the Dope’s Trial,” which is partly a satire of creationism but mostly just an excuse for a really silly, wacky trial sequence with every sure-fire trial gag you can think of. In season 3 (due for release in January) they started treating Duckman and Cornfed almost as an old-school comedy team, even turning them into Crosby and Hope for a “Road to…” episode (again, Family Guy was late to the party on this one). It’s Berger as Cornfed who really anchors the show even in weaker episodes; his fast-talking monotone, which the character considers closer to Jack Lord than Jack Webb, is always hilarious, and as Alexander says in the commentary, Berger is the only actor who nailed his character right from the first episode.

Good set (as far as I can tell); recommended for fans of prime-time animation or those nostalgic for the early years of USA (when, as one episode reminds us, they mostly showed “Wings, Wings, Wings and Wings“).

Here’s a semi-famous clip from one of the episodes on this DVD, again preceding the whole Family Guy “stretch out a joke forever until it’s funny again” technique:


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