Saturday, March 8, 2008

"it's the most fun in the park..." [1.02 - the tale of laughing in the dark]

Original Airdate: August 22, 1992
Director: Ron Oliver
Writer: Chloe Brown
Starring: Christian Tessier, Aron Tager, Daniel Finestone, Tamar Kozlov

After first seeing this episode when I was almost-but-not-quite-six-years-old, I easily drew two conclusions.

ONE: Clowns have been put on this planet to suck the souls out of me, you, your grandmother, and innocent kittens everywhere.

TWO: O hai that red-haired boy is foiiiiiiiiiiiiiiine (not in the as-paint sense, but closer to Toni Basil's more celebrated Mickey-appreciation).

This first conclusion was shared by kids across North America, and the second began my tradition of the next ten years of crushing on remarkably immature assholes. I refuse to apologize for either. And it easily explains why Stephen King and Ronald McDonald are two of the richest men in America - they know that kids are fucking terrified of clowns, and they're not above abusing this knowledge to sell a few books or manipulate kids into eating their cheeseburgers.

Also, Christian Tessier still is ridiculously hot. Hey. I knew that he was hot before I even liked boys. I knew that he was hot before I knew what HOT was - before that embarrassing rolling-off-the-bed-onto-the-radiator scenario. Also, he was Megabyte. MEGABYTE. And if you don't know what that means, I want you to stop reading this right now.


I mean it.

Okay, moving on.

The episode opens with a voiceover by Betty Ann (the best Midnight Society member in history, in case you were unaware), who narrates the goings-on at an amusement park called Playland. She focuses on the funhouse, called Laughing in the Dark - a pretty cool homage to the 'Laff in the Dark' track rides which used to be standard fare at these places back in the '40s and '50s. We follow two little girls inside, one with considerably less acting talent than the other, as they face mechanical dummies, the fire hazard of the century (my thoughts of "Seriously?" war with "Damn it, how come I never got to ride that as a kid?!"), and finally, a revolving wall which gives way to a room best described as something Lewis Carroll would dream up after getting to third base with a bottle of absinthe.

The room is full of large, misshapen doors with numbers painted on them out of sequence (and mock though I might, I seriously am in love with the art directors for this show - they knew their shit; especially that disorienting art deco is way creepier than the tired cobwebs-and-gloom bit). The girls must choose the correct door to find the exit. They decide on number six, hoping that they'll find a brand new kitchenette in addition to the way out. And behind door number six is...


...okay, I'm lying.

But either way. Creepy shit.

We cut back to the kids around the campfire in the standard Midnight Society bookend, where Cher Horowitz - sorry, I mean, Kristen - expresses her concern over having to sit through a clown story. What I love about this show is that the kids were never After School Special in their dialogue - they mock Kristen relentlessly for her claurophobia (though not all of the insults are zingers - so sayeth Eric's lame burn of "Bozophobia"). They don't even apologize for it at the end of the episode. How true to life is that? Also in realistic fashion, Kristen only sits out the rest of the story in an attempt to show up the others. Gotta love Canadian peer pressure.

Anyway, apparently Betty Ann had started telling her story prematurely - that is, without prefacing it with the requisite "Submitted for the approval of the Midnight Society..." and throwing of the LSD into the campfire and whatnot. I guess all things premature are a sore spot for Gary, because he actually seems pissed at Betty Ann when he hands her the bag of magic dust, even saying in a snotty tone, "Start for real this time." Well, excuuuuuuuuuuuuse me! This is why I'm one of the few people who liked the introduction of Tucker in later seasons; he knew when to stick it to Gary for being a douche. Betty Ann, the Tenzin Gyatso of her generation, merely starts her story anew without the bat of an eye at Gary's asshattery.

In tonight's story, we meet Josh, Weegee (which I guess is supposed to be a really unfortunate nickname for Luigi), and Weegee's sister, Kathy. It's a good thing I trust Betty Ann; in the hands of one of those other kids, characters with names like Weegee could be one step away from an exploitation flick. After exploring Playland's other rides, the kids find themselves in front of the Laughing in the Dark spookhouse, but Weegee and Kathy refuse to enter. They've heard it's really haunted. Josh, a responsible and mature young man, respects his friends’ opinions, and shows them his support through the art of interpretive dance. To be slightly more serious, it only takes Josh precious few moments (I'm lazy, so pretend I added a link to a picture of a Precious Moments coloring book) to establish himself as the episode's resident asshole, which makes things interesting as we're stuck with him as our protagonist, as well. Goody. As a kid, I was both too hung up on the power of Dreamy McRed and terrified of future blood clown shenanigans to give a shit about this, but now that I'm older, wiser? I'd love to give this kid a bitchslap that would shake mountains.

Then enters the greatest man to ever grace a TV screen. Ever.

(Besides Andy Rooney.)

"Pick the right door and you'll go free... pick the wrong door, and there he'll be."

Let me take a self-indulgent moment to talk about Aron Tager.

If he looks familiar to you, then congratulations; you, too, are familiar with the face of God. Hooray and mazel tov, whatever your denomination may be. Another reason he'll look familiar to you is because of his other work on this series - as a certain doctor who is not a nutbag. I've seen him in plenty of other non-AYAOTD projects, and this guy is pretty much the greatest character actor living today. It's a shame he's not more recognized, but I have a feeling he likes it that way. He also is a talented artist, which probably occupies much of his time, annnnd I will end the Mr. Tager lovefest now, before you fall asleep at your keyboard or he files a restraining order, whichever comes first.

So, anyway. Creepy carnie enters stage left out of nowhere, bumping into Josh and saying, "'Scuuuse me, lad!" in a way that tells you he's totally not sorry at all. I already love this guy. (I am also not above repeating a joke for my sole amusement.) He introduces himself as the operator of the spookhouse, and begins reciting a delightful couplet about its mascot, Zeebo the clown, which sounds more geared to scare the kids off than entice them to take a stroll inside. The way he says "He's in there, all right. Just.... waitin'." would have had me hauling ass twenty minutes ago. Seriously. I would have found a way to turn back time just so I could get the fuck outta there before this guy even STARTS talking about the funhouse clown like they're BFFs and about to invite me out to the local malt shop. (Then I would've saved Lincoln from being assassinated and taken him out to Pizza Hut. But that's another entry, my friends. That's a whoooole 'nother entry.)

Kathy and Weegee are smart enough to amscray. Making me love him even more, the carnie mocks Josh in a very pleasantly condescending way ("Coming in, Mr. Brave Young Man?") and also, somehow, affects this Southern accent that for a moment turns him into Blanche Dubois, sexy funhouse operator. Predictably, Josh bolts.

Now that we're safe back in suburbia, behold the single greatest kids' bedroom known to mankind. Ignoring those horrifying silhouettes of random crowd people, that is one sweet ass room, and it has any kid who ever owned one of those racecar beds beat by infinity. Weegee, however, is too busy to focus on his Most Triumphant room, as he's been doing some research on Zeebo the clown.

Hooooooold the phone.

Research? They're... they're doing research instead of sneaking into the park after hours to explore? Hey-- what is this, a kids' horror anthology, or Babysitters Club Mystery #77: Even Canadian Ghost Clowns Make Fun Of Mallory?

Weegee's apparently gotten pretty intensely into the subject, as these are Ye Olde Pre-Internet days, and he actually had to go to the LIBRARY and make PHOTOCOPIES and possibly RISK PAPERCUTS, and urgh, this episode has gotten too scary, even for ME.

Check out that bitchin' mugshot! Nick Nolte, eat your heart out.

Awesome alliteration aside (see what I did there?), Weegee's learned a few things about the Laughing in the Dark spookhouse. Even though the ride's been at Playland at since at least the '20s, it burned down in 1924 when a clown from a neighboring circus hid inside with the circus payroll of $4,000; police suspected the cause of the fire to be Zeebo dropping one of his lit cigars while on the run. The ride was rebuilt a few years later, and I'm guessing the owners of Playland didn't quite learn their lesson when they added that giant fire-breathing dragon stunt. That, or they're lovers of irony. Ooh, spooky, but what bothers me here is that factoring in inflation, $4,000 comes close to $50,000 today.

Fuck school, I'm joining the circus.

After hearing that someone actually died where the funhouse now stands and his friends' cowardice isn't entirely unfounded, Josh, naturally, decides it'd be a great idea to:

a.] Ignore the story.
b.] Go back to being incredibly annoying.
c.] Chase after a ten-year-old girl.
d.] All of the above.

Congratulations if you picked d!

Actual Episode Dialogue Alert:
"Here comes Zeebo to tickle you! Tickle, tickle, tickle--"
/Actual Episode Dialogue Alert

Three guesses as to how that one ends.

And no, Weegee doesn't destroy him for attempting to tickle-tackle his little sister.

Great brotherly instincts, there.

Good thing that little Kathy is tougher than she looks. And, hey, people's heads really do make funny noises when smashed in with metal objects, as cartoons have so aptly taught us. Weegee tells Josh to lighten up, and Josh expresses his hurt and anger by calling his friends "feebs." I'll bet that really broke their hearts.

Josh continues to mock them for being afraid of a kiddie ride, and it's obvious where this is going. If not, you must've been hiding in a cave during the better part of your childhood. Weegee dares Josh to go inside the funhouse alone. Josh accepts the challenge in typical '90s faux-aggression: "You're gonna eat those words!" Smells like teen drama. In the fastest scene transition EVER, Josh grips the neck of Weegee's shirt and turns his back to face the camera; when he pulls him away, it's now night and the kids are in front of the funhouse. TV magic.

Kathy points out that there's no definite way to know if Josh goes the whole way through the ride, as the entrance and exit lead out the same door - he could just hang around the entrance and never go through. Josh decides to spice things up, saying he'll steal Zeebo's nose as proof, and that Weegee has to wear it to school for a week, which I think is a little much. If I were Weegee, I'd just blackmail him in the balls with something along the lines of threatening to tell the other kids at school that the kid has an unhealthy interest in tickling his little sister.

Josh makes another snotty comment, then "bravely" goes to enter the ride--

"Sorry, m'lad... I didn't mean to... SCARE ya!"

Holy shit, do I love this man.

Any resolve that Josh might have had quickly evaporates after being scared by the carnie barker, as it should. Especially since he recites crpytic shit like "It's the most fun in the park when you're laughing the dark!" in this gravelly voice and bares yellow hobo teeth at him when he smiles. The kid goes inside, anyway, becoming unnerved by a monster dummy before coming across a hallway of distorted mirrors.

Josh must be a Goodfellas fan, as he then decides it'd be oh-so-super-cool to impersonate Zeebo by drawing an invisible gun and asking his reflection, "What do you think I am? Some kind of clown?"

Then comes the money shot.

Though we only glimpse him for a few seconds, seeing Zeebo in the mirror is some crazy shit. Not because it required any great special effects, but because the unseen is often a lot scarier than what's shoved in front of us - and these few quick frames of Zeebo are all that we actually see of him throughout the entire episode. Josh is understandably freaked out, and runs through the rest of the funhouse, nearly getting barbecued by the mechanical dragon, which would have upped the scary factor by a hundred. Can you imagine if this kid died and ended up haunting the funhouse, too? Jesus, nights at the park soured after being tickled by an annoying preteen ghost. They'd have tear the place down rather than risk sexual harrassment suits against the undead.

Josh finally makes it to the Absinthe Room, and I can't get over the fact that he's wearing Doc Martens and white socks with shorts and a bright green long john shirt. I don't care if this is the '90s, that's just... stupid. Wait a minute, maybe this IS a Baby-sitters Club book. Dibble.

After one unsuccessful try, Josh finds the door to the exit and is prepared to say hasta la vista before he pauses, reminding the audience with an Emmy-worthy soliloquy that if he doesn't get Zeebo's nose, he's "dead meat." He manages to find the door with the Zeebo dummy on the first try, and I'm kind of pissed, because I want to know what's behind those other doors. This episode was filmed at a very real amusement park - La Ronde in Montreal, now owned by Six Flags (La Ronde, not Montreal) - but I'm still dying to know if the the ride was only built for the episode or if it's an ACTUAL funhouse, and if so, does it still STAND? My life will not be complete until I am positive of what hides behind doors 1, 2, 3, and 7.

Although he's one step shy of pissing his pants, Josh manages to steal the nose, which returns his smugness full-force. And, I shit you not, he's even cocky enough to flip Zeebo off with his own nose before he leaves.

It's a little difficult to see because of the nose on his finger, but yeah. Yeah, he went there. And NICKELODEON went there. Mind, this was (WAS, definite past tense) also the network that wasn't afraid to air the phrase "pissed off" or a joke about a condom machine (God, I miss Salute Your Shorts).

Cue to next day. Josh is acting like he's the Parker Lewis of the seventh grade, and even considers having the nose made into a trophy, engraved with the words "The Kid Who Beat Zeebo." Hemingway would be proud.

Emo clown cries real emo tears.

Weegee sits there being emo about actually being had by this idiot, but can you blame him? Especially when Josh starts talking in second person, which not-so-coincidentally signals Weegee and Kathy's exit from the scene. Josh thinks he smells cigar smoke nearby, but... nahhhh, couldn't be.

When Josh enters his house, it's suddenly night. As it was a bright afternoon when his friends ditched him, either this is a continuity error or Josh hung around outside by himself for a few hours. I choose to believe the latter, as it brings mental images of Christian Tessier alone in the front yard, playing with a DayGlo pink Skip-It.

He finds a note left by his parents, and helpfully reads it aloud, adding important character development two-thirds into the episode. The information we glean is that his parents are theatre-goers, and Josh likes video games and hates spaghetti. It's a shame this is a TV show instead of a book, or I'd have just geared you up for the Accelerated Reader test. Also, there's chocolate pudding in the fridge; UNLIMITED chocolate pudding. There's unlimited pudding? This party is going to be OFF. THE. HOOK.

...okay, that one was kind of a stretch.

Ah, pudding. One of those foods that, while not exactly nutritious, still tastes - may I say it - fawesome. Josh is apparently a fan, too, because after he tosses his spaghetti in the microwave, he takes out the gigantic bowl of pudding and STICKS HIS HAND IN AND LICKS IT OFF. Whoa, there, soldier. Maybe he's just dealing with his parental abandonment issues through comfort food, but still.

Then occurs an event which rocked Bill Cosby even more than the Jell-O Pudding Pop Scandal of '89: Josh hears a door creak and drops that big, beautiful bowl of chocolate pudding all over the floor. Too bad this isn't a Mentos commercial, or he would have found a thrifty way to mold the spilled pudding into a great likeness of his parents to greet them when they return from the theatre, possibly inspiring them to boost his allowance thirty more cents!

He hears a strange noise coming from the closet, and as is always smart to do in a horror setting, demands that whoever's there show themselves. Naturally, they don't, because that defeats the element of surprise any typical horror villain tries to achieve after sneaking up behind someone with a hacksaw. Unfortunately, the closet ends up being devoid of monsters, but Josh does his best Fibber McGee impression and knocks all of the stuff out of the closet, anyway. It's a great moment in 1930s radio.

The phone rings, scaring Josh. It's Weegee, who apologizes for how he acted that afternoon. Josh, who was freaked beyond belief a moment ago, hams it up once again before hanging up, confidence restored. I'm starting to think this kid is bipolar.

The phone rings again, but this time it's not Weegee. Instead, it's an avid cigar-smoking clown who snickers "Give it back!" in a crackling voice before Josh hangs up on him.

Unless Josh's house has two lines and a plot point is being borrowed from that baby-sitter urban legend, then Zeebo is one of the first proud cell phone owners of the '90s. Those things were as big as suitcases, so all the more power to him for lugging it around in his mission to hand this kid's ass back to him.

Returning to the kitchen, Josh - as per usual this episode - starts talking to himself when he goes to set the table, and ends up with about twenty forks and knives in his nervousness.

"I ain't afraid of no ghosts!"

Right, schizo and bipolar.

The microwave timer goes off, and as clouds of thick smoke escape from both the microwave and the dish, Josh wonders how the spaghetti burnt so fast. He lifts the dish lid, and...


On the bright side, he now has a semi-legit excuse to never eat spaghetti again.

As a kid, I never understood what was supposed to be so scary about a bowl of cigars - and to be honest, if it weren't for Josh's constant running commentary about smelling cigar smoke, it would have just looked like a dish full of charred intestines to me, which is infinitely scarier. Not to mention that the first time this aired, I assumed it truly was some sort of mangled body organ. (My childhood was filled with delightful dreams.)

Further proving why he wasn't selected as the lead for Home Alone (and not even offered the bit role of 'annoying red-haired older brother' that another early '90s Nick star, Mike "Big Pete" Maronna, played with ease) Josh reacts by screaming akin to the way one might when badly attempting to fake sick. You know the sort.

"Mom, I think I'm gonna hurl-- seriously, it's like-- it's like I'm gonna hurl in a way I've never hurled bef-- bleuuuuuurgh... OH MY GOD, I JUST BARFED UP AN ALIEN FETUS! AHHHHHHHHHH!

..............I'd better stay home from school today, huh?"

"When I grow up and get married, I'm living alone!"

That kind of half-assed scream.

As for the spilled pudding that gave Cliff Huxtable an aneurysm? Well, our faithful writer is never one to leave us hanging...

Insert inappropriate shoe size joke here.

You know what they say. Introduce a loaded gun in the first act, show a bowl of spilled pudding with an evil clown shoeprint in the second. Those AYAOTD writers know their dramatic structure. This follows with an extreme close-up of the Z, finally answering those burning questions that have been plaguing us the entire episode: yes, Zeebo does aspire to be a Zorro-esque vigilante in the name of gangster clowns everywhere, and yes, it's more than likely that the director of this episode is a pseudonym of Garth Algar.

Continuing in the spirit of slasher flick bimbos, Josh runs upstairs instead of out the front door. Hey, what about grabbing some protection? Perhaps one of those forty knives he set the table with could've done him some good, and even a wayward spoon can work some serious damage.

Josh also decides now would be the best time to let bygones be bygones, and DIALS WEEGEE INSTEAD OF THE POLICE.

...yeah, okay.


True, police aren't so fond of calls for help against ghost clowns, but make some shit up! Say it's a senile neighbor with a carving knife who thinks you're a meatloaf! Call Egon Spengler and the gang! Even calling The Police would be infinitely more helpful than your whining pre-emo BFF who's a worse actor than you are. I think Zeebo would've agreeably gone on his merry way if his night ended with a rousing chorus of "Message in a Bottle" and exchanging a firm handshake with Sting.

Unbelievably, Josh asks Weegee if he's behind all of the cigar-and-pudding-print shenanigans. (You're giving your pal too much credit here, kid; just because his voice broke first doesn't make him any more intelligent. After all, he's friends with you.) Before Weeg can ask if Josh took his daily Ritalin, a raspy third voice cuts into their conversation:

"If you don't give it back, I'll come up and get it!"

Within seconds, the doorknob begins to rattle, and Josh struggles to lock the door he FORGOT TO LOCK. That should be strike number three for this kid. And television for kids or not, the shots of Zeebo's feet under the door make for suitably creepy stuff. What makes it creepier (well, if "creepier" was the definition of pathetic) is that as a twenty-something, I now wonder if he tracked that chocolate pudding up the stairs. And, hey - ironic twist if Josh ends up grounded for it!

Next, from under the door, comes something which absolutely HAD to be inspired by IT. (I haven't seen Killer Klowns From Outer Space in years, so maybe they had a similar gag, but from what I remember of the film, they seemed a lot more content with knocking bikers' "blocks" off than sending cryptic balloon messages.)

This was the part that freaked me out most when the episode first aired. I don't think it was so much that all that separated this kid from certain doom was a flimsy wooden door; just the balloon popping in his face bothered me. I mean... hey, man, that's breaking boundaries of PERSONAL SPACE. Not. Cool. Apparently it freaked Josh out most, too, because THIS is what finally gets his ass in gear.

In a move that could only be calculated to nudge Danny Elfman out of the running for 1992's esteemed title of Redheaded Dude Who's Clinically Insane But Not Really, Josh then turns and jumps out the window.

Onto the inflatable dragon-shaped pool toy conveniently placed below his window.

Of course.

After presumably picking a box of cigars fresh from his family's cigar tree, because that's far more likely than some middle schooler buying them at the store (don't question this, there are far worse things than plotholes when it comes to early '90s children's programming), our hero heads back to the amusement park which is completely deserted (adding breaking and entering to your list of misdemeanors, Josh?) to apologize and return the loot. Considering that the reason the clown died in the first place was because he stole an entire circus payroll, the hypocrisy in the "lesson" this kid is being taught really boggles the mind.

Even though the park is closed, some of the funhouse's stunts still seem to be up and running (the work of ghostly influence, or additional plotholes? you decide), and by the time Josh makes it to the Absinthe Room, he decides it'd be a better idea to bolt.

Zeebo disagrees with this course of action, as the door leading to the exit becomes stuck. Josh is now trapped.

Door number six pops open, revealing Zeebo's true form to be........ enough strobe lights and fog machines to make a KISS concert jealous. And that's just not exciting enough to warrant a screencap, sorry.

Realizing he's fucked if he doesn't do some first class ass-kissing pronto, Josh sets down cigars + nose, and meekly apologizes in a way that should've been MUCH more convincing. I mean, if you're trapped in a closed amusement park with the ghost of an evil gangster clown, bargaining for your LIFE... I don't know, now's when I'd start throwing around promises to wax his Oldsmobile every Sunday, s'all I'm sayin'. Luckily for Josh, Zeebo apparently hasn't read How to Make Friends and Influence People, either, as he accepts the apology and the door to the exit springs open. Josh scrams. (He's sore-y, I'm sure.) Lesson learned.

Isn't it great now that they're all better people?

But wait, that's not all!

After Josh runs back towards home - maybe to clean up that spilled pudding, maybe to pack his shit and move to another province that's notoriously gangster clown-less - the wizened old carnie barker steps in front of the funhouse, looking deeply amused. And what's that in his hand? WHY IT'S A BRAND NEW CIGAR HO-LY SHIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIT


In a moment that makes all that came before it look like an episode of Lamb Chop's Playalong, the carnie throws back his head and cackles as dark smoke billows from the giant wooden Zeebo cut-out's cigar and calliope music plays ominously in the background.

It's a lot more menacing than I'm making it sound.

Shut up.

Returning to our cozy campfire, Kristen is proud of herself for not relying on Depends at a single point in Betty Ann's story. The kids take turns guessing the barker's true identity, but David is the only one bright enough to get only the most obvious "plot twist" OF ALL TIME, which is that Zeebo and the carnie guy share the same pair of gonads. (AND THEY'RE NOT CONJOINED TWINS.) Since this "story discussion" aspect was only present in the earliest episodes, it's safe to assume the writers realized most kids watching would be smart enough to understand the endings without help. That, and kids don't want to feel like they're in the classroom reading circle getting rugburn on their knees when they just want to watch some damn TV. Meanwhile, Eric, perhaps concerned that Kiki is about to steal his spot as Most Annoying Midnight Society Member, reclaims his title by pulling out a clown mask that he just randomly happens to have (let's not go into the logistics of that) and scaring Kristen with it.

"It's the most fun in the park, when you're laughing in the dark..."

I remain convinced that the character of Josh is based on an irritating next-door-neighbor of Betty Ann's. (Christian Tessier even plays an obnoxious bully in another one of Betty Ann's stories; coincidence?) He's probably always copying her homework, and borrowing lunch money but never paying her back, and showing up at her house uninvited on weekends, forcing her to entertain him with impromptu ghost stories and asking her to make him bowls of puddi OH HEY PLOT POINT MYSTERY SOLVED!!!! But, as she's too much of a pacifist to actually confront the asshat, she resolves all unpleasant thoughts and feelings through the therepeutic guise of a campfire story about said kid getting chased by an evil gangster clown.

Who doesn't even disembowel him in the end.

She sure showed him.

Hey, I know that guy!:
If you take any Canadian actor in his or her mid-to-late twenties, chances are they were in an episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark? (Or Goosebumps. But they don't like to talk about that.) As I make my way through these episodes, I'll point out the array of Canada's finest that honed their acting chops on the YTV soundstages. Christian Tessier is actually the biggest star in this episode. (But if you didn't lie to me and yourself and actually know who Megabyte is, you didn't have any problems with this.) He also rounded out the cast of another Nick staple of the time, You Can't Do That On Television.

I declare this meeting of the Midnight Society:
Awesome. On a scale of Eric to 10 (that's my new rating system, btw, with 10 = excellent and Eric = do not pass go do not collect $200 sucktastic), I give "Laughing in the Dark" a fairly generous 9.

What can I say, I'm nostalgia's bitch. Yeah, it may not hold up as well as my terrified childhood memories of it do, but even though it's not the best episode of the series, nor the scariest or even the first, it's still one of the earliest episodes and the first time many kids of my generation were exposed to the horror genre. P.S. VIVA ARON TAGER