“I have a sense of humour, I laugh at Tony Danza”:
A retrospective of King of the Hill’s early years, 20 years on
The first scene in the first episode of King of the Hill sees 4 guys standing around outside, drinking beer, and talking about last night’s Seinfeld. The scene ends with the line “I tell you what man, them dang old New York boys. Just a show about nothing”. Right from the opening moments, we’re hit with a great self-awareness and a very 1990′s kind of irony, because King of the Hill, like Seinfeld, was a show about nothing.
Maybe I should clarify. I don’t think Seinfeld really was a show about nothing (it’s a common misconception that the show ever sold itself as that. It never did - it was actually just the label George applied to his sitcom idea) but instead, a show that seemingly made something from nothing. Both KotH and Seinfeldwere oddities of their time, neither of them housing notable gimmicks or concepts to base their episodes around. Instead, there was a looseness to both of their styles, and to the way in which they approached their subjects, a freedom to be their own thing which set them miles apart from their contemporaries.
When KotH came around in 1997, the other animated show to which it could most easily be compared to (on the surface, at least) was in actuality the furthest thing from it - unlike other animated family sitcoms, almost nobody has ever accused of KotH of ripping off The Simpsons. The shows were never rivals, due in part to KotH and The Simpsons being on the same network (KotH followed The Simpsons on Sunday evenings), but also because there weren’t many easy ways to compare them. Sure they were both animated shows about middle American families, but KotH had such a distinctive voice of its own that it’s possible to love both it and The Simpsons without making them battle it out for supremacy. In fact, their difference allows them to complement each other fairly nicely, and there are a lot of episodes of both shows that would pair well with each other.
While South Park, which also came out in 1997, had an attention grabbing coarseness which allured both College kids and younger kids looking for something to watch when their parents went to bed, and The Simpsons was, well, the biggest show on earth, KotHhad to carve out a niche of its own, but a niche big and stable enough for it to survive. It was a little show that had an impossibly enormous task to take on: to follow The Simpsons. And not just The Simpsons, but 1997 The Simpsons. Height of it’s popularity, biggest show of all time, The Simpsons. And remarkably, whilst also being one of the slowest and most idiosyncratic shows on Fox, KotH managed to do so.
It was beneficial to the show that Creator Mike Judge had a solid history, creating the equally as unlikely cult hit Beavis and Butthead for MTV which, on looking back, shares a great deal in common with KotH. Both are shows that are distinctively recognisable and very much products of their time, and both function primarily as cult oddities that somehow crossed over into the general consciousness. Looking back on them today, it’s hard to believe they were as massive as they were; it’s both heartening that they did so well, but disheartening to think that they might struggle if they came along now. While KotH has a devoted fanbase, and, yes, a strong presence in memes (Mike Judge’s classic Office Space, which is as close as you can get to live action KotH, similarly has been immortalised in memes) and youtube edits, these are primarily perpetuated from built-in fans who grew up on the show. But, maybe in the age of Netflix, we can hope that new generations will keep discovering it (the catch-22 of streaming services is that while they might reignite interest in animations like KotH, they force us to remember that animations such as Drawn Together existed. Shudder). It’s not that common to hear much mention of KotH outside those who dearly love it, which has as much to do with its unassuming style as it has to do with the fact that it’s the shortest lived of the Big Animated shows. The show went out on top after a damn impressive and consistent 13 seasons, at which point, despite solid ratings, it was cancelled to make room for the short-lived and poorly received The Cleveland Show. If you could possibly need more ammunition to hate Fox repeat that to yourself: King of the Hill was cancelled to make room for The Cleveland Show.
Right until the end, KotH was well received and admired, and the consistency it maintained was not just of quality but of style. What was essential to its success was that instead of needing to shake up the style or the voice of the show to simply keep it fresh, what it focussed on was developing and refining that voice. And it helped that the voice was pretty powerful right from the start.
King of the Hill’s first season was short but strikingly strong. At 12 episodes long, it has a tightness and sense of direction that serves as a sort of mission statement for where the show would go in the future. It’s kind of incredible to see characters presented in the very first episodes of a show that feel fully formed, and that more or less, remain the same throughout their 13 years on our screens. Like Seinfeld, Peep Show or, and stay with me here, The Sopranos, what makes King of the Hill’s characters work so brilliantly is that they are fleshed out people from the start, with the writers revealing essential and complex aspects of them over the years, rather than randomly gluing traits on to them in an attempt to shake things up. They always act in character. Everything you find out about them - their fears, prejudices, their weaknesses - are there from the start, waiting to be uncovered. But what also links these four shows is the maddeningly realistic difficulty the characters have in trying to change. It’s that frustrating feeling that they should be learning something, but a fundamental stubborn-ness - and humanness - hinders their doing so. And so, Hank is endlessly desperate to keep things the way they are, and Peggy is desperate to be proven right (and she usually is, by the way). But underneath that stubborn-ness, there is a sweet, kind-hearted want for things to be better, and for people to be better. And that’s what KotH is nearly always about - people struggling with every day problems and trying to grow from that, whether they’re successful or not.
The second episode Square Peg, is an unusually good sophomore episode which follows Peggy trying to overcome her nervousness at having to teach a sex ed class. It’s a simple premise, but from it grows a story with character development - or at least an attempt at it - that feels natural to who Peggy fundamentally is. Instead of going off in absurd directions, the episode takes the time to explore the reasons that Peggy struggles to even say the names of sexual organs, and sympathetically follows her through her self-taught breakthroughs. It’s heartfelt, but funny - hearing Peggy enthusiastically shout “Vaaaa-ginaaaa!” is one of the biggest laughs of the season.
Even in episodes that prefer to focus on something absurd like Bobby practicing flirtation and kissing on a plastic doll’s head, there is a truthfulness to the characters that make the silliness feel realistic. Of course Bobby would do that because he’s silly, awkward and kind of weird. But how do we know that? Because the show shows rather than tells us that in stories that are always on point and within the realm of believability (except, maybe for Hank’s clothes being torn off by a tornado as he holds on for dear life to a telephone pole. But that’s so funny that it doesn’t matter). The second season episode, Meet TheManger Babies, is one of the finest examples of how an inherently funny premise (and execution - Brittany Murphy’s voice work throughout this show was phenomenal) can still work even when it secretly hides a genuinely moving backstory. Luanne is revealed to be the product of a severely broken home, and a throw-away line when Hank points out that she has a natural talent with puppets reveals that she’s used to using puppets from her visits from social workers. The episode hears her talking bleakly about the world, about how everything is going to hell, and the story tells us that she just wants some sort of stability and reliability in her life; even if it is Hank showing up as God in her performance. The heartache of Luanne doesn’t detract from how funny the episode is, but it really does enhance it. A lesser show would’ve thoroughly mocked Luanne for putting on a christian puppet show, and while KotH does poke fun at some of the stranger products of Christian America, it also understands Luanne and gives reasoning to her beliefs. She’s not stupid for putting on the show, she’s just looking for answers and comfort in a world that has treated her awfully.
While the complexity in these characters lives is evident, and while the show is frequently touching, it never forces on the viewer any easy or saccharine view of things, and never, even under the complex morality plays that occur, does the show stop being funny. Watching them back, these first seasons are consistently funny, with every episode providing a wealth of quotable lines. The second season episode, The Son That Got Away, in particular has an exceptionally high laugh quotient. Hank’s “Bobby, Al Yankovich blew his brains out in the late 80′s after people stopped buying his records” and Dale’s suspicious yet oblivious “How’d he know I wanted a beer?” in regards to Johnny Redcorn answering yes to Dale’s wife when she asks “You want a beer, sug’” are some of the hardest times i’ve laughed at this, or any show.
It’s in the greatness of the scripting (Hank angrily telling someone “You take that back!” after they tell him John Wayne’s real name was Marion is the funniest possible reaction to that fact), but also in the voice work which is outstanding all-round. To hear voice work this good on a show from 1997 is unusual, and it’s even more unusual to hear a seasoned character actor playing a series regular - Stephen Root steals almost every scene he’s in as Bill. Kathy Najimy and Pamela Aldon both absolutely kill it with their voice work, making every punchline of theirs sell perfectly, whilst also bringing nuance to their characters. And Mike Judge has Hank’s voice down from the moment he speaks, intonation and everything. It’s always a blast just to hear the characters talk, and these early seasons prove that KotH is a contender for best Cast for any animated show, past or preset.
There is a certain magic in these early seasons being hand-drawn. The character designs are distinctive and expressive (I personally adore the widening of Hank’s eyes when he’s in shock, and Bobby just looks so damn funny without even saying a word), and realistically detailed in a manner that fits the show superbly. With wider shots of the landscape and the town, it was often downright beautiful, with a warm mood and tone of its own that makes me miss hand-drawn cartoons very deeply. There is an attention to detail in it which mirrors the show’s excellent observation of both the positives and negatives of the small town in which they live. The satire is deceptively sharp, especially watching it 20 years on. A particularly good second season episode focusses on gender inequality in schools, and how under-funded the girl’s sports facilities are. It’s a sharp-toothed episode that exposes the ingrained sexism in the town, sexism that doesn’t leave itself at the door - Hank is one of the worst perpetrators of it in the episode. And we get one of the best and most prescient lines of dialogue about sexism i’ve heard in a show - when Bobby faces the fact that he will for the first time have to prove himself as a good Wrestler to stay on the team instead of automatically having a place now that a girl has joined and there are less spaces, he says “Yeah, and it’s worse when they take away our favours, ‘cause we’re used to getting them.”. That line is applause worthy, and a good example of how good KotH was at tackling sexism. It gets extra credit for making a point to not make the girl, Kahn Jr, feel guilty for joining the team and instead pointing directly at the school and staff’s sexist policy and their refusal to cater in any manner for the girls of the school.
As well as sexism, racism is satirised when a Laotian family move onto the street, and characters, ‘likeable’ or not, performed painful but realistic and well-observed displays of racism, be it hateful or just ignorant. KotH didn’t shy away from these subjects and we should be glad that it didn’t - it was a satire, after all - one of nuance and experience that wasn’t afraid to pick out its characters flaws and expose them, always to strong and funny effect.
From episode to episode, it could bounce from functioning as a broader animation, to a social satire, to a heartfelt character study, and was often all these things at once. The episodes that i’ve rewatched lately from Seasons 1 & 2 are miraculously good - watching them again after so long feels like seeing an old friend who you realise you still have everything in common with, and not only that, but there are new things you didn’t realise you liked about them. The references to Seinfeldin the first episode might sound dated, but the only way in which KotH has dated is in the fact that there’s nothing like it on TV today. I didn’t just compare it to Seinfeld because they’re both 90′s comedies, instead I compared it because it’s the only comedy as methodical, precise and in its own unique mould that I can recall that managed such great success (and The Simpsons. But if I start talking about The Simpsons, I will not stop). I’m eternally grateful that KotH made it to 13 seasons (13 Seasons!!! That is A LOT of TV!!) and i’m excited to keep going with this rewatch, especially as there are dozens of episodes I didn’t see the first time around. It’s a warm but alert look at subtly flawed people - flawed in the every day sense - and a show that deserves to be remembered as one of the best comedies, animated or otherwise, ever made. 20 years on, its status as a classic only becomes more concrete.
On this day in music history: February 28, 1981 - “Don’t Stop The Music” by Yarbrough & Peoples hits #1 on the Billboard R&B singles chart for 5 weeks, also peaking at #19 on the Hot 100 on April 11, 1981. Written by Jonah Ellis, Alisa Peoples and Lonnie Simmons, it is the debut single and biggest hit for the Dallas, TX based R&B duo. Consisting of keyboardist Cavin Yarbrough and lead vocalist and keyboardist Alisa Peoples, the pair have known each other since childhood, when both took piano lessons from the same teacher. They remain lifelong friends, eventually forming a duo after Yarbrough works as touring musician for Leon Russell, during which time he meets Charlie, Ronnie and Robert Wilson of The Gap Band. The Wilson brothers are instrumental in Yarbrough & Peoples signing to producer Lonnie Simmons’ Total Experience Records. Once they are under contract, Simmons has Cavin and Alisa work with songwriter and musician Jonah Ellis on their debut album. Originally titled “When The Music Stops”, Ellis comes up with the basic structure of the song on guitar and a Roland CR-78 drum machine. Simmons suggests a title change, as well as changing the bass line and keyboards during recording. Ellis also brings in drummer Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett (The Jacksons, Madonna) to play live drums on top of the programmed drum track, and The Waters on background vocals. Released as a single in November of 1980, “Don’t Stop The Music” quickly becomes a huge hit on R&B radio. Its success in that format is so great that it unexpectedly crosses over to Top 40 pop radio. During a period when many R&B artists have been effectively “blacklisted” from pop radio airplay in the years following the end of the Disco Era, Yarbrough & Peoples’ crossover success is a significant feat, especially for a new artist. The success of the single also sends the duos debut album “The Two Of Us” to number one on the Billboard R&B album chart, peaking at number sixteen on the Top 200, and going Gold in the US. “Don’t Stop The Music” is certified Gold in the US by the RIAA.
How would you describe solarpunk to someone who's only heard of things like steampunk or cyberpunk?
Well. Like steampunk and cyberpunk, solarpunk is a sub genre born of the fears and desires of the time of its creation. Cyberpunk came about in the 80’s, as people began to fear the coming of system that would overtake freedom in the name of profit, and that the world itself would become a grimmer place. But with that came the dreams of heroes that could suborn that system, the original cyberpunks who called out that corruption and could fight against it.
In the time we live in, solarpunk was born of the desires for a better future, as many feel that the future is lost, that people do profit at the expense of others, and in a world where we have more food and space than we could ever need, people still starve and are left in the cold. From that, desires of technology that benefits from the sun and other forms of power that are freely available and prosperous. The solarpunks fight to bring the world back into harmony, to make a future where people can have hope in the light of the sun.
One of my heroes, Jonas Salk, was the creator of the original polio vaccine. Had he patented it, that patent would be worth billions today. When asked if he would, he answered “No. Can you patent the sun?”
That’s the core of what solarpunk is to me. Technology, science, human ingenuity, and spirit as freely available to encourage the growth of light and life without expectation of profit. Those are what the solarpunks want to fight for.