Commentary: 'Cavalcade' inviting high expectations

But Seth MacFarlane project not as funny as it wants to be

Perhaps the strangest of the first 10 installments of "Seth MacFarlane's Cavalcade of Cartoon Comedy" is "Two Ducks Watch 'Meet the Parents,' " which oddly enough depicts two ducks watching "Meet the Parents." As they deconstruct just how unfunny they find the Ben Stiller film with an articulateness not often seen among waterfowl, you might experience an unintended meta-irony watching this absurdist riff: Like "Parents," "Cavalcade" isn't quite as funny as it wants to be.

Then again, "Parents" had it easy; all it had to do was generate chuckles at the local multiplex. "Cavalcade" is intent on jump-starting a new form of entertainment, that of Internet video, and one that commingles comedy and commerce in unusual fashion given that it is being distributed in part as an advertisement for Burger King on Google's ad network.

This foray from MacFarlane, creator of Fox's hilarious "Family Guy," isn't finding great expectations imposed on it as much as it is openly inviting it. "Cavalcade" has been ushered into existence on the wings of multiple fawning profiles in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, which were orchestrated in advance of press screenings and a premiere party. Most old-media productions with exponentially bigger budgets would toss a virgin into a volcano to please whatever god is responsible for getting this kind of attention.

Another level of context to keep in perspective is where "Cavalcade" will be viewed. Some will experience these vignettes as advertisements on Web pages that Google will target, like Maxim.com, for the young male-skewing demographic that enjoys "Family." Others will take it in at destination areas like Burger King's YouTube page or SethComedy.com, MacFarlane's new self-branded site.

In either venue, "Cavalcade" could seem a tad odd for MacFarlane fans accustomed to watching him on TV. Sure, the animation style is identical; watching these shorts you half-expect "Family" character Peter Griffin to waddle on the screen at any moment with that trademark laugh MacFarlane himself voices like a braying goat sucking helium.

But these self-contained two-minute vignettes are a different breed than MacFarlane's shows (he also created another Fox series, "American Dad," and has a third coming out next year, "The Cleveland Show"). His TV work has a unique rhythm wherein the characters often make bizarre references that bring the narrative of an episode to a halt, digressing to vignettes that illustrate those references.

It sounds jarring on paper, but they often are the funniest moments of a "Family" episode. And there's the logic underlying "Cavalcade": Why not just let these snarky bits stand on their own, especially if Burger King is willing to pay you for them?

Alas, what sounds nice in theory doesn't quite work in execution. Freed of serving as a counterpoint to "Family" narrative, these vignettes feel isolated and scattershot.

The first episode, "A Dog on the $25,000 Pyramid," is a weird choice simply because few people younger than 40 will even recall the game show at which they are poking fun. On TV, it's OK for MacFarlane to work a wide demographic spectrum; online, it might help to reference something post-1995 to resonate with the younger set that consumes online video.

Maybe that's why the best of the bunch is a merciless lampoon of Matthew McConaughey. "Cavalcade" imagines the worst fate a human can experience: being stuck on a life raft in the middle of the ocean with the actor, who chatters aimlessly despite a fellow drifter who starts stabbing him to death. Just about anyone who has seen McConaughey prattle on talk shows can understand such a homicidal impulse.

But it is when MacFarlane moves completely away from pop culture that "Cavalcade" turns bizarre. Prepare to feel your jaw slacken watching "Mountain Climber," in which the titular character relieves himself on a precipice that happens to hang over a couple exchanging their vows. Flying excrement, which also appears in a second "Cavalcade" short, is probably not the best image for a brand best known for flipping burgers to be associated with, but so be it.

And to think MacFarlane actually likened the humor in "Cavalcade" in a Times interview to the cartoons in the New Yorker. I've seen the New Yorker, Mr. MacFarlane, and you're no New Yorker.
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