'The Not Too Late Show With Elmo' and 'Looney Tunes Cartoons': TV Review

Courtesy of HBO Max
Energetic, funny and respectful to two beloved brands.
5/27/2020

HBO Max has a pair of winners as it mines two Warner Bros. legacy properties for a new series of 'Looney Tunes' animation and a 'Sesame Street'-driven talk show featuring Elmo.

For me, HBO Max's The Not Too Late Show With Elmo starts off with a major strike against it.

Who on Earth thought it was a good idea to give Elmo a talk show and make Cookie Monster his sidekick?

In human terms, it's as if somebody gave Dane Cook a talk show and then said, "Oh, and by the way, Steve Martin will be his sidekick" — a situation to which my primary response would be, "Reverse those two and you have my attention, but it's still probably too much Dane Cook."

I simply resent Elmo. When I grew up — an avid viewer of Sesame Street — Elmo was only getting introduced on the show and he was basically a different character, content to live in the shadow of the greats. Big Bird. Cookie Monster. Oscar the Grouch. And, first among equals, Grover — lovable, furry Grover. All of the things that Grover represented, from his courageousness to his hatred of contractions, were pushed to the side by the obsequiously pandering Elmo, who effectively usurped all the other Sesame Street Muppets and turned what was designed as an ensemble into his ego-driven, hug-starved playground.

Being right on a generational cusp myself, I don't blame millennials for much, but I definitely blame them for accepting the All About Elmo-ing of Sesame Street, an occupied territory like the Vichy France of children's TV.

That's a long preamble to acknowledging that if one absolutely had to give Elmo a talk show, HBO Max's The Not Too Late Show With Elmo is as good a version of such a thing as I can imagine. Minus a version in which Grover nudged Elmo down a flight of stairs, Showgirls-style, and took over the spotlight himself, something we all know Grover would never do (but which I suspect Elmo would do in a heartbeat, if the roles were swapped).

The conceit of The Not Too Late Show seems to be that in the 15 minutes between after-dinner chores and bedtime, three-and-a-half-year-old Elmo hosts an elaborately staged, star-studded in-studio talk show. Mirroring Elmo's desperate, rather pathetic, need for acceptance, it's a talk show in the Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon vein, complete with a monologue, guests and musical performances, but also games and stunts.

Put a different way, The Not Too Late Show is basically the Sesame Street Muppet equivalent of the original Muppet Show. Executive produced by Benjamin Lehmann and Ken Scarborough, even at only 15 minutes per episode, it's full of cameos from beloved Sesame Street characters, mostly woven into the behind-the-scenes drama on the show, which features Rosita as a well-intentioned stage manager; a frenzied Prairie Dawn running things backstage; Bert and Ernie monitoring the control room; Abby Cadabby rushing around with script revisions as head writer; and Mama Bear and the Monsters serving as house band.

The meta, inside-baseball side of The Not Too Late Show is funny, smart and packed with likable gags and puns and general silliness.

The host himself follows that template. Elmo delivers a monologue to start each episode — knock-knock jokes, not Donald Trump schtick, which is a relief since Elmo is, by his coloration alone, a walking, giggling MAGA hat — and then settles in for conversation and competitions with guests.

It's a gimmick that demands careful celebrity curation, and the three episodes sent to critics are marked by solid guest selection and participation. I don't like Jimmy Fallon all that much as a talk show host, but he's an absolutely perfect guest for an occasion like this, matching Elmo's energy beat for beat and even calling Elmo out for cheating in a staring contest. He's matched, in the first episode, by musical guest Kacey Musgraves, whose rendition of "Rubber Ducky" and subsequent banter are both charming.

Jonas Brothers do double-duty in the second episode, joining Elmo on the couch and singing a song about the importance of tooth-brushing — Elmo loves a good routine — while Elmo is off brushing teeth I'm not sure he has. Finally the third episode includes the always-game John Mulaney — parents, be prepared to explain "John Mulaney" to your kids — and a tremendous Lil Nas X, whose rendition of "Elmo's Song" is the most I've ever enjoyed anything Elmo-adjacent.

No, The Not Too Late Show didn't make me love Elmo, but I dug its for-all-ages hijinks much more than I expected to.

Going after a similar audience as part of HBO Max's inaugural slate, but facing much higher expectations from me, is Looney Tunes Cartoons. This latest attempt to follow in the footsteps of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies was developed by Peter Browngardt.

It's seemingly simple stuff. Each episode (critics have been sent three) runs 11-ish minutes and features a pair of full-length animated adventures with classic Warner Bros. Animation characters, along with usually one interstitial animated bridge, a single gag unfolding in maybe 30 seconds.

These characters have passed through the brains of so many brilliant creative minds over the decades that it's hard to quantify what a Looney Tunes cartoon is or isn't other than to nod to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's description of hard-core pornography: I know it when I see it. Leaving aside that the team behind Looney Tunes Cartoons probably wouldn't want to be tied into an anecdote mentioning hard-core pornography, I'm sure they'll feel good with this simple acknowledgement: Looney Tunes Cartoons feels right.

We've had decades of middling attempts to bring these characters back to their Tex Avery/Chuck Jones/Your Director of Choice roots and you can almost always watch a new Looney Tunes adventure and know within a minute or two if they "feel" right, or if something is just off. A bad Looney Tunes joint can feel off for any number of reasons. They can be trying too hard to be edgy. They can just miss on tone, leaving the anarchy feeling unexpectedly violent. It can also be a purely subjective thing. Is a new character voice straining to sound like the original character or not trying hard enough? Are characters who don't seem well-paired being forced to team up for no particular reason?

Nothing in these early episodes represents an obvious misjudgment. Flaws are more of the personal-preference variety, like how starting this new season with three Daffy Duck shorts — two with Porky Pig team-ups and one solo — is perhaps a hair too much Daffy. Or my own initial coldness to Fred Tatasciore's vocal interpretation of Yosemite Sam (Eric Bauza's Bugs and Daffy and Bob Bergen's Porky work better for me).

Mostly, though, these are good, solid Looney Tunes entries packed with colorful zaniness, wink-and-nudge references for older viewers, magnificent silent-comedy ingenuity for younger audiences and an unquestioned admiration for the property. I appreciated the reliance on traditional animation, the buoyant music and the general respect. I loved "Big League Beast," bringing baseball-loving Bugs to the nearby mad scientist's castle for a run-in with giant, hairy Gossamer and "Bubble Dum," with Daffy getting into trouble with a piece of pre-chewed gum. I dug the Ghostbusters references in Tweety-centric "Boo! Appetweet" and the Indiana Jones-style romp with Daffy and Porky going after a haunted artifact in "Curse of the Monkeybird."

HBO Max isn't making the strongest of scripted debuts with the decidedly mediocre Love Life leading the way. But with both Looney Tunes Cartoons and The Not Too Late Show With Elmo, at least the new streaming service is showing that it can successfully leverage some of its venerable properties for all ages.

The first three episodes of both shows premiere Wednesday as part of the HBO Max launch.