You can tell a lot about a show by evaluating its best and worst episode. The range can describe the show's evolution, devolution, consistent brilliance, or consistence ineptitude.
The reason why is never very important at all in Aqua Teen Hunger Force. That shouldn't come as a surprise since its premise, super hero detectives fast food items who fight crime, was abandoned after one episode and only created in the first place to sell the show to the network. Aqua Teen doesn't just not care about explaining why things are happening, it goes out of its way to be as bizarre as possible with the explicit intent on not explaining anything.
It's a show that is surreal and outlandishly funny when it works, but even at its best, it still feels more like cotton candy than steak. That's not necessarily bad since Aqua Teen doesn't strive to be comedy that's above the fray. Similar to other Adult Swim mainstays like Space Ghost Coast to Coast (which Aqua Teen spun off from) and The Brak Show, Aqua Teen doesn't aim for transcendent comedy as much as it does eccentricity.
Unfortunately, Aqua Teen is pretty hit-or-miss. At its best, the eleven minute episodes have enough laughs to be memorable, but never brilliant. At it's worst, the mere eleven minutes are a strain to get through. Case in point: “Dickisode.”
The season 5 episode (around the time the show was missing more than hitting for me) actually starts out promising. The Aqua Teen gang are leaving Wong Burger. The scene provides some of the strangeness that Aqua Teen is know for, culminating to Carl reading his “prize” as listed on the bottom of the soda drink. “Tonight,” Carl reads, “You will get your dick ripped off.” Frylock encourages Carl to bring bottom of the cup to the manager, but Shake warns that he's probably the guy who is in charge of ripping it off. Carl apparently heeds Shake's advice and together the gang watches a Wong Burger commercials where, sure enough, right there in the fine print it's mentioned that some contestants may get their dicks ripped off.
Is it crude? Yeah. Is it funny? Hey, you're either on the Aqua Teen bus or you never got on in the first place. This is pretty standard hit territory for Aqua Teen, but unfortunately, it's all downhill from there.
From this point on, dick jokes begin to dominate the episode as two phallic-shaped Chinese caricatures, driving a monster truck named The Ripper, come looking for Carl's member. The writers up the ante a little by introducing Mr. Wong Burger's master plan: he's collecting penises to complete his dickship so he can return to Dick Planet. And to really drive the point home, Mr. Wong Burger is—you guessed it—an actual penis, complete with testicle feet.
And the hits just keep on coming. The background of Mr. Wong Burger's scene is a wall of penises (edited by multi-colored squares in the broadcast version, unedited on the DVD). At this point the episode abandons any jokes that don't include the word dick. Basically, if you're not laughing at the word dick anymore, you're not laughing. Mr. Wong Burger at one point yells at the racist caricatures to complete the dickship. Unfortunately, they won't hold together. “We're going to have to wrap these dicks with something,” one of them says. “Maybe with a... dick.” By this time, they rely completely on the one gag to coast their way to the end of the episode.
However, to give credit where it's due, the writers are completely aware of the territory that they have entered. As the dick jokes pile on, they're delivered with a wink to the audience, as if to say, “Get it? Another dick joke! Bada-BOOM!” It's somewhat self-deprecating, and to a certain point, I admire that. The concept and goal is challenging, but the effort is lacking. Any of those jokes that wink to the audience hold little-to-no effect because they're buried underneath the barrage of dick jokes and the increasingly mind-numbing plot that's even too stupid for a show that's main intention is to be outlandish.
There is still the occasional laugh to be had in “Dickisode” (I especially enjoyed Meatwad reenacting the Wong Burger commercial because they don't own a DVR, and subsequently repeating information he wasn't able to recall after watching the commercial just minutes ago), but in the rapid-fire nature of Aqua Teen, they mostly get lost in the mindlessness of the dick jokes.
The whole idea behind “Dickisode” isn't necessarily a bad one. It's a stunt that, for a show like Aqua Teen, is probably worth taking. And as I was searching online for quotes from this episode, I was surprised by how many of them were funnier on their own. Aqua Teen's melee approach to telling jokes is normally its strong suit, but in the case of “Dickisode” and it's stunt plot, it hurts the parts of the show that are actually working.
If “Dickisode” is a cautionary episode about how bad this approach to humor can get, then “The Clowning” is a reminder of how successful it can be. Aqua Teen isn't a strong character show because no one ever grows. While funny, the characters are all rooted and unchanging. No matter how many times Carl dies as a result of his neighbors' actions, he'll show up alive next week, maybe eating out with them at the Wong Burger or yelling at Shake for destroying his car.
But even if the characters of Aqua Teen are essentially the same week in and week out, they're distinct, and in episodes like “The Clowning,” which focus heavily on a single character instead of a single gag, the payoff yields memorable laughs.
“The Clowning” also benefits from focusing on Carl, Aqua Teen's most reliable character. The episode revolves around Carl's new long wig that is, unbeknownst to him, filled with bacteria that turns him into a clown. Apparently, he's been set up by the Styrofoam head that the wig sits on at night and a ghost-robot clown head. It makes as much sense as it sounds, but like I said earlier, Aqua Teen is never about making sense and more about the journey through nonsensical absurdities.
So even if the plot makes no sense at all, it sports some of the show's best Carl moments, including my personal favorite: Carl, after practicing pick-up lines at home (“Hey, I saw you checkin' out my goods. You wanna sample 'em?”), Carl brings back what can most politely be called an aged woman with loose morals and plenty of experience with men and cigarettes. Or as Carl puts it, “A total whore.” Inside his house, Carl shows off his air guitar moves (both physical and vocal), playing a song he wrote himself. “It's called 'I Wanna Rock Your Body,' and then in parentheses it says, 'Til the Break of Dawn.'”
The plot spirals out of control (in a good way, unlike “Dickisode”) as Carl narrowly misses getting laid due to the clowning taking its full effect: Carl's hair turns into clown hair, he's feet grow preposterously big, he juggles uncontrollably and, eventually, he can only speak via the honking of a horn. Frylock, unable to do anything for Carl, freezes him, saying that he'll figure out what to do later. Then we fast forward 67 years into the future where the robot apocalypse is taking place. Inside, Carl is forgotten about, being used merely as a coat hanger. He is accidentally knocked over and subsequently killed. End of story.
The art of Aqua Teen is essentially to get more and more absurd as each minute ticks by. It becomes a constant challenge episode-to-episode to see how much further they can go. Even if this isn't top notch comedy, they're doing something different than what is on much of television, so I like and respect what they do. In the case of “Dickisode,” which is basically a one-joke episode, the show exposes its weaknesses, but when it comes to episodes like “The Clowning,” they change those weaknesses into their strengths.