The Grim Skim

‘Tis the season to be spooky! Because of that, I’m continuing the theme I started last week by putting the spotlight (or rather, ‘spooklight’…ok, I’ll stop) on another cartoon with an eerie theme. However, unlike Courage the Cowardly Dog, the show I’m talking about this week tends to be more creepy than horrific but is still prone to giving a good laugh. Prepare yourself nonetheless, because things are about to get…Grim.

        The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy is another show from my childhood that I’ve been re-watching this past week in honor of the season, and, as I watched it, one thought kept coming to mind: “This show is weird.” I don’t mean weird like some quirky, adorkable nerd in a high school sitcom. I mean weird in that it goes out of its way every episode to bewilder people until they inevitably tilt their heads to the side and say “huh.” I’d almost call it the” Ripley’s Believe It or Not” of Cartoon Network: you walk in and are exposed to a variety of odd situations and weird imagery, each one so strange it dares you to ask why, before stumbling out the other side both greatly disturbed and a little impressed, strangely compelled to come back for more.

Created by Maxwell Atoms, Billy and Mandy originally began as a segment within another show called Grim and Evil (2001), sharing screen time with another of Atom’s creations, Evil Con Carne, but, by popular vote from the viewers, it eventually became a show on its own in 2003 and lasted for six seasons. It’s about the misadventures of two kids—an obnoxious but lovable (?) moron and a cynical, conniving sociopath that could give Hannibal Lecter chills—who tricked the Grim Reaper into becoming BFF’s with them for all eternity (and really, what better way is there to befriend physical personifications of intangible forces?). While it has a number of characters and tropes that are often associated with supernatural horror—demons, ancient gods, aliens, and whatnot—, Billy and Mandy makes more of an effort to shock rather than scare, preferring to only make your skin crawl instead of make you jump right out of it. Stuff that was once considered scary is played up for laughs, like in the episode “House of the Ancients” when Dracula, the Wolfman, and the Bride of Frankenstein are all retired old coots who can barely fend for themselves, let alone scare anyone. Stuff that you normally wouldn’t find scary becomes creepy, like when Billy meets a disfigured, splintering Pinocchio, who wants to eat his flesh to become a real boy. Most of its time, however, is dedicated to its random, nonsensical humor.

Honestly, I can’t tell if the writing on this show is clever or a supernaturally random assortment of ancient, undecipherable spells and enchantments from the underworld, bewitching audiences with its strange, morbid tone. As a kid, I could never stop laughing at its absurdity, and, coming back to it years later, I still snicker at how silly it gets, especially in later seasons. It starts out odd but tame in the first two seasons, but its bizarreness goes full throttle in season three and on. In one episode, Billy defends his fear of clowns by repeatedly yelling that clowns will “Destroy us all” throughout the school day, to Mandy’s frustration, and this goes on for a full thirty seconds before the show moves on. Later that episode, Billy has to go to his happy place, causing him to get life advice from…his inner-Frat boy (See!? No mortals can come up with this kind of stuff without supernatural aid).

I could describe more of Billy and Mandy’s jokes, but it’s all something you really have to see to believe, especially since you’ll get to enjoy the delivery by the voice actors. The writing is strange but fun, and everyone in the cast certainly seems to have fun with it too. My favorite parts are whenever one of the actors starts hamming it up with their character, like Rich Horvitz (The Angry Beavers, Invader Zim) as Billy. Yes, when it comes to cartoons, ham is one of my few weaknesses (though I honestly prefer turkey). From the zany jokes to the wacky voice actors, it all vaguely reminds me of some of the old Looney Tunes shorts, and, judging from the occasional references Billy and Mandy makes to older cartoons, the writers seemed to be aware of that too. The only other thing I can say about Billy and Mandy’s humor is that at least a third of it is toilet/gross-out humor (two words: booger pretzel), which I can’t say I was ever a big fan of, but it never stopped me from enjoying the rest of the show.

Suffice it to say, Billy and Mandy’s unabashed weirdness makes it stand out, evoking a refreshing originality, and it’s also why it seems to hold up so well. Unlike many cartoons that have come before it and after it, Billy and Mandy is clearly not a glorified commercial solely made to market existing toys. The premise alone is proof of that (I really can’t imagine some Hasbro CEO saying to himself, “You know what kids these days would really love toys of: Two ugly kids and their best friend, Death!”). It’s a show that follows the vision of its creator, builds off the past, and attempts to push the boundaries for the general expectations and conventions of its craft, all through the simple (yet sometimes unsettling) act of being weird. This is the kind of show that encourages you to be you, to embrace all of your unique quirks and passions, whether people get them or not. So long as you have fun being you like Billy and Mandy does, you’ll unlock a lot of potential for your life. Embrace the weird, and you might be surprised by the benefits you’ll reap.

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