Thankfully, true "freak shows" in modern times are all but extinct. But Comedy Central is reviving a slice of this embarrassing, exploitative chapter of Americana in the form of "Strip Mall"--the cable network's first "soap-com," premiering Sunday at 10:30 p.m. following "The Man Show," on its new night.
You could almost hear a carny bellowing ("Ladies and gentleman, children of all ages, what you are about to witness defies explanation. . .") on a recent gray, dreary day at the studio, which is appropriately tucked away in obscurity in a rented warehouse just north of the Burbank Airport.
Like a low-budget Ed Wood production, co-executive producer Charlie Coffey has surrounded himself with an eclectic cast and crew who share his flare for the abnormal (for some unknown reason, the male set dresser was dashing about that afternoon in a polka-dotted, Lucy Ricardo-type house dress . . . go figure).
Together with longtime partner (and "Strip Mall's" star) Julie Brown, Coffey is the brainchild behind such classic camp as "Earth Girls Are Easy" and the scathing Madonna parody "Medusa: Dare to Be Truthful." Coffey describes their latest collaboration as "The Sopranos" meets "Strangers With Candy" (another racy Comedy Central offering), guaranteed to offend "straights, gays, minorities, immigrants and actors."
A born gossip, Coffey freely relates eye-opening factoids about his cast's personal lives (many unprintable) as he leads a guided tour behind the scenes of the first series to pay homage to one of the San Fernando's Valley's most defining eye-sores: the mini-mall.
Whether or not you appreciate "Strip Mall's" raunchy humor, there's no denying that Coffey and Brown have managed to capture the seedier elements of life as it exists "over the hill." The sets include We Shoot You, a photography studio secretly fronting for a porno production house; Wok Don't Run, a lesbian-run Chinese restaurant with a health department letter grade fluctuating daily from D to F (the Los Angeles-specific joke, Comedy Central frets, will be lost on the rest of the country); Good Things, an arts and crafts shop lampooning Martha Stewart, a personal favorite of Brown's; Star Brite Dry Cleaners, decorated with autographed head-shots of its celebrity clientele, most notably "Laverne and Shirley" actress Cindy Williams, who appears as herself in a cameo in Episode Three; and the Funky Fox, a fictional bar Coffey modeled after one of his favorite guilty pleasures--the Foxfire Room in North Hollywood.
Today the colorful cast and crew have gathered to shoot a flashy production number for the eighth installment of their initial 10-episode order, picked up by Comedy Central after being rejected by HBO. In the scene, Brown's character, Tammi Tyler, a down-and-out former child star turned felon, is learning how to dance. Costumed in a tacky, sequined top that makes her ample bosoms protrude like two garish disco balls, Brown taps happily alongside burly co-star Bob Koherr, who in this episode plays Blair, the flamingly gay, leotard-wearing, identical sibling to triplet brothers Blank and Blunt (also played by Koherr). Rounding out the quirky dancing trio is 22-year-old "little person" Kacie Borrowman, whose character Ashley is as an insect-eating, mutant, unibrowed dwarf with the ability to croon like Celine Dion.
"I'm worried about Kacie," stews Coffey. "She's fallen in with the wrong people." Amazingly, the "wrong people" Coffey refers to are not "Strip Mall's" cast and crew but questionable friends the new-to-L.A. actress has recently taken up with.
Despite its shoestring budget and uncertain future beyond its initial order, this is a very tight cast. No huge stars mean no huge egos to get in the way of the work. The only name actors besides Brown are Maxwell Caulfield, a vet of "Grease 2" and "The Colbys," and "Saturday Night Live" alum Victoria Jackson, in the role she claims she was born to play--a ditzy bartender with a metal plate in her head.
"I've been doing this character for 20 years," says Jackson of her airhead persona. "I've got it perfected to a science. I actually threatened suicide in the audition if they didn't give me the part."
Coffey, fearing she might actually be serious, says he had no choice but to offer her the role. It's no secret on the set that Jackson, a born-again Christian, is less than thrilled with some of the series' overtly sexual dialogue and story lines.
"I don't want to be a hypocrite," she says. While Jackson would prefer "Strip Mall" mirror more traditional Sunday fare the likes of "Touched by an Angel," Comedy Central has for the most part given Coffey and Brown free reign to shock at will its predominately young male audience. Not that there haven't been a few edits.
Despite those occasional cuts, Coffey is proud that one upcoming episode will feature, well, a pig in love. Say what you will, you'd certainly never see that on "Everybody Loves Raymond."
* "Strip Mall" can be seen Sundays at 10:30 p.m. on Comedy Central. The network has rated it TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14).