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A cult-fave 'Home' run

March 25, 2004|Adam Bregman | Special to The Times

Brendon SMALL isn't an 8-year-old auteur. But he plays one on TV.

Small, co-creator of the Cartoon Network series "Home Movies," has shared his name and his voice with the lead character of his show for five years.

Brendon, the protagonist of "Home Movies," is a precocious grade schooler who directs a regular cast of his best friends: Melissa, who's levelheaded and intelligent but easily grossed out, and Jason, a paunchy, rebellious kid who's maybe a bit slow, but a spirited actor.

"Home Movies," which was too surreal even for lowly UPN during its first five episodes, found a flotation device in the big pool of the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim block. School nights, from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m., the network becomes safe for those who never need to see Scooby-Doo again. And that's where "Home Movies" has found its rabid cult following.

"It's kind of a cool, underground garage band of a show," Small says.

As a kid himself, he had little in common with his gregarious and bossy namesake. Small was very shy -- though he did make his own home movies with his parents' video camera.

"They were like long-form improvisational movies with no end, and the story would change somewhere in the middle, not like on 'Home Movies,' where they are more polished," Small says. "I had my brother and sister and neighborhood friends acting in them, and I cast myself. We were indoor kids. The outdoor kids would go out and play, but we were indoor kids making home movies."

But they hardly resembled the bizarre, ingenious productions that his character creates. Among them is Brendon's science fiction masterpiece, in which Starboy and his sidekick Captain of Outer Space battle an axis of evil: George Washington, Annie Oakley and Pablo Picasso (who is missing an ear). The triumvirate's plan to destroy Earth is thwarted when their secret weapon, Washington's break-dancing kitty Mr. Pants, falls for Starboy after some cheap flattery.

In another over-the-top episode, longhaired rocker Dwayne, who usually scores Brendon's films, writes a rock opera version of Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis." Melissa and Jason are excited about Dwayne's opus, but Brendon won't have it. He tries to convince them that his project -- "Louis Louis," with a rapping Louis Pasteur and Louis Braille -- is a better idea.

While the kids sit in a sandbox and discuss their film projects, the adult characters on the show are dysfunctional and out of control. Brendon's mom (voiced by comedian Paula Poundstone for the first five episodes of the show) is a single mother who can't stop herself from swearing during parent-teacher conferences. The absentee dad appears sporadically to attempt to win over his son with ice cream and trips to the zoo.

Brendon's main source of birds-and-bees advice is his often drunk, always irresponsible soccer coach, McGuirk. Not the best of influences, the coach tells him Richard Nixon wrote the Gettysburg Address and that it begins, "I am not a crook." The irrepressibly randy McGuirk has made a play for Brendon's mom and every other woman character on the show, and he's the one who gets "Home Movies" its TV-PG rating.

"In the cartoon world, 'Home Movies' sticks out like a sore thumb in that it's low-key and is really about the characters," Small says. "We're not about the amount of jokes, but about how these characters intermingle with each other."

Fans latched on to the show with a particular obsessiveness. It has inspired a wide range of websites that may list every single garden-gnome appearance or have multiple reviewers weigh in on each episode.

Small, who created the series with Loren Bouchard, once a producer for "Dr. Katz Professional Therapist," says the theme of the show is role reversal.

"I think a lot of times when parents are divorced, the kids kind of have to step up and become mature beyond their years," he says. "But my parents are still together, and so are the parents of everyone else who works on the show. Yet the show is about single parents, so a lot of that is made up."

While it doesn't have "The Simpsons' " broad social or political critique, the humor in "Home Movies" is more off the wall -- and in that sense perhaps truer to the experience of unusually smart grade schoolers with unlimited imaginations.

The series also leans on its imaginative cast: Much of the dialogue is improvised by Small, Bouchard, writer Bill Braudis and voice actor H. Jon Benjamin.

This year they finished up the 52nd episode, which means the network contract is finished. The last new episode will air April 4, though "Home Movies" will continue to run indefinitely. It's not a "cancellation" per se, says Mike Lazzo, the Cartoon Network's senior vice president of programming, who is in charge of Adult Swim. "We usually cease productions once we reach 52 episodes. We're very happy with the series, and we would have never made 52 if we weren't."

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