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Is Bobb'e J. Thompson in a smart-aleck rut?

The loudest 13-year-old in show business may have hit the wall with his Cartoon Network series, 'Bobb'e Says.' It doesn't necessarily mean his shtick is up, just that he needs to stretch and grow -- something he appears to want too.

September 06, 2009|Jon Caramanica

Is it too late to save Bobb'e J. Thompson?

Just 13, he's already in possession of one of the loudest mouths in Hollywood -- he's used it to profound effect as Tracy Morgan's smart-alecky son on "30 Rock," the Shutterbugs' smart-alecky boss to Aziz Ansari and Rob Heubel on "Human Giant" and the smart-alecky kid who yells at and slaps around Seann William Scott in the movie "Role Models."

Last month, his Cartoon Network show "Bobb'e Says" (Wednesday, 8 p.m.) made its debut, an "America's Funniest Videos"-like combination of blooper clips and "Jackass"-style stunts accompanied by voice-over commentary. In the Bobb'e J. oeuvre, this is weak stuff, more Bergeron than Saget. He probably tossed off a few episodes' worth of chatter in an afternoon of studio work.

When it's funny, it's largely because of anticipation: When will Bobb'e J. say something off-color? Or at least off-script? That those things don't happen doesn't mean that the Bobb'e J. shtick is up, necessarily; only that it has become such a fixed idea that he can hardly hope to escape it.

Like many kid stars, Bobb'e J. appears somehow older and younger all at once, though in his case, the impression of preternatural wisdom is more pronounced, almost dizzyingly so. Acting against comedy heavy-hitters, he more than holds his own, regarding everyone around him with a facile disdain.

How do kids learn? By watching adults, of course. And Bobb'e J. is a shockingly quick study, taking up the mannerisms of those around him and incorporating them into his own routine. When it's called for, he can be absurd, raunchy or witty (ah, the flexibility of youth).

On "Bobb'e Says," though, without the razor-sharp writing of the "30 Rock" or "Human Giant" staff, or any other actors to play off, Bobb'e flounders a bit; he's also evidently reading from off-screen prompts, a blow to this show's spontaneity.

Nevertheless, in the narratives that explain these jokey clips, there are occasional flashes of humor. Describing a video of a lanky guy kicking a thin tree over, only to have a neighboring tree land on his head, Bobb'e J. says, "If a guy karate chops a tree in the forest with no one around, will it make a sound? Yes. It will sound like stupid!"

Well, maybe you had to be there. As with most things Bobb'e J., the comedy is as much physical as tonal -- the shifting muscles in his face are routinely more intriguing than the words he's speaking. On some clips, all the commentary is shrunken into a quick cutaway shot of Bobb'e J. wincing or grimacing. And sometimes that's enough.

Reducing a 13-year-old to a cache of tics and gestures and caricatures is a sad path, though. The long-term effect of such behavior can be deadening to creativity, and maybe also to one's personality. And Bobb'e J. appears to want more. He has an appealing athleticism -- in one bit on "Bobb'e Says," he does a full back flip onto a soundstage, then shadowboxes with the camera. He's an aspiring rapper, as seen on his YouTube channel (user name: BSwagg23). Maybe he wants to be a senator. Or a real estate developer. Or an agent.

Or maybe he'll just be Bobb'e J. forever. In a clip (available on YouTube) filmed at Spike's Guys Choice awards in May, an interviewer asks Bobb'e, "Who do you think has the best boobs in Hollywood?" It's an obvious reference to a scene in "Role Models," but still -- let Bobb'e J. breathe.

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