It’s 2 o’clock in the afternoon, and I’m home alone. The wife is at work and my 6-year-old son Charlie is at school, so I do what any red-blooded American male would do with an empty house, an internet connection, and no prying eyes. I watch old episodes of Astroblast.
Watching Astroblast in my 40s is what watching porn was during my twenties. It’s a secret shame, something I feel a little weird about watching so obsessively but can’t help myself. Less than a year ago, getting my Astroblast fix was easy; Charlie loved the show and insisted we watch it at every opportunity. But at some point, he decided it was “for babies,” so he dropped it with extreme prejudice. Easy enough for him, but I was hooked. There were only two seasons of Astroblast — they stopped making the series in 2015 — but episodes are just 15 or so minutes apiece so there are almost a hundred out there. I’ve watched so much Astroblast, it’s become indistinguishable from my own memories.
Astroblast was the first show I watched with Charlie without furtively glancing at my phone. Imagine the Marx Brothers, but in space, and they’re all anthropomorphic animals from various species that are either children or adults with learning disorders, who run a smoothie business without any clear leadership, and their only adult supervision is a middle-aged purple octopus who uses any group crisis as an excuse to share vaguely analogous stories about his Gam-Gam.
The problem with most kids’ TV shows is that they’re profoundly unfunny. Not just adult sitcom unfunny, where the punchlines aim for low-hanging fruit. Modern children’s TV is so unfunny that it’s almost offensive. During Charlie’s heavy Astroblast period, his other two favorite shows were The Octonauts and Bubble Guppies, both of which are to humor what Donald Trump is to thoughtful, carefully considered responses. Bubble Guppies gets the closest with its over-the-top puns, but it’s Borscht Belt kitsch minus the timing.
I grew up in the ’70s, during the golden age of Sesame Street. Characters like Grover, Ernie & Bert, Oscar the Grouch, and Kermit weren’t just funny by kid standards. They were Mel Brooks funny, Monty Python funny. When my parents let me stay up late enough to watch what they considered hilarious, I was always astounded. Even today, I’d rather watch Grover play an inept waiter struggling with prepositions than an episode of Barney Miller.
Astroblast has the usual tropes of children’s programming — there are lessons about sharing, friendship, not being a dick, etc. —with one important distinction. The Astroblast crew are all narcissistic assholes. And like their comedic contemporaries in adult, non-educational TV comedies like Girls and Curb Your Enthusiasm, their cringe-worthy flaws make them relatable. I don’t give a shit about the characters in Paw Patrol or PJ Masks because I don’t recognize myself in any of those characters. Their flaws are two-dimensional and easily forgivable. But Astroblast? You could say it’s a show about recognizing the value of true friendship, but really it’s a show about how tech fetishes can turn you into a self-absorbed jackass, not falling into a spiral of performance anxiety and self-doubt, getting over your seething hatred of anybody who seems slightly more talented or loved by strangers than you are, and why you shouldn’t be a whiny little bitch if your friends aren’t into the same media as you. As weird as it sounds, there has never been a better show about what’s it like to be alive in 2017 than a cartoon about animals in space created for kids that was canceled two years ago.
Last weekend, my son caught me. “Is that Astroblast?” he asked, immediately recognizing the animals on my computer screen. “What are you watching that for?” I explained that I was doing research for a story. Charlie insisted on watching a few minutes with me, just for old time’s sake. A few minutes turned into hours. We watched the sleepover episode, where Radar — my spirit animal, a lazy yet brilliant monkey who hordes nerd toys and thinks technology can help him avoid all physical effort — agrees to a sleepover with a friend at another space station. When it occurs to him that he’ll be leaving the comforts of his usual routine, he does a slow head turn, his eyes wide and unblinking, his face a frozen stare of terror. It’s the existential panic of realizing just how fucking complicated life can get when you stop paying attention for one goddamn minute, and it’s the hilarious terror of being alive that most kid shows, or even adult shows, can’t capture this perfectly. It makes me laugh every time because I am Radar, the freaked-out monkey who fears change and just wants to be alone with his fancy toys.
Charlie laughed right along with me. A deep, guttural chortle that never seems to happen with the shows he watches now, even though he keeps insisting that they’re more “cool.”
We exchange sheepish looks as though we both know we shouldn’t be enjoying a show with a talking monkey quite this much. “Daddy,” he tells me. “Let’s not tell Mommy about this, okay?”
I nod. Not that I think she’ll care. But if keeping this a secret means I get to keep watching Astroblast with him, I’m okay with that.