Our viewing schedule’s going to have a minor interruption this weekend, so we doubled up tonight. First up, a completely hilarious episode of Jack of All Trades that was written by Hilary J. Bader, who wrote for a lot of adventure shows around this time. This time, Emilia perfects a concoction that puts people into a temporary death-like coma and drinks it herself so she can catch a graverobber who works out of Pulau Pulau’s mausoleum. Then the governor sends her to be cremated. The anachronistic gags were all terrific, and since our son is at the age where zombie apocalypses are the coolest things ever, the sight of Angela Dotchin pretending to be one of the undead to scare the bad guy into going straight had him in stitches.
Here’s a plot as old as the hills: the incompetent governor is in danger of being replaced by somebody actually competent, so the heroes who count on his incompetence need to convince the inspector that things in the colony are running very smoothly. I think Sergeant Bilko had to protect his dimwit commanding officer from being replaced, didn’t he? Or maybe I’m thinking of Top Cat and Officer Dibble. Whatever, you’ve seen this story before, and it doesn’t matter, because it’s incredibly funny. (Leave your favorite example in the comments, readers!)
Complicating matters: Jack’s alter-ego, the Daring Dragoon, has inspired three groupies to dress like him and stick it to the man at entirely the wrong time. So while Jack is impersonating the governor and unable to save these well-meaning girls, Emilia has to take costume, sword, and silly one-liners in hand. This means that Bruce Campbell is speaking in une autrageous Fronch accent and Angela Dotchin is using a bad teevee American voice while saving the day. It’s a tremendously funny half hour that had us all laughing throughout.
My “please don’t be a terrible parent” alarm always gives off a small squawk or two when we hit a double entendre in this series, and I reason that it’ll be okay because our son is still young enough to have no idea what they’re talking about. Then this episode happens. Napoleon has blackmailed Emilia into marrying him and Jack decides to save the day. One of his schemes involves hiring strippers for the emperor’s bachelor party. Kid’s not going to be young enough for much longer if they pull more shenanigans like that.
Mercifully the rest of the story was more in line with what a third grader wants to see on television: Bruce Campbell dragged up as Emilia’s hideous mother and Verne Troyer being lifted about twelve inches by his farts. Third graders love fart jokes. Anybody who tells you different is lying. Oh, and Troyer’s reveal in the pre-credits sequence is probably the best gag in the episode. It’s usually a shame to lead with your best material, but that was extremely funny.
There’s an interesting twist in tonight’s story. It turns out that Jack knows Emilia’s dad – they’re old rivals from the Revolution – but he had no idea that Emilia is the daughter of Britain’s greatest spy. Sadly, other than a tremendously good explosion at the climax that really impressed our son, that’s really all of note from this episode. It’s far less madcap than the other installments and it acts like it wants to have a teachable moment about respecting your daughter as an adult. I hope this show never comes to a screeching halt with this week’s lesson that we all learned ever again.
Tonight’s episode of Jack of All Trades introduces another recurring villain. Tonight we meet the Emperor Napoleon, who is, perhaps inevitably, played by Verne Troyer. He was kind of instantly omnipresent in media twenty years ago, and I wasn’t surprised to read he was going to show up here. It also has one of my favorite gags in the show so far, as Jack gets so sick of the bad-tempered pest that he starts planning his assassination, needing only a grassy knoll and a textbook warehouse.
Our son had a visit from the Giggle Fairy or something earlier this evening, so this goofball episode was just heaven on earth. At one point, Jack remembers the old “imagine everybody in the room in their underwear” trick, leaving Napoleon standing on a card table in polka-dotted long johns and I’m not sure the kid was even conscious of anything that happened next because he was laughing so much.
There’s another thing about Jack of All Trades that reminds me slightly of classic kids’ shows from my own childhood, and that’s the lack of speaking parts for guest characters. Because this show was made on an incredibly small budget and had to spend a pile of it on costumed stuntmen on location, there’s maybe room for two speaking actors outside our heroes and the two principal villains.
At least they drew on the deep bench of local talent in Auckland who’d been in Hercules and Xena, and didn’t just haul on Jay Robinson in a different costume every week. This episode has one actress who sets the plot in motion and sparks a debate between Jack and Emilia whether they should repatriate all of some American gold that the governor has had stolen, or use some of it to pay the taxes owed by a woman’s imprisoned family. The actress is Amy Morrison, and I just checked and yes, she played a character called Hope in a few episodes of both Hercules and Xena.
So the kid really liked this one, of course. There’s a great big fight on a bridge where our heroes have invented bungee jumping, and later, after breaking into the governor’s hilariously large vault, the brawl moves to the kitchen. Lacking a sword, Jack grabs a big sausage and says “Over my dead salami!” before smacking Captain Brogard around with two frying pans. Perfect humor for eight year-olds. He laughed throughout the whole mess, which ends with all the villains covered in flour.
This evening’s episode of Jack guest stars Jodie Dorday, who had appeared in a few episodes of Xena as different characters, as Kentucky Sue, Jack’s former partner from the Revolution. She’s loud, uncouth, an expert marksman, and she loves rasslin’. Unfortunately she got in too deep with Jack once upon a mission and got her heart broken. Now she’s in Palau Palau to force our hero to marry her, and she’s not above blackmailing him over his secret identity as the Dragoon to get her way.
Naturally this happens when Jack and Emilia have a mission to finish. This one involves destroying a super-cannon. There are some gags about its size and how far it can send balls that wouldn’t have been out of place if Frankie Howerd’s Up Pompeii had been set in 1801. It all ends, much to our son’s delight, with a big brawl, dozens of cannonballs rolling down the stairs, and the super-cannon split in half. He had a ball, and didn’t even object much to the smooching, because Jack and Sue are so completely ridiculous.
Far be it for me to tell teevee producers what they’ve done wrong – we never do that here, no sir – but these guys really messed up by filling this show with double entendres and sex jokes. If they’d have just pitched this show without the sophomoric gags about naughty bits, they could have sold this as a kids’ show, it would have found a much bigger audience and now, twenty years later, there’d be millions of thirty year-olds begging for a remake.
The sex gags are sailing over our son’s head, but everything else is landing perfectly because this show is freaking ridiculous. Reading about this show, I had no idea that Jack and Emilia have a regular informant: a “carrier parrot” called Jean-Claude. He gives them the news that Blackbeard the Pirate is on the island. They head to see what’s up and learn that Blackbeard has kidnapped Benjamin Franklin and is stopping off in Palau Palau for a night en route to deliver him to Napoleon. Blackbeard is astonishingly vulgar and revolting, communicating in screams and spits and drool. In one masterfully disgusting moment, comparing the island’s Dragoon to a cream puff, he takes hold of two fists full of cream puffs and smashes them all over his face.
Also, Blackbeard breathes fire.
I had no idea this program was so bugnuts. Our kid is in heaven, of course. Blackbeard is played by an actor named Hori Ahipene, and I’m not going to tell my son that he’ll be back for a rematch in a future episode because I want to see the kid punch the air when we meet him again.
Anyway, I understand that Jack‘s time slot partner, Cleopatra 2525, is aimed a good deal older than eight, what with the half-naked ladies in the cast and all. This show’s producers probably felt the need to make Jack at least a little of a match in tone for an older audience, and the smutty jokes are the best way to do that. Without them, this would be perfect television for kids who are guffawing over the fart jokes and the silly villains in Captain Underpants and its ilk. As it is, I believe that sometime down the road, our boy will put this on again and marvel at how dirty the jokes are and how unbelievably lax we were letting him watch it…
I chose to pause tonight’s episode of Jack of All Trades because there’s a funny gag about Marie Antoinette’s book of dessert recipes. Our son laughed because he thought the title (guess) was funny, but didn’t really get the gag itself, you know? I suppose I could have let it slide, but sometimes us grownups just have to be boring old teachers. I suppose it’s okay; the episode ends with a ridiculous brawl where everybody’s been blinded with Emilia’s newly-invented “ginger spray” and the kid laughed like a hyena. Didn’t feel the need to interrupt that with any fool history lesson.
In 1999, flush with the success of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and its far superior spinoff, Xena: Warrior Princess (about which, more later), Renaissance Pictures and Universal teamed up on a deeply odd next step in syndicated programming. It was called the Back 2 Back Action Hour and featured a pair of really short adventure programs, each just about 21 minutes after the ads were taken out. Cleopatra 2525 was the longer-lived of the two and starred Jennifer Sky and Gina Torres.
But we’re here to talk about the ridiculous, brainless and delightfully silly Jack of All Trades, which featured Bruce Campbell and Angela Dotchin. Campbell was working pretty regularly in New Zealand anyway; he played a recurring character, Autolycus, in both Hercules and Xena, and was the perfect choice for his pals and cohorts at Renaissance to cast as Jack Stiles, a larger-than-life secret agent. Practically perfect in every way, somehow, Jack is assigned by President Jefferson to Palau Palau, a tiny island in the East Indies where Napoleon might be making plans for world domination. Britain already has a spy in place. Emilia Rothschild, a master inventor and expert in practically everything, is also a little unlikely. That anybody who plans everything to the tiniest detail like Emilia does should have to put up with a seat-of-his-pants improviser like Jack just isn’t fair.
Anyway, this is a show to watch for the gags, the fights, and the stunts. It’s not a show to watch for intricate plotting or character development. There’s no time for that, because Jack – here donning the identity of a local folk hero called the Dragoon – has to win fights with about a dozen French soldiers. It’s also not a show to watch for anything that even resembles historical accuracy. The world of Jack of All Trades was imagined by people who failed high school history and didn’t care to research anything because it might get in the way of having fun. So with wit and swagger and one of TV’s greatest theme songs, this really entertained our kid, who liked the brawls and the impossible escapes and the dopey gags about getting some marshmallows to toast over Emilia’s hologram fireplace. He did add that the set piece at the beginning, when Jack rescues Jefferson’s niece from Canada, was his favorite part, but hopefully there will be enough swashbuckling in Palau Palau to keep him happy.