20 Years Later: 'Death to Smoochy' Took an Ultra-Cynical Shot at Kids Entertainment | Features | LIVING LIFE FEARLESS

20 Years Later: ‘Death to Smoochy’ Took an Ultra-Cynical Shot at Kids Entertainment 

The pitch-black dark comedy Death to Smoochy plays as if it was written by someone whose kids got really into Barney the Dinosaur, to the point where the parents were driven to homicidal fantasy. Well that, and the assumption that such a state of affairs could only have resulted from the children’s TV world being riddled with back-biting, subterfuge, and corruption. I’m not sure if that’s actually what happened, but the film was written by Adam Resnick, best known as a David Letterman writer. 

 20 Years Later: 'Death to Smoochy' Took an Ultra-Cynical Shot at Kids Entertainment | Features | LIVING LIFE FEARLESS

Directed by Danny DeVito, and advertised as coming from the veteran actor’s “twisted mind,” Death to Smoochy arrived in March of 2002, 20 years ago last week. One of the more cynical studio movies of the century so far, it depicted the children’s TV industry as a den of cravenness, corruption, and even mob involvement. It’s fitfully funny and features a strong cast, but the whole operation just feels disreputable and gross, more often than not. 

The Plot

Robin Williams, as part of his late-career run of dark roles, played Rainbow Randolph, a veteran children’s TV host in the tradition of Captain Kangaroo, who in reality is a bitter alcoholic. In the film’s first scene, Randolph is caught red-handed in a payola scandal and fired. 

He’s soon replaced by Sheldon Mopes (Edward Norton), a squeaky-clean kids entertainer who plays Smoochy the Rhino, singing in a giant rhinoceros costume.

It’s really just the “Krusty Gets Kancelled” episode of The Simpsons, brought to live-action

His instant success drives Randolph to extreme rage, and the subsequent campaign of subterfuge includes everything from on-set sabotage to tricking Smoochy into addressing a Nazi rally to actual violence. Meanwhile, the innocent Sheldon tries not to get corrupted by this terrible milieu, as personified by the show’s producer (Catherine Keener). 

It’s really just the “Krusty Gets Kancelled” episode of The Simpsons, brought to live-action and feature-length. 

The supporting cast includes DeVito himself, as well as Jon Stewart, playing against type as an evil TV producer, and Harvey Fierstein as a gangster, head of the “roughest of all of the charities.”

Big Swing and A Miss

I kind of see what the filmmakers were going for with Death to Smoochy, but much of it just doesn’t work. It takes really big swings, most of which miss, and when a comedy tries to go this dark and it doesn’t work, the result is just plain unpleasant. 

“Those with lesser gifts would have lacked the nerve to make a film so bad, so miscalculated, so lacking any connection with any possible audience,” Roger Ebert wrote of the film at the time. “To make a film this awful, you have to have enormous ambition and confidence, and dream big dreams.”

The early 2000s were a cynical time, which likely has something to do with the post-9/11 mood, although Death to Smoochy was shot, in New York City, entirely prior to the attacks. Bad Santa, which arrived the following year, did a much better job mining laughs out of that sort of cynicism. 

Damaged City Festival 2019 | Photos | LIVING LIFE FEARLESS

CULTURE (counter, pop, and otherwise) and the people who shape it.

Damaged City Festival 2019 | Photos | LIVING LIFE FEARLESS

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