Mark E. Smith? He got away with a lot of shit.
Hand-on-heart confession time: that was my response when I heard that the sixty-year-old frontman of post-punk noisemakers The Fall had passed away. He got away with a lot of shit.
And by “shit” I don’t mean that stuff that made him a sometimes complicated, often abhorrent man: the violent outbursts and the egomania and the woman-beating (of which there was very little mention in the obituaries – isn’t it curious how quickly male “allies” will drop their #metoo showboating when the woman-beater in question is a darling of the broadsheet critic set?)
I just mean weird shit, shit in general, shit like fractured unintelligible lyrics and warped riffing and crazed non-melodies and things that shouldn’t work but somehow did. How did he get that shit to work? How did he get away with that shit?
So, er, yeah.
That’s pretty much how I feel whenever I talk about Xavier Renegade Angel.
There’s one slight difference between the two, however. While The Fall were rightly lauded for their madness, Xavier Renegade Angel – a late-night animated fever-dream that ran on Adult Swim for two seasons from 2007-2009 – has never quite received the recognition it deserved. Maybe musical punters are more forgiving when it comes to getting their kicks; maybe Fall fans will put in the effort of listening and re-listening to Hex Enduction Hour or Perverted By Language to unlock their joys whereas lots of comedy fans just want the immediate laugh. “Spare me the abstract padding, get to the dick jokes.”
Oh, sure, Xavier Renegade Angel has dick jokes – but it really isn’t letting up on the abstract padding. Hell, it pretty much is abstract padding from start to finish – and God only knows what’s supposed to be at the centre. Xavier Renegade Angel makes you work hard for your laughs, intentionally hurling out as many alienating aesthetics as it can in the process. Once you ‘get’ the show? Then you really get it. It’s just a case of whether you’re willing to take that leap.
What, then – in as much a term can be applied – is Xavier Renegade Angel “about”? In brief, it concerns a strange shaman-like “man” – Xavier himself, a humanoid creature covered in fur and with strange backwards-bending legs – who wanders from isolated town to isolated town, inflicting his hippie-philosophy “wisdom” on the locals. These attempts to change the world for the better always, without fail, result in apocalyptic disaster. At the end of each 10-minute episode, Xavier shrugs away the carnage as some sort of mystic “life lesson” and moves on to the next town. Imagine The Littlest Hobo mixed with 120 Days Of Sodom and you’ll be somewhere close.
The whole thing is crudely animated in deliberately bad CGI – think the quality of a PlayStation 1 cutscene – which, in a rare interview about the show, creators Vernon Chatman and John Lee have described as “having this clumsy earnestness about it … totally ambitious and totally limited, so when it fails, it fails in a really lame way.” The same interview also comes the closest anyone ever has to unveiling the “meaning” behind Xavier Renegade Angel: “it’s a warning to children and adults about the dangers of spirituality.” (It’s worth noting that Chatman and Lee are members of PFFR, the Brooklyn art collective behind other Adult Swim shows like Delocated and The Heart She Holler, and who also act as a mischievous art-rock outfit – which only gives those comparisons to The Fall a little more weight).
Here’s what passes for a typical plot, taken from “The 6th Teat of Good Intentions” (season 1, episode 4). Xavier ends up in another small town where he encounters a woman in a park with eight babies. As her back is turned, Xavier assumes she has abandoned the babies. He then gathers them all up, aiming to be their new father figure. They go to live in the sewers. While down there, Xavier’s snake-arm (oh – did I mention that Xavier’s left arm is a living green snake, for some reason?) eats all the babies. There’s a face-off with the cops. Xavier is about to be arrested for murder when he turns his snake-arm on himself. After ingesting himself he becomes a glowing golden orb called The Everchild. The Everchild is sent to the electric chair, where it is electrocuted, a process which brings Xavier back to life. Xavier then smashes through the window of the observation room and runs away.
It shouldn’t work. And, I dunno – maybe it doesn’t. Xavier Renegade Angel is such a dizzying hallucinogenic experience that it makes the viewer forget what “working” actually means in the first place. This just makes it more of a shock when the dialogue is so chock-full of one-liners it reaches nigh-on Alan Partridge levels of quotability: “Ah, the wail of a victim … the only thing worse than the victim of a whale,” or “The proof is in the pudding … in the sense that your son probably looked like a pudding when he was hit by that car.” or “I’d swim across a lake full of water for those cakes!”
“I am a conundrummer in a band called Lifepuzzler,” Xavier solemnly intones at one point. Why not pick up your sticks and join him?
Digging Up Funny is a regular column in which Christopher Davies sifts through comedy of the past – TV, film, radio, literature, everything else between – and pays tribute to the ones that got away. Searching for an overlooked gem? We’ve got you covered.