MTV’s Oddities Part 1: Cerebral or Simply Heady Animation?: The Head

As Twin Peaks (1990-1991) invited audiences to slowly begin to accept the inherently weird around them in a setting just short of Magical Realism, popular culture would embrace its particular brand of subtle, soap opera weird as well as more overt art-house efforts well into the early 1990’s. And as Twin Peaks affected much of the cult television shows of the 90’s, it doesn’t hurt to look at some of those examples. One of the first thoughts to this writer, having just finished the first two-hour premiere of the Showtime’s limited series event back in May—specifically the Evolution of the Arm and its Doppelganger as well as the shifting lodge flooring, was “this is Liquid Television.” That vein of wacky animation did not continue in The Return, but it was an absolute surface thought; maybe my mind was turned to Crazy Daisy Ed segments. For context, Liquid Television (1991-1994) was a program on MTV that promoted the animation efforts of up-and-coming artists (Crazy Daisy Ed was one). If a particular segment was popular, it became somewhat serialized throughout the run of the short-lived series, Liquid Television. If those serialized shorts were even more particularly popular, MTV chose them for their own series. Those popular offshoots were Mike Judge’s Beavis and Butthead, Peter Chung’s Aeon Flux, and this article’s topic, Eric Fogel’s The Head. The Head was grouped into a new effort separate of Beavis and Butthead and Aeon Flux in that it was to kick-off MTV’s Oddities series. This would have acted like an animated Twilight Zone for MTV with continuing stories told in short seasons instead of single episodes. Their chosen series were Eric Fogel’s The Head and an Image Comics adaptation in Sam Keith’s The Maxx (see my next article MTV’s Oddities Part 2). MTV boasted a couple of other animated series separate of the Oddities label: The Brothers Grunt and Daria, the former a spin-off from promotional shorts for the station, the latter a Beavis and Butthead spin-off. Now, if this all reads as new and exciting, and you do not want to read the obligatory summation of the plot, skip the paragraphs bookended with “spoilers” tags, even though I will be using plot lines from the entire run for discussion points after that. Both seasons of The Head can be purchased for streaming.

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***Spoilers***

The initial five minute Liquid Television segment of The Head that introduced us to essential characters opens with Jim at a head specialist. His head is disproportionately large for his body, domed well beyond Alien Nation proportions and exaggerated way beyond The Coneheads from SNL fame. It is only animation magic that allows him to fit into the room. His cranial specialist is Dr. Axel, who is as passionately dedicated to figuring out this as-yet unidentifiable condition as Scottie was to fixing the Enterprise’s Head_003engines. Jim leaves frustrated and is approached by thugs who threaten him for being a freak. It is at this point, Jim’s head splits open and a purple alien bounces out, obliterating two of the thugs before politely warning the last to “stay out of trouble.” The animation short closes with Jim explaining that nothing could have prepared him for the truth of his condition as he walks into the sunset. This is where the Oddities original animation continues the story, albeit only about a year or two later as opposed to our 25-year wait for The Return (The Head made no promises). Season one, let’s see: Jim has become the host to “Roy,” a Srelkit Nerb, whose planet was destroyed by a parasitic race. Roy needs Jims head to acclimate to Earth’s atmosphere and accrue human culture. Jim will benefit by this symbiotic relationship as Roy helps him with his confidence. Jim is currently in tech school. He is good with tools but otherwise does not pay attention in his classes. They need to find the pieces of a machine which can stop the parasitic aliens, but it broke upon entry into the atmosphere and is in pieces scattered about.

Roy’s first endeavor to help Jim is to aid him in cooking dinner for Jim’s date with Madeleine. Madeleine is coping with Jim’s new head with surprising ease as she explains that she volunteers with a support group for those with unique anomalies. By the end of the dinner, Gork, Roy’s antagonist from the parasitic alien race takes over Madeleine’s head. From here, the audience continues on Jim and Roy’s adventures to save Madeleine and retrieve the anti-invasion machine with the help of the support group while being thwarted by Gork and by alien-obsessed and maniacal Dr. Elliot with the help of his Clint Eastwood and Arnold Schwarzenegger-like F.B.I. agents. Season two was not a continuing story. It begins with a recap of the seven-episode season one, then dives into individual episodes, which give each character from the show their own stand-alone episodes, highlighting their potentials. The series ended after season two.

***End Spoilers***

What The Head does best is offer some caricature perspectives on human culture—head hunters (the joke isn’t missed), country folk, city thugs, American patriot tourists, the Orient, 1990’s talk show hosts à la Jerry Springer and Geraldo Rivera. The Head is most Head_004assuredly a show of its time. Arriving in 1994, the year of Kurt Cobain’s death, the attitude of the 90’s is firmly in place, seen in Jim’s ambivalent statements “I know something about that, but I didn’t really pay attention in class,” Nirvana lyrics “I think I’m dumb,” Beck’s “I’m a loser, baby.” It was a fine social badge to be less than one’s potential. It was a cynical, tongue-in-cheek dismissal of one’s intelligence. Jim is Generation X saying, “You wouldn’t listen to me if I said it, so I guess I’ll just play dumb.” Therein lies the charm of Roy. The alien who is learning humankind for the first time is genuine. There is no affectation in his hope to save the race, give Jim confidence, and be fascinated by love. That’s one level the show works on. Another, and the most overt, is the superficial alien attack, save the day storyline, which I would like to look at.

Aliens and UFO’s have been in the popular culture dating back to the pulps and days of so-called Golden Age of comic books, interstellar aspirations dating back to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars novels and beyond. In order to write a compelling look at The Head, I decided to take a crash course in UFOlogy, the sole source for my information coming from David J. Hogan’s UFO FAQ. Indeed, as Hogan states:

“Partly because of Orson Welles’s October 30, 1938, War of the Worlds radio broadcast (see chapter fifteen), popular interest in Mars ran high. Throughout the 1940s, comic books, radio plays, pulp magazines, and movie serials suggested Martian life. Ray Bradbury’s elegant 1950 short story collection The Martian Chronicles crossed over into the literary mainstream, and helped spark popular notions about Mars exploration, a dying Martian race, and colonization of Mars by Earthlings—who become the new Martians.”[1]

The maniacal Dr. Lucas Elliot relates the origins of his obsession with protecting earth from an alien invasion. When he was small, around five-years-old, while outside watching the stars, he saw a comet stretch across the sky ending in a crash in a close-by barn. He observes a farmer waddle out, seemingly injured with a huge, domed cranium. The man falls to his death as a parasitic alien busts out. The alien walks over toHead_001 young Elliot and squeeze-tests his head, determining it to be too young for habitation. A truck then strikes the alien, ending in an explosive crash. Elliot, panicked, explains that there’s no way to know how many are out there … waiting for the signal! Mark Frost’s The Secret History of Twin Peaks gives us an epistolary narrative spanning UFO conspiracy across the 20th century, and it does a good job of narrowing our focus to some key instances, all culminating into the kind of fervor that allowed for audiences to get excited about shows like Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories, The X-Files, and The Head. Stories of alien abduction originated in the United States, and Hodges lends us some fascinating statistics on the subject.

“Results from the first wave of the ambitious Baylor Religion Survey, released in 2006 and conducted with help from the Gallup organization, show that people associated with the UFO Contact Center and with other abductee support groups across America were more educated and more apt to pursue white-collar occupations than the general U.S. population. The average abductee respondent’s age was forty-four; the average age of all Americans was forty-six. Abductee marital status—55 percent married—paralleled that of the general population (53 percent). A survey conducted by American sociologist Brenda Denzler in 2001 indicated that although males comprise 56 percent of the UFO community, females account for 58 percent of abductees.”[2]

The lesson, I guess, is that it takes all types, but pertinent to the show, I wanted to look at the idea of this support group. I made mention earlier in the article that Madeleine’s character works with a support group. I will describe the members. There is Chen, who has long, spider-like limbs. We learn in his stand-alone season two episode that he was a head_011captive orphan in a martial arts freak show act in his home country. There is Ray, a landscaper who lives with a lawnmower blade vivisecting his face. We learn that he is a victim to a government cover-up on defective consumer products. Mona is a mole for Dr. Lucas Elliot who appears gorgeous and normal. Her secret is her concealed tail. Ivan is a Russian immigrant who has a mouth in his chest. He simply feeds the mouth and doesn’t ask the questions. Raquel plainly explains that, “I look like a rat.” Earle is the African American member of the group who won a fifty-dollar bet but now lives with a full fish bowl in his mouth replete with rocks, water and fish. Together they form a band some part Jim and Roy’s Bookhouse Boys & Babes meets Todd Browning’s Freaks. The lessons we learn from them is that good hearts are beyond standards of beauty and normalcy. And if these are distinctions that make a human weird, we have to distinguish between Roy and Gork, because Dr. Elliot cannot.

Roy is plain spoken, purple, and polite. Gork affects an overly British tone but is parasitic, conniving, and pale. Both drawings take something from the Grays but are altogether unique. Hogan describes where some popular depictions originated.

“Popularly accepted notions of alien physiognomy come from sources as diverse as stone-mask makers of pre-Columbian Mexico, EC Comics artist Wallace Wood, Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch, moviemakers, and the aforementioned pulp artists of the 1930s and ’40s. When illustrator Howard V. Brown painted the cover of the June 1933 issue of Astounding Stories, he depicted extraterrestrials with enlarged heads, oversized eyes, and small, slit-like mouths—what UFOlogist Michael Grosso characterized as anticipating the “fetus-like” conceptions popularized after World War II. Grosso has written smartly about what he calls these aliens, and their peculiar appeal: startling in their strangeness, yet sympathetic because they evoke starving children.”[3]

It is not simple looks that make the alien. If intelligent life, then the questions are their intentions—good or evil, majestic or malevolent. There’s a fascinating distinction when looking at UFO researcher John Keel (1930–2009), and I think distinction is one us Twin Peaks fans will appreciate for its implications. Note that ET theory does stand Extraterrestrial.

“In his 1970 book Operation Trojan Horse, Keel abandoned the ET theory because of what he termed “an astonishing overlap between psychic phenomena and UFOs.” He brought forth his “ultraterrestrial” theory, by which alien visitors are supernatural, and arrived from other dimensions to plague us. Much in the vein of H. P. Lovecraft’s iniquitous Old Ones, the ultraterrestrials have visited us for eons, to shape human history while diverting attention from themselves by suggesting the outer-space origins of UFOs. In this sort of bleakly determinist scenario, humans are small indeed. Helpless before our secret masters, our destinies mapped out and controlled by malevolent Others, we pursue what Lovecraft described as “common human laws and interests and emotions [that] have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large.” Worse, the ultraterrestrials view us with contempt and scorn.”[4]

Neither Roy nor Gork fit this theory. Gork’s race works much the same way Marvel Comics’ Galactus works. These aliens are simply hungry to feed and move on, but that makes them a threat. They are shown in the show to be stupid or at the very least careless. Roy is shown to have a compassionate approach. Still, I’m going to use the opportunity to propose the idea of ultraterrestrials as one we’d want to catalog in our fan base minds. The very idea of aliens as ultraterrestrial can certainly change the context of a Sumerian demon, perhaps a Jouday. Given all of this, let’s simply agree that Eric Fogel’s The Head is a hilarious, ridiculous, and entertaining cartoon that is unafraid to have a little fun with the popular conventions of UFOlogy with a little heart behind it. Cerebral? No. Heady? Well, a valiant attempt by MTV to offer a unique experience for an altogether unique audience. It still shows what can be accomplished when an artist is given some creative space to work. The Head’s leap from a single-short on Liquid Television to a two-season, fourteen episode romp is exceptional in animated history alone. Now, as the top-hatted host of MTV’s Oddities sounds off “Stay home, dear friends, and come again to behold the mysteries of MTV’s Oddities.” I’ll see you next time to speak about The Maxx!

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[1] Hogan, David J. 2016. UFO FAQ: All that’s Left to Know About Roswell, Aliens, Whirling Discs, and Flying Saucers, p. 70.

[2] Hogan, p. 268.

[3] Hogan, p. 66-67.

[4] Hogan, p. 20.


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4 Replies to “MTV’s Oddities Part 1: Cerebral or Simply Heady Animation?: The Head”

  1. Hi, Rob, I’ve been enjoying your blog. You discover strings and follow them to discover intriguing connections between various theories of ETs, UFOs, and popular entertainment. Glad to see you’ve been finding my recent book, UFO FAQ, a help. I tried hard to present as much information in the space the publisher allowed, and to do it with a fair and even hand. Cheers!~ David J. Hogan

    1. David, thank you for writing and saying so. I’m fairly novice at UFOlogy. I found your book to be extremely accessible after reading Mark Frost’s The Secret History of Twin Peaks. It has saved me more than once, and I don’t mind promoting it. Maybe sometime soon I could think of a way we could think of a way we could discuss the two. Anyhow, thank you, and I really do like your book.

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