Kidding is emotionally kaleidoscopic. It is poignant, silly, cynical, and nostalgic. It is also realistic and totally absurd, and if I had to describe it in one word, I would say it is colorful. I think director Michel Gondry is trying to explore the fundamental grief and humor that are inherently part of human life, and the result is very moving. The overall art direction, cinematography, score, and performances are all stellar, and I can confidently say it’s worth watching, especially if, for you, humor and sadness are like sibling emotions—they might not always get along, but they are definitely part of the same family.
“Don’t ask about Phil”
The first episode opens with critically acclaimed children’s entertainer Jeff Pickles, aka Mr. Pickles (Jim Carrey), appearing as a guest on Conan O’Brien. We overhear a voice from backstage tell Conan through his ear-piece, “It happened a year ago today. His name was Phil. Don’t ask about Phil.”
This quick snippet of expository dialogue is essentially the focal point for the entire episode, and perhaps the series. We are introduced to Mr. Pickles as he is celebrating 30 years as the beloved host of Mr. Pickles’ Puppet Time. In Conan’s words, “He raised your son, your daughter, your step-daughter from his couch in Columbus Ohio.” Mr. Rogers immediately comes to mind, however, Mr. Pickles is a very different kind of man. He is struggling with grief, a family that is falling apart, and—probably most apparent on the first episode—an inability to express anger.
The first episode is largely focused on the death of Jeff’s son, Phil, who died in a car accident. Moments before the accident, Phil’s twin brother Will (Cole Allen plays both characters) was playing with his seatbelt in the backseat and unhooked it right before a truck smashed into their car. The accident occurred due to an electronic malfunction which caused all of the traffic lights to simultaneously turn green. Jeff’s wife, Jill (Judy Greer) was driving at the time, but Jeff was not in the car. In this brief moment, we also discover that Jill’s boredom and frustration with Jeff began prior to Phil’s death.
Throughout the episode, Jeff, Jill, and Will struggle to adjust to Phil’s death. Jill recently had Phil’s name tattooed on her chest and her drinking has become problematic. Jill says to Jeff, “I have my wine club at six, and it’s more fun on an empty stomach.” Will is aggressively acting out, writing “Buffalo Cunt” on his mother’s mirror, attempting to fill her trunk with bees, and repeatedly calling his father a pussy. Jeff, on the other hand, appears as if the grief hasn’t entirely set in. In his scenes with Seb (Frank Langella), Jeff appears as if he is not quite there—he seems foggy and childlike, while Seb is cold and overly rational. The late reveal at the dinner table that Seb is actually Jeff’s father—and therefore, Phil’s grandfather—is especially tragic, because Seb appears to be completely unaffected by the death of his grandchild.
In addition to Jeff, Jill, and Will, is Jeff’s sister Deidre (Catherine Keener), who also works on Mr. Pickles’ Puppet Time, as both puppeteer and artist. Deidre struggles throughout the episode to parent her young daughter, Maddy (Juliet Morris), who refuses to eat her vegetables. This initially appears as a stereotypical conflict between mother and daughter. Deidre responds with punishment, telling Maddy that she cannot shower or bathe until she eats her vegetables. Eventually, Deidre asks Maddy why she won’t eat her vegetables, and Maddy says it’s because they fell on the ground. Deidre asks her when they fell on the ground, and Maddy tells her that her father Scott handed her the bag of groceries as one of their neighbors approached him with a handful of roses. Maddy entered her house and turned back to look out the window at her father and the neighbor standing in the driveway. She saw her father being masturbated by the other man and, shocked, dropped the bag of vegetables on the floor. Deidre is stunned and relents, allowing Maddy to shower. We later see Maddy voraciously eating her vegetables at dinner with her family.
This interchange was striking to me, especially considering the episode begins with Jeff promoting his book, Talking to Children. As we see from the dynamic between Deidre and her daughter, the tit-for-tat punishment approach did not work–Maddy stuck to her position, didn’t eat her vegetables, and did not care that she started to smell. As I see it, something in Maddy froze when she saw what was happening with her father in the driveway. Maddy did not understand what was happening and could not communicate directly, so instead she refused nourishment until she received appropriate attention from her mother. Although initially confrontational, Deidre was eventually able to listen to Maddy’s story attentively and with compassion, and as a result, Maddy began to eat again. This could be an example right out of Talking to Children, although perhaps it would be more appropriately titled as Listening to Children.
“I wanna do a show about death”
Jeff insists on filming a show about death, and insists upon using the word “death.” He says, “I don’t wanna say my son is off cloud surfing or hula-hooping with a halo. I wanna say death.” I think the show is approaching a socio-cultural taboo–people do not want to discuss death and dying, but rather, prefer to avoid it or opt for language that in some sense denies the reality of death while softly hinting at it: “passing on” or “passing away.”
Jeff’s intention behind filming an episode about death is most clearly articulated when he says, “You know, the longer we wait to deal with this in our special way the more we tell every child in America that when something catastrophic happens to them they should just pretend it didn’t.” Later, after being denied by Seb, he argues, “Do we really need another episode about colors? Kids know the sky is blue. They need to know what to do when it’s falling.” I also think it’s worth considering whether Jeff is actually speaking for himself. Instead, Jeff might be saying, “The sky is falling, and I don’t know what to do about it.” Jeff’s father ignores his words, and although he allows Jeff to film his episode about death, refuses to air it.
I felt an injunction from Jeff to really think this through: How do we talk to children about the adult-created catastrophes of the world? If we do not address these issues head on, we risk creating even greater suffering. As Jeff pointedly said, “When kids don’t talk about their dark feelings they get quiet. It’s the quiet ones that make the news.”
Along with women, children are probably the most historically oppressed population on the planet. As Jeff pleaded to his father, I thought of all of the children who have experienced and are currently experiencing social and political atrocities firsthand, like the children at the U.S.-Mexico border who were separated from their parents and held in detention centers. Apparently, it is a rule in these detention centers that siblings cannot hug one another, and that workers cannot even offer words of comfort to these terrified children. What are we doing to these children? And what happens to the adults who force themselves to remain numb, as if they are unaffected by what they have witnessed? I imagine Jeff would have a lot to say–or sing–about this.
“You’re a man in a box”
Jeff’s father, Seb, is a difficult character to stomach because on the one hand, I feel like he makes valid points about Jeff’s behavior, but on the other, he so heartless and detached that I struggle to imagine this man as a father, let alone a grandfather. This dynamic of compensation and polarization between characters is present throughout the first episode. For example, Jeff is optimistic and childlike, so in response, his son and wife are both cynical and jaded. Initially, it’s easy to empathize with Jeff, because he appears to be so sensitive and gentle, yet at the conclusion of the episode, we see that he is deeply out of balance. Jeff shaves a line through the middle of his head, quietly saying, “Oops” to himself as he stares into the mirror. So in a way, Seb is correct—there are two (or more) Jeff’s, who are deeply disconnected from one another.
Jeff’s father, Seb, also has the most poignant monologue in this episode. Frank Langella’s performance is incredible—his phrasing is poetic and his tone is brutal and incisive. Seb has clearly been soured by his decades in television, and perhaps further damaged by the untimely loss of his grandson, Phil. In part of this monologue, Seb explains to Jeff why they did not air his episode about death:
“This isn’t an episode about burying a hamster. This thing happened to you, not to them. We’re in a fickle business, ruled by an unwritten contract with the audience. You are not a real person, you’re a man in a box. You’re a block of wood. And you like it that way. Otherwise you’re the about-to-be divorced father of a broken family–and nobody wants that guy in their living room.” -Seb Piccirillo (Frank Langella)
Jeff may be in touch with his imagination, the world of children, and the importance of generosity and beauty, but he is entirely out of touch with his own anger, and only seems vaguely aware of his own grief and sorrow. Generally speaking, when someone is unconscious of their own anger and capacity for violence, the potential for destructive behavior increases dramatically. This is clear when Jeff physically stands up to Seb, who asks, “Are you going to hit me?” Jeff softens, sits back down, and says, “Why would I want to hit you?” Seb seems to understand Jeff’s aggression more than Jeff does. Jeff’s anger is also most apparent at the end of the episode. As Jeff decides to purchase the house next door to his family’s home–his old house–he sees a man with his arm around around his (probably soon-to-be ex) wife Jill. Jeff instantly rips the faucet head out of the sink with his bare hands and a stream of water shoots into the air.
Whenever a great loss occurs, it often causes repressed and stifled thoughts and emotions to surface, especially in intimate relationships. These releases have the potential to be both reparative and destructive, and it is possible that Phil’s death, although tragic, may serve as the catalyst that inevitably brings his family closer together. It will be interesting to see how Jeff and his family choose to engage with, deny, or avoid their feelings of grief and pain. At the end of the first episode, however, it is clear that Jeff—as well as his family—have a lot of work to do.