Monday, March 27, 2006

The Return of the Weirdest Guy in School


ONE rainy afternoon last summer, 12-year-old Annie Ballaine was doing what comes naturally to preteens on days when neither school nor sunshine is readily available: she was soaking up as much television as possible. Flipping through the channels, she came across the sight of a chubby, excitable boy of indeterminate age, dressed in a red plaid shirt and blue jeans, profusely thanking a pizza delivery man who had arrived at his apartment with a large cheese pie that contained, the boy claimed, a missing sneaker he had lost five months ago.

It was then that Miss Ballaine, now a sixth grader at St. Ann's School in Brooklyn, became a fan of "The Andy Milonakis Show." And while she may not be familiar yet with terms like "surreal," "absurdist" and "Dadaesque," she could sense that there was a quality about this program — and especially about its energetic, diminutive star — that she had never seen on television before. "It was really unusual what he did," she said. "He was doing things that other people wouldn't do to be funny."

Miss Ballaine is not part of the target demographic for "The Andy Milonakis Show," an offbeat, rapid-fire comedy series aimed primarily at males in their late teens and early 20's (and which has its second season premiere on MTV2 this Friday). But like many other members of her generation who both secretly and openly admire the program, and who have assimilated its nonsensical repertory of punch lines and satirical rap songs as if it were a second language, she doesn't need anyone to explain to her what's so funny about an adult (if not quite a grown-up) who looks and behaves like a kid.

As most of his intended viewers already know, Mr. Milonakis, a native of Mt. Kisco, N.Y., is not actually a child. He turned 30 in January. But he has a growth hormone condition that is responsible for his baby-faced appearance.

What science cannot as easily explain is how Mr. Milonakis has been able to preserve his youthful curiosity well into adulthood, and channel it into skits — some as short as a few seconds and none longer than a few minutes — that seem to originate from a mischievous child's fascination with the world around him: What would happen if I tried to inflate a Twinkie with a bicycle pump? If I put a battery in my mouth, will my face light up like a pinball table? Is toothpaste an appropriate ingredient for a sandwich?

Even Mr. Milonakis, who cites experimental comedy series like "Monty Python's Flying Circus" and "Mr. Show With Bob and David" as his influences, is not entirely sure where his hyperactive sensibility comes from. "I like a lot of crazy comedy," he said, speaking from the Grand Street apartment that serves as both the set and production offices of "The Andy Milonakis Show." "But when it comes to creating it, I don't know why I do what I do. I tend to go for the really weird, bizarre stuff. I actually have to tone it down for the show."

"Weird" is by far the most versatile and frequently employed word in Mr. Milonakis's vocabulary; it is weird to him that when he writes a scene that calls for a talking pizza, he now has a team of artists and designers at his disposal that will build one to his specifications. "They're like: 'Should it have pepperoni eyes or salami eyes? Should its mouth be one big sardine or a can of sardines?' " Mr. Milonakis said. "I'm like, 'It's not rocket science.' "

And it is weird to Mr. Milonakis that he should find himself the star and the creative force of a hit cable series, when just four years ago he had no television credits at all. "There are thousands and thousands of people who are out there, killing themselves to read one line in a commercial," he said. "I'm lucky that I skipped a lot of that heartache and everyday struggle."

Like several other breakthrough personalities of recent months, Mr. Milonakis got his head start on the Internet. While working as a computer technician, he was also posting his homemade, no-budget shorts on the Web site in one skit, he mourns the death of a pet named Dr. Curly, which turns out to be a package of sliced deli meat; in another, he performs an off-key, off-color song on his guitar entitled "The Superbowl Is Gay."

The latter segment caught the attention of producers at "Jimmy Kimmel Live," who showed the video during the late-night talk show's post-Super Bowl debut in January 2003. And Mr. Kimmel personally took Mr. Milonakis under his wing, occasionally employing him as an announcer and correspondent on the show, and helping him develop his own series for MTV. (Though its first season ran on MTV, "The Andy Milonakis Show" will now appear on its sister channel MTV2.)

For Mr. Kimmel, it was crucial that the project retain the "latchkey kid meets 'Pee-wee's Playhouse' " spirit of Mr. Milonakis's Internet shorts — the feeling that they are taking place in an apartment, and a universe, that Mr. Milonakis inhabits alone. "The magic of those bits is that they aren't slick, and that it looks like he put a camera on top of his refrigerator and filmed himself," said Mr. Kimmel, who has a 14-year-old daughter, a 12-year-old son, a 6-year-old nephew and a 4-year-old niece — all fans of the "The Andy Milonakis Show." "I think every kid does a show in his bedroom and announces himself and comes and says, 'I'm the greatest singer in the world!' It strikes a chord in people."

But after setting up shop in a Lower East Side neighborhood, producers quickly discovered the value of populating "The Andy Milonakis Show" with locals; its ensemble now includes Ralphie, Mr. Milonakis's hulking sidekick, and Rivka, an elderly woman who wears two pairs of glasses simultaneously, as well as countless indigenous shopkeepers, Hasidim and retirees. "This has got to be the first sketch-comedy show where the average cast member is over 65 years old," said Jonathan Kimmel, the program's head writer and Jimmy Kimmel's brother.

Mr. Milonakis's television apartment (on loan to producers from another local family) also played a role in the development of the show's voice, particularly the children's bedroom littered with broken action figures, musty stuffed toys and vintage board games, where writers are often sent to brainstorm ideas. ("It's always the stupidest stuff that inspires you," Jonathan Kimmel explained.)

And inspiration is an especially precious commodity at "The Andy Milonakis Show": It took approximately 240 skits to fill out its first eight-episode season — not counting the handful that MTV rejected as too bizarre. "I've fought for stuff in the past that they said they didn't like on paper, but we're like: 'Can we shoot it anyway? We really believe in it,' " Mr. Milonakis said. "And after we shoot it, we win them over."

As the show prepares for its transition to MTV2 (where its nonconformist streak will likely be a better match with the anarchic children's show parody "Wonder Showzen" than it was with, say, the reality series "Laguna Beach"), not much has changed: the new season will still feature Mr. Milonakis's man-on-the-street interviews, as well as at least one rap video celebrating the virtues of pudding.

But some of the grown-ups in the room have more ambitious hopes for the series and its potential to further MTV's long-term goals of bringing its content to the Internet and beyond. "This show in particular, because of where it came from, is tailor-made for busting it out into this new world of short-form entertainment on the web and wireless," said Tony DiSanto, an executive at MTV Networks and the head of programming for MTV2. "I'd love being able to download a show I produced onto my iPod."

And Jimmy Kimmel, an executive producer of the show, said he believed that the program would finally demonstrate the viability of the Internet as a broadcast medium to rival television. "I don't know when people are going to come to grips with that," Mr. Kimmel said. "They still think it's some weird little thing that's somewhere between a stand-up comedy club and a telephone call. But I bet as many people have seen Andy doing that Super Bowl video as have seen 'Desperate Housewives.' "

But do not mention any of this to Miss Ballaine, who firmly believes that "The Andy Milonakis Show" is a program made for her and her peers and not just an element of a cable network's multimedia strategy. "I think it's more for kids, because it's a comedy and it's silly," she said. "But grown-ups can watch it if they want."

That assessment is fine with Mr. Milonakis, who has come to appreciate his adolescent devotees more than his would-be adult fans. "I love when young kids come up to me, because it's so much cuter when a little 7-year-old is just in awe," he said. "A lot of 24-, 25-year-olds, they just want to manhandle me: 'Yo, you gotta do that bit! Yo, do a rhyme, right now!' There's a lot of idiots in the world," he added. "I'm sure I don't have to tell you that."

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