You’ve seen that show, right? That duck detective show? That show where the duck detective is super horny all the time and has difficulty with his messed up family at home because he misses his dead wife? It has a stupid title like “Duck Person” or “Duckguy” or something like that. His catchphrase was “What the hell are you staring at?” That guy from Seinfeld voiced him…
This isn’t some fever dream or drug trip but in fact one of the greatest shows of all time. Its name is Duckman, and if you haven’t seen this program, where have you been? Off having a fever dream or drug trip or something?
Duckman was ahead of its time and incredibly ambitious, taking risks that made it feel different. By digging into what made it so atypical and a predecessor for many current comedies, you’ll see that Duckman is the perfect candidate to join the batch of formerly dead shows that have come back to life.
Duckman: Private Dick/Family Man chronicled the adventures of a private investigator duck, named Eric Tiberius Duckman, as well as his home life with his family. Created by Everett Peck, it aired from 1994 to 1997 on the USA Network, with a Saturdays 10 p.m. timeslot, spanning 70 episodes, and was very much an “adult” cartoon before the days where such a thing was commonplace. Jason Alexander plays the character to perfection, letting loose as the unhinged duck in a performance comparable to George Costanza. His family was full of anomalies (like “one” son being two-headed) in an off-kilter family structure of weirdos that would become a precursor to shows like Family Guy, American Dad, or Futurama even. Duckman paved the way for them and would be in good company if it were to return now.
Most importantly, Duckman had something to say. It was filling the informed, articulate niche that shows like South Park or The Venture Bros are currently exploring. Duckman was never afraid to let emotion or melodrama cut through the comedy and leave you with a real gut-punch or a contemplative ending. The show got into loneliness, moroseness, and family, in a way that is only now really being hit in stuff like BoJack Horseman and Rick and Morty. Duckman’s basic situation saw him struggling over the death of his wife and adapting to the now lonely, foreign dynamic his family has to him. That’s an incredibly heavy premise for an anthropomorphic cartoon.
Throw in a fantastic score containing music by Frank Zappah and other meta experiments that feel more appropriate now in our heavily shared, social media dominant world. Think of the tweets that would have happened when they did a crossover with USA’s Weird Science. Consider how YouTube would have exploded when Jason Alexander appeared as “himself,” being forced to act as Seinfeld’s fictitious Art Vandelay, in a brilliant piece of world-connecting.
The show wasn’t afraid of social commentary, like an episode attacking reality television years ahead of the game (although at the time, this consisted of fodder like Cops instead of American Idol) or another looking at a beauty pageant that sees the death of “America” (something that would be done decades later on Adult Swim’s cutting edge Eagleheart). They were doing “Road To…” episodes that parodied the classic Bing Crosby/Bob Hope features before Family Guy made it a staple. There was even a love-hate relationship between the show and their network, with the series constantly poking fun at USA in a way that was still yet to be adopted by Fox’s The Simpsons. It was pushing all the buttons that people today love, yet Duckman remains in almost obscurity.
Everett Peck himself seems to have a pretty good idea for why his series never caught on.
“The show was totally mishandled…it wasn’t really promoted much up front and then they kept switching time slots,” Peck told Popdose in 2009 to mark the long-awaited DVD release of the show, which admittedly has helped it out some. “As a result, we really weren’t able to build a solid viewership from that side. It sort of developed a cult following.”
Sure, and that’s ultimately that’s why [budgetary issues] we were canceled. “Duckman” never got really high ratings…and we were on an odd network. FOX, a lot of their programming supported “The Simpsons.” We didn’t really have that…our lead in was, uh, wrestling or something, a sporting event, and sometimes the show didn’t start at the exact time. You know, all that stuff.
Duckman was taking swings and trying to push television while every other animated program was content with simply being funny. With how much the world has changed since the ‘90s, it would truly be exciting to see what it would have to say regarding the current state of the world. If they were that prescient and poignant then, imagine the sort of episodes that they could be churning out now. Peck has said, “I think we could have done another hundred episodes and kept it fresh. At its heart, Duckman was about a private detective, and you can go anywhere with that.”
The stories that this show told were what separated it from the rest of the pack and made it feel ahead of its time. Sure, they did your standard things like a Star Trek parody, a Dangerous Minds riff (which was a much bigger deal at the time, confirmed by the existence of such things like High School High), blaxpolitation send-ups, a pitch-perfect take on film noir, and clever subversions of clip shows. But they also went a lot further. Almost as much as Community developed “concept episodes” Duckman too was experimenting with different genres and formats to keep things interesting and challenging.
They also weren’t afraid to indulge in extended live-action sequences that they’d turn to a number of times, but some segments (a live-action piece from the talk-show Leeza with Duckman and co on it, or an extended clip out of Wings containing Steven Weber and Ajax) were nearly entire acts of the episodes. It was certainly a risky move. It’s hard to imagine even some of Adult Swim’s weirder animated shows resorting to a move like that now. There was no rulebook, and so it feels only right to highlight some of their weirder, more form-breaking efforts.
There’s a biting episode titled “With Friends Like These” that sees a friendless Duckman running into a group of culturally diverse twenty-somethings who frequent a coffee shop. While the show’s obvious target is Friends (and the cast of NBC’s hit was even supposed to supply the voices here until a last minute change—probably their network not being too thrilled about appearing on a show that was attacking them the entire time), sitcoms in general are put under the microscope here. We see Duckman and his new friends work through clichéd situations as they’re set to a laugh track and even get their own theme song. It’s a beautiful condemnation of the lazy direction sitcoms were heading.
“Duckman and Cornfed in ‘Haunted Society Plumbers'” was a thoroughly brilliant (and Emmy nominated, mind you) episode that’s a gleeful love letter to the Three Stooges, Marx Bros., Abbott and Costello, and Martin and Lewis classics, as the two of them set out on a romp to retrieve the missing “Sharon Stone” as they act as plumbers for the episode.
“Cock Tales for Four” was a quasi-bottle episode that was simply Duckman, Bernice, and Ajax having dinner with King Chicken and his wife, Honey. What plays out feels like a condensed piece of theater (heavily aping Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) that gets into everyone’s relationships and who they are, as they simply talk and emote over dinner. This was their season finale. Not some huge piece of action or crazy, sprawling set piece, but this micro-study of what these characters stand for as they let them speak for themselves. It feels like a Frasier episode. With ducks.
But their most layered might be, “Crime, Punishment, War, Peace, and the Idiot” in which we see Grandma-ma’s life being acted out in a series of flashbacks, all of which are aping popular Russian literature, like the works of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. It’s an incredibly sophisticated piece of comedy and a precursor to modern examples like the Community episode that goes after My Dinner With Andre. Anyone can do a Star Trek parody, but a larger piece commenting on Russian lit as a whole is fairly ambitious for a 22-minute animated sitcom about a vulgar duck.
Duckman was pushing the envelope and mailing that envelope to places that animated shows didn’t even know they could go to. With television being so much more experimental and adventurous now, Duckman almost makes more sense on TV than it did over 20 years ago. Considering the colossal cliffhanger that Duckman went out on, it would be comforting to finally get some answers.
We’ve made Twin Peaks season 3 happen. Now let’s get to work on Duckman season 5.
What the hell are you staring at, indeed!