Dispatches From Direct-To-DVD Purgatory is a periodic check-in on what’s going on in the world of movies that didn’t make it to theaters.
Comedy Bang! Bang! is so defined by Scott Aukerman’s voice, literally and figuratively, that it can be easy to forget that the groundbreaking podcast actually featured a fair number of guest hosts in its first year, including Aukerman’s old pal, consummate professional broadcaster Jimmy Pardo, who assumed host duties for its thirteenth episode (back when it was still Comedy Death-Ray). The tone, structure, and format of the show were steadily evolving at that point, but many of its fixtures were already there, including Paul F. Tompkins, the eternally dependable Tony Randall of the podcast, who called in as rapper/actor Ice-T (a role he has played so extensively and with such panache that his Ice-T impression has usurped the actual Ice-T in the minds of many comedy fans) to “promote” a motion picture for which he had recorded the lead voiceover, Tommy And The Cool Mule.
On the podcast, Tompkins-as-Ice-T lispingly explains that he’s a super fan of his costar Kevin Sorbo, as well as movies and television shows involving what The A.V. Club’s Kyle Ryan likes to refer to as “wizards and shit.” So when he heard that Sorbo would be starring in a movie about talking barnyard animals, he told his agent, “Listen, Marjorie, I want you to get me a read for this mule picture.”
Tompkins-as-T continues that he didn’t want to “outshine the production,” so he insisted on performing the role un-credited and taking an “Alan Smithee” because “I don’t want to take attention away from the artistry of the project, which is about a boy who discovers a mule who can talk.”
The humor of Comedy Bang! Bang! evolved, but even at that early state it had a knack for singling out the existence of something utterly preposterous—for example, a movie entitled Tommy And The Cool Mule featuring a central voice performance by Ice-T—then twisting it into increasingly bizarre and hilarious directions.
In this case, Tompkins improvises that despite what its title would seem to suggest, Tommy and the attitudinally extreme mule never even meet; no, they inhabit separate storylines that exist side-by-side without intersecting. In Tompkins-as-T’s telling, at least, the “Tommy” side of Tommy And The Cool Mule is a drama about a boy coping with a new stepfather while the “cool mule” side involves a talking mule who is discovered by the circus and “dies of eating rancid oats.”
Like many listeners, I originally assumed that Tommy And The Cool Mule was a product of Tompkins’ fertile imagination. But Tommy And The Cool Mule exists, all right, and is available on Amazon Instant! If my experiences with A Talking Cat!?! taught me anything (and let’s be real, here, my experiences with A Talking Cat!?! taught me everything), it’s that sometimes you can judge a kid’s film by its title.
Tommy And The Cool Mule (which, incidentally, I am going to spell out by its full title every time I reference it because it brings me so much unseemly pleasure to consider and aggressively re-consider the title Tommy And The Cool Mule) opens with a wide-eyed moppet (Grant Barker) saying goodbye to his soldier dad just before he heads out on an important mission. It’s not supposed to be a combat role, but the soaring strings on the score and the golden halo of light that bathes Major Dad indelibly convey that where this soldier is headed there’s no coming back, and that lessons in manhood will need to be taught by some manner of magical barnyard creature in his absence.
Sure enough, by the next scene, dear old dad is but a cherished memory and Barker is confronting the problems left by his absence: The family can’t afford to keep horses, and wealthy land baron Kevin Sorbo is out to purchase the family’s land in one of those land-grabs beloved by cheesy movies like this. As the cartoonish villain, Sorbo wears a cowboy hat festooned with musical notes, and he gestures expansively in what sadly constitutes the most professional element of this production.
Barker has all the accessories of a generic kid-film protagonist: a crush on an impossible dream girl he’s convinced doesn’t even know he’s alive, a heroic dead parent to mourn, a surviving parent to worry about, and a gang of bullies to contend with, who are happy to remind Barker that he won’t be needing his saddle much longer, what with his dead dad and life of financial penury and all.
Thankfully, Barker has something the generic kid-film protagonist desperately lacks: a talking animal to serve as mentor, life coach, spiritual guide, and surrogate father. Tommy And The Cool Mule takes its sweet time getting to the whole “talking animal” bit. A talking mule calling himself Jackie-A doesn’t make his first appearance until nearly a half hour into the film.
Here’s the crazy part about Tommy And The Cool Mule: It NEVER fucking explains why this goddamned, motherfucking mule can talk. There’s no exposition, no preamble, no lengthy monologue about how the movements of the tide and the alignments of the stars can sometimes result in animals inexplicably being gifted the power of speech. One moment the film seems to inhabit a non-magical universe, where mules mostly just trudge around and eat and defecate. The next moment Barker is carrying on an animated conversation with Jackie-A, the sassy talking mule voiced by Ice-T.
Ice-T has an incredibly distinct lisping rasp (that’s a big part of what makes him so much fun to imitate) but in Tommy And The Cool Mule, he attempts to convey Poochie-style “attitude” with deafening volume alone, shouting all of his lines in a way that only highlights their stilted awfulness. I have enormous respect for Ice-T as a thinker, icon, rapper, and personality. He’s the man. He’s a god. He’s a motherfucking legend. But astonishingly, casting Ice-T as the voice and personality of the cool mule in Tommy And The Cool Mule resulted in the mule being less cool than he should be.
Cool is all about not trying too hard, and Ice-T works up a furious sweat trying to create a character out of terrible wisecracks, Hallmark-ready aphorisms, and some of the least convincing talking-animal effects this side of A Talking Cat!?! Now, Tommy And The Cool Mule represents a big step up from that film, but it similarly makes almost no effort to synchronize the lip movements of its titular mule with T’s extremely awful but extremely loud dialogue.
According to pop-culture legend, the producers of Mr. Ed would smear peanut butter on the horse’s lips so that he would appear to be talking while he attempted to remove it. The makers of Tommy And The Cool Mule had neither the money nor the time for such sophisticated, complicated technology, and the film suffers for it.
In his first scene with Barker, Ice-T-as-Jackie-A tells the kid, “Hey, boy. I’ve got an idea. Why don’t you saddle me up, and we can go for a ride?” When Barker demurs on the grounds that he’s a mule, Jackie-A, being extremely cool, immediately invokes the blessed presence of his Lord and Savior. When the boy asks who might possibly ride a mule, Jackie-A answers, “Who? Well, the greatest Man that ever lived! That’s who. And his mama, and his daddy. All the way to Bethlehem!”
Lest we imagine that faith in a savior outside your own species and sass level are somehow incompatible, the mule gives the boy—whose name is Tommy Braxxton—the cool nickname “T-Brax” and favors him with all manner of wisecracks, most of which he’s generous enough to guffaw at heartily himself. The cool mule’s combination of over-the-top, problematically stereotypical sass, and underlying godliness marks him as an equine version of Tyler Perry’s beloved Madea.
With Barker’s father dead, it falls upon Jackie-A to fill in as a surrogate parent and dispense life lessons about standing up to bullies and believing in yourself and the requisite horseshit, but he isn’t too dignified or full of wisdom to refrain from blasts of flatulence in one of the film’s most beloved running gags. Beyond being “cool,” this mule is extremely gassy. And cool. And devout. Verily, he contains multitudes, but Tommy And The Cool, Flatulent, Jesus-Loving Mule Who Is Also Very Fast And Has A Lot Of Excellent Advice To Dispense Despite His Seemingly Limited Frame Of Reference And Base Of Knowledge is an awful lot to put on a DVD.
The plot of Tommy And The Cool Mule revolves around Barker’s attempt to raise money to save his home by winning a climactic race pitting boring old horses against fantastical mules. Tommy And The Cool Mule is a standard-issue kids’ film in between the intermittent appearances of one very cool mule, but the scenes involving the cool mule retain a certain train-wreck fascination, whether T is winking back at his hip-hop past by rapping an excerpt from “Rapper’s Delight” or counseling Barker on how to play it cool in order to woo his crush.
Tommy And The Cool Mule never establishes why Barker is able to talk to Jackie-A, but late in the film the kid is accidentally struck with a wooden board that causes magical, multi-colored sparkles to appear in a haze over his head. When he regains his composure, Barker discovers that he no longer has the ability to talk to Jackie-A, if he ever had it all. What if Barker’s entire relationship with Jackie-A was a psychopathic delusion of some sort?
Barker is understandably freaked out, but, building on the life lessons the flatulent pack animal has given him over the course of the film, he rises to the occasion and wins even without being able to converse freely with the animal he’s riding. For you see, dear reader, the magic was inside Barker all along—the magic of believing in yourself and following your dreams or some such horseshit. Of course, the boy who loses cries foul, hollering incoherently about Barker summoning dark powers to make his mule talk.
Tommy And The Cool Mule has it both ways: Barker learns that he must believe in himself and not rely on a common crutch like the wise counsel of a mule plagued by gastrointestinal distress in times of intense pressure. Yet, in the end, Jackie-A goes right back to talking once the lesson has been learned. And that, friends, is some straight-up bullshit.
Unlike A Talking Cat!?!, Tommy And The Cool Mule does not live up to the life-affirming ridiculousness of its title, though every scene with T is pure kitsch gold. I kind of prefer it that way. A Talking Cat!?! wouldn’t be a perfect shitty miracle if video shelves were overrun with cheap kiddie films every bit as guiltily entertaining. What makes A Talking Cat!?! so special is that its level of unselfconscious camp perfection makes it as rare and as glorious as, well, a mule that talks. Then again, who ever heard of a talking mule!?!
Just how bad is it? The Ice-T stuff is super-dumb fun, but that’s only about 10 to 15 minutes. A supercut of every T scene would be vastly preferable to the film as a whole.