It’s been awhile since our last review, for which I apologize. Today we examine two seminal KOTH episodes, each introducing a problematic supporting player voiced by Toby Huss.
Westie Side Story (Season One, Episode Seven)
Original air date: March 2nd, 1997
Writers: Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger
Director: Brian Sheesly
Internet lore claims that KOTH’s original pilot involved Hank meeting a new Laotian neighbor. The creators nixed this idea as too conventional: better for the show’s premiere to establish KOTH’s unique universe. Yet here’s “Westie Side Story,” a middling episode that introduces KOTH’s best utility player, Kahn Souphanousinphone.
The Souphanousinphones move onto Rainey Street: hardwired father Kahn, materialistic wife Minh, nerdy daughter Connie. Hank and Peggy try being hospitable, but their first meetings result in faux pas and mutual resentment. Hank and Kahn make up at a barbeque… until Hank’s dog Ladybird goes missing. Naturally, Dale puts two and six together: Kahn’s Asian, they just ate meat… what do you think happened?
Jonathan Abel and Glenn Berger advance a typical new neighbors plot with a few twists. Hank and Kahn’s bickering then bonding story is very familiar, and the third act twist seems a cheap way to revive a flagging plot. Rather than befriending each other, Peggy and Minh fight worse than their husbands. Minh’s unimpressed by Peggy’s cooking: “Add nutmeg!” she insists. Connie befriends Bobby but makes little impression.
“Westie Side Story” makes heavy play on stereotypes. This episode has the classic “Chinese or Japanese?” exchange: Kahn explains he’s from Laos, but Hank, Bill and Dale don’t get it (“What Ocean?”). Kahn and Minh become inscrutable Orientals (“Damn Chinese and their stereotypes!”); Hank and Peggy are rednecks. They fight, argue and misinterpret each other until the ending, where Hank realizes they’re not so different. A lesson he and Kahn would learn and unlearn about 100 times over the next decade.
Kahn became one of KOTH’s most reliable recurring characters, good for snarky putdowns and substantial enough to warrant periodic focus episodes (“De-Kahnstructing Henry,” “Pour Some Sugar on Kahn”). Inevitably, many blast Kahn as a racist stereotype, which misses the point. He inverts the cliched Hollywood Asian: lazy, arrogant, greedy and outspokenly racist. (Ted Wassanasong offers a more straightforward deconstruction.) He’s a horrible person whom the show extends sympathy and human contours.
After 13 seasons and endless Adult Swim reruns, it’s hard not to treat Season One episodes as museum pieces. “Westie Side Story” introduces three great characters and has some classic quotes. But is it a great episode? Not really.
Quotes and Notes:
- Peggy is really horrible in this one. At one point she tells Hank: “These people are by nature shy and reserved. I read somewhere that the Chinese language has seventy words for “rice,” but no word for “friend.”” No wonder Minh hates her.
- Luanne’s a little more tolerant: “At the beauty academy, they teach us that people aren’t black, or white, or yellow, or red, but their hair can be.”
- Kahn grudgingly accepts Hank’s gift of propane: “You honor me by giving me gas.”
- Hank helpfully explains the episode’s moral: “We might deny our children completely different desserts, but they both go to bed hungry.”
- “Just call me Kahn. I don’t have all damned day!”
Shins of the Father (Season One, Episode Eight)
Original air date: March 23rd, 1997
Writers: Alan R. Cohen & Alan Freedland
Director: Martin Archer Jr.
I’ve always felt towards Cotton Hill what many KOTH fans feel towards Peggy. Cotton’s impressive as a monstrously non-PC construct; as a character, he’s often more obnoxious than funny. That said, the writers used Cotton well, employing him in small doses and softening him up just enough to avoid being monstrous. After several cameos, “Shins of the Father” gives Cotton his first starring role.
Hank’s dad Cotton arrives for Bobby’s birthday party. Hank worships Cotton, a World War II vet who lost his shins in combat, but Peggy hates Cotton’s rampant sexism and short temper. Cotton fakes a car problem to stay with the Hills’, bringing tempers to boiling point. When Cotton’s attitudes rub off on Bobby, Hank’s forced to face his own father.
From his first appearance on horseback, Cotton makes an indelible impression. He’s a brutal deconstruction of the “Greatest Generation,” a war hero with a grossly exaggerated war record and an ego to match. (Several seasons later, an entire episode debunks Cotton’s exploits.) Unshamedly sexist and bigoted, he’s the dark side of the “good old days” everyone pines for. Yet Hank, and others, give Cotton an endless pass for his hero status, which Cotton knowingly abuses. How do you tell off somebody who gave his shins for his country?
Cotton’s jokes are funny in the same horrible way as something like Flashman: you laugh but hate yourself for it. Less amusing is his impact on Bobby, who’s soon parroting Cotton’s views at school. The episode reaches crisis point when Bobby slaps Peggy’s behind! Though painted in unpleasant terms here, Cotton and Bobby’s relationship proved one of Cotton’s redeeming qualities. As Peggy once observed, he hates a lot of things but does love his grandson.
KOTH often made Hank seem reasonable by pairing him against a more extreme version of his own views. Hank’s “old-fashioned” worldview often drifts towards chauvinism (“Peggy’s Turtle Song”) but he’s miles better than Cotton, who bleeds contempt for anyone different from himself. Admittedly he can tell that Kahn’s Laotian by sight, but he also asks Kahn for a mai tai. Whether waitresses or attorneys, women are all sex toys to him. By confronting his dad, Hank faces his own failings.
KOTH gives its female characters their best showing so far. We don’t much like or respect Didi, Cotton’s ditzy younger wife. But Peggy understandably bristles at Cotton’s influence on Bobby and his rotten behavior. She explains her personal view of femininity: “I work hard, I sweat hard and I love hard and I gotta smell good and look pretty while doing it.” While not a feminist, she’s a smart, hard-working woman who won’t tolerate Cotton’s crap. Even Luanne gets an unusually assertive moment, reacting violently when Cotton gets fresh.
“Shins of the Father” builds to Hank confronting Cotton. In most shows Cotton would realize the error of his ways and apologize. Instead, Cotton laughs it off: “It’s about time!” Cotton would soften later on, but mostly on his own terms. The episode concludes on a bluntly ambivalent note: at a diner, Hank tells Bobby that women don’t exist to serve men, while scantily-clad waitresses roller blade past. Small steps are better than nothing.
Quotes and Notes:
- On a random note, clips from this episode turned up in The X-Files episode “The End.” You know the half-alien Gibson Praise is a genius when he tells Scully that KOTH is a great show.
- Cotton gives Bobby a loaded shotgun for his birthday: “You don’t give a toy without batteries.”
- As usual, Dooley gets the episode’s best line. When Bill claims he’s having fun at the party, Dooley pipes up: “Your wife divorced you!”
- One of Cotton’s more printable tirades: “See, Bobby? Woman works, man loses his sausage!”
- Or “Thanks a lot, girlie. But the truth is… you’re a girl!”
- After upsetting Connie, Bobby remarks: “Moody! Must be PBS.” Jim Lehrer annoys me too.
- Hank makes a pass at defending Cotton: “He’s a flamboyant character, like a peacock. That’s why men love him. But women don’t like his style because you all are like the pea-hen. More subdued and drab.” Peggy’s gape-mouthed reaction is worth ten pages of dialogue.
- No article on Cotton Hill would be complete without including his classic monologue. To wit:
I was fourteen, just a little older than Bobby. But I knew Uncle Sam needed me, so I lied and signed up. We had beat the Nazzys in Italy, and they shipped me to the Pacific theater. A Tojo torpedo sent our troupe’s ship to the bottom. I could only save three of my buddies, Fatty, Stinky, and Brooklyn. They were kind of like you fellas, only one of them was from Brooklyn. Out of the sun came a Tojo Zero and put fifty bullets in my back. The blood attracted sharks. I had to give ’em Fatty. Then things took a turn for the worse. I made it to an island, but it was full of Tojos! They were spitting on the U.S. flag! So I rushed ’em, but it was a trap. They opened fire and blew my shins off. Last thing I remember, I beat ’em all to death with a big piece of Fatty. I woke up in a field hospital, and they were sewing my feet to my knees.
- Luanne again shows her car savvy, even though Cotton dismisses her as “a pig trying to read.” She was always better at this than hairstyling.
Next time we’ll celebrate “Peggy the Boggle Champ” and kick the habit with “Keeping Up With Our Joneses.”