TV review: On Comedy Central, ‘Jon Benjamin Has a Van,’ but not much else

TV critic

“Jon Benjamin Has a Van,” and indeed he does: a windowless blue number that is meant to conjure up images of creeps and perverts and other van owners meant to be generally avoided. With a garish paint job featuring Benjamin as a nude cherub with a reporter’s microphone, the van is ostensibly set loose with a mission to bring back humorous stories in this disappointingly unfunny series premiering Tuesday night on Comedy Central.

This is the sort of show Comedy Central could actually use to complement its fake-news lineup. If Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert function as rough analogues to Walter Cronkite and Bill O’Reilly (and in fact have audiences that rely on them to filter the real news into something more ironically palatable), then what about a full-time Charles Kuralt on the road?

Hank Stuever has been The Post's TV critic since 2009. He joined the paper in 1999 as a writer for the Style section, where he has covered an array of popular (and unpopular) culture across the nation. View Archive

Benjamin has the potential to be that guy. He is a 45-year-old comic known best for his malleable, rich speaking voice heard in cartoons aimed at adults, able to sound drolly slacker-esque (as he did all those years ago as Ben Katz in “Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist”) and also brazenly macho (as he currently does for the title role of FX’s “Archer”). In person, he is a short, balding, bearded man with the bluest eyes on television, with a knack for seeming likable and unctuous all at once.

How to work that talent for wry schlubbiness? Some of the best moments in the history of “The Daily Show” have come from those manufactured dispatches from the American yonderplace, beyond Manhattan and Washington, where everyday people — farmers, morticians, assorted kooks — have happily complied with the show correspondents’ impulses to create something not entirely true, yet not entirely fictional.

But it is clear from the first few moments of “Jon Benjamin Has a Van” that this isn’t what the show intends to be; that it only pretended in its ad campaign to be about a scruffy correspondent delivering inappropriate stories about interesting people. Instead, it is filled with weak attempts at sketch comedy, resulting in a few funny moments here and there, but not enough.

There’s one bit where Benjamin pushes his producer across the U.S.-Mexico border without his passport and leaves him there; Benjamin returns to Mexico a year later to discover that the man has learned Spanish, married a peasant and now runs a farm. Benjamin pushes him across another border, and then another, triggering events over several years that eventually promote the producer to drug kingpin.

Another funny bit involves walking into offices and lobbies with his camera crew and seeing how long it takes — mere seconds, really — for a security officer to appear and say “You can’t shoot here.” It’s as if Benjamin and company are trying to invent a kind of Michael Moore-based drinking game.

In a later episode, while filing a story about “Little Little Italy” (a neighborhood of action-figure-sized Italians living in a storeroom in New York’s Little Italy), Benjamin disappears into a painfully wretched and protracted bit involving a Mafia war. The van is left waiting on the street, with nowhere to go.

Jon Benjamin Has a Van

(30 minutes) premieres Tuesday at 10:30 p.m. on Comedy Central.

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