DreamWorks Animation, the company that brought you the ”Shrek” movies, now invades your home with Father of the Pride, a wiggy concept dream-worked up by producer Jeffrey Katzenberg. It’s a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the lives of animals who perform in Siegfried and Roy’s Las Vegas extravaganza. The half-hour comedy focuses on a pride of lions headed up by Larry (voiced by John Goodman), Kate (voiced by ”Curb Your Enthusiasm”’s Cheryl Hines), and their two lion cubs. They’re surrounded by Larry’s grumpy father-in-law (Carl Reiner, in terrific vocal form) and various excessively wacky animal friends such as a gay elephant and a flamingo who talks like a ”Sopranos” gangster. In the premiere episode, ”Friends”’ Lisa Kudrow voice-guest-stars as a depressed, lovelorn panda, Foo-Lin, an old friend of Kate’s whose visit Larry finds irritating. Larry tells his wife, ”If Foo-Lin is still on our couch tomorrow, I’m buying a gun on the Internet and hiring someone with fingers to shoot me.” In the second episode, a tiger who schemes to steal Larry’s place in a Siegfried and Roy stage illusion whimpers, when confronted by an angry Larry, ”I’m a whore for applause…and you wouldn’t hit a whore, would you?”
These punchlines give you a good idea of the ”adult” (which when we’re talkin’ network sitcoms means ”vulgar”) nature of the humor of ”Father of the Pride”; I doubt many kiddies will be vastly amused by the sight of Larry squirting whipped cream on his nipples as a gesture of foreplay with Kate. And that’s one of the problems with ”Pride”: It looks like a kids’ show, but strives for ”Simpsons” sophistication. Still, it fails to achieve the great thing about ”The Simpsons”: It’s an all-ages pleasure. Much funnier than the animals are the animated Siegfried and Roy, waxy-skinned vain showboats whose European accents are provided by Julian Holloway and Dave Herman. The duo is delightfully over-the-foppish and preeningly fussy. When Siegfried corrects something said by the ”Today” show’s Matt Lauer (voiced by the very good sport Lauer himself), the animal trainer snaps, ”No, nonthreatening-good-looks Matt Lauer!” At another point, one of the twosome exults, ”Vee are like gods — except without the unattractive facial hair!” ”Those guys are a real hoot,” remarks another panda (voice courtesy of guest Andy Richter) in the premiere. ”Yeah,” responds Larry wearily, ”it gets old real fast.” Wrong, O father of the pride: You do. Despite Goodman’s and Hines’ shaded line readings, their jokes are dim, funny-animal gags. It’s the brief moments when the owners of the pride burst forth, attired, as one creature points out, in their ”rhinestone codpieces,” that this show glints with true humor and captures the vivacious, campy energy that made Siegfried and Roy’s act such a draw over the years.
In real life, of course, Roy Horn is undergoing a brutal recovery process after being mauled by a tiger in October 2003. Won’t many viewers feel squeamish laughing at a bubbly, animated Roy and his animals knowing the flesh-and-blood man was wounded by one of these non-jokers? Katzenberg has told reporters that the network tested the series with audiences and found that no one was bothered by this disparity. I’m dubious — but I’m not accusing Katzenberg of exploitation, or even poor taste…regarding Roy. Having Carl Reiner say ”Katie Couric’s got that good-girl-but-probably-wild-in-the-sack thing going on” is in creepy taste. And a weird throwaway line about Elton John fondling a baby tiger was downright offensive; this series has bafflingly conflicted attitudes about sexuality. What’s most disappointing about ”Pride” is that the writing coasts on the notion that we’ll find anything coming out of the mouth of a sleek cartoon critter inherently funny; I think that novelty wore off around the time of Mickey Mouse. ”Father of the Pride” could use fewer sex-addled moments between Larry and his wife and more scenes with what Siegfried refers to as ”magic, you fickle bitch.” Otherwise, it’s the viewing audience that will prove to be a fickle…bunch.