Pot comedies once had an air of rebellion to them: Traditional stoner heroes like Cheech and Chong were sticking it to the man as well as making viewers laugh by sparking up. Cult movies like Half Baked and Super Troopers appealed not only for their gripping plots and deep characterization, but also because they granted entry into a secret clubhouse, one that offered a set of references and inside jokes to share with like-minded friends. But as legal marijuana begins to creep across the nation, the once countercultural weed-themed holiday of 4/20 has become depressingly corporate. For evidence of how this trend has ostensibly doomed the stoner comedy, look no further than Comedy Central’s Time Traveling Bong, debuting Wednesday.
Though it first came into existence in 2012 as a CollegeHumor sketch, Time Traveling Bong has morphed into a CGI-laden three-part stoner extravaganza, starring Ilana Glazer and Paul Downs and directed by Lucia Aniello (all three work together on Broad City). The original’s running time was one minute 40 seconds, and that was probably the perfect length for it, judging by the excesses of the Comedy Central version. A tale of two miscreants who smoke themselves into olden times with a mysterious marijuana artifact, Time Traveling Bong is as silly as it sounds and makes little sense as a television event, much less one intended to celebrate the subversive joys of weed.
For all of Time Traveling Bong’s 4/20-themed advertising, the special barely has anything to do with getting high, and is much more concerned with the many milieus of the past its heroes visit. The central joke of the original sketch, which was posted two years before Glazer, Downs, and Aniello made it big with Broad City, is that the past is smelly. When Glazer and Downs smoke their way to 1776, they’re disgusted by everyone’s hygiene and shriek when someone dumps a bucket of human waste out of a window. Weed itself barely plays a role in the sketch at all, and indeed the Comedy Central version is still mostly jokes about time travel rather than bongs.
A trip to the Salem witch trials reminds Glazer and Downs (playing two cheerful losers named Sharee and Jeff) that women weren’t treated well in the 17th century. There are brief encounters with dinosaurs and cavemen. A sojourn to Gary, Indiana in the ’60s leads to the pair kidnapping a young Michael Jackson. Glazer plays more of a scold than her free-spirited Broad City character, and Downs (who is the gung-ho fitness trainer Trey on the show) is supposed to be a charming slacker, but there’s not much effort to actually tell a story here. Time Traveling Bong is instead a bunch of wacky antics (at one cringe-inducing point, Jeff teaches a bunch of Puritans the “Gangnam Style” dance) with the loose excuse of “trippy” time travel to tie it all together.
The heyday of the lovable stoner comedy came in the 1990s, with indie comedy directors like Kevin Smith and Richard Linklater embracing the conversational side of the drug. Films like Clerks, Mallrats, Slacker, and Dazed and Confused had a loose, plotless feel that was inspired by the pothead lifestyle without cravenly flogging it for cheap reference humor. More direct Cheech-and-Chong ripoffs like Half Baked and Dude, Where’s My Car? veered into surreal territory, but by the end of the ’90s, pot movies had given way to the teenage sex comedy, which underwent its own revival with the surprising success of American Pie.
The two genres overlapped to some extent—Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle combines them with aplomb—but pot became decidedly retro for the next decade, perhaps a little too mainstream to adequately represent the counterculture any longer. After all, a major Fox sitcom (That ’70s Show) featured its main cast getting high together and pontificating to the camera every single episode. Stand-up comedians like Doug Benson do entire national tours stoned (his double album Smug Life contains two versions of the same routine, one recorded sober and the other high).
Broad City, meanwhile, isn’t a simple “stoner comedy”: It’s one of the funniest and smartest TV shows ever made about life in your 20s and the hilarious agonies of adulthood. Its two leads (played by Glazer and Abbi Jacobson) do smoke a lot of weed and often tap into that energetic conversational style that recalls classics of the genre. But the drug use doesn’t feel cheap or tacked-on—it’s mixed in on every level of the storytelling, from the often dreamlike visual style of the show to its wonderfully aimless plotting. Which is to say the show is 10 times more effective in communicating the actual sensation of being high than Time Traveling Bong; the latter is too concerned with explaining the logic of its sci-fi narrative to actually have any fun. Pot comedy isn’t about rebellion or being in a secret club anymore, but it can still make viewers laugh—it just takes more than a few lazy hits from a magic bong.