Thursday, September 1, 2016

An Ode to Zeke the Plumber!

Warm, wistful recollections of the episode of Salute Your Shorts that inspired untold nightmares for Nickelodeon-weaned youths in the early 1990s...

By: Jimbo X

Back in the early 1990s, Nickelodeon was a veritable treasure trove of youth-centric, neophyte consumer culture. Yes, the vaunted cable network will always be remembered for Doug and Rocko's Modern Life, but whenever I reflect on the Nick that was, I always dwell upon more obscure fare. Rugrats and Ren & Stimpy, you say? Well, I raise you Hey Dude, What Would You Do?, Nick Arcade and Kids' Court - and don't even get me started on the commercials for Pop Qwiz popcorn, Blow Pops (from Charms!) and all of those wacky ass studio-produced interstitials, like that one claymation bumper about the kid who had his guts flipped to the outside of his body after going backwards on a swing set.

While a lot of old school Nick programming has little to offer outside of that most precious of commodities - gloriously overvalued nostalgia - some of the shows from the early and mid 1990s remain pretty entertaining. While it isn't as comprehensively brilliant as The Adventures of Pete and Pete, Salute Your Shorts is certainly one of the better of the old Nick programs. It's a solid, personality-driven comedy that really captures the kitschy culture of the early 1990s without feeling too detached from the modern world. That's kind of the ingeniousness of the summer camp setting - it's supposed to feel a little alien and isolated and somewhat removed from the rest of society, so naturally, it would have to have a kind of atemporal atmosphere. 

Debuting in 1991, Salute Your Shorts wasted no time at all before getting knee deep into utter wackiness. Indeed, following the precursory pilot which established the motley crew of Camp Anawanna - as well as introduce middle America to the quasi-sex act known as the awful waffle - the series immediately shifted gear to a Halloween special, which, to this day, is considered one of the freakiest things ever permitted by Nickelodeon's upper brass, with many believing it to be even creepier than their legendary "banned" TV movie Crybaby Lane.

Enter Zeke the Plumber. Considering the ubiquity of characters like Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it's not surprising that a lot of kid-centric shows introduced characters meant to mimic and mock the slasher movie stalwarts. For example, there was an episode of Tiny Toons with Plucky Duck having nightmares about "Eddy Cougar" and an episode of Bobby's World in which the eponymous character was tormented by reveries about the plunger-lugging "Mason." No riff on the horror heavies, however, made as big an impact as the first - and to this day, only - media appearance of one Zeke the Plumber, the special guest ghoul who debuted in just the second episode of Salute Your Shorts' very first season. 

Needless to say, transitioning from this to
Clarissa Explains It All was a bit of a
Even now, old Zeke remains one of the most memorable things about the program - in fact, for a lot of people, Salute Your Shorts is remembered as nothing other than "that old Nickelodeon show with the evil plumber in it." Despite his one-and-done showing, the Internet throng clearly hasn't forgotten about the character, and with the Halloween season in full swing, what could be more seasonally appropriate than revisiting his sole media appearance?

All these years later Is Zeke as terrifying as he was back when we were in the first grade, or a quarter century after the fact, does he just come off as pure hokum? Well, how about we fire up our old VCRs and evaluate the situation for ourselves? 

The episode - fittingly enough, titled "Zeke the Plumber" - begins with Eugene "Sponge" Harris, the resident pipsqueak, ambling about in the woods, recording nature on his black and white camera. He encounters camp troublemaker Bobby Budnik - portrayed by Danny Cooksey, who outside of Salute Your Shorts, is perhaps best known for his roles as Montana Max on Tiny Toons and John Connor's best bud in T2 - carving all sorts of rude things about counselor Kevin "Ug" Lee on a tree, so future generations can know just how incompetent he is as a human being. Of course, Ug is right behind him, and he tries to obtain the damning proof-of-guilt from Sponge. That's our cue for the standard Salute Your Shorts opening, which includes that immortal ad lib from Sir Budnik himself, "and when I think about you, it makes me want to fart."

As per every episode of the program, it begins proper with the disembodied voice of Doctor Khan informing campers of the day's itinerary, which this evening includes ghost stories and bingo (with a first place prize of licorice on the line.) At the ghost story telling competition, camp fat-ass Donkey Lips asks Budnik if he still has an irrational fear of spiders (boy, I sure hope that isn't foreshadowing or anything), and our scrawny, Dave Mustaine-lookalike begins spinning the tale of Zeke the Plumber. According to Budnik, Zeke lost his nose in the military, when a Filipino parrot ripped his schnoz right off. Well, one fateful day, he strikes a gas line while digging a ditch, and since he can't smell the fumes, he winds up blowing himself to kingdom come when he strikes a match. All the ever found of his remains, Budnik says, were his upper lip and a plunger. Of course, Zeke's ghost remains on the campgrounds, forever in quest of his lost toilet unclogging implement, and wouldn't you know it, Budnik has that very object in his possession. It is cursed, he tells the other campers, and anyone who touches it will be visited in their dreams by Zeke's supernatural form. If you're thinking that sounds an awful lot like the M.O. of a certain insanely popular cinematic child molester and mass murder from the 1980s, you aren't alone - in fact, one of the characters even remarks how similar this Zeke fellow sounds like our good buddy Freddy K. 

Back at the girls' cabin, sassy black pre-teen Dina laughs off all of the Zeke tomfoolery, while her pink-bedecked revivalist hippie roomy Z.Z. sprays toothpaste around her bed and slaps herself on the forehead with spit-soaked palms to ward off any evil spirits. A few mysterious bumps in the night, however, and both Dina and stereotypical entitled white girl Telly are likewise coating the perimeters of their bunks with cavity-preventing cream. 

Over on the boys' side, personality-less clod Michael wakes up and sees a mysterious figure - wearing a downright ghoulish mask - unclogging a commode. Zeke fishes out a stuffed animal and produces a bullhorn, so he can tell everybody that Michael still sucks his thumb. Right before Zeke plunges more deep, dark secrets out of his skull, Michael wakes up, screaming like a banshee

The next day - and after Dr. Kahn lets campers know they need to discard the milk cartons with expiration dates printed in 1983 - Budnik confronts Michael about his night terrors and joshes him for falling for his ghost story "hook, line and stinker," which is deliciously punctuated with Budnik actually passing gas. Over at the other side of the breakfast table, Dina - who couldn't catch a wink of sleep the night before because she was so scared, dozes off. Of course, she has a reverie about a certain nose-less custodian, who promises her he will grant her her biggest wish. She says she wants to play pro ball, and he whisks her away to an abandoned disco hall, where the tomboy is now clad in a frilly white dress. 
Oh, the 1990s; when fat shaming in children's
entertainment wasn't just acceptable, it was
practically encouraged!

She wakes up and meets with Michael, and they both talk about how Zeke - somehow, someway - seems to know their deepest, darkest secrets. So they meet up with boy genius Sponge, who explains to them what mass hysteria is. Enter Budnik, who harasses his camp-mates some more. That's when Michael floats up an idea for a competition. If Budnik can spend all night in the same part of camp where Zeke was allegedly blown to smithereens, then Michael will lug his stuffed animal all over camp and Dina will wear a dress all day. But if he can't muster enough courage, he has to announce to God and everybody that he's nothing but a little chicken. Budnik - as if you expected otherwise - accepts the challenge gleefully. 

After Budnick sets up shop - a lawn chair, a cooler, and enough junk food to keep the cast of Heavyweights at bay for at least a week - the rest of the kids and Ug (no doubt wanting revenge for having his good name besmirched at the beginning of the episode) get together to concoct a prank against Budnik. Budnik's right hand man Donkey Lips - who was brutally mocked for bringing his master non-ruffled potato chips - is given a Jack O Lantern mask to wear, which is noteworthy because it looks just like one of the masks in Halloween III that made the little kids' heads explode. 

Ever the clever little ruffian, though, Budnik anticipates that his colleagues will try something, so he decides to set up a few booby traps of his own. After smashing a spider crawling around on his copy of Wrestling Warriors (not sure if that's an official Apter mag from way back when, but it certainly sounds like one they would've published,) he waits for his would-be pranksters to approach. The kids attempt to give Budnik the willies (interestingly enough, also the namesake of a GREAT early '90s horror anthology that starred the same kid who plays Donkey Lips on this show) by just jumping out of the bushes and screaming, but ha-ha, the joke's on them, 'cause Budnik has instead placed a scarecrow - complete with a marked-up "melon head" - in the lawn chair, and when it rolls off his shoulders, it makes everyone pee themselves a little. Of course, that last little detail is non-canonical, but come on, you know there would be at least some urine if you were in that situation. Admit it. 

So Budnik leaps out of a conveniently placed oil drum and everybody freaks out. He proudly declares that nothing or nobody can scare him, which naturally leads to all of the boy campers trying to ambush him while dressed up like members of the Ku Klux Klan (or maybe they are supposed to just be regular old ghosts, this being a kids' show and what-not), but what do you know, they trigger a tripwire, fall into a ravine and get showered by a homemade six-pack 'o soda rocket launcher. With all of their meager attempts to frighten him thwarted, Budnik calls for all his fellow campers to present themselves, so he can mock them one by one. 

His boasting is short-lived, however, as he is confronted by Zeke walking back to the camp. Of course, this leads to a big Friday the 13th style chase through the woods. But, there is a big twist - you see, Budnik knows that Zeke is just Ug in disguise, and he lures him directly into the old "get your ass caught in a rope and hung upside down until somebody finds you" trick. The dead giveaway, Budnick says? Ug told him he can smell his fear, which is clearly something a man sans olfactory glands is capable of doing - figuratively or literally. 

Whilst en route to retrieve a knife to free Ug - or perhaps sacrifice him to the Dark Lord, you never really can tell with these metal head kids - LOLOOPS! Budnik runs directly into a huge ass spider web, and since it has been firmly established that he has extreme arachnophobia, you can imagine just how much he freaks out, much to the joy of his constantly bullied co-campers. After being "rescued," Budnik is forced to be a pack mule for the rest of the campers, as he takes that long, shameful walk back to the cabin.

How does Zeke the Plumber smell if he doesn't
have a nose? Well, pretty terrible, if
you ask me. (Cue rimshot.) 
Oh, and if you are wondering what happened to Ug? Well, nobody ever came back for him, so he was forced to spend all night with his blood pooling up in his brain (which can be extremely fatal, in case you didn't know it) staring at the mean etchings Budnik made on a nearby spruce tree. And just when things couldn't possibly get any worse for the camp counselor, here comes Donkey Lips, still wearing the pumpkin head mask, barreling towards him at full speed. I got to admit, that's a pretty funny way to wrap up the episode - although, even with some willing suspension of disbelief, I have a hard time accepting that even someone as dumb as Donkey Lips would literally spend all night ambling around the environs totally blind without once mulling taking the damn thing off like any normal person would have. But ... digression

And that's that folks. Clearly, the show feels quite aged in many respects, but holy shit, is there just something about that Zeke mask that - even now - evokes pure terror. It's kind of like the original Michael Myers mask in the first Halloween movie; sure, at the end of the day, it's just a William Shatner mask spray-painted blue, turned inside out and with the eye holes widened, but for whatever reason - which I presume touches upon some primordial fear that our advanced mammalian brains are too civilized to detect - such a sight is just creepy as all hell. Well, that human-but-not-quite-human horror aesthetic holds true for Zeke, too. Granted, the dude is basically nothing more than Sam Elliot with a bloody patch on his nose, but sweet Jesus, those eyes. Those bleak, dark, vacant, soulless, shark-like eyes. It's such a simple, simple trick, but it unquestionably makes the character unnerving. 

Yes, the episode is somewhat chintzy, corny and woefully subdued (even as fifth graders, it's hard to imagine teenage campers not dropping casual swear words and talking about how much they love weed), but really, you can make that same criticism of ALL kids-based media between the years of 1984 and 1997. Still, old Zeke here remains one of the most memorable aspects of one of the more memorable TV shows of Nick's golden age. It's nostalgic, it's slightly unnerving, and it just reeks of pure, early '90s pop cultural goodness. 

That, and if there's a better way to get into the Halloween spirit than watching a morbidly obese teenager run around with a Jack O Lantern on his head, pal, I haven't been introduced to it. 


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