At some point, there’ll be a generation that doesn’t know of Mike Tyson, the boxer. I’m nearly in that camp already. My first time seeing Tyson was in the early 2000s, when he and Lennox Lewis were plastered across my television for weeks at a time. The few historical clips that were intermittently splashed on ESPN, though, would show Tyson getting knocked out by Buster Douglas or munching on Evander Holyfield’s ear.
So until the proliferation of Wikipedia and YouTube, I’d been ignorant of ‘80s and ‘90s Tyson, ignorant of his dominance within the ring and sordid activity outside it. Essentially, I knew Mike Tyson to be a moderately terrifying man, with a massive face tattoo and a Barkley-esque catalogue of quotes, delivered unfailingly with his trademark lisp. Even without this historical knowledge, Bill Simmons’ Tyson Zone, to me, passed the sniff test: Tyson’s person and his actions were consistently beyond belief.
It seems obvious now that Tyson would eventually channel his unintentional comedy into something more controlled. What’s surprising, though, is that he embraced more universal subject matter that has nothing to do with boxing. His cameo in The Hangover was partially predicated on his boxing ability (he punches out Ed Helms’ character during a Phil Collins song, spoiler alert), but subsequent appearances–his Herman Cain impersonations in 2011, his talk show appearances alongside Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon–weren’t really related to his pugilistic past. They were straight comedy bits.
This shift is important: Tyson, who was once called “the most terrifying man alive,” who has returned from stratospheric levels of fame and fortune to swim in his present-day insolvency, doesn’t present himself too seriously. For anyone, let alone a former boxer, his comedic performances are remarkably unguarded. Understand this, and you might be able to understand Adult Swim’s “Mike Tyson Mysteries.” Although, honestly, comprehension is kind of beside the point.
A quick summary: “Mike Tyson Mysteries” is a cartoon with an 11-minute run time, which is both insufficient and indulgent, for reasons I’ll explain below. Each episode consists of Mike Tyson (voiced by the man himself) trying to solve a mystery that he hears about from one of his carrier pigeons. (Tyson, in real life, actually tends to and occasionally races over 300 pigeons. The show tends to invoke reality whenever it’s convenient and ridiculous, which it often is with Tyson.)
To solve the mysteries, Tyson enlists his mystery team–his adopted Asian daughter; the ghost of the father of modern boxing, Marquess de Queensberry; a man trapped in a pigeon’s body, appropriately named Pigeon–and the team’s mystery mobile, which is a van with no special powers. (One time, they go to China on the “mystery jet,” which is just a free flight because Tyson has “a shitload of points on Delta.”) Occasionally, Tyson will talk to his agent, Deezy, who fails to advance the plot but sometimes has endorsement deals to offer Mike, such as Ty-Stunned–a line of Mike Tyson-approved tasers.
The dynamic between the team and Tyson is, shall we say, varying. Tyson is the ringleader and most enthusiastic; whenever necessary (and otherwise), he will “beat the shit” out of vampires, magicians, and Robert Redford. However, he is also roundly incompetent. His team will call him out for his inability to pronounce “Chupacabra,” or not knowing what “rational” means, or the fact that Nicaragua is not, in fact, simply “a kind of Mexico.” The first episode ends with Tyson claiming that there was once a hit song called “Ain’t Got No Time for Bird Sex,” which invokes loud disagreement from Marquess de Queensberry.
Thematically, “Mike Tyson Mysteries” only cares about perpetual silliness. An early episode has Tyson causing a fatal car accident and subsequently believing that the government has planted a chip in him to kill astronauts. Another one has them solving the mystery of finding the right house for a married couple to live in. They’ll investigate bad reviews that the team has received online, and also answer the question of why Tyson can no longer get his track suits in the color that he likes.
The show has no infatuation with self-importance, and every minute of its running time is a middle finger to an expectant audience. An episode will waste time letting Tyson fill out a car insurance survey (after killing Buzz Aldrin), or comparing the writing styles of Cormac McCarthy and John Updike. A recent mystery has the team trying to enter a gated community, opening the gate, and then failing to actually move the van through the open gates before they close, twice.
Mostly, though, the show’s writing is enjoyable and expansive. It’s not as tightly crafted as, say, Archer’s or Veep’s, but it wrings laughs from MacDonald’s persistent impatience as Pigeon and Tyson’s ridiculous enthusiasm for everything from new mysteries to four-cheese frittatas. (It’s also vulgar, but with good reason: Tyson lisping an “oh, shit!” always earns a laugh.) The show just sort of ambles around, with references to Larry Holmes and Gregg Popovich perched alongside allusions to Apocalypse Now and appearances by Snoop Dogg. It really shouldn’t work, but someone had the bold idea to put a heavyweight champion in a cartoon and have him explain the fight-or-flight phenomenon while punching out an elevator attendant, and I’ll be damned if it isn’t hilarious.
Truthfully, the first time I encountered Tyson as a youth was via The Simpsons and the character of Drederick Tatum. Tatum comes into play in a number of episodes, perhaps most notably when he books a fight against Homer Simpson (claiming that Homer “is a good man,” but he still plans “to make orphans of his children”). Tatum is an unsubtle Tyson parody, right down to his time spent in prison (for pushing his mother down stairs) and the strangely musical quotes he provides (on being punched by Nelson Muntz: “I insist that you desist.”).
Tatum was an accurate parody of the time, but compared to the Tyson of “Mike Tyson Mysteries,” he seems remarkably normal. The show, finishing up its second season now, is weird and disarming and not for the masses; it’s the type of project athletes usually shy away from. (Seriously, even after his pretty entertaining role in Trainwreck last summer, can you imagine LeBron doing a similar show?) It’s interesting, though: as Tyson willingly invites us to laugh at him and his strange, inexplicable mysteries, with every episode he himself becomes less of a punchline. It seems grandiose to say this about a show featuring a ghost and an alcoholic pigeon, but here goes: while the polarizing image of Tyson the boxer fades, “Mike Tyson Mysteries” lets Tyson the entertainer shine.
Lucas Hubbard is a writer with a mean right hook and two ears. You should follow him on Twitter.