‘Clone High’: An Animated Cult Classic
by Rebecca Ferman, Staff-Writer
“Way, way back in the 1980’s, secret government employees dug up famous guys and ladies and made amusing genetic copies…” sings the opening theme to a show canceled too soon.
Clone High is an animated television show that ran from 2002 to 2003 on MTV. The 13 episodes focus around a high school full of teenagers cloned from some of history’s most notable figures – but they don’t know the school is run by people planning to use them for their own sinister needs. While originally receiving mixed reviews when it premiered, recent retrospectives have looked back fondly on the show and a cult following was established over time.
Its original run was sadly short-lived due to not just low ratings, but also because of controversy regarding one of the characters. The show’s depiction of a cloned Mahatma Gandhi (a hyperactive party animal in the show versus a civil rights activist in real life) was not received well by many people in India, who protested by fasting and threatening to revoke MTV’s broadcasting license in the country if the channel didn’t take the show off the air. Clone High was canceled that same year in 2003.
However, with the show’s revived popularity, there is hope for its future. In July of 2020, MTV Studios announced that there would be a reboot of the series from the original show-runners. This past February, the reboot was picked up for two seasons at HBO Max.
It’s impossible to discuss Clone High without talking about the immense amount of talent behind the show. Bill Lawrence, Phil Lord, and Christopher Miller all double as both the show’s creators and featured voice cast members. Lawrence has created shows like Scrubs, Cougar Town, and Ted Lasso, while duo Lord and Miller are behind the films Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, 21 Jump Street, The Lego Movie, and the critically-acclaimed, Oscar-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. As far as voice talent goes, we have performances from experienced comedy actors: Will Forte (Saturday Night Live, The Last Man on Earth), Nicole Sullivan (MADtv, The King of Queens), Michael McDonald (MADtv), and Christa Miller (Scrubs, Cougar Town, and Lawrence’s real-life wife). Not to mention, there’s a huge amount of special guest stars like Jack Black, Mandy Moore, John Stamos, Tom Green, and the late Luke Perry. Many of the cast members of Lawrence’s Scrubs – Zach Braff, Donald Fasion, Sarah Chalke, Neil Flynn, and John C. McGinley – also voice supporting characters.
With all the comedic works from the show-runners and cast, it’s evident that such similar humor isn’t hard to find in Clone High. Much of the hilarity comes from making fun of the familiar tropes present in other high school television shows popular at the time of its airing, like Saved by the Bell, Dawson’s Creek, or Beverly Hills: 90210. Each episode is presented at the beginning by the narrator as a “very special” episode. Classic clichés and events seen include the student council election, the prom, the student-directed film festival, a winter holiday celebration, and even a musical episode that discusses the dangers of smoking… smoking raisins, that is. It makes more and less sense in context.
In addition, there is also a lot of (quite often dark) historical humor – for example, the featured restaurant the teens dine at is called “The Grassy Knoll” and its décor features a painting of Abraham Lincoln getting assassinated by John Wilkes Booth at the Ford Theatre. John F. Kennedy recoils in horror at anyone making finger-gun gestures in his direction. One of the funniest moments is when the clone of Julius Caesar has some advice for a classmate during a rather harrowing moment in shop class: “Be careful with that nail gun, Jesús!”
The five main teenagers in the show are clones of Abraham Lincoln, Joan of Arc, Mahatma Gandhi, John F. Kennedy, and Cleopatra, all fulfilling familiar high school stereotypes while struggling for a sense of personal identity separate from who they were cloned from. Abe Lincoln is the typical “nice-guy” main character that desperately wants to live up to the legacy of his forefather… and land a date with the sexy Cleopatra, the mean alpha cheerleader of the school. Joan of Arc, an angsty, cynical goth girl, has a very open but unrequited crush on a none-the-wiser Abe. Gandhi has difficulty living up to his original’s name and, as mentioned earlier, is an overly obnoxious wild card. And John F. Kennedy, simply shortened to “JFK” in the show, is arguably the fan-favorite character – he’s arrogant, handsome, sleazy, has a memorable accent, and more recently became a meme thanks to the Internet. Other supporting characters include the absolutely crazy scientist/principal Cinnamon J. Scudworth and his robot Mr. Butlertron; the former plans to use the cloned students for his own amusement in a theme park while the latter is his reluctant sidekick that wears a calming red sweater vest and calls everybody “Wesley.” Other clones seen in the series include Genghis Khan, Napoleon Bonaparte, the Brontë Sisters, Catherine the Great, Marie Curie, George Washington Carver, and a sans-ear Vincent van Gogh.
As stated before, there were only 13 episodes before Clone High was canceled. It ends on a particularly devastating, unfinished note – no more can be said about it without spoilers. But the future reboot gives hope to what could happen next for these teenagers. Will they ever figure out just who they are? Do they have to live up to the people they were cloned from? Will the government use the clones for evil purposes after all? What does the future hold? And most importantly – will Abe choose Joan or Cleo? (Okay, maybe that’s not the most important thing, but the original run kept us guessing.)
Not everyone may like this show, however. There are those who may dislike the portrayal of historical figures as modern teenagers or find the humor off-putting. It’s definitely not kid-friendly either; some jokes are more on level with what you’d see in a Seth MacFarlane-created show.
That being said, there’s still a strong reason why the show has attained such a loyal fanbase. The humor and writing, despite being nearly 20 years old, has held up pretty well over time and is on par with what is seen today in other shows. It often breaks the fourth wall and is self-referential, which is seen in the creators’ other works as well. Anyone who can appreciate a good history joke will certainly like it, as will anyone who likes a good parody or deconstruction of something constantly played seriously in the media so many times before. And, as discussed earlier, the cast and crew are phenomenal – this was a jumping-off point for all that they were able to do so much later. Clone High is certainly a show worth checking out, even if just for the first episode. For a show whose original run was limited and that centers on people cloned from across time, it truly is timeless.