1023: Late-Night PBS
PBS stands for Public Broadcasting Service and is an American TV broadcaster that is predominantly supported by the viewers themselves through pledge drives. It often runs (and sometimes co-produces) acclaimed British costume dramas, including the mentioned Downton Abbey.
Megan falls asleep with the TV on after watching Downton Abbey. When she wakes up, around 3 AM, "Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego" is airing. Unlike typical late night TV, which is usually re-runs of previously recorded episodes, she claims that the episode she watched is set in the modern day (i.e. PBS had ordered new episodes of the show) and all of the people on the show have aged accordingly.
"Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego" was a computer game series in the mid-80s. The series moved to a game-show TV series in the early 1990's from 1991 to 1995. The point of the series was to learn about geography and the world while playing a game or watching a game show. Carmen Sandiego was a mysterious character that you tracked around the globe, attempting to find clues to find out where she was headed to next. The show was split into 3 rounds. In the first round, there were 3 sleuths. Each question they got right gave them additional points. The top 2 scoring sleuths moved onto the next round, where they had to play a game (like the game Memory) where they had to find the thief, warrant, and loot in the correct order. Whichever sleuth did so captured the thief, saved the loot, and moved onto the next round, where they had a chance to catch Carmen Sandiego herself. Success was not always guaranteed in this round, as contestants had to plant flags correct on 7 different countries in a continent within a very short time period. If the sleuth was successfully able to do this, they captured Carmen and won the grand prize (a trip to a place of their choosing in the continental US). If not, Carmen would escape and the sleuth would win a lesser prize (like a computer).
The role of The Chief was played by Lynne Thigpen, a role she played in all 3 computer games (Where in the USA, Where in the World, and Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego) and both TV shows (Where in Time and Where in the World). She was responsible for telling the detectives (sleuths) what had been stolen, which of Carmen's thieves was suspected of stealing it, and some relevant information about their last whereabouts (effectively, telling the sleuths what their mission was). Whenever the detectives would catch a thief (or Carmen), she would appear and congratulate them or console them if Carmen got away (unlike what she does here).
The host of the TV show was Greg Lee. When the show originally aired, Greg was in his late 20s/early 30s. His job was to ask the questions of the contestants and tell them which flags to plant on the map in the final round, as well as engage in silly situations with The Chief and Rockapella to keep the show moving and provide clues. If the show were still airing today in 2012 he would be 50, hence the aging joke. This comic is not the first time a host of one of the Carmen Sandiego TV shows was mocked and shown as drinking on the job; Robot Chicken showed a similar scenario with the host of Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego in 2010 (link — the voice of the host in the skit is the voice of the actual host from Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego).
Rockapella was the 'A cappella' group (keeping up the tradition of punny names for a cappella groups) which sang the theme song to "Where in The World Is Carmen Sandiego." 'A cappella' is a loan word from Italian meaning "in the manner of the Church" hearkening back to Gregorian chant; in the 19th century the term evolved to mean any vocalization without accompaniment. In the TV version of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, Rockapella also acted as a "house band" of sorts, singing songs while the contestants transitioned between events, providing clues, playing pranks on Greg Lee, etc. At the end of each show, Greg Lee and the episode's winning contestant would shout "Do it, Rockapella!" at which point the band would sing the shows theme song. Thus, it is unsurprising that they would be on the set when the contestants captured Carmen Sandiego. The humorous part is that, instead of singing, like everyone else in this comic, they make the contestants feel uncomfortable by glaring at them (something they would never do).
In the Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego TV show, the places the contestants went were always portrayed as fun and happy, unlike the places that they have to visit in this comic. Situations like those mentioned in this comic were never really discussed.
Mogadishu is a battle-torn city in Somalia, where there was the aptly named "Battle of Mogadishu" in 1993, which would coincide with the air dates of "Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego" game show.
The Killing Fields are a number of sites in Cambodia where large numbers of people were killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge regime, during its rule of the country from 1975 to 1979, immediately after the end of the Cambodian Civil War (1970-1975).
The reference to "A Bookshelf in a Dutch Apartment" is a reference to Anne Frank, who was a Jewish girl who hid from the Nazis in a Secret Annex hidden behind a bookshelf in an apartment in Amsterdam, Netherlands. She wrote the famous diary, Diary of Anne Frank.
One continuity issue in this comic is that the places they have to visit in this episode seem to require traveling to different periods in time (1993, 1975-1979, 1940s, respectively). Episodes of Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego usually did not deal with this — this is what the TV show Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego (the successor to Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, albeit with a different house band and a different host) did.
The last frame also makes mention of how some programs intended for children often have subtle themes for adults who may be watching the show with their children. SpongeBob SquarePants and The Fairly OddParents are other examples of shows that have hidden meanings in things for the adults watching the show with their children. The joke in the panel is that these sorts of underlying themes were always present in the show, but the young/less mature viewers weren't able to pick up on them. When Cueball expresses his doubt that the show was this dark when he watched it (presumably as a kid in the early 1990s), Megan tells him exactly this, that maybe these scenarios were always there but they were too young to understand them.
In the title text there is a reference to Bob Ross, a famous painter with a painting show on PBS called "The Joy of Painting" that ran for 12 years. Bob Ross was known for using "happy little _____" to describe components of his paintings. For example while painting trees he would encourage viewers to add "happy little trees" to their paintings.
Ambien, also known as Zolpidem, is a prescription medication used for the treatment of insomnia, as well as some brain disorders. Known side effects are vivid dreams and hallucinations if you wake up (or haven't yet fallen asleep) while it is still active.
Thus, the joke in the title text is that Randall/Megan isn't sure if this is hallucinating from taking Ambien, or if something horrible has happened because PBS's security staff isn't large enough. The entire comic, in general, revolves around this notion.
- [Megan is rubbing sleep out of her eyes and talking to Cueball.]
- Megan: Have you ever watched PBS late at night?
- Megan: I fell asleep after Downton and woke up at like 3 AM.
- [The upper portion of the panel continues dialogue, while the lower shows a drunk gameshow host and several contestants. The monitor shows a field of crosses, presumably graves.]
- Megan: Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego was back on, except the host hadn't aged well and he'd clearly been drinking.
- Megan: Every question took them to some horrible place like Mogadishu or the Cambodian killing fields.
- [Now it shows a bookshelf revealing a hidden room.]
- Megan: The kids were freaked out, but they kept playing. Eventually they were told they'd found Carmen Sandiego hiding behind a bookshelf in a Dutch apartment.
- Megan: The Chief appeared and asked "Are you proud of what you've become?"
- Megan: Then Rockapella walked out and just glared at the kids until they started crying.
- Cueball: I, uh, don't remember the old show being that dark.
- Megan: Maybe we were too young to pick up on it.