This week, we debut a new occasional feature called SketcHistory, where we get the story behind some of our favorite comedy sketches from the people who made them.
The sketches: “Dalai Lama” and “Monk Academy,” from Mr. Show’s season four episode “It’s Perfectly Understandishable”
The story: The latest incarnation of the Dalai Lama comes in the form of a mulleted high-school senior from Indiana, Dougie Bendel (Bob Odenkirk). The Garth to his Wayne, Derek (David Cross), comes to visit his best friend in Tibet, only to find he’s grown enlightened, so Derek tries to get him and his uptight monks to party. That segues into “Monk Academy,” an ’80s summer-camp-movie parody where the Tibetan Monks must face their longtime rivals, the campers from the nearby fat camp. A series of physical challenges climax with a rap battle, where Dougie’s science proves “too tight.” After the big win, Derek, Dougie, a monkey, and a buxom blonde woman ride off into the sunset with Jon Cryer (who’s dressed as his Duckie character from Pretty In Pink).
Scott Aukerman, writer (and occasional performer) for Mr. Show, host of Comedy Bang! Bang!
David Cross, co-creator of Mr. Show, comedian, and actor
Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, a husband-wife directing team that helmed several episodes of Mr. Show and films like Little Miss Sunshine and Ruby Sparks
Scott Aukerman: That sketch started, I think, the summer before we started writing [for Mr. Show]. When did that movie Kundun come out? Whenever that movie came out, I went to see it with B.J. Porter, and I found it pretty boring, and I don’t really remember anything about it. I went to see that movie, and it was kind of stupid. [Laughs.] So dismissive. No, I mean I appreciated it for what it was. I couldn’t really get into it, but I was kind of struck by the whole idea of the Dalai Lama being reincarnated in kids and just the randomness of that. So I remember that was one of the ideas that I sort of jotted down as an idea to bring into the pitch meetings: What if the Dalai Lama was reincarnated in some regular asshole?
So I think at the time I was thinking about it as “What if the Dalai Lama was reincarnated into David?” because for a little while, we would always pitch, like, David was the crazy one and Bob was the straight man. Mr. Show never really worked that way, so we were constantly switching roles a lot. We would go, “Well, could this be something for Bob?” or, “Could this straight person be something for David?” What’s great about those guys is they can play either role really well. I remember pitching just that basic idea, and we started talking about it in the room, and I remember in the room we kind of came up with the idea of it would be Bob as the Dalai Lama, and then it would be David as the asshole friend who kind of comes and visits him and bugs him.
As I recall, I went off and wrote a draft of just that idea, and I remember it being not really incredibly well thought-out. I think that basically, if you see the first part of that scene, it kind of traffics in—I think as Jay Johnston once pointed out—it’s just kind of people saying regular sentences in a funny way. There’s not really too many jokes in it; it’s just kind of a character study in a way.
I wrote the initial draft of it, and David was laughing a lot at the things he got to say, and Bob’s performance was really funny, but I don’t know that there was really a point to it, necessarily. I think David riffed in the room that—it might’ve been Bob, because I think Bob threw that back in my face at one point, that the whole thing was his idea anyway, when he wanted to cancel it. But one of those guys riffed that the scene should end, and then they should just go, “All right, now how are we gonna beat those fat kids at the camp competition?” [Laughs.] We all laughed at that and thought it was the funniest thing that we’d ever heard—just the idea of us trying to do a sketch and sort of failing at it a little bit, then dispensing with it and just turning it into insanity.
Basically, when we read it, everyone really kind of flipped for it and thought it was really funny. Bob would agree that it’s funny—technically, it’s funny. “[But] is it a Mr. Show sketch?”
David Cross: I do remember Bob being really not that into the idea. This happened with both of us for a handful of things, where pretty much you’re the only guy going, “All right, fine, whatever. If you guys think it’s funny. If you guys like it…” He was a little reluctant to that whole thing. But I remember also Bob coming up with a way to play the end where he does that huge turn, where he pulls down the map in the live part. He’s just makes a big turn, like, “Okay, here’s what we’re going to do. The fat kids are over here…” That was his idea. It really helped. It works. But yeah, I remember Bob not being that into it. But we all had those where we had a sketch or something where there was one person going, “This? C’mon guys, are you serious? It’s not that funny.” And then everybody else, “It’s great!” “All right, fine.”
SA: The takeaway I had from that argument was that Bob basically just said, “Okay, fine, I’ll do it, but this sketch is first-year writer bullshit.” So that’s the one thing I remember and will remember to the end of my days.
[Bob’s] such an amazing performer that he can always find the funny in any situation, even if he doesn’t really feel 100 percent confident about it.
DC: [“Monk Academy”] couldn’t exist on its own. That thing would be fine on different sketch shows of the day—that would work great on The Ben Stiller Show, but just the idea of a fat camp on its own, it just wasn’t part of our credo of what we were trying to do. So we came up with that Dalai Lama reincarnation thing. I don’t know the exact origin. I would imagine that it was Scott and B.J. doing this piece that was a film parody, a very specific kind of genre. And all of us laughing at it, but going, “This can’t work on its own. That’s not what we do here.” Then coming up with the Dalai Lama reincarnation thing to support it.
SA: I think that the fat kid/monk thing is kind of atypical for Mr. Show in the sense that it starts out with an idea and sort of saying something, but then it just delves into ’80s movie parody. Granted, it’s really good ’80s movie parody. When we were writing it, it really was not so much about, “Hey, we’re gonna show how stupid things were in the ’80s.” The entire joke for us was, “We’re gonna say we have this competition, and then we’re gonna film the movie, and then there’s gonna be a huge dolly shot, and then we’re gonna have a million extras…” The joke, to us, was piling on levels of how far we were going and how far we were traveling away from the original idea.
Valerie Faris: I think that was one of the hardest things we shot. That had the biggest cast, and kids, and kids performing.
Jonathan Dayton: It was weird because we weren’t real fans of Meatballs. I’d never seen it, so we had to look at that and see what it was we were really parodying.
SA: [Dayton and Faris] were new to directing comedy; they pretty much had just done videos at that point, and they hadn’t done Little Miss Sunshine yet. I remember them coming up to me and saying, “Hey, we’re taking this job because we’re not really sure how to film comedy or film jokes, so we’re hoping to learn that on the set.”
VF: We were doing primarily music videos then and working on other stuff of our own, but one of the things we were doing was a comedy documentary that started at this club called the UnCabaret. Janeane [Garofalo] introduced us to it. We had done a pilot for HBO with Janeane, and then she introduced us to this club, the UnCabaret, and that’s where we met Bob and David.
JD: We followed the creation of Mr. Show. The whole point of the [UnCabaret] documentary was to film these comedians in their lives and then see the events that led to the stories they would tell onstage, and Bob and David at the time were really involved in trying to pitch this new show to HBO, so we even went to HBO for their pitch meeting.
At the time it was like jumping on a moving roller coaster… We would come in, and we were shooting five different shows’ worth of material, so within one day you might shoot something for show one and then show four and then show three and there’d be little bits where we weren’t so tuned into the whole skit. So we’d have to shoot a family with kids standing by a river going “Yay!” and so we’d go, “Okay, sure. Let’s do it.” And then you wouldn’t really know the greater context.
SA: I remember David pitching the idea of slitting one of the fat kids’ throats, and we laughed at that a lot. I was like, “Is that too much?” Any time I would work with David, I would get the thing where I would go, “That’s probably too much,” and now those are the biggest laughs in the sketches.
Originally in the script it’s written that David slits the kid’s throat in order to stop him from winning the race. While we were sitting there with Steve [Welch]—our editor, who’s so great and went on to Malcolm In The Middle—I just thought it would be really funny to put in a shot of whoever was racing passing the fat kid so that David really just kills him for fun. [Laughs.] There’s no reason for him to kill the kid anymore. It’s really just for the sheer pleasure of it.
JD: It really was a little shocking filming a kid get his neck slit.
SA: The one lesson I learned on that day was how to have more tact on set. We hired all these overweight children to star as the titular “fat kids”—they put the “tit” in “titular.” I just kind of figured, “That’s their name. It’s in the script. They’re the fat kids.” When I was shouting out direction—I wasn’t directing the scene, mind you, but everyone who wrote on that show was encouraged to kind of shout out jokes or whatever—so when I was shouting out things for the kids to do, I was like, “Okay, fat kids! Wave your arms from side to side!” “All right, fat kids, run over there!” Apparently a lot of the kids got very bummed out about being shouted that they were fat over and over. I was taken aside by Bob and David and asked not to yell “fat kids” anymore. It was just one of those sensitivity-training seminars where you’re like, “Oh shit, I’m a jerk.”
DC: Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton knew Flavor Flav from some documentary they had done, I believe. “Oh, we think we can get him for the rapper.” We’re like, “Oh, that’s great.” We contacted him and sent him the sketch. He wrote back that he would love to do it, except he wanted to win the rap battle. So we all had a good laugh over that.
SA: [That’s] just one of those classic Hollywood stories of people not getting it. That was one of those great ones where you hear back from people something so insane. I remember the other one was that we wrote Kiss into Run Ronnie Run to do a cameo at one point, and they wrote back that they would appear in a five-second clip for $1 million.
DC: I think my contribution to [the episode] was the very, very, very end where Duckie comes up, and we jump in. To the best of my memory, that’s really the only thing I contributed to it—that and maybe the idea that Bob just sings “Rap rap rappity rap rap” [during the rap battle].
JD: It was tricky just knowing the tone. When Bob did his rap, it was just so funny, just understanding the mix of lame—
VF: It was so bad and then having the kids react like “Oh shoot!” “His science is too tight!” Is that what they say? I just remember feeling like, “I don’t know if this is working.”
It’s so much about the writing and the vision of the writer, and so it’s kind of a weird place to be as a director. You’re just kind of like, “Is this what you want?” I felt a little bit of that, and I feel guilty admitting this—it’s probably not the greatest thing for the article—but I think this skit was one of the hardest ones for us because it just totally was different. The humor was just a little bit more specialized and not necessarily what cracks us up. But then I think, when you put it all together it works, but it just wasn’t clear to us at the time whether it was working or not.
JD: Yeah, and you know because you are doing all these elements separately, and then the script calls for Jon Cryer to pull up with a buxom woman and a monkey dressed up, and you just go, “Okay, let’s do it.” And it does all add up, but it was hard at the time to fully enter the mind space of the material.
SA: B.J. Porter had just acted in a sitcom that starred Jon Cryer and Vivica A. Fox [Getting Personal]. He had done a small part on a sitcom that they were both in, and he started talking to Jon Cryer, and Jon Cryer was a huge Mr. Show fan. So Jon Cryer was like, “I’d love to be in anything. Let me know. I’d love to be in the show doing anything.” B.J. remembered that and sort of filed it away in his brain, and then we trotted it out for this. I remember we didn’t tell Jon what he was doing; he just sort of showed up sight unseen. When he got to his dressing room, Paula, our costumer, laid out his outfit, and he looked at it and said, “Wait a minute—is this a Duckie thing?” Then, to his credit, he didn’t talk to us about it at all. He came out, he dressed up in it, he walked out the trailer, and we all went, “Yay!” and cheered, and he was like, “Anything for you guys.” And he looked great.
I have a picture of myself and Jon with myself with a huge, shit-eating grin on my face, because the reason that Duckie is in there is because the Duckie character was really important to me when Pretty In Pink came out, and I sort of dressed like him and identified with his being in love with women who would never love him back. So that was a huge, huge thrill for me, and there’s a picture of me with Jon Cryer, and there’s also a picture of me with the monkey. We were told not to make a lot of noise next to the monkey, and taking the picture was kind of dangerous, as I recall, but I risked it.
Having Jon Cryer driving up with a monkey in a convertible dressed as Duckie and having Bob and Dave hop in just filled me with so much glee. I was so happy. It was just one of those, “Hey! This stuff came out of my head and look at it come true!” I was just so happy to be working on the show and so happy that this huge production devoted to a lot of my ideas was happening.
JD: I think everyone really loved the show and liked Bob and David and knew this was a special thing. It really was like a band that comes together, and everyone knows it’s a special time and it won’t last forever. It was a very unique gathering, which only happens once in a while.
SA: Out of that season, I would say there’s probably… How many episodes do I actually like all the way through? You know, I like about half of them. I like bits and pieces of the others. But, I mean, I think there’s a few really good episodes in it. And it had Mr. Show’s most ambitious stuff in it, which I think is really cool. I mean, the fat-kid sketch just survives on ambition. Practically the only joke of it is, “Look at what we’re doing! Look at the lengths we are going to entertain you!” But yeah, I kind of watch that show and go, [Cringing voice] “Oh God, I wish we had done this a little different.” But I think you feel that way about anything, because I’m watching my own show now, going, “Oh, I wish we had done this.” It’s like you’re never going to be satisfied.