With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch these 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.
There were many things that Mr. Show With Bob And David was not. Influenced by the interlocking format of SCTV and the free-flowing running order of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the show broke from two decades of sketch comedy tradition on American TV. Though it featured musical numbers and a requisite top-of-the-show greeting from co-creators and co-stars Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, Mr. Show was not a variety show. Names like Famous Mortimer, fictional companies like Globo-Chem, and faces like telegenic ne’er-do-well Ronnie Dobbs make repeat appearances throughout Mr. Show’s four seasons, but it was not a generator of recurring characters. “A couple of times is okay if you can find a reason for it, or a different take on the character, but just to trot it out there to say the same lines so you can sell T-shirts and posters, or maybe make a mid-budgeted super-shitty movie is reprehensible, if not lazy,” Cross says in the episode guide and show history Mr. Show: What Happened?!
All of which is to say: More than anything, Mr. Show was not Saturday Night Live. This was especially cathartic for Odenkirk, who spent several unhappy seasons in the SNL writers’ room. Despite joining the staff at the same time as likeminded contemporaries Conan O’Brien, Greg Daniels, and Robert Smigel, Odenkirk failed to find his footing with the show. (Ironically, a concept he’d hatched for a Second City revue wound up being an SNL signature: Chris Farley’s van-down-by-the-river-dwelling motivational speaker, Matt Foley.) “To me, what was fun about comedy and should have been exciting about Saturday Night Live was the whole generational thing, you know, a crazy bunch of people sittin’ around making each other laugh with casual chaos and a kind of democracy of chaos,” he’d later say in the SNL oral history Live From New York.
Odenkirk would find what he thought comedy should be with the help of David Cross, who came to Los Angeles after leading his own democracy of chaos, Cross Comedy, in Boston. Both worked on the short-lived Fox version of The Ben Stiller Show, though their creative partnership wouldn’t click until after they’d moved on from Stiller’s direct-parody stylings. What became Mr. Show was honed on L.A. stages like the Diamond Club and the Upfront Theatre, and its cast and writing staff were drawn from the pools of talent gathering in these so-called “alternative comedy” spaces. Offering, in Odenkirk’s words, “the warmth that neither David or I have,” John Ennis was a fellow Boston expatriate and Cross Comedy alumnus. Jill Talley and Tom Kenny had performed in Chicago and Boston, respectively, but their paths to Mr. Show (and to the couple’s marriage) ran through the other sketch series Fox put up in the fall of 1992, The Edge. Jay Johnston and Paul F. Tompkins were drafted based on their own two-man act, The Skates; Brian Posehn had co-starred in one of Odenkirk and Cross’ proto-Mr. Show live shows, The 3 Goofballz. Bill Odenkirk had the family connection, but he’d also been feeding his brother jokes on a professional basis since Bob was on SNL and Bill was a grad student studying inorganic chemistry.
Mr. Show was a chorus of young, hungry voices, but its primary point of view stemmed from Bob and David, the “head” of the program whose two halves both had to sign off on a pitch before it moved forward. Appearing at the top of every show and in practically every scene of every episode, they gave the show a lingua franca of frustration—a strangled cry of “God dammit!” being the closest thing to a Mr. Show catchphrase.
But they also complemented one another in ways that elevated and informed the show. Odenkirk loved taking a sketch apart to see how it ticked, while Cross had no stomach for comedy theory. The former later told The A.V. Club “I had a real fucking hard-on about what a sketch was and how to do it right,” but the latter brought a sense of storytelling and flexibility to those ideas. One excelled with self-evident buffoons like marching-band savant John Baptiste Philouza or teaching-by-billiards instructor Van Hammersly; the other’s characters, like Grass Valley Greg or the Victrola-toting hipster in “Donut Shop,” hide their stupidity under a thick armor of pretension. These complementary natures even extended to the duo’s on-stage wardrobe: Bob in the suits and ties of a late-night host and David in the thrift-store threads of the folks at home.
It’s a bit of a misconception that Odenkirk, Cross, and company locked a freshness into their sketches by eschewing any topical material, because plenty of 1990s touchstones made an impression on Mr. Show. The difference is that viewers who don’t recognize the bases for prop comic Blueberry-Head or Britpop brother act Smoosh can still pick up the jokes, characters, and concepts coloring in these era-specific outlines. The spirit of the times introduced a few uninspired slacker caricatures, but the culture depicted in those sketches created the environment in which Mr. Show could thrive—a relative, lowered-expectations, cult-favorite type of thriving, but thriving nonetheless. Post-grunge ennui and Generation X’s raised-by-television frame of reference is as crucial to Mr. Show as post-war stiff upper lips were to Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
After all this talk about what Mr. Show wasn’t, how about some things that it was? It was occasionally scatological or outwardly provocative, but that was never the main point of a sketch. “A lot of people think they could write a Mr. Show sketch and think they can be gross for the sake of being gross,” Scott Aukerman, a fourth-season addition to the writers’ room, says in What Happened?! “As I watched the show, and as I realized, that those guys always have something to say when they’re doing it.”
Mr. Show always had something to say regardless of a sketch’s gag-reflex quotient, a satirical edge that dug into corporate greed, political overreaches, religious hypocrisy, meaningless showbiz awards, condescending advertising, lowest-common-denominator entertainment, and nearly indistinguishable blends of mustard, mayonnaise, mustard-mayonnaise, and mayonnaise-mustard. The show was well-versed in TV and cinema vocabulary, building comic worlds within news broadcasts, ride-along crime shows, grainy footage of megaphone crooners, and one family’s epic journey toward slightly discounted tube socks. In the grand Python tradition, it was deeply silly, though there were no fourth-wall-breaking conventions to punish characters for being silly. (The events of the sketches usually took care of that.)
And Mr. Show was funny. God dammit was Mr. Show ever funny. Scene by scene, but also episode by episode, which meticulously stitched together (sometimes, by the creators’ own admission, in an overly fussy manner) their component parts with shared themes, linking segments, and last-second segues. YouTube and other video-sharing sites have helped to keep certain Mr. Show sketches in the cultural conversation—particularly when our reality mirrors one of its whacked-out fictions—but this view of the show misses the forest for the trees, and the following list celebrates Mr. Show for what it could accomplish in a half-hour timeframe in addition to four- or five-minute chunks. Because if you don’t watch “God’s Book On Tape” and its flying limousine punchline, you have no context for the flying limousine that turns up in the ancient scrolls shown at the beginning of “Monster Mash.”
As such, there are some notable omissions—sorry, “24 Is The Highest Number”; sincerest apologies, “Blowing Up The Moon”—whose episodes aren’t the best representations of what Mr. Show could do on a week-by-week basis. Not that those episodes aren’t what Mr. Show was, or anything like that.
(Episodes listed by DVD order, which occasionally runs counter to the episode guide in Mr. Show: What Happened?!, which was used as the source for sketch titles.)
Like The Kids In The Hall before it, Mr. Show came together onstage prior to coming to HBO, which gave the show a shape, identity, and voice even in its earliest installments. The series premeire, “The Cry Of A Hungry Baby,” is a fine introduction to Odenkirk and Cross, but the style, pet themes, and impressive ambition of Mr. Show make themselves known in “What To Think.” Religion attempts to suppress, but fails spectacularly, in “Good News,” while commerce triumphs over good taste, common sense, and the son of God in “Commercials Of The Future” and “Jesus & Marshal.” Bob and David are given a foil in the form of Senator Howell Tankerbell (Odenkirk), a representative of the status quo whose folksiness belies an obsession with a tired, filthy joke about a traveling salesman, a farmer, and three holes in the wall. The salesman’s familiar plight allows Mr. Show to tweak hoary old humor conventions while simultaneously elevating the schtick to legitimate-theater heights in “The Joke: The Musical,” a holdover from the live shows co-starring Jack Black.
Season one of Mr. Show was four episodes produced for the price of two, written entirely by Odenkirk and Cross. An increased budget for season two meant they could hire a writing staff, add some more actors to the ensemble, and move production from the cramped quarters of the Hollywood Moguls night club and into a soundstage made up to look like a nightclub at Hollywood Center Studios. “A Talking Junkie?” is the last Mr. Show script credited exclusively to the duo, but the contributions from the newbies are readily apparent: Paul F. Tompkins gets to goof on a favorite comedy type (“the barfly who sees something crazy and then throws his bottle of booze away,” as seen in the Mister Ed riff “Talking Junkie”), while Jay Johnston presents his first of many fake trophies in “Homage Awards.”
“A Talking Junkie?” is also a spotlight episode for Eban Schletter, who came onboard as musical director in season two and executes several inspired interludes here, including the “Red Balloon” link that leads Cross to “Mom & Pop Porn Shop” (featuring brilliantly homespun turns from Odenkirk and Talley as the proprietors) and Mary Lynn Rajskub’s show-stopper in “Rap! The Musical,” “Gang Of One.” Most importantly, Schletter’s wide range helps introduce the silky-smooth sounds of Three Times One Minus One, the quietest of storms (and the least apologetic of cultural appropriators) in Mr. Show’s stable of bogus recording artists.
“If You’re Going To Write A Comedy Scene, You’re Going To Have Some Rat Feces In There” (season two, episode four)
In which the show goes public, and the majority of its shares are scooped up by eccentric entrepreneur Grass Valley Greg (Cross). Unlike other Mr. Show interlopers, Greg doesn’t want to change things—but he still can’t be stopped from interrupting the flow of “Gay Son” (in which John Ennis roars one of the great twisty Mr. Show lines: “No gay son of mine isn’t not gay! You better get gay or I’ll make you gay!”) to institute a Tofutti break. “Rat Feces” is the peak of Mr. Show’s thematic experiments, steeping itself in a corporatized world where TV shows cut costs by relying on child labor, downsizing is a nightmare of Kafkaesque and Pythonesque proportions, and the theme park division of mega-conglomerate Globo-Chem gives The City By The Bay a “San Fran-tastic” makeover. And there’s just enough time during “Rat Feces” for Van Hammersly (Odenkirk), the video educator with balls—billiards balls, that is. The commercial parody makes some breathing room within “If You’re Going To Write A Comedy Scene, You’re Going To Have Some Rat Feces In There,” a pure premise executed to perfection before the episode barrels into its next conceptual workout.
Season two concludes with a Lewis Carroll hallway of an episode, each sketch opening a door that leads to a wilder, wider Wonderland than the one that came before. Bob and David’s self-serving charity work leads to handicapped people volunteering their time to help fill the “empty trivial lives” of celebrities. The public-transit peanut gallery eavesdropping on a rom-com moment between Tom Kenny and Jill Talley turn out to be the “four voices” involved in any decision, with the doctor (and then doctors) responsible for identifying those voices helping to comprise the six voices battling it out in the head of a donut-store customer (Odenkirk) who’s about to get an earful about megaphone crooners. And so on, until “The Velveteen Touch Of A Dandy Fop” climaxes with the blockbuster bluster of “Coupon: The Movie.” In What Happened?!, Odenkirk laments the “tortured logic puzzle” nature of sketches like “Subway,” but it’s thrilling to see Mr. Show perform such cartwheels for the entirety of an episode. If anything, it gets the audience limbered up for the three-act “Coupon: The Movie” capper, the cinematic thrill ride that “all of America must see”—as decreed by a federal judge.
By the time of the third season, the creative talent of Mr. Show was falling out of love with building their episodes around a single theme. They didn’t quit cold turkey, but they did throw themselves a hell of a pre-sobriety bender with “Heaven’s Chimney,” a series of sketches about beliefs and the way people impose them. That goes beyond religion, as seen in the Bill Odenkirk piece “Watch Us Have Sex,” in which a friendly dinner party devolves into a frank discussion about the attendees’ extremely specific bedroom kinks. Lest it appear that the show is merely pointing and laughing at world religions and suicide cults, Odenkirk and Cross step in as the hosts of a faith-based take on TV’s Bloopers & Practical Jokes, showing what it really looks like to callously “put our hands together for some loonies who put their hands together.” Perhaps sensing that such people rarely take kindly to being called “loonies,” there’s also a thread about grave bodily harm running through the episode, be it the “local favorites” maimed by the roller coaster in “The Devastator,” or the rudimentary medicine practiced in “Medieval Science Film.” And although “Heaven’s Chimney” is a last gasp for heavily themed material, it still manages to set up a motif for season three: Gleeful portrayals of the Church Of Satan.
Even as the series was granting itself more freedom in the writing process, the impact of a Mr. Show episode was measured in the way the sketches came together. In “Ventriloquists,” “Lie Detector,” and “Druggachusettes,” “Oh, You Men” boasts three scenes worthy of the highlight reel—indeed, the last two were included in the “best of Mr. Show” special, “The Incredible, Fantastical News Report.” “Ventriloquists” and “Druggachusettes” (along with the daytime talk-show send-up, “DeLongpre Dannon Show”) demonstrate the series’ ability to transcend topical subject matter, warping a pair of über-’90s springboards—East Coast-West Coast rap feuds and Gen-X nostalgia for Sid and Marty Krofft’s “menagerie of puppet-y oddballs”—into uniquely Mr. Show concepts. An appropriately kaleidoscopic production number, “Druggachusettes” ties into the increasingly ludicrous truths told by Odenkirk in “Lie Detector” (“It was great. It’s crack—it gets you really high”) as well as the “lost episode” framework of “Oh, You Men” as a whole. That’s where the structural integrity of the episode comes in: Don’t let the insanely high quality of the sketches (or the talented acts at Entertainment 4 Every 1, like “Choo Choo” The Hurkey Jerky Dancer or “Champion” The Drinker) make you forget about the banana that Bob waves around in the opening segment.
“We are a collection of screaming jackasses!” Self-effacing or not, this line from “The Return Of The Curse Of The Creature’s Ghost” summarizes the Mr. Show aesthetic almost as well as the episode’s blend of daffy theatrics, gross-out gags, and comedic contortions. As overseen by another of Odenkirk’s drawling authority figures—guidance-counselor Moe Phelps, based on a real-life college admissions officer who tried to talk Cross out of majoring in theater—“The Return Of The Curse” sets about proving the foolishness of Bob and David’s work, with bookends about powerful men seeking blow jobs and a high-school trip up an older woman’s ass. But the real shocks come not from these pieces, nor metal act Titannica and its visit with the superfan who followed the instructions of the band’s single “Try Suicide.” The Moe Phelpses in the audience are likelier to be knocked on their asses by the title sketch and its lead-in on the Convoluted Television Network, “Pre-Taped Call-In Show.” Like “Audition,” a later contribution from “Pre-Taped Call-In Show” co-writer Dino Stamatopoulos, the sketch hinges on heady construction and a temperamental Cross, who offers his own rejoinder to the real-life Phelps as frustration mounts and the sketch sends flustered host Ken Doral (Cross) through a TV house of mirrors and a gantlet of callers watching the previous week’s show.
Mr. Show got more comedic mileage out of Adolf Hitler than anyone this side Mel Brooks. The show’s first season opens with a musical excerpt from David’s one-man musical Hitler Sings, while its last begins with an episode that finds der fuehrer’s face “popping up everywhere,” as Hitlers are genetically duplicated and bred to serve the descendants of Holocaust victims. From cloning and reparations to medical marijuana and tabloid TV, Mr. Show seemingly returned for the fourth season with a pocketful of 1998’s hottest topics, but the writing and performances in “Cloning Hitler” and “Lifeboat” vault “Life Is Precious And God And The Bible” over any timely concerns. Shipwreck survivors stuck in their talk-show roles and sad, shuffling Hitlers are funny regardless of the year—same goes for the TA played by Odenkirk in “Law School,” who, after taking over for Michael McKean’s imperious professor, goes overboard with his “look to your left, now look to your right” speech.
Connective threads could still make themselves apparent in the fourth season. Several scenes in “Story Of Everest” deal with losing control of your own narrative: Bob and David have their show acquired by a Suge Knight-esque hip-hop mogul, the foul-mouthed wise guys of “Pallies” can’t even flip a bird without a sanitizing intrusion by the censors, and poor independent grocer Len Gibbons (Cross) is beaten into submission by a succession of smear ads from faceless, monolithic supermarket chain Fairsley Foods. But the episode’s unluckiest mug is the star of the eponymous sketch, a proud mountaineer (Jay Johnston) introduced at the top of the Gibbons spots, whose tale of daring is undone by an unfortunately placed tea cart and dozens of knickknacks. Playing masterfully with the audience’s expectations—surely he can’t slip again—the scene is the funniest Mr. Show ever produced, a cleverly written script enriched by Johnston’s fearless pratfalls. “Story Of Everest” stands as a prime example of Mr. Show sinking its teeth into a premise and shaking, shaking, shaking, and shaking some more until it’s exhausted every last opportunity for a laugh.
In another example of Mr. Show being defined by what it is not, “Eat Rotten Fruit From A Shitty Tree” is not “Date With Queen,” an unfunny, unending period piece where Cross’ Queen Of England plays an elaborate prank on her severely British party guests. The sketch’s massive thud is insulated, however, by a pair of back-to-back high-concept triumphs—the Robert Evans-inspired “God’s Book On Tape” and “Monster Mash”’s investigation into the paranormal origins of novelty songs—and “Marty Farty,” in which reports on a national scandal (plus a Chris Rock Show monologue joke) daisy chain their way into a playground rhyme about flatulence. And if you can make it through “Date With Queen,” you’ll be immediately greeted by “Spite Marriage,” the most rewarding two-hander of Odenkirk and Cross’ time together. The pair play lunkheaded jagoffs who, after bumping into each other at a bar, threaten and taunt one another into a long, satisfying life of love and companionship. In its portrayal of a peculiar human ugliness, “Spite Marriage” gets at something uniquely funny and somewhat touching—ain’t it just like Mr. Show to find the romance in the phrase, “It’s on, asshole”?
Availability: Mr. Show is available on DVD, as individual seasons and as part of the Mr. Show: The Complete Collection set. Individual seasons and episodes can be purchased from iTunes, Amazon, and Vudu.