Hello, fellow Wyckyd Sceptre fans!
At last the 1998 show: we've finally arrived at the fourth, and last, season of Mr. Show With Bob And David. Lots of critics — myself certainly included — like to keep a running tally of shows cancelled before their time, and many include Mr. Show in that tally. The more I think about it, thought, the more I believe that Mr. Show wasn't so much cancelled before its time so much as it was cancelled just in time. It's not a fresh observation, but it's a true one, that what keeps so many shows pristine in our minds is the fact that they met their end before getting a chance to wear out their welcome; think of the number of shows you've enjoyed that had an abbreviated 2- or 3-season run, versus the number that went six or seven seasons and were sucking wind their last couple of years. It's pointless to speculate about the quality of a theoretical season 5 of Mr. Show, but there were a number of factors that indicated they may have gotten axed just in time.
For one thing, the show had its biggest-ever writing staff, and by season 4, its voice, which had been diversifying but still belonged distinctively to Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, was beginning to be diffused, and its sensibilities scattered. There are a number of scenes in this season which, while they might work in terms of delivering laughs, don't have the particular Mr. Show feel to them, something that both Bob and David discuss in the Mr. Show: What Happened? book. For another, there were serious changes afoot in the cast: Theresa Mulligan and Sarah Silverman were gone, and Tom Kenny, such a vital component of the first three seasons, would appear only once. While they were replaced by able actors, their presence would be sorely missed. Finally, the show's direction, anchored for the first three seasons solely by John Moffitt and Troy Miller, would be handed over to newcomers who, while they were talented in their own right, weren't used to working with the cast or the freewheeling format, leading to situations where formerly smooth transitions would be a bit more awkward and forced.
None of this is to say that season 4 is terrible. In fact, it's a very strong season, cited by a lot of fans as their favorite, and there's no denying that some of Mr. Show's best scenes made it to the airwaves in season 4. The writing and acting is still strong, and the new cast members often brought fresh perspectives that benefited the show. But there's an uncertainty, an inconsistency, that wasn't present in the first three seasons, and while it was rarely fatal, it was likely a signal to Bob and David that cancellation may have saved them from tarnishing the legendary cult status they were building. In these last five installments, I'll be frank about areas where cracks were starting to appear, but without losing sight of the fact that up until its final moments, Mr. Show was still delivering moments of transcendent sketch comedy — a record over four years that's still unmatched, and the reason I call it the greatest American sketch comedy show.
NOTE: More than any other season, S4 of Mr. Show was shown in a different order than it was filmed. For the purposes of these reviews, again, I'll be discussing them in the order in which they appear on the DVD release (in the "blue box", for those of you following at home).
EPISODE 1: "Life Is Precious And God And The Bible"
What Worked: Faced with a bloated writing staff, Bob and David began to introduce some (pretty arbitrary) rules to keep the new writers on point. Two of them were "no gay jokes" and "no Hitler jokes"; neither lasted very long, and the first one fell right away with the "Hitler Clones" sketch. And it's a good thing, too: it's a standout in the episode. Every bit of it is killer, from the Jewish kids treating their pet Hitlers like dolls to David's sad-sack Hitler holding court over the 'young ones' at a bar that caters to Hitlers. "Lifeboat", in which Bob's talk show host and guests are lost at sea, is a somewhat divisive one: tons of people love it, but a vocal minority think it's pretty weak. I was part of that minority for a long while, but re-watching it for this recap, it's a bit stronger than I remember; not perfect (the concept is a well-traveled one, leading to some predictable directions for the scene), but much tighter than I recalled, and buoyed by Jerry Minor's terrific performance. And the whole show ends with a bang: "Scams And Flams", with David as the nakedly gullible, desperate reporter Yale Hadderity, is a real winner that blows along at such a rapid pace it stands as an in-show rebuke to the draggy way the episode started.
What Didn't: "Medical Marijuana" has a good concept and some keen observational humor (like the pharmacist boring his clients with his terrible songs before delivering the goods), but it goes on too long, and has too many joke-free pauses. "Law School" is a tougher one to call: like "Medical Marijuana", it drags terribly at times, and it coasts for quite a while on obvious jokes, but when its conclusion comes (with Bob's ridiculous improvised predictions all coming true), it's dynamite, and it almost saves the sketch.
The Cast: It isn't quite right to call it stunt casting, but the appearance of outsiders (like Michael McKean in "Law School" and character actor/Avery Schreiber like-a-look Steve Susskind as the pharmacist) is sometimes distracting; these are roles that in previous seasons would have gone to the Mr. Show cast, and it's hard to figure out why they didn't. (That said, it's fun to see Bob awkwardly attempting to duplicate McKean's body language.) One of the best parts of this episode: getting to see everyone in the cast dressed as Hitler. Brian reluctantly doing the little girl's toenails and Jay Johnston being used as a human Barbie both generate huge laughs. And David's pathetic Yale Hadderity is one of his best characters.
The Crew: It's hard to bust on the cheapness of the sets at this point, particularly in "Lifeboat", where they deliberately make a joke out of it, but Jesus, couldn't HBO even afford fake water? The costumes, makeup and set design are still strong, though, especially the "poor man's wallpaper" in David/Hitler's apartment and the thrift-store t-shirts and sweatshirts in "Lifeboat".
Timely Comics: Maybe it's just living in California, but Bob and David were pretty good at singling out topics that had a lot more legs than they might appear: medical marijuana is still a hot-button issue. 1998 ahoy: "Medical Marijuana" is filled with late-'90s technology, from the pharmacist recording his songs on a 4-track and transferring them to cassette to Brian Posehn killing time on what appears to be a Nintendo 64.
Pet Theories: David is in long pants, as he will be for most of this season (you may take this as a sign of the show's increasing fragmentation, or of the fact that his cargo shorts fell apart after the 8,000th washing. He's also wearing a t-shirt for Bay Area indie band Creeper Lagoon, who I distinctly remember being named SPIN magazine's Best New Artist of 1998, an act which essentially doomed them to eternal obscurity. I'm not sure who that is singing the apple butter jingle, but it sounds enough like Gordon Lightfoot to make me wonder if the real Lightfoot was just hard up for cash in 1998, or if someone in the cast had the unusual gift of being a really good Gordon Lightfoot impersonator. FAKE SPECIAL THANKS: Phil Hendrie, comedian, radio host, and voice of the Waterfall family on Futurama.
Deep Thoughts: The kick-off to season 4 isn't their strongest, with two sketches that eat up a lot of screen time and don't deliver nearly enough laughs. But the Hitler sketch proved that Mr. Show still had a lot of edge, and "Lifeboat" held everything together, providing comic weight that countered the dead wood at the beginning. Luckily, a rut wasn't being dug: the slow patches of this episode were forgotten with the next episode's white-lighting pace.
- "Do you think it'd work for me? Because I have to work with me all the time."
- "You come in here with your minds full of mush, but you levy with razor-sharp, double-edged, legal dual mind-blades."
- "I recommend that an armada of Q-tips be dispatched to your ear area forthwith!"
- "Quicker than you can say 'l'chaim', Hitlers have become an integral part of Jewish life."
- "Put your Hitlers away! They were up all night last night."
- It's a joke that's been done a million times, but Jerry Minor's inability to remember the names of the people he's been stuck on a raft with for weeks still cracks me up.
- For that matter, you can't top Minor's delivery of this episode's title.
- "I was on a island. Now give me them chocolates!"
- "Barn?" Another great fish-face from David.
- "So you have to be very careful. What seems like a scam may not be a scam, but somebody may try to turn it into a scam! But that in itself may be the scam."
EPISODE 2: "Show Me Your Weenis!"
What Worked: "Mr. Show Boy's Clubs" is a terrific opening to the first great episode of season 4; the vignettes of the girls being completely ignored is one of the most cruelly funny things the show ever did (and, for fans of Jill Talley, her appearance as a Playboy bunny, as well as her facial expressions during her telepathic voice-over, are real treats.) "Action 6 News", with reporters who try to glom onto other network stories, works quite well considering how many times Mr. Show has gone to the local-news well. "Toenapper" has a few rough patches, but the increasing build in absurdity as David realizes what a botch the kidnapper has made of the job and Bob de-escalates his crummy demands while berating himself away from the phone, turn it into a winner. Few shows would be willing or able to get one great sketch out of the metal scene (despite its ample opportunities for parody); Mr. Show, with "Wyckyd Sceptre", manages two. It's also another variant of one of my favorite comedic conceits, the idea of someone who can't see the obvious no matter how laboriously it's explained to them. Their hostile reaction to Jay Johnston when he patiently explains that the things the band does to one another in its videos are the same things he and his gay friends do is a perfect culmination of the gag. "Blind House", where Menocu brings us a talking house that's been made safe for the sight-impaired, is so over-the-top and goofy that it has me convulsed with laughter every time. And "Byron De La Barkwith, Racist In The Year 3000", is a perfect capper to the show, with great performances, tons of funny lines, and an absurd but distinctive look.
What Didn't: "Party Tape Underground" is a bit of a drag (wasting early appearances by Sarah Thyre and Scott Aukerman), and, with its reference to the bad old days before the internet brought us YouTube, is one of the show's few dated elements. But it doesn't really slow things down to much, as it's basically just a padded-out link.
The Cast: This is Tom Kenny's final episode of Mr. Show. He does a fine job, as always, but it's sad to see him go. There's lots of good bits for the supporting cast here (and we get our first good look at BJ Porter, as "Laser"), but this time it's the lead actors who carry the show: there's only been a few times in the show's history that Bob and David have played off one another as effectively as they do in "Toenapper" and "Racist In The Year 3000".
The Crew: Thanks for those of you who hipped me to the fact that Jay and David were the puppeteers in "Titannica", and we see more of them at work in "Racist In The Year 3000". The costumes and design, though, were by the ever-reliable Paula Elins, back for her fourth season. I wish I still had my copy of Mr. Show: What Happened?, as I recall some entertaining notes about the design and origin of that sketch. Troy Miller, too, was on his way out, and while John Moffitt was still around, an increasing amount of directorial work was being done by the husband-wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who would later become well-known for Little Miss Sunshine.
Timely Comics: Not much in the way of dated elements or outmoded references here; if anything, it's still quite timely, and as the recent flap over The Daily Show indicates, the issue of TV comedy as a boy's club is still very much alive.
Pet Theories: Bob and David start the show in vintage Rat Pack swinger-wear, and it appears that someone in the props department raided the Match Game '76 set and stole a couple of Gene Rayburn's extra-long microphones. "Blind House" is sort of the anti-"Pre-Taped Call-In Show", and perfect proof that you don't have to be smart or clever to be funny: it's built on bad wigs and an obvious joke, and its biggest laughs come from the well-established ground of informercial pitchmen who can't act worth a shit, but I must have seen it a dozen times and it still just tears me up with laughter. FAKE SPECIAL THANKS: Rexella Van Impe, lunatic televangelist and wife of prophetic loon Jack Van Impe.
Deep Thoughts: So much for the gay joke ban, eh? After a rocky start, "Show Me Your Weenis!" proved that Mr. Show could still deliver amazingly well even after all the changes, schedule conflicts, cast and crew substitutions and clashes with HBO. "Weenis" (I always thought it was "weenus") is glistening with that shiny, juicy Mr. Show magic, and is a fine example of the writers' ability to take a simple, or even stupid, premise and imbue it with twisted genius. It's the first great show of the season, but thankfully, it's not the last. And anything that ends with a Benny Hill chase to "Yackety Sax" — complete with the still-ignored girls, standing off in the distance — can't be all bad.
- "The Mr. Show Objects are here with us tonight as well."
- The "Mr. Show Boys' Clubs" skit has tons of great visual gags, from the girls sitting next to a garbage can at the picnic to the boys learning how to dance using pink cardboard cutouts while the girls sit idly by.
- "Chip Curson, Action 6 News. What's going on here? What are all these reporters doing?"
- "Oh, man. You are really nuts, you know that?"
- "Figures based on U.S. Agricultural Survey of Bummed-Out College Students"
- The expression of the faces of Bob and David at Wyckyd Sceptre's Fire Island debut is one of the best bits about that excellent sketch.
- "So you see, blinds are like regulars now."
- "Wow! You sold me! What is it?"
- "My daddy always told me, you can't trust a man what's made of gas! Not you, Zaxon, you're one of the good ones. There's white people made of gas, you know what I'm talking about."
- "Keep 'em comin', Gleep-Glop!" One of the most-quoted Mr. Show lines around my crib.