Hello, fellow citizens of New Freeland!
We've now reached the second season of Mr. Show With Bob David, which went on the air almost exactly a year after the first season wrapped: "Now Who Wants Ice Cream?" aired on November 15th, 1996. (Think about that for a second, folks: that means if you watched the show when it first aired, like I did, kids who were born while you were dicking around watching HBO at two in the morning are now in high school. Live with that.)
HBO renewing Mr. Show for a second season didn't make them any more competent at producing it. The show was as underfunded as ever, and while in the first season the network simply didn't promote it at all, they moved on in season 2 to promoting it with extreme incompetence. What did change was Bob Odenkirk & David Cross' commitment to the show. They'd finally assembled a dream team of writers and actors who are still providing us jaded comedy nerds with yucks aplenty, and since they now realized that they were living on borrowed time — that however long the show might last, the network had no intention of helping them out — they decided to shoot (or, more precisely, blow up) the moon. The tendency I mentioned last week to turn fifteen cents into a dollar really becomes explicit in season 2; the budgets didn't grow, but the ambition did, and the amount of payoff Bob & David got out of their limited resources grew by leaps and bounds.
I won't be coy: we're getting into, with seasons 2 and 3, the place that I think is the pinnacle of Mr. Show With Bob And David's greatness, which means the pinnacle of greatness in the medium of sketch comedy of which American television has thus far been capable. The thematic elements are going to get stronger from here on out, the audaciousness of each bit is going to get more impressive, the acting and writing is going to launch into orbit, and everything from the links to the end credit gags are going to get a lot better. Let's not waste any more time: if you've been here before, I hope you'll agree with me that revisiting these episodes is a vital reminder of how amazing this show is, and if you haven't, I truly envy you, because you're about to be exposed to something that, as a cultural phenomenon, is pretty fucking close to perfect. Mr. Show was the very definition of a cult hit: almost nobody saw it at the time, but everyone who did felt like it was almost a personal responsibility to spread the word. In the last days before our culture became completely internet-centered, that really meant something.
EPISODE 1: "Now Who Wants Ice Cream?"
What Worked: Everything is going full-tilt in this episode, which is one of my all-time favorites. If we were allowed to give A+ ratings, best believe this would get one. From the opening shot of a "cabin in the woods" (as played by stock footage of the Hollywood Hills) to Bob gamely impersonating his grandpa, this one really doesn't have any room to breathe — there's not a slow patch in it. One of the bits that really surprised me on re-viewing is "Peterson Family News"; it's really not much more than an extended link, but it's got that special Mr. Show quality in spades. Plenty of shows might come up with a skit riffing on the tendency of live news shows to deliver constant updates when there's no real events to report. But here, Bob & David take it beyond that, delivering that little extra effort that moves it into the realm of the genius, and again, they do it by going one step further and making it about the sketch itself instead of about the idea for the sketch. Instead of focusing on the joke of how there is no news, they make it about how the reporter and anchor react emotionally to that fact: David gets peevish and acts like he's being personally slighted, while Bob just gets irritated and annoyed ("This is a national news story! That was a bris! It wasn't even a party!") "Take Back The Streets" is just unalloyed crazy greatness, and Jay Johnston's deadpan physical humor combined with David's menacing commentary makes "The Independent Nations Games" a triumph. It's just a solid episode from end to end.
What Didn't: "U.S. Customs" is a pretty bog-standard sketch comedy premise. But David's jittery, shampooey performance, combined with the mother of all punchlines from John Ennis, means even this one comes out wonderful.
The Cast: There are tons of great bits of acting here, from Bob's over-the-top performance as F.F. Woodycooks to the perfect little hand gesture David makes at the end of "Peterson Family News" ("That guy is unbelievable!"). But nowhere in the show — maybe nowhere in the entire series — is there an acting showcase as marvelous, as jaw-dropping, as "8-in-1 Super Pan Infomercial". In fact, it's the acting that makes the entire sketch. It's an incredibly ambitious gambit: infomercial parodies are a dime a dozen, but from the moment Bob turns to Jill and says "He's gone now" after David's Pat Franks departs to take a crap, it takes one of the all-time most daring turns in comedy history. David nails both the over-exuberant host role at the start and the vengeful near-fanatic at the end; Bob is transcendent in how he plays a character who's wandered into an infomercial from some kind of surreal theater-of-cruelty play; and, as a few of you have pointed out, the entire sketch hinges on Jill Talley's stunning performance as the terrified Nancy Gumphrey. You're right to notice that she's not really funny; the humor, uncomfortable as it is, stems from her playing it super-straight, which means she needs to seem nearly shell-shocked by the end, and boy does she pull it off. It's one of the finest pieces of acting I've ever seen in comedy.
The Crew: The show still looks pretty cheap, but it's beginning to embrace that a lot more and make it part of the comedy. They come up with some truly heinous wigs in this one, and Bob should get some kind of hazard pay for both the goofy Turner D. Century look he rocks in "Take Back The Streets" and the egregious wig-and-eyebrows combo he has in "Super Pan". Some of the segments are really well-filmed, especially "Mountain Dougie" — his trip to the grocery store (featuring a dour and severe-looking Mary Lynn Rajskub) and the scenes where the "lady from the city" comes up to write his national anthem, complete with point-of-view high kicks, look really nice. Slick little piece of design, too, in "Independent Nations Games", with the Don't Tread On Me snake threaded through the Olympic rings.
Timely Comics: You'd think that the central theme of this episode — crazy anti-government kooks getting fed up with the corrupt society and running off in the woods to play make-believe —would be dated by now, but curiously, it seems more timely now than ever. Only the targets have changed; nowadays, Mountain Dougie would be complaining about Kenyan birth certificates and President Muslim instead of the Jew-run media and Hebrew Box Office.
Pet Theories: David is wearing his cargo shorts! See? It's nearly fool-proof. (It's probably a good thing, since the poor guy can't seem to fill out a suit.) The opening scene here is a terrific one, establishing the thematic element while also nicely showcasing Bob & David's personalities: David is all sincerity, focus and dedication to his new nation/singular sensation, while Bob oozes huckster charm, assuring that their separation from America "is gonna be a lot of fun". As has been mentioned here before, F. F. Woodycooks is based on an actual crime show, Tough Target with JJ Bittenbinder, which is one of the occasional Chicago references they throw in to make me homesick. FAKE SPECIAL THANKS: the mysterious Pat Lemontime.
Deep Thoughts: This episode is unalloyed genius, but nowhere is that more clear than in the "Super Pan" sketch, one of the very best Mr. Show has ever done. It's an amazingly risky bit, because it takes a hackneyed premise, takes it to someplace dark, new and totally unexpected in the middle, and then relies on that always-so-important trust of the audience to stay with it when it lunges even farther, into a bizarre emotional satire of spousal abuse and then once again turns on a dime into something absolutely, stupidly silly. And at the one moment where it threatens to go off the rails — where Bob burns Jill's hand and throws milk on her, and it looks like it might become low-grade physical comedy — it takes that turn ("Shhh, shhh — that man's gone now") into the black and weird and gets even funnier. As Nancy Gumphrey becomes progressively more shaken and confused, culminating with the hilariously chilling "I…I fell down the stairs" line, and Bob's Ernie character goes from manipulative bully to craven liar ("Be smart!"), it rides the very edge of what can be considered funny, but you find yourself laughing every time. It's the kind of bit that you crack up at, while simultaneously gobsmacked that they've got the guts to even try to pull it off. This is a spectacular episode, but "Super Pan" in particular is the kind of thing you only ever see from amazingly talented people at the height of their powers.
- These guys almost managed to make a catch-phrase out of "Harmon, this is Brinks."
- Another great bit of physical comedy from David in the "Peterson Family News" bit: the way he shrugs his shoulders and waggles his hands after asking Bob for a "guesstimate". (Note: my spell-check recognizes 'guesstimate' as a legitimate word.)
- "Miraculous Money Eating Madonna" is a more effective jab at organized religion in a wordless, two-second filmed bit than most people can muster in half an hour.
- I wonder if the Miracle Cream in "Thrilling Miracles" is the same stuff that gave superpowers to Fry and Leela in Futurama.
- "The Super Pan is not magical. It will burn you."
- "Sizzlin' steaks and creamy cakes! And a friendly robot that counted it up!"
- I wish I had an mp3 of just the "Take Back The Streets" theme. With that jingling crime stick, and Bob's plaintive cry of "CRIME!", it's a classic!
- "This quiet residential neighborhood wouldn't take kindly to a noisy ruckus or loud horsin'-off."
- "SHUT THAT BABY UP"!
- "Like a swan. Like a pregnant swan."
EPISODE 2: "A Talking Junkie"
What Worked: After the non-stop greatness of "Now Who Wants Ice Cream?", it would be cruel to expect Bob & David to follow it up with an episode just as good, and, frankly, they didn't — but boy, did they come close. These two episodes are a killer one-two punch, and while some rough patches keep "A Talking Junkie" from soaring to the same heights as its predecessor, it's still a powerfully good episode. The inverted family psychodrama of "Adopted Son" - where a desperate couple agrees to adopt a foul-mouthed twenty-something jackass - is fantastic, and it's followed up by the absurdist hilarity of "The Red Balloon", the hugely funny "Mom And Pop Porno Store", and then the entire TTOMO/Rap: The Musical/Homage Awards sequence, finally ending with the ludicrous but funny "Creepy Peeping Videos" closer. It starts out a bit rough, but once it gets going, it doesn't stop.
What Didn't: "A Talking Junkie" has one of the strongest structures of any Mr. Show episode, but it takes a good while for it to kick in. David's intentionally terrible British accent at the beginning is a good gag, but doesn't really go anywhere, and "The Talking Junkie" sketch itself has its strengths, which we'll discuss below, but it goes on a bit long and stretches its premise fairly thin. Otherwise, though, this episode is easily one of the strong points of season 2.
The Cast: While Bob & David are both outstanding — the former does a good job as Mr. Applesway in "Mom And Pop Porno Store", and the latter turns in a pitch-perfect blend of justified and dickish in "Adopted Son" — it's the rest of the cast that shines here. We're getting to the point where other members of the Mr. Show ensemble are getting opportunities to shine, and they make the most of it: Jill Talley is wonderful as the doting mom in "Adopted Son", and while Tom Kenny nicely evokes the stereotypical corporate paper-peddler as Mr. Tink in "Mom And Pop Porno Store", it's Paul F. Tompkins who steals that scene as the sonorous Spirit of Pornography. John Ennis is a bit too over-the-top as the white veejay in "Three Times One Minus One", but he redeems himself completely with his bossy, brutal nanny drag in "Creepy Peeping Videos". The cast members have learned their line, indeed!
The Crew: The makeup and costume folks did a tremendous job on Bob as Mr. Junkie — it took me ages before I realized it was really him instead of a totally different actor. This particular episode was plagued with all kinds of technical problems, including unexpected expenses in "Red Balloon", awkward staging of "Mom And Pop Porno Store", and Bob's gold tooth costume being full of bugs — but it manages to look pretty good for all that. The costumes in the "Three Times One Minus One" are especially well-done.
Timely Comics: Most people probably don't remember this after all the years, but one of the problems Mr. Show encountered was that HBO kept scheduling it into late-night slots when no one was watching, and replacing it with pseudo-reality programming like Taxicab Confessions and titillating dreck like Real Sex. That's the origin of the "Creepy Peeping Videos" sketch, but its strengths — John Ennis' outrageous cruelty and the reduction of 'orphan' asshole Ty from "Adopted Son" to the state of a bawling toddler — make up for the fact that it's goofing on a minor-league show that's been off the air for over a dozen years. 1996 ahoy: David has an "X-rated CD-ROM"! Also, we're only in about the third cycle of making fun of Vanilla Ice.
Pet Theories: Cargo shorts on David, plus a monocle and a derby! At first I thought it was a break in character, but now it seems intentional (and wonderful): John Ennis gives a great nervous glance when David points out that his particular affectation is getting high all the time. Also, thanks to this episode, I can't meet anyone who's an architect (and I used to work in an office right across from about a dozen of them) without thinking "You're an architect? No, you're a pussy." FAKE SPECIAL THANKS: Charles Portis, author of True Grit and other Westerns.
Deep Thoughts: Another strength of Mr. Show With Bob And David, made possible by their thematic approach to writing, was how they didn't just explore the comedic possibilities of an idea — they took it in as many directions as they could. Witness, here, the latter half of the show: it's hardly a fresh observation that white people like everything about black culture except black people. But Mr. Show gets tons of comic juice out of that observation by taking it in so many directions: the practical mockery of "Three Times One Minus One", the theoretical assault of the "Homage Awards", the brilliant conceptual take of "Rap: The Musical", and so on. (They're not sparing of black culture itself, either: the video for the TTOMO song is as sharp a commentary on that era's R&B this side of R. Kelly's home movies.)
- "Yeah, David, people are talking about hitting you."
- "Damn! Snap it back with ya ol' funky-ass bitch!"
- "Oh, David. You do have a personality! You're hyper, and pushy, and rude, and loud…"
- "My girlfriend liked it, and my boyfriend liked it, but my wife hated it."
- "Red balloon will push you down a well/red balloon will send you straight to hell". Love Bob's bizarro-Donovan voice singing this one, and Jay Johnston's disgusted reaction shot to the balloon during the street craps game.
- "Look. Look! An entire wall of nothing but hardcore gay anal sex. If that doesn't bring a tear to your eye, then you're the one who's inhuman."
- "I ain't got no flyin' shoes."
- One of the best gags in this episode is one that most people don't notice until they've watched it a few times: when TTOMO is up for two Homage Awards, the camera puts them in an Oscar-style four-way spilt; when they win, there's actually two different reaction shots — one of them celebrating the win, and the other of them infuriated at the loss.
- Great as Bob's "old gold tooth" bit in "Rap: The Musical" is, the bit that slays me every time is Mary Lynn's "I'm in a gang of one" routine.
- Jay has a great silent scene in "Creepy Peeping Videos" arguing with the guests at a tea party, and we get what I think is our first glimpse of Brett Paesel, absently spitting into a bowl of cake mix.