Hello, fellow old ladies, bikers, gay guys, and Japanese men!
As we continue our TV Club Classic coverage of Mr. Show With Bob And David, we'll be closing out season 2 of the beloved (well, mostly) sketch comedy program with a look at two imperfect episodes that are nonetheless favorites of mine. Each has flaws, and they actually take almost diametrically opposed thematic approaches, but I think they end up working more often than not.
One of the great debates amongst comedy nerds is the place of emotional depth and feeling in comedy. According to one school of thought, comedy is the most effective when it accesses real, serious emotion in the viewer; according to the other, you can tell that shit to your therapist, because great comedy's only function is to be funny. Although I'm not unsympathetic to the former viewpoint (I've often argued that a lot of critics ignore the emotionally powerful moments that great comic novelists produce because they're too distracted by base jokes cluttering up their precious literature), I'm still mostly in the latter school. Some fans of The Simpsons believe the show's decline began in earnest because it lost track of the characterization and sincere family drama that was at the heart of the show; others think its decline began simply because the quality of the writing staff — and thus the quality of the gags — started to drop off. Some fans of Futurama claim that the show's greatest moments are those where the jokes are in service of a deeply affecting story, like "The Luck Of The Fryish" or "Jurassic Bark"; others say that's just maudlin, mawkish nonsense that gets in the way of ambitious absurdity like "The Farnsworth Parabox" or "Time Keeps On Slipping".
I make no secret of the fact that I'm with the second set in each case. But this week's tandem of Mr. Show episodes presents us, first, with "Operation Hell on Earth", a show that tugs unapologetically — if bizarrely — on our heartstrings, and second, with "The Velveteen Touch of a Dandy Fop", a show that goes for pure abstract craziness. And I love them both. Why? Let's find out.
EPISODE 5: "Operation Hell On Earth"
What Worked: For an episode built around a relatively small number of sketches — and whose centerpiece is a film parody that risked being dated even when it was being written — "Operation Hell On Earth" works pretty well for me. The theme succeeds far better than I expected it to, and the transitions are pretty excellent; it's also got some amazingly quotable lines and standout performances, as we'll see. "Anchor Family Divorce" is a shambolic sketch that somehow holds together; "Recruiters" aimed high and improbably succeeded; and the title sketch is one of my favorites from the whole series.
What Didn't: Although, as I'll get into later, the theme itself holds up well in terms of tone, it's not all that effective as a framing device. The episode totters along a bit shakily, never having the seamless cohesion that the best episodes of Mr. Show possess, and certain aspects of "Blame-A-Thon" and "Deprived Youth" are a little sluggish. Very little of the episode features the staff's best-written material; what's surprising, though, is how the emotional component keeps it moving.
The Cast: Presented with a chance to really pull out the stops and deliver some (almost excessive) actor-y moments, Bob and David come out like champs here. Bob Odenkirk's unaccountably Hindu white supremacist in the title sketch is wonderful, and both there and in "Fartin' Gary", David Cross proves adept at illustrating a character that lets himself get way too wrapped up in his private passions. Both of them are also dynamite in "Recruiters", and while all the regulars are great, this is the first time we really get to see some good work from Wayne Wilderson and the cruelly underused Jerry Minor. This one's full of cameos, too, from the obvious gag casting of Julia Sweeney and Dave Foley in "Second Wind" to the first appearance of Patton Oswalt as Famous Mortimer.
The Crew: The crew largely stays in the background here, albeit doing a fine job. The costuming is pretty fine this time around, but the real place where the non-actors shine is in "Recruiters", where much of the joke is a function of how well it manages to capture a rough documentary feel; in that regard, Tom Gianas really delivers (though it's a bit of a surprise to learn that it wasn't done by their usual master of location filming, Troy Miller).
Timely Comics: If it weren't for the top-notch acting and unexpectedly emotional turn that "Recruiters" takes, it might have put it in danger of being a bit dated. It's essentially a broad parody of Hoop Dreams, which was a highly celebrated documentary in the mid-'90s but which isn't as culturally current now. 1996 ahoy: Tom Kenny vows to get a "web page site going" after the great race war.
Pet Theories: David is in cargo shorts and a thrift-score Fonzie "Aaaaay!" t-shirt; how is this not going to be a good episode? My usual dislike of stunt casting is overcome because the appearance of Sweeney and Foley in "Second Wind" is obviously meant to be stunt casting. "Recruiters" has one of my favorite breaking-character moments: when Bob starts to regress back to toddlerhood after a series of setbacks, David clearly cracks up at his behavior, but rebounds and almost simultaneously makes it seem like it's part of the act. FAKE SPECIAL THANKS: Jackie Chan, celebrated Asian jack-in-the-box.
Deep Thoughts: There's a lot of emotional heart in this episode, something I usually reject out of hand as well-meaning but a distraction to the whole point of comedy. David's emotionally over-invested white supremacist and Bob's devoted follower; the crestfallen Anchor Family; Bob's recruiter, crushed by the bum deal life has handed him — all of these could end up asking for unearned empathy, if it wasn't for the fact that instead of replacing the joke with emotional crescendos, or even blending the two together, the sketches actually manage to turn the emotional needs of the characters into the joke. I mean, we're talking about a show that actually makes you feel sorry for a guy named "Fartin' Gary". That's a pretty neat trick, and manages to elevate one of season 2's weaker episodes to a higher plane.
- There has been a lot of loose talk around here about how hot Jill Talley is. I don't cotton to that sort of thing, because (a) nothing is sadder than a bunch of internet nerds discussing the physical attractiveness of someone they'll never meet, and (b) she's a married woman, for God's sake. However, if I was the kind of contemptible scumbag who engaged in that kind of discussion, I would ask people to take special note of her tough South Side accent and pink tutu as Grown-Up Superstar.
- "Soon, soon, you're a balloon!" Even with a Punjabi accent, Bob yelling is always funny.
- David was apparently born sometime around 1922, and his friendship with David was forged by their fathers' mutual affinity for handlebar mustaches.
- Boy, who hasn't been thrown to the floor by their mother as she screams "Suck my dick!" and then trod on by their father as they lay there helplessly? That's relatable comedy, folks.
- "That's why I'm like this. 'Cause I was deprived shitless!"
- Who delivered the best "My father touched my butthole" line — Bob's confident Abe Lincoln, Paul F. Tompkins' chummy Isaac Newton, or Dino Stamatopoulos' giggly Albert Einstein?
- "I'm with Indiana Basin Silt College. We have two buildings. And we play outdoors. But we mean well."
- "See that? That's because you were a ball hog. You're a point guard! You're supposed to distribute! Sitting around, eating chocolate. Getting fat. Conditioning!"
- "We're fuckin' lucky to have this next act, because he's good. He just finished up a 40-week tour opening for Ray fucking Stevens."
- "You tap, stage motherfuckers!" Like Bob yelling, Jill cursing in front of children is always good for a laugh.
EPISODE 6: "The Velveteen Touch Of A Dandy Fop"
What Worked: Mr. Show hadn't delivered on a six-issue season before, but this episode was proof they could not only do it, but they could do it with strength. Starting with "Dr. Sammy", this episode just piles one great bit on top of another, delivering the strongest episode of the show so far — and considering that season 2 is my favorite, that means it's acing some amazing competition. "Dr. Sammy", the return of Droopy and the introduction of Dylan as the oddest of odd couples, "Dickie Crickets", and the masterpiece that is "Coupon: The Movie" all add up to a spectacular end to the season.
What Didn't: The episode starts out a bit slow; "Good Deeds for Charity" and the "Helping the Non-Handicapped" lead-in, as well as the subway scene that segues into "Dr. Sammy", all have their moments, but they're a bit flat and don't really seem to know where they're going. Considering that they precede one of the most solid collections of scenes the show ever did, though, that seems like quibbling.
The Cast: Though everyone gets a little bit of love here (even Tool's Maynard James Keenan gets off a good line in the vox pop segment of "Coupon: The Movie"), this episode belongs entirely to Bob and David. They're great as the dueling doctors, they give "Dickie Crickets" a lot of heart as well as big dollops of absurdity, and the way they play off one another in as Droopy and Dylan (a character mostly based on the way David admits he comes across to people when they first meet him) is really something to behold. It's evidence, though none is really needed, that while they assembled a top-notch cast and brought in some excellent writers, the show still belonged to them in more ways than just having their names in the title.
The Crew: This episode, it's all about "Coupon: The Movie". It's nothing short of astounding the way it captures the look, the feel, the tone, the language, even the visual design of shitty blockbuster movies — something which has barely changed since the mid-'90s, aside from the addition of garish and expensive CGI. And for that, a huge amount of credit is doe to the always-reliable Troy Miller, with boosts from editor Steve Welch and cinematographer Victor Nelli. Paula Elins does another terrific job with costuming, and I'm a bit ashamed of having never mentioned her name before now.
Timely Comics: This episode hardly suffers at all from seeming dated; as noted, big-budget marketing has changed precious little, so the central gag of "Coupon: The Movie" still works pretty well. "Dickie Crickets" was largely meant as a goof on the Ken Burns school of documentary filmmaking (a theme Bob & David would revisit later), but it also works quite handily as a prod at the ever-fragmenting music scene and the way hipsters continually unearth long-forgotten subgenres to champion.
Pet Theories: David's in cargo shorts, which means quality comedy, but he also makes me feel intense jealousy thanks to his Raymond Pettibon long-sleeve tee. I covet it still. Bob's running for entitilitus, in one of the show's few call-backs. FAKE SPECIAL THANKS: Clay Loudermilk, protagonist of Dan Clowes' brilliant, disturbing Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron.
Deep Thoughts: In marked contrast to the previous episode, "The Velveteen Touch of a Dandy Fop" (possibly my favorite episode title, as well as one of my favorite episodes) jettisons any and all attempt at emotional connection, either extraneous to or as part of a joke, and goes straight for non-stop absurdist nonsense with a sharp parodic edge. Luckily, that's what this show is best at, and it crams so much of it into such a short running time that its latter half could be Exhibit A in why Mr. Show was so great. I'm always hesitant, taste being taste, to say anything on the lines of "If you don't like this episode, you won't like the show at all", but if bits like Droopy and Dylan, Dickie Crickets, and the "Coupon" vox pop don't win you over, I don't know what else I'd show you to convince you to stick around.
- "David, it's not the same thing. Those are your illegitimate children. You have to support them."
- "Paying models to wear paper clothes and have pillow fights is not charity work."
- "Bob? I don't spend my day fuckin' around on a television show. I have a company to run."
- "Oh, brilliant retort, a-hole." Between the bizarre mannerisms and the terrible wigs, Dr. Sammy and Dr. Randy Terry are almost as fun to watch as Droopy and Dylan.
- "I don't even own a television. Notice I didn't say 'TV'. Because TV is a nickname, and nicknames are for friends, and television is no friend of mine."
- "Is it a DAT player?"
- "Electric sports bra, electric sports bra/baby lights up when she…sorry, sorry."
- "I saw the shit out of it!"
- "I'm wetter than I've ever been! And I'm from Canada!"
- We're a third of the way home, gang! I hope you'll be here next week for the kickoff of Season 3, the first 10-episode season of Mr. Show With Bob And David. You'll totally believe in dragons!