Hello, fellow Globo-Chem employees, fans, and class action lawsuit participants!
Yes, TV Club Classic is finally going to tackle Mr. Show With Bob And David, the HBO sketch comedy show that ran from 1995 to 1998, and I'm both thrilled and terrified to be your host for the recaps. I'm thrilled because Mr. Show is, quite simply, one of the greatest pieces of television ever assembled, and a show easily worthy of being considered among the best comedy programs of all time; as one of the lucky few who actually watched it when it originally aired, I've been under its spell for over a decade, and despite its deep and wide influence on modern comedy, it's lost almost none of its brilliance, and I'm incredibly excited to watch it again, this time in the company of what it lacked at the time — a legion of fans who love it as much as I do. But I'm terrified for many of the same reasons. Mr. Show is beyond beloved by not only thousands of our readers, but by almost everyone on the A.V. Club staff. Anyone who's a regular on our site knows that we follow the careers of Bob Odenkirk and David Cross with keen attention; anyone who's read our books knows the esteem in which we hold Mr. Show, and what a formative influence it is on our outlook, our sensibilities, and our sense of humor. I feel like I have to do my job as a critic while simultaneously handling something I, and many of my peers, look at as something like divine artifacts.
But sketch comedy, by its very nature, is imperfect and inconsistent, even on a show like this one, which came tantalizingly close to perfection on a scarily regular basis. So I'll be discussing the moments that didn't work for me along with the (far more numerous) ones that did, and mapping the progress of Mr. Show from its halting beginnings to its all-too-abrupt end. Because sketch shows, even next-level ones like this, are a different animal than TV drama or situation comedy, I won't be reviewing it in the same format as I would most shows. Even though Bob & David and their writers did an amazing job of incorporating formal elements and coherent structures — usually by way of the most effective links seen in the medium since the golden era of Monty Python's Flying Circus — it wasn't a show with plots, character development, story arcs, or recurring features. So I'll frame my reviews not as recaps or essays, but by how each installment worked in a categorical sense; this should give us some interesting jumping-off points for discussion without turning into just a quote-fest. (Not that I'm not looking forward to the quote-fests.)
Additionally, I'm going to largely avoid inside-baseball talk, and unless there's an appealing reason to incorporate it into my discussions, I'm going to leave out stories about the making of the show, the history of the production of the series, or the origins of particular bits. These are all available on the excellent DVD commentaries for anyone who cares to hear them, or in the book Mr. Show: What Happened?, by Bob Odenkirk's wife Naomi, which I highly recommend to everyone. I'm going to assume that you either know this stuff already or you know how to get it if you want it, so by avoiding it, I'll be saving space I'll hopefully for more original observations and digression. (Feel free to talk about all this stuff in comments, however. I don't want to discourage any discussion about the behind-the scenes world of Mr. Show, especially since it's more interesting than that of most shows; I just don't think it should come from me.)
This first entry is going to be quite a bit longer (feels like you've been reading forever already, doesn't it?) than usual, because it's here I want to talk about the specific and unique things that I love about Mr. Show, and lay down the ground rules that I'll follow for the rest of the summer. One reason I've decided to follow this categorical recap is that you can't really write about a sketch show the way you would other programs; as my colleague David Sims astutely put it in his first Seinfeld recap, how do you keep your review from just being a list of what was funny? That's even more of a risk with sketch shows, which lack even the wispy plots of a show about nothing. It's interesting to me that, as much as we idolize sketch comedy stars, they sometimes struggle to make a career for themselves in any other field. They come to prominence in the most ruthless of settings, where lots of skills valued in other kinds of television — character acting, plot and structure, consistency and continuity, and even normal conceptions of pacing — are thrown overboard. The only thing that matters is: how much can you make people laugh? How much humor can you wring out of a gag or a character or a situation? It's actually a brutal kind of entertainment, with nothing at all to hide behind. A million things have to go right; your writers and actors have to be exceptionally skilled and perfectly in tune with your vision; you need to be topical, but timeless; and your sense of timing has to be exquisite — a sketch that's too short squanders its potential, and a sketch that's too long bores the audience and has them reaching for their remote.
So what I'd like to look at, in a way that's analytical but hopefully not too boring (TOO LATE!, I hear you cry), are several factors that I think made Mr. Show With Bob And David so memorable in a genre that has scuttled countless careers. For each episode, I'll provide a general overview of what I think worked and why, and what didn't; but I'll also examine the cast — in particular, Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, who brought an intensity and commitment to sketch acting that was almost unheard of before the show debuted. I'll look at the direction, design, and technical aspects of the show, which often turned out amazing despite the low budget they were given to work with. I'll look at the way the show was able to address timely issues while usually avoiding stuff that would be quickly dated, by focusing on showbiz verities that continue to resonate. And, of course, I'll float my own pet theories and deep thoughts about each episode, and I invite you to do the same.
I'll be covering two episodes a week, every Monday, starting today and running into early September. This will take us through the entire 30-episode run of the series, and I hope you'll all join me in reliving the abbreviated lifespan of the best sketch show in American television history. I owe this show a lot, so let's get going!
EPISODE 1: "The Cry Of A Hungry Baby"
What Worked: This was the first episode of Mr. Show With Bob And David, and although I feel it's one of the weaker of the series, it was still obvious from the very beginning that something special was going on. After all, this one starts out with Ronnie Dobbs, America's favorite drunken criminal trash, and begins to flesh out the closest thing the show would have to a breakaway character. While they're throwaway bits, David's "Hitler Sings" and Bob's attempt to name the states are fine introductions to their style and their personal interplay. Bob nails his unctuous, breezy show-biz persona right off the bat, and David likewise projects his overly emotional, edgy hipster vibe as early as the opening bit. The joke about waiting for the minute hand to come around in the "Name The States" bit has that little something else, that extra drop of genius that will characterize their best stuff going forward.
What Didn't: As has been mentioned innumerable times, HBO — not yet fully transformed into the source of the best-quality shows on television, not yet the home of The Wire, Deadwood and The Sopranos — didn't quite know what to do with their new 'alternative comedy show'. They weren't confident it would draw any kind of an audience, and so they spent as little money on it as possible (David Cross famously complained that everyone assumed, since he had his own television show, he must be doing well financially, but in fact he was hustling for meals and dodging creditors during its whole run). They also banished it to unsavory time slots and, when they promoted it at all, did so in an extremely half-assed way. And in "The Cry Of A Hungry Baby" especially, it shows. The sets — as memorably illuminated by an improvised-sounding rant by David — are cheap beyond belief for a network that would soon be known for its sumptuous location filming. If you saw a convenience store as run-down and poorly stocked as the one in "Change For A Dollar", you'd assume it was a front for a drug ring.
Beyond that, some of the sketches just don't seem like they belong, if not in the show that this was, at least in the show it would become. The "You've Changed", "Father Jim, Progressive Priest", and "Change For A Dollar" sketches have their moments, but they're more or less standard sketch-comedy fare, with premises and execution that could be seen on a dozen other shows with none of the pearls of brilliance Mr. Show would inject into all of its best stuff. And between the three of them, they constitute the bulk of the show, and have the overlong, don't-know-when-to-quit quality of writers who haven't quite found their voice.
The Cast: One of the hallmarks of Mr. Show was established early on: its cast — particularly Bob and David themselves — weren't satisfied with just being funny. They were determined to be good actors within the confines of sketch comedy, and that drive resulted in some outstanding performances that helped the show stand out from almost every other sketch comedy show. You can see this from the very first frame of the show, when we meet David as Ronnie Dobbs: his dress, his body language, even the patterns of his speech ("The killer what took me is entitilitus") are those of somebody who's ready to commit to a character, even one that might just appear in a throwaway joke. Jill Talley is one of this show's secret weapons, and she nails the banal housewife schtick in "Father Jim" to the wall, only to turn around and give one of the most paralyzingly funny 15-second cameos ever in "Change For A Dollar".
The Crew: At times, the people behind the camera could do just as fine a job as the ones in front of it, even given their limited resources. Director Troy Miller, who did the location work, hasn't exactly set the filmmaking world on fire since the cancellation of Mr. Show, but he and John Moffitt make a great team here. (The 'movie version' of the life of Ronnie Dobbs is great, from the random tumbleweed crossing the screen to the stripped-down impresario and hillbilly costumes worn by Tom Kenny and John Ennis.) One thing I loved about this show from the beginning is its almost Japanese ability to combine the adorable with the disturbing, and the opening sequence — only seconds long, but impossible to forget — shows how it's done, with Mark Rivers' impossibly catchy, impossibly creepy theme song and the show's bizarre logo (created by skateboard legend/filmmaker Stacy Peralta), a masterpiece of grungy design. Too often in this episode, the low budget shows through (Ronnie Dobbs' 'mansion' is less flashy-looking than my house), but they also take as much care as they can afford with the costumes: Ronnie looks just perfect in his 'Hollywood phony' phase, with a gold velour tracksuit and his perfectly coiffed hair in a pouffy L.A. pony-tail.
Timely Comics: It's often claimed that one of the strengths of Mr. Show is that, by avoiding contemporary issues, it managed to avoid being quickly dated, and remained relevant even as it aged. That's not entirely true, though. Even from the start, the show had topical elements; it's just that it usually approached them in a fresh enough way, and framed them using tried-and-true techniques to keep them from spoiling. Its framing devices and links were a sophisticated progression of the ones pioneered by the Monty Python troupe; its obsessive love-hate relationship with popular culture in general and television in particular are extensions of the attitude of Mr. Show's spiritual forerunner, SCTV. So the Forrest Gump joke still works, because it doesn't goof so much on the movie as it does how people reacted to it. Likewise, by focusing on the characters rather than the premise, "Natural Born Drunk" transcends the easy and forgettable Cops parody it could have been and becomes the best sketch of the episode.
Pet Theories: I developed a theory, early on during the series' original run, that if David Cross was wearing shorts during the initial Bob-and-David-meet-the-audience bit, it would be a better show than if he was wearing something else. Also, I've always loved those moments in television where one of the actors manages to crack up another, and the second actor struggles to keep from breaking; one of my very favorite examples of this is in "Change For A Dollar", where Bob's absurd dance almost kills poor David. The fact that they left this in a filmed sequence, to me, shows that they trusted their audience enough to go along for the ride in these absurd moments. Either that or they just couldn't afford to re-film the bit.
Deep Thoughts: Although there wasn't quite enough to "The Cry Of A Hungry Baby" to fully suggest the mind-blowing brilliance that was to come, there were enough seeds being sown to make even jaded viewers think Mr. Show might be capable of some next-level shit. One of my favorite gags, long established in the humor world but beloved enough by the show's writers that I think of it as a Mr. Show hallmark, is the use of titles, phrases, acronyms, or other official language that's needlessly overcomplicated and unwieldy, and you get a dose of it right off the bat, as Ronnie Dobbs urges you to take part in the "Annual Talk Backwards For One Day To Raise Awareness About Entitilitus Day" activities. And the way that "Natural Born Drunk" develops, with the willingness to skip over dead time in the sketch ("a scene the network deemed not funny enough for you") and Bob's overblown acting leading into David's unexpected break and rant, is hard evidence that this was a show that was about to become very, very good indeed.
- "If I stumble upon a me at the door, will I open it wide/or close it and look through the peephole?"
- "Illinois, Indiana, Winkitin, Tussini, Chim Cham!"
- "I think that Gump is a role model for teens, and sweetly retarded people — and society as a whole."
-"If somebody throws a rock at my head, I pretend that the bruise is a faded tattoo, and that I was once a sailor and ran a sweatshop in Singapore. I'm not too proud of that time in my imaginary life."
- "Why'ncha take a pitcher! It will last longer, jagoff!" (This is, by the way, the absolute best imitation of the South Side Chicago accent I've ever heard.)
- The challenging look that David gives Bob in "Change For A Dollar" after he admits he went the wrong way is a fantastic little bit of comic acting.
- "Man's best friend is a dog and this is my dog and I made my best friend a sweater!"
- "A lot of people think a lot of things about Hawaii."
- In another nice acting choice, even Ronnie Dobbs' white trash accent starts to fade when he starts living the good life.
- Note: the rating you see at the top of the page is an average of my rating for each individual episode. More weight should be given to the individual episode ratings.
EPISODE 2: "What To Think"
What Worked: "The Cry Of A Hungry Baby" was largely assembled solely by Bob and David, working mostly with material they'd developed before. By the time "What To Think" went into production, they'd come up with new material, begun to assemble a writing staff of like-minded comedians, and most importantly, rethought what they wanted the show to be. It's the first episode to feature a unifying thematic element — in this case, the notion of censorship and how it relates to government funding of the arts, religious pressure groups, and corporate ad campaigns. These were never ideas that were pushed in a heavy-handed way, but they provided the structure and framework that elevated Mr. Show from a typical sketch comedy program to something altogether different. They helped the writers become expert at linking the sketches together, they provided endings for bits that might otherwise be lacking, and they made the show seem much more cohesive and total. Beyond that, the show is just gunning like mad by this point: every sketch clicks, with almost no dead time, and even weaker concepts are carried forward by terrific performances. "Overcome", "Pit-Pat", and the transcendental "The Joke: The Musical", are all fantastic, and even relatively cheap throwaway gags like "Voiceover King" and "Marshall, The 13th Apostle" are saved by, respectively, great writing and an amazing piece of acting.
What Didn't: Not much. This is the first episode that's firing on all cylinders, and there's almost nothing that you could lose without harming the show as a whole. The sets are still pretty cheap, and there are moments where the cast's timing seems a little off or the live bits have technical problems, but overall, the sheer quality of the writing and acting bowl over any objections.
The Cast: Though Bob would later emerge as a comedic force of nature, the best acting in this episode is all David Cross. His fear during the shock-collar bit is palpable, his performance as Burton Quim in "Overcome" is tremendous, and most importantly, he's the saving grace of "Marshall, the 13th Apostle". It's a bit of an obvious gag, and without David's mastery of the cadences of infomercial hucksters and utter commitment to the role — a quality that has always been able to save a comic conceit — it probably would have died on screen. As it stands, he sells the skit's best lines with a conviction that rescues the whole idea. Just the way his says "Jesus" is enough to keep it afloat.
The Crew: "The Joke: The Musical" is one of the greatest bits of musical comedy I've ever seen on television, and that drop of Mr. Show magic I refer to so often — that utter, Kaufmanesque commitment to the idea combined with an audacious extra bit of craziness that carries sketches over and above where less gifted comics would be able to take it — is fiercely at work here. It's an idea that teeters on that razor-thin border between ridiculous and brilliant, and it takes the whole cast and crew to make it work as well as it does. The costume design, the songwriting, the singing and dancing (Meleva Barbula is a wonder), and even the stage management all work together to make it one of the best sketches of the series. There's also lots of other nice touches throughout the episode, like the lights flickering on and off while David is wearing his shock collar, and the brief appearance of a perfectly made up Janeane Garofalo as David's wife in the "Overcome" sketch.
Timely Comics: Hey, remember when the appearance of Jack Black signalled that something exciting and funny was about to happen? Hard to believe, I know, but the minute he appears in "The Joke: The Musical", you know that it's moved from funny meta-gag to something surreally wonderful. The styles and language of televangelists never seems to change; those guys have the same haircuts they had in 1957, so there's no risk of those bits coming off as dated. The John Tesh joke in "Voiceover King" seems a little hokey now, though.
Pet Theories: David's wearing his cargo shorts again! That means (a) it's laundry day and (b) good things are ahead for this episode. I don't have any proof of this, but judging from his Georgia childhood, I'm betting that the character of Ole Swerdlow is based on some of the horseshit folk-art festivals we were all forced to attend as kids to soak up some kind of local color that would have been better left to die. Mary Lynn Rajskub (who was dating Cross at the time) does the intro again, and while she'd have larger parts starting with the next episode, I was always sorry the show never really found a way to showcase her talents; her mid-'90s standup act was a thing of beauty. Finally, am I the only one who ponied up for a Globo-Chem bowling shirt? I wore that thing out until it was as thin as a onionskin.
Deep Thoughts: This is the first episode of Mr. Show With Bob And David that delivers on the show's astounding promise, the first one that establishes that Odenkirk and Cross intend to play the game for very high stakes and come out ahead. It's not just noticeable to us watching at home — "What To Think" also seems to be the episode where the creators realize their power and potential, where they wake up to the fact that if they try to do the most daring and innovative things they can think of, they might just get away with it. Those drops of brilliance had been rationed out stingily up to this point; starting with the next episode, they'd begin to douse everything they did in it.
- "Tommy, look at me! Tommy, over here!"
- "Peanuts and Cracker Jack, Jesus Bob it hurts."
- Bob's performance as the hated milk machine is one of the most insane, absurd,
hilarious things I've ever seen; I've seen it at least a dozen times now and I crack up every time he tugs at his shirt and makes that sour face. That side, what the hell accent was he trying to do as Senator Howell Tankerbell?
- Bob also takes his F.F. "Woody" Cooks mustache out for a trial spin in the outstandingly realized 1984 flashback in "Overcome".
- "Burton will tell us about his most recent lapse, and the lapse he has planned for August, which should take him to Rio De Janeiro!"
- "Jesus, what if I told you that the meek could inherit something a whole lot better than the Earth?"
- "Mr. Pickles' Fun-Time Abortion Clinic. We'll bring out the kid in you!"
- "My great-great-great-grandfather started this company with one single rickety, leaky, hand-crafted slave ship and a simple motto: 'People selling people to people'. So don't tell me that I'm fat!"
- "Goddamn it. Shit. Fuck Ass! Shit! Mother! Cock! Fucky-fuck-fuck!" What an entrance for Jay Johnston!
- Thanks, all, for coming along — I know this show is as big a deal for you as it is for me, and I hope reading these recaps will be as much fun for you as writing them is for me. The next one will be shorter, I promise!