Hello, fellow third wheel legends!
Since I killed the electronic equivalent of a thousand trees last week in my introduction to our TV Club Classic coverage of Mr. Show With Bob And David, I'm going to try to keep the theorizing to a minimum this time and jump right into the content. But there are a couple of things I want to discuss before we finish off season 1 (yes, folks, there were only four episodes in Mr. Show's first season).
First, I found it quite interesting, though not entirely unexpected, that there was so much division in the comments over what constituted the best period of Mr. Show's run. There were some of you who thought it peaked in season 1 and never achieved those heights again; others felt that its strongest period was the middle (season 2 or, especially, season 3); and still more who felt that season 4, particularly the final episodes, are where it really hit its stride. I have my own opinion, of course, which will become clear over the course of these recaps, but I'm reminded here of the divide I find among critics — and, for that matter, my friends — over the Coen Brothers. Hardly anyone disagrees that they're among the best filmmakers alive, but ask ten people what their best and worst movies are, and you'll likely get ten different answers. I'm fascinated by this reaction, at how two people can love the same show but completely disagree on what's so great about it, and it'll be fun to see how this phenomenon plays out as we go along.
Second, I wanted to make reference again to that special Mr. Show quality, that drop of something extra that Bob & David added to their best stuff that elevated it beyond the norm of sketch comedy and elevated it to a level of genius that made this the greatest of American sketch comedy shows. It's hard to quantify (as is almost everything in humor), but I think there's two factors that could be isolated and identified as its main ingredients.
The first is commitment. Like the greatest comics (I've mentioned Andy Kaufman in this regard before, and I could mention others, going all the way back to Buster Keaton), Bob & David threw themselves into every sketch with all their power, and never let go. They were into their material. They not only never gave up the game, they didn't even let on that there was a game being played. The way they fully inhabited every sketch — physically, emotionally, in their character and their language and their movement — carried lots of bits that would have been merely average in other hands over the top.
The other is the ability to go one jump ahead, one step beyond, where most other comics would take a sketch. While there were elements of the genius of other great sketch shows in Bob & David's work — the formal absurdism of Monty Python's Flying Circus, the showbiz/pop culture parody of SCTV, the quirky character work of The Kids In The Hall — their particular gift lay elsewhere. As David Wolinsky astutely observed in his Better Late Than Never article on Mr. Show With Bob And David, many of their sketch ideas were pretty fucking stupid. They were not, as a rule, telling ten-percenter jokes. What they were doing was coming up with an idea, and then taking it to someplace entirely different, someplace that lesser comedians wouldn't dream of visiting. Instead of coming up with a sketch idea and then filming that sketch, the Mr. Show writers came up with a sketch, then came up with, for lack of a better way of expressing it, a sketch about that sketch, a bit that took the premise or the implications of the original idea and turned it inside out, with the result being something entirely more audacious.
We'll see a lot of that approach at work in these two episodes, which I believe are both hindered by a major flaw in each, but are also the first episodes where I think the show really became the legendary thing that it is today. Despite their flaws, these are the episodes, for me, where the Bob & David Genius Injection became standard procedure for each bit, instead of something they used only on special occasions.
EPISODE 3: "We Regret To Inform You"
What Worked: The third episode of Mr. Show, airing only two weeks after the premier, is a stratospheric leap from the previous two. With one exception, about which see below, there's nothing but good stuff here; every sketch clicks on its own and flows into the next one like clockwork. From the opening (with Bob's toothy performance as David's mystery pen pal and the jokey twist at the end abetted by Tom Kenny) to the ridiculously silly but funny "My Film Festival" ending, this episode just killed. As great as "What To Think" was, "We Regret To Inform You", with its daring formal qualities and jumps into risky absurdism (witness David's out-of-nowhere singing breaks during the "Honeymoon Couple" sketch), is the first episode that truly blew me away.
What Didn't: There's only one big hiccup in "What To Think", but it's a big one. "Borden Grote", the sketch where David plays an actor so committed to his craft that he has a partial lobotomy to prepare for a role as a mental patient, has some funny moments (most stemming from some winning physical gags from David), but it's a one-joke sketch that goes on far too long. It's also marred by a painful gimmick cameo from the thankfully forgotten Kato Kaelin. "Borden Grote" has the feel of — and, if I recall the story correctly, actually is — a sketch originating from the pre-Mr. Show days: it could easily have come from Saturday Night Live around the same time, which I don't mean as a compliment. Still, it's not nearly enough to sink an incredibly good episode.
The Cast: Bob Odenkirk's ability to channel ferocious anger into boffo laffs really starts to pay off here, starting from the opening; even when he's not yelling, he kinda sounds like he is ("Praying to God won't help! Your killer, Bob Odenkirk."). A pre-stardom Sarah Silverman, looking mighty fine in a copy of David's chiffon dress, does a good job of playing David in one of the clever subversions the show would soon specialize in, and while she doesn't have too much to do, it's great to see Mary Lynn Rajskub actually get some lines in "The Third Wheel". Jill Talley's dead-eyed "I love you, Jerry" in "The Honeymoon Couple" is another example of how she's this show's secret weapon.
The Crew: The material is so strong this time out that the excellent work of the crew sort of fades into the background, but "Supermodel Calling Service" has just the right late-night UHF infomercial look to it, and while it's a mystery what they must have thought of the whole proceedings, the gospel choir in "The Honeymoon Couple" does a terrific job. Whoever did Bob's makeup in "Screwballz" deserves a medal. They spent some time making the 'gay porno' warnings look good, which apparently ate up all the time they budgeted for making Sarah Silverman's delivery box* look like anything anyone would actually send in the mail. (Stacy Peralta does a good job directing "Borden Grote", but it's good work in a losing effort.)
*: Note: not sexual innuendo.
Timely Comics: Two words: Kato Kaelin. Aside from that, topical issues don't do any harm to this episode; "Screwballz" parodies dating shows that are long off the air, but the execution rises nicely above the premise.
Pet Theories: No shorts for David in the intro, but he's wearing a pretty, pretty blue chiffon dress, which apparently is almost as good. Jill Talley almost breaks after David delivers his crazed, bed-jumping finale to the Third Wheel song, and who can blame her? Also, especially in the early episodes, you can spot a lot of alt-comedy celebrities in the audience: this time out, look for Margaret Cho in the background of "The Third Wheel". Finally, everyone seems to have lines from their favorite comedy that get bandied around their households with never-ending regularity; for me, David's "Thousands? Clock?", from "Supermodel Calling Service", is one of the most durable.
Deep Thoughts: While Mr. Show's comedy isn't especially intellectual (though it's certainly not dumb), it does depend on the audience being smart enough — and patient enough — to trust the performers to deliver on a gag. That's a big leap of faith, but it's one a show this willing to push the envelope needs to make, and that's evident here in the "Unauthorized Biography Of Mr. Show" opener. The show trusts that the audience is willing to hang in long enough to know that cutting from Bob writing a letter to David sitting there, saying and doing nothing, is going to have a big comic payoff. And it works: the shot gets a huge laugh from the crowd. (It probably doesn't hurt that David is wearing a dress.) This episode is where that trust is really placed in the audience's hands in a big way, and it will prove worthwhile time and again.
- "Dear David Cross: Obviously, you don't take me very seriously. Have I offended you? You big fairy. Now have I offended you? Let me know! Bob Odenkirk."
- "Hey, homo! How about a kiss?"
- "Men can kiss. Men can get married! I mean, they even have a pill now that lets men make love to each other."
- "Warning: please disregard the previous warning. The following gay porno film has been re-altered to make it even more gay than it was. In fact, now, it may be too gay for some gay people."
- "Legend, the legend, the third wheel legend/Always in the way"
- "Sounds like it didn't work out, but you had sex, and we enjoyed hearing about it."
- "Well, you know what belongs in a trash can? YOUR SHOW! And you know why? IT STINKS! And you know what else? GET OUT OF MY HOUSE!"
- "But I don't wanna have sex with you."
- I wonder how close Mel Brooks was to actually making Badman Whatever?
- This was the first appearance of Fancy-Pants, as played by Bob's brother Bill, who can get more laughs than most people without saying a word.
EPISODE 4: "Who Let You In?"
What Worked: "Who Let You In?" is really two episodes: one consisting of top-flight sketches infused with typical Mr. Show genius, and the other consisting of linking materials based on a topical premise that didn't work that well to begin with and holds up even less now. See below for more on the latter, but the former includes the introduction of I.D.S. (Imminent Death Syndrome), the disease that puts us all in an awkward position; the first appearance of Droopy; and the hilarious "Spank" performance art sketch, which leads into "The Founding Fathers", one of the most amazing bits in the show's history and one which never fails to crack me up no matter how many times I see it.
What Didn't: For those of you too young to remember the events of 1995, it's impossible to appreciate how the O.J. Simpson murder trial, one of the sorriest events in American history, managed not only to suck on its own, but to infect everything in the culture with its suckiness. Usually, the thematic framing devices used by Mr. Show With Bob And David are among the strong points of any given episode, but here, the O.J. riff — in the form of the Pope committing a murder and re-creating a number of infamous moments from the subsequent chase, arrest and trial — just don't hold up very well. They do lead to some great moments (like David as the nervous Pope expert Tim McCracken), but generally, they don't hold the show together. Other than that, and the fact that "Larry Learns Guitar", for all its strengths, goes on a bit too long, it's a strong episode.
The Cast: Everyone is in peak form in this one, even when they're not especially well-used. David nails the shrill, obnoxious tone of political performance artists in "Spank"; Bob brings the house down as Thomas Jefferson in "Founding Fathers" and presents one of the best portrayals ever of an self-satisfied moron as Droopy in "The Museum of History"; Jill Talley and her husband Tom Kenny are swell together in "A Pope Expert Speaks"; and Kenny gets a chance to really shine in a number of other sketches, including as fawning hesher Blackie in "Larry Learns Guitar" and an improbably Brooklyn-based Abraham Lincoln in "Founding Fathers".
The Crew: There's some great location shooting in this one, including the transition from "Spank" to "Courtroom Experts". The costumers and set designers get to go to town, too, especially in "A Pope Expert Speaks" and "Founding Fathers". Bob Odenkirk looks wonderful as Nils in "Larry Learns Guitar" — there's some dufus in every town giving cut-rate guitar lessons who looks exactly like that, right down to the faded Metallica Pushead t-shirt. Mr. Show's ability to make a dollar out of fifteen cents — to take the limitations of its budget and turn them into strengths — was really starting to become clear at this point.
Timely Comics: Some of the timely elements really make "Who Let You In?" drag, most especially the O.J. parody. But other topical stuff holds up better than expected, especially "Spank"; that sketch — which works so well because it focuses on the banal realities instead of the grandiose intentions of performance art — holds up extremely well today. In fact, there's probably a lot more folks like Spank around now, in the post-9/11-Iraq War period, than there were then.
Pet Theories: David is in gray checked shorts. It's not cargo shorts, but it's something. It's a little unnerving how much Brian Posehn resembles a slightly jollier Pope Benedict; could Mr. Show see the future? Best break of the episode: Tom Kenny almost cracks himself up when he delivers the "Put your poo-box away!" line. I think, judging from the way they played it out, that the cast really had a good time doing "Founding Fathers", and they all seem to be about an eyelash away from breaking. Also, by request: the end credits to each show often contain a surprising name in the "SPECIAL THANKS TO" section. In episode 1, it was former DJ/"Disco Duck" auteur Rick Dees; in episode 2, it was Italian porn star/MP Cicciolina; in episode 3, it was former Atlanta Braves ace Greg Maddux; and this time out, it was Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, protagonist of Dostoyevsky's Crime And Punishment.
Deep Thoughts: While I think it resembles a conventional sketch show more than it does an episode of Mr. Show, largely because I don't think the framing device works all that well, it's still pretty damn strong, and by no means a bad way to end the first season. When the show returned, it had really learned to make its links work for it, and we'd rarely see that kind of misstep again.
- "Tim, that doesn't work for us, for a plethora of reasons that I can't go into right now."
- "I thought I was good. Then I met you, dude. Then I met you."
- "Maybe you got it off a toilet seat!"
- People who struggle with Imminent Death Syndrome: Juliette Lewis, Leroy Neiman, Christo, Jerry Lewis, Anne Rice, Clarence Thomas, Stephen Hawking, Quentin Tarantino (the actor, not the director), Hootie (and two of the Blowfish), Tom Wilson, Bil Keane.
- "A recent poll indicates that 85% of the public believes the Pope didn't do it, even if he did."
- Jack Black's problem with hats on this show continues, as he loses his toque off the back of the Expert Truck.
- "Gentlemen! What a collection of assholes!"
- "No, you can't bring a class of students down here. This a museum, not a babysitting place."
- Apologies if this entry has more typos than usual. I have a huge bandage on my right index finger and it makes using my laptop an exciting adventure in gibberish.
- Next week: season 2 of Mr. Show With Bob And David. It took them a year to get there, but it'll only take us seven days!