David Cross and Bob Odenkirk are fixtures of modern media nowadays. While Bob Odenkirk headlines his own Breaking Bad spinoff series Better Call Saul as shyster lawyer Saul Goodman, David Cross is splitting his time between directorial efforts, voice-acting gigs, and film appearances. In the 1990s, however, they were just unknowns from the alternative-comedy circuit who lucked into their own sketch series on HBO. They called it Mr. Show with Bob and David.
The show spawned four seasons, 33 episodes and one mostly-forgotten feature film while launching the careers of budding comedy stars like Paul F. Tompkins, Sarah Silverman, and Jack Black. Some twenty years on from its 1995 premiere, Bob and David are reteaming for a new iteration of their sketch series, this time for Netflix and under the abbreviated title W/ Bob & David.
The initial news of this revival excited me, and before long I was on a YouTube binge, watching every old Mr. Show sketch available online and giggling like a little girl. I remember discovering the series in high school and feeling vindicated to witness a group of people creating the sort of unexpected, anarchic comedy I loved. Are all sketch shows this funny? I wondered in my naivety.
Unfortunately, they are not. Take Comedy Central’s much-loved sketch show Key & Peele, now nearing the end of its fifth and final season . Their sketches are regularly built upon pop culture references twisted into a new satirical iteration that exposes something ridiculous about them. One recent sketch, for example, parodies the rebooted Cosmos series and host Neil deGrasse Tyson’s delivery style by placing it into the context of a troubled home life.
The sketch is funny. But it’s a joke that doesn’t really go anywhere or do anything unexpected once the premise has been established in the first minute or so. This is what separates a good sketch show like Key & Peele from a great one like Mr. Show, wherein the writers and actors are constantly tweaking ideas and concepts to become something new. In a Mr. Show sketch, anything can happen, and there is no foregone conclusion. While many sketches become progressively less funny with each rewatch, I often find Mr. Show sketches improving with time, as the unexpected left turns they take become more inexplicable, and more hilarious, the more you think about them.
Such unpredictability is helped along by one of the show’s most identifiable gimmicks — connecting one sketch to another. Rather than simply cutting from one sketch to the next, Mr. Show finds connective tissue between their sketches, often turning one sketch into a commercial within the world of a new sketch, or reviewing its events in a news segment that leads into the next sketch. Often, these bizarre transitions are the most hilarious parts of an episode. Thanks to HBO’s lack of commercial breaks, they work even better and help to create an episode that is more than the sum of its parts.
One of my favorite sketches, titled “Monster Parties: Fact or Fiction?” begins as a parody of unsolved mysteries-type television series, probing into the existence of monster parties made famous by songs like “Monster Mash.” A funny premise, but Bob and David don’t coast on the premise alone. At nine minutes long, the sketch is one of the series’ lengthiest, but it never overstays its welcome, because it consistently piles on new jokes and new directions to keep things fresh. Within those nine minutes, there is a kooky novelty song expert, ridiculously serious voice-over lines (“Do mysteries really exist? Some say maybe, but others aren’t so sure”), a professor skeptical for all the wrong reasons, a botched lie-detector test, and a songwriter struggling with PTSD from a monster party and a troubling secret.
Another one of my favorites, titled “The Audition,” shows an actor auditioning for two Hollywood producers using a monologue from a play called “The Audition.” “How apropo,” one producer quips, and in fact, the monologue is so appropriate and specific to the current situation, it’s impossible to tell when the monologue begins and ends. Cross, playing the actor, becomes more and more frustrated with the producers for interrupting.
The whole premise of this sketch is absurd in its specificity, and the final punchline is unexpected, simply for how far it takes the premise. I can never resist laughing in the final moments when Cross shouts “Noooo!” at the final interruption. “The Audition” isn’t funny for the left turns it takes from its concept, but simply for how absurdly far they stretch the concept (see also: “The Story of Everest”). In context, the ending (“You got the goods.”) is hilarious as a callback to an earlier sketch in the episode.
Mr. Show doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The series is undeniably indebted to many of its comedy forbears — most notably Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Like the Pythons across the pond, Bob, David, and the rest of their troupe pushed jokes further than they should logically go, and often obliterated their own sketches before they could conclude. They broke the rules of comedy to create a new sort of comedy, and their influence continues to this day. W/ Bob & David will premiere on Netflix on November 13, but you can get a sneak peek at one of the upcoming show’s new sketches below.