“Hey, everybody! It’s Bob and David!”
Netflix’s W/Bob & David, a new sketch show that reunites the cast of HBO’s ground-breaking comedy series Mr. Show With Bob & David, is now available to stream. For comedy fans of all stripes, this is unspeakably good news.
Mr. Show ran for 30 episodes (plus two clip show specials) between 1995 and 1998. It didn’t set the world alight in terms of audience figures, but its weird and wonderful stylings mark it as a forerunner to shows like The Sarah Silverman Show, Portlandia, Key & Peele, Inside Amy Schumer and Tim & Eric Awesome Show! Great Job. To many of the alternative comedians currently working and coming up, Mr. Show is nothing short of the American answer to Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
In addition to stars Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, the regular cast was comprised of John Ennis, Tom Kenny, Jill Talley, Jay Johnston, Paul F. Tompkins and Brian Posehn, who all served on the writing staff too. They’re all back for W/Bob & David along with many guest stars the two leads have either inspired or collaborated with since, including Jeffrey Tambor, Keegan Michael Key and Paget Brewster.
While Mr. Show was seldom topical, many of the sketches have turned out to be either hugely influential or oddly prescient, and with the imminent release of four new episodes (albeit under a slightly modified title), it’s interesting to look back at the show in both regards.
Most episodes of the series opened and closed with Bob and David addressing a comedy club audience, doing staged mini-skits rather than warm-up monologues, before seguing into a string of vastly different but inter-connected filmed sketches. The two head writers were notoriously tough on any ideas that came across as hacky or obvious and the level of quality control makes for ambitious sketches. Even when a particular sketch doesn’t land, it’s always insanely clever in a smart-silly sort of way.
Like other sketch shows, there are one or two recurring characters amongst the otherwise fast-moving, callback-free writing. One of them, Ronnie Brooks, is a felon who has been arrested so many times on TV’s COPS that he has actually become the first ever reality star. Given the current state of reality TV shows and the “celebrities” they create, that’s scarily prescient.
Another sketch has movie studio executives at the fictional Monolith Pictures wringing their hands over the failure of Coupon: The Movie, a tentpole blockbuster adapted from a coupon for tube socks. Heck, given Hollywood’s recent proclivity for mining old properties in search of new blockbusters, it might only be a matter of time before we have a case similar to the resolution of that sketch, in which the studio successfully sued the people of the United States for not going to see their movie.
Since the show was cancelled, both Bob and David have gone onto various guest star spots on most of the biggest and/or best sitcoms around. Odenkirk is now most famous as unscrupulous lawyer Saul Goodman, who first appeared in Breaking Bad and now has his own spin-off prequel Better Call Saul, and Cross is best known as never-nude aspiring actor Tobias Fünke from Arrested Development.
But there have been Mr. Show-related collaborations between the two since the original run ended. In 2003, they spun off Ronnie into a direct-to-video movie, Run Ronnie Run! Surprisingly, the fans didn’t receive it as warmly as critics did and Odenkirk has been very vocal about the mis-handling of the film by New Line Cinema and director Troy Miller. More recently, the duo compiled Hollywood Said No in 2013, collecting orphaned sketches and unproduced film scripts in book form. Recording the audiobook version with the original cast was apparently the spur to generate W/Bob & David.
“In the comedic voice it will feel very much like Mr. Show,” Odenkirk told Vanity Fair. “How could it not? We wrote it and are in it. If we wrote a narrative film it would feel like Mr. Show. But structurally it will be more carefree, and move faster, and not be afraid to have a tonal moment that isn’t grounded in a joke.”
Everyone involved has clearly evolved since they were originally working on the show, but we’re hoping that W/Bob & David will be at least as comically complex as its predecessor. Even the most straightforward sketch in Mr. Show‘s four season run involves Bob being interrogated while hooked up to a lie detector, as he gives deadpan anecdotal answers to increasingly insane questions (“Have you ever killed a man… WITH YOUR MIND?!”). But it’s the only sketch that comes to mind that actually ends in a punchline, before the hook into the next sketch.
That flow is basically everything Mr. Show stood for, as a quintessential sketch show for the multi-channel age. It replicated Monty Python’s segues and abrupt endings, but also updated it to recreate the feeling of endless channel-hopping, still relatively new to a nation raised on just three channels.
Despite dedicating more time to its sketches and packing in jokes more densely than most shows, it still feels like one of the quickest and funniest sketch shows you’ve ever seen. Its critical acclaim and cult following may not have translated into tremendous audience figures at the time, but its loyal following should finally get their reward via Netflix this weekend.
5 sketches for first-time viewers
To conclude, we’ve picked out five of our favorite sketches from for newcomers to the series. This isn’t necessarily a top 5, but a list that typifies Mr. Show‘s unique flavor and maniacal logic. We’ve picked out at least one from each season to get you started. If you’ve yet to catch up, then these should be a good primer…
Founding Fathers (Season 1, Episode 4)
At the end of a previous sketch about a performance artist called Spank who is unable to defecate on the American flag, an expert witness has a theory. Flash back to America’s founding fathers (or “collection of assholes,” as Bob’s Thomas Jefferson puts it) trying to protect the flag from being shat upon in the name of performance art. Their various solutions escalate in ridiculousness, but frankly, this sketch would be hilarious for the inexplicable presence of Tom Kenny’s Abraham Lincoln alone.
Monsters Of Megaphone (Season 2, Episode 6)
A properly ridiculous historical fiction about the crazy of megaphone crooning and the rivalry between Dickie Crickets (Bob) and Kid Jersey (David) as they sing perfunctory ad jingles about new inventions of the time. Their enmity for one another eventually led them to invent their own bits and bobs, including the sports bra and the electric tie rack, in a rap battle-style confrontation. On top of everything else, it’s a brilliant spoof of sappy nostalgic music documentaries that segues right into another classic sketch, Coupon: The Movie.
Blow Up The Moon (Season 3, Episode 6)
A reaction piece about NASA’s announcement that this forthcoming July, America will blow up the Moon. The Exploder 1 ship will be piloted by Galileo, the great-grandson of Ulysses, the first monkey in space. America rejoices- they have the technology, so why not? These news-style reaction segments are amongst the best Mr. Show skits and this is one of the best of the best.
The Audition (Season 4, Episode 3)
Dino Stamatopoulos (perhaps best known as Community‘s Alex/Starburns) wrote this towering work of silliness, in which a nervous auditionee for a sitcom chooses a monologue from a play called The Audition, which is about… an actor at an audition. It’s brilliantly simple, but it leads to an infinite loop of confusion for the producers and indignation for the actor. This is expertly written and masterfully performed by David, Bob and Dino.
The Lost Episode (Season 3, Episode 3)
We’re recommending sketches rather than whole episodes, but this one happens to be our favorite episode of the lot and it’s partly due to a wraparound sketch that is set up at the beginning. Before we get into the show proper, we learn that this will be the “lost episode” of Mr. Show, with a security guard on hand to take the tape and dispose of it just as soon as it’s finished recording.
The sketches that follow include an exposé of the battle between East and West Coast ventriloquists, the aforementioned lie detector sketch (embedded above) and a retrospective on a psychedelic children’s show that takes place in the Altered State of Drugachusetts. But when the time comes to loop back around to the theatre and lose the episode, a seemingly random moment from the beginning is revealed as the finest slow burn joke in the whole series. It’s nothing short of brilliant.
As we said, it’s not a top five list, but if you’re a fan of Mr. Show, why not share your favorite quotes and lines we missed in the comments? Also, be sure to let us know what you reckon to W/Bob & David!