It’s been 20 years since two relatively obscure comics — one gifted actor and standup (David Cross) and one sketch comedy obsessive and former SNL writer (Bob Odenkirk)— debuted a sparsely viewed, half-hour HBO vehicle called Mr. Show with Bob and David. Though it became less and less easy to watch — it was bumped to late-late weeknight slots and eventually discontinued from HBO’s regular programming block — its reputation only snowballed among alternative comedy practitioners and fans. In fact, it helped reinvent those groups for the modern era.
There were other bizarre sketch comedy shows around the time of Mr. Show” — discounting SNL, predecessors The Kids in the Hall, which went off the air in ‘94, and The State, which was just signing off as Mr. Show premiered in the fall of ‘95, were particularly beloved. There were others, like the periodically excellent The Ben Stiller Show — where Odenkirk and Cross first met — which have faded into near-obscurity. In hindsight, it is sort of amazing how much patently structurally bizarre Pythonesque-humor was on the air during this time. Most networks, in one way or another, abided it. It is perhaps a tribute to Mr. Show’s quality that it distinguished itself from the herd as well as it did and cultivated such a uniquely grotesque atmosphere.
Mr. Show was unlike other television in its vein mostly because, being an HBO vehicle, it was largely uncensored. Odenkirk and Cross dug into their basest instincts in terms of foul language, misanthropy and meta-political incorrectness. The result was a pastiche of implicit, non-preachy societal critique that presaged, more than anything, the polarizing and unmistakable work of Odenkirk’s future protegés Tim and Eric.
While plenty of the sketch comedy of that time flipped social and culture mores on their head to mock them, Mr. Show did it in an especially playful way. Like Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, it parodied commercial and low-budget television programming by mimicking its bizarre production values and conventions as well as just sending up its content and idiosyncratic personalities. There was the same impression, in certain episodes, that you were flipping through channels, as well as the sensation of watching some outlandish multimedia-filled stage performance. See the Christian public access parody where evangelist Odenkirk traces the multiple regressions of Cross, a gay man trying to be “cured,” and the bizarre infomercial for Van Hammersley the star pool player illustrating historical events, math concepts, and abstract phrases in his playing. The latter, in particular, feels like it is straight out of the Awesome Show:
Watching Mr. Show in 2015 is fascinating because, like Python’s Flying Circus before it, it made an effort to evoke the absurdities and issues of its time without being specifically topical. There are some abstract parodies of modern events — see a spin on the OJ Trial featuring the Pope, Odendirk’s Dixieland Republican senator focused on the deficit and media censorship, and “downsizing”-related sketches straight out of the Dilbert era — but their effectiveness is only enhanced by, not dependent on, knowledge of the events of the time. There is none of SNL’s playing to the very specific news of the day.
Indeed, some of the more of-the-time material is among the best material on the show and feels relevant today. For instance, there is the plotline of the post-tech-boom eccentric billionaire — inventor of the “delete button” — who insists that his employees spend lots of time “playing” and eat his invented “tofutti” desert in the “cafetorium.” Ultimately, he ends up a broke Howard Hawks/Charles Foster Kane-like recluse in an empty mansion full of mentally challenged goats.
It stands to reason that a new Odenkirk and Cross sketch show would be greenlighted, not just because of their fame and the show’s devoted fan base, but because of Mr. Show’s timelessness. Why shouldn’t these seasoned and conscientious comedians be able to do new, potent work that recaptures that quality?
Perhaps the only cause for concern is that Odenkirk and Cross have developed mostly as performers and actors since the days of Mr. Show, and not as leadership figures. Their writing and directing ventures of the past decade-plus have been mostly overlooked or mediocre. Odenkirk scripted numerous failed TV pilots and directed notorious bombs Let’s Go to Prison and The Brothers Solomon before landing his celebrated role of Saul Goodman on Breaking Bad. Cross will forever be most famous for his Tobias Fünke on Arrested Development; his self-written, self-starring IFC show The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret was revered by a few but generally overlooked, his feature film directorial debut Hits received a lukewarm response, and he put much of his other energy into bit roles and stand-up.
It remains to be seen whether the two men will be able to put across as clear, unified, and unfettered a vision as they did in their younger, wilder days, when they were still struggling to make a splash. As always with these old-franchise reboots, one can only hope for the best, but without letting expectations run too high.