Brow Beat

Where Do I Start With Mr. Show?

Bob Odenkirk and David Cross in Mr. Show.

HBO

The Netflix series With Bob and David, which premieres Friday, will surely feel familiar to fans of the hit ’90s sketch comedy series Mr. Show. The Bob and David in question are Odenkirk and Cross respectively, the principal stars and writers of Mr. Show, which also starred Brian Posehn, Scott Auckerman, Sarah Silverman, Paul F. Tompkins, and Jack Black.

Mr. Show brought new momentum, creativity, and a sense of anarchy to the American comedy landscape, threading together live and pre-taped sketches with Pythonesque stream-of consciousness transitions. At its best, Mr. Show featured ingeniously abstract premises that had deeply personal and often pathetic consequences for the show’s characters—premises that in turn spiraled out of control. Here are eight sketches to get you hooked.

Young People and Companions

“Two young people and their companions are missing today after a hike in the Angeles National Forest,” says a TV Reporter (Odenkirk). What makes two of them “young people” and the other two “companions?” That’s the joke of the sketch. It’s an arbitrary distinction that is stubbornly upheld by everybody in the world of the sketch as though it had some real significance. The sketch escalates by making it increasingly clear that there is no possible meaningful difference between “young people” and “their companions,” to the point of beating a dead but hilarious horse. It derives much of its humor from the idea that a person could just be a companion in-and-of-himself: Not a companion in relationship, but a companion, alone.

Pre-taped Call-in Show

David Cross plays the host of a TV call-in show that’s taped a week before it airs. This means that if you want to talk about the week’s topic, you need to have called in the previous week. Callers consistently call in about the wrong topics and the whole show ends up being a series of frustrated explanations and clarifications about how the show works. The sketch is particularly successful because when watching it we find ourselves having the same struggle as the confused callers, though we’re half a step ahead of them since we understand the general principle behind the pre-taped call-in show. But the sketch is one step ahead of us, moving so quickly that we can barely create a mental timeline with which to orient ourselves in its reality. Of course Cross’ insistence on adhering to the doomed format is idiotic, so the joke is on everybody.

24 is the Highest Number

A group of stereotypical Italian American mobsters tries to figure out what the highest number is. The establishment answer is 24, but higher numbers naturally keep stumbling into the mobsters’ conversation, and if they acknowledge this they must face the Don’s wrath. This is almost an adaptation of the “2 + 2 = 5” scenes in 1984. But what makes it funnier than 1984 is that something totally abstract (and so obviously wrong to the point of rendering the conversation meaningless) seems to take on deep personal significance for Odenkirk’s character.

Charles McHutchence v.s. Harrison Greeley III 

This is a series of dueling advertisements for Charles McHutchence and Harrison Greeley III. Both are rich white businessmen who lead almost identical lives and aren’t running for office or trying to sell you anything. The advertisements are purely for ego-stroking purposes, and turn into petty smear campaigns. The sketch brings Freud’s designation of the ego as “His Majesty, the Baby” into an age where hyper-privileged capitalists are the new kings.

Audition

An actor (Cross) performs a monologue from a play called “the audition,” at an audition, thereby imprisoning the producer and casting director in a perpetual limbo: At no moment is it clear whether Cross is performing the monologue or actually talking to them. The tension that builds up as they hesitantly attempt to ascertain this is what really sells the sketch, because we as the audience feel that same tension. The sketch puts us in the same type of comedic predicament as Pre-taped Call-in Show. We repeatedly ask ourselves “What is going actually on? What am I really seeing?”

I’ll Marry Your Stupid Ass 

Two hot-headed macho-types bump into each other at a bar, and make a fight out of it. They’re both in the fight for the long haul, so they marry each other out of spite and use their marriage as the vehicle for their fight till death does them part. Their girlfriends’ reaction at the wedding: “fackin’ guys.” This brilliant satire of masculine competitive aggression becomes particularly poignant when the spite-marriage begins to resemble a real one: complete with jealousy, moving tenderness, and, of course, anger that’s been pent up for decades. The sketch ends on a chilling note about how easily we can forget to live a meaningful life when we get sucked into petty emotional narratives like this fight.

Pre-Natal Pageant

This sketch foregrounds another side of Mr. Show: its character work. Even though the sketch has a clever satirical premise, that’s not where the humor comes from. Instead it’s Odenkirk and Jill Talley’s commitment their characters that makes this sketch worth watching. The actors manage to bring a kind of realism to a world that feels like a reductio of our own, in which Child pageants have turned into pre-natal pageants. The sketch feels like a miniature Christopher Guest film. But we aren’t left without any of the meta/paradoxical humor that Mr. Show does so well: we get it in the delightful TV sequence that transitions from the previous sketch into this one, and which is incorporated into the ordinary reality of this sketch.

Lie Detector 

A man (Odenkirk) is interviewed for a job while hooked up to a demonstrably functional lie detector. The interviewers ask him whether he’s had various experiences, starting with whether he’s ever drank to excess, progressing to whether he’s done crack, and eventually whether he’s ever derailed a train with his penis. Odenkirk’s character is not phased by any question and answers each with a “yes,” though sometimes with modest hesitation. And every time, his “yes” is confirmed by the silence of the lie detector. That’s pretty much it. It’s this economy that makes the sketch so funny: as the questions get more and more insane, the simple pattern—question, affirmation, and then silence from the machine—stays the same.