"Darn this counter-culture!"
HBO Home Video has finally released the first two seasons of Mr. Show on DVD and video. It feels like it’s been a long time coming. David Cross and Bob Odenkirk met in the early 1990s, worked together as writers on the short-lived Ben Stiller Show (Odenkirk was also a featured actor on this criminally neglected show). Not long after, they were performing too, working out what would become Mr. Show with Bob and David. In 1995, HBO signed them for a trial first season; the show lasted four, with 30 episodes. Though the show went virtually unnoticed by mainstream audiences, it did receive nominations for Emmys in 1998 and 1999 for Outstanding Writing for a Variety or Music Program, amongst others.
Mr. Show was sketch comedy with loose rules and borders, intermixing live sketches with filmed bits. Characters might break into song, or comment on sketches while in them. The end of one skit might become the beginning of another, or a show being watched by other characters. Bob and David’s kind of humor was markedly different from previous sketch comedy and variety shows. While Saturday Night Live panders to a lowest common denominator, Mr. Show gave the audience more credit. Perhaps more importantly, it never worried if the audience kept up. When Bob and David went for the cheap laugh, it was only to mock themselves for doing so later.
The first character seen in episode one of the first season may be the show’s most famous, if not infamous: Cross’s Ronnie Dobbs, both star and primary perpetrator in a Cops spoof. Dobbs is a longhaired redneck repeatedly “arrested” on the show. (The DVD set also includes a later season segment called “Fuzz: The Musical,” featuring a reunion of the characters from this first sketch.) The Dobbs bit never devolved into a typical mock-the-redneck sketch. Everyone got a jab, from the cops to the blowhard cameraman who “found” Ronnie. Mr. Show‘s joke concerns regular people becoming celebrities, almost prescient if you consider the current reality tv boom.
Topicality was one of the show’s strong points. While Congress fought over funding for the arts in the mid ‘90s, Mr. Show gave us a sketch about artists in tracking collars, giving them mild shocks if they didn’t check in with their assigned Senator prior to stepping on stage. It also satirized the O.J. hysteria, with the Pope filling in for the accused during a highway chase involving the Popemobile (dubbed “The Chase of the Chaste”); other jokes featured a Papal ring that did not fit, and bumbling policemen slipping in evidence at the crime site. Another smart idea was a mock documentary about college basketball recruiters (` la Hoop Dreams) who vie for the young players, from age five on down. This satire was more sweet than mocking, and showed another side of the show’s stars. They played broad stereotypes and sweet, endearing losers with equal enthusiasm.
Bob and David switch between characters with ease, often in the middle of a single sketch, displaying sharp comedic timing and subtlety (it takes a few viewings to catch everything), or occasionally include a completely nonsensical gag, silly for the sake of being silly. A simple skit about a man who brings his buddy along on his honeymoon becomes a full-blown gospel song, complete with real gospel singers. Or the Pop, of a Mom n’ Pop porn shop, berates his son for disdaining his job at the shop by yelling, “Don’t blame the dildos!” and “That stupid all anal action paid for that precious mountain bike of yours!” It’s absurd, but that’s the point.
Besides being a showcase for its namesakes, the show’s early seasons introduced other actors and comedians, such as Mary-Lynn Rajskub and Brian Posehn. The most famous of these is Jack Black, perhaps best known for stealing the film High Fidelity. He appears in two musical sketches that are alone worth the price of the DVD. In “The Joke: The Musical,” a kind of twist on a morality play, Black portrays both a kindly farmer and the Devil. All the lines are delivered in song, with Black’s dramatic, boisterous voice telling the story of a hapless salesman who gives in to temptation. The other is a Jesus Christ Superstar parody called “Jeepers Creepers Semi-star,” with Black in the title role, pondering his role: Son of God or slacker? The sketch dissolves into the cast of the show again mocking their own attempt at parody.
The DVD includes commentary tracks, not only with Bob and David, but also many regulars from the shows. These grant insight into the show’s creation—where ideas came from and whether, in hindsight, the sketches still seem funny to those who conceived them. More often than not, this commentary is as funny as the material it’s about. Several of the speakers also do characters, some from the show, some not. There are some truly hilarious moments, as they realize there is only so much you can talk about on the commentary track—appropriately, they end up subverting the conventions of the DVD of the show.