[18 November 2013]
It’s been 13 years since Mr. Show with Bob and David went off the air in 1998. It was something of a small-time word-of-mouth success, airing late nights on HBO, but the show has grown more popular since then and David Cross and Bob Odenkirk are now revered elders of alternative comedy. The show was biting, political, and brought an underground sensibility to television at a time when there were few sketch outlets besides Saturday Night Live (in a deep rough patch when Mr. Show started).
The book Hollywood Said No! is a gift to the fans that stuck by the show in its many shifting time slots, the fans who discovered the show on DVD, and the fans who show up at reunion events and clamor for more reunion events. It primarily consists of two film scripts that Bob, David, and Brian Posehn wrote after the show went off the air, trying to capitalize on whatever fan base existed. (The movie that did get made, Run Ronnie Run was a somewhat infamous debacle.) At the end of the book they’ve included scripts for three sketches that never made it on to Mr. Show.
What I’m trying to say is, this book is classic fan fodder, essentially inessential, and given the kind of loving attention to detail familiar from DVD box sets and limited edition doo-gadgets. It’s laid out like a worn and marked up spec script and every element from the acknowledgements to the blurbs are wrung for laughs. The scripts themselves are garnished with comments from the writers, fake studio notes, and storyboard-style illustrations by Mike Mitchell.
While these scripts are funny and enjoyable, I’m not sure we lost a Blazing Saddles in they’re not getting made. In the book’s introduction Bob and David are candid about them. “Needless to say, Hooray for America! and Bob and David Make a Movie were never made. And never will be. They were written for two exciting up-and-coming comedy writer/actors in their late thirties who were coming off a still-relevant cult comedy show to make. That ship has not only sailed but has been dry-docked and turned into a museum.”
The first script, Bob and David Make a Movie, was the second to be written and betrays a certain desperation in its attempt at making something that could capitalize on their show and be cheap to make. As the title indicates it’s about Bob and David trying to make a movie and its loose structure—following the hoops they have to jump through to get a movie permission slip from Hollywood Town Hall—is basically an excuse for a feature-length sketch show satirizing different types of movies and the entertainment industry. The jokes are densely packed, but the script suffers from the bane of all sketch movies: the sketch format can get a bit tiring after an hour or more and there’s a displeasing lack of an overarching narrative.
Hooray for America!, the other script, is much more interesting for its unrealized potential. It’s A Face in the Crowd-style story, where Bob and David, play slack-jawed entertainers in Branson, Missouri who are roped into a scheme to be made into presidential candidates by Globo-Chem. Globo-Chem is an all-purpose evil corporation that reappears on Mr. Show, and the script features several more characters from the series including the mascot Pit Pat and the Strom Thurmond-like Senator Tankerbell. The heavy in-show references and political satire may have made this movie a tough sell to potential backers.
I’ve found that, in retrospect, some of Mr. Show’s political satire is the one area that doesn’t hold up. At a time when Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have turned criticizing Republican politics into a well-argued art, their depiction of southern senators as blatantly racist faux-populists reads as a caricature. Particularly in these two scripts, Bob and David’s targets can be broad summations of liberal assumptions: Hollywood is ruled by dumb greed and America is a country of overweight slack-jawed rubes. (Even at the time, there were plenty of funny, original, and nuanced political comedies being made including Citizen Ruth, Election, Dick, and Wag the Dog.)
My favorite moments in theses scripts focused on odd characters rather than institutional criticism, like a down-and-out guy who keeps getting mistaken for a street performer (who would have been played by Posehn) and the dumb-and-dumber backstage interplay between Bob and David in Hooray for America!.
The primary downside to the book is the downside to reading a script, which is merely a blueprint for a film that may or may not get made (usually not). The camera angles, the visual design and, most crucially here, the timing and inflection of the delivery, are left to the reader’s imagination.
This is where being a fan of Mr. Show really helps. If you’re familiar with the personas of Bob and David in the show’s opening monologues, the dry defeated delivery of Posehn, and sketch characters like the drooling dumb Droopy, then you can do a much better job of imagining these movies than most people. And if you are familiar with these things, then you will probably want to read this book. What I’m trying to say is if you haven’t seen Mr. Show, go watch it now, because it’s really, really funny.