Television

Alternative Sketch Comedy Thrives Again 'W/ Bob and David'

Colin Fitzgerald

Bob Odenkirk and David Cross return their unique brand of sketch to television, providing another much-needed antidote to modern institutional comedy.


W/ Bob and David

Cast: Bob Odenkirk, David Cross
Subtitle: Season 1
Network: Netflix
Air date: 2015-11-13
Amazon

In 1995 when Bob Odenkirk and David Cross spawned their soon-to-be underground hit of a sketch comedy series Mr. Show, the sketch form was straining under conventional, mainstream, hackneyed dominance. Saturday Night Live and In Living Color were cultural institutions, Mad TV was on its way to carving out its own chunk of the audience, and even Nickelodeon had its incredibly popular teen-targeted variety show, All That. Sketch comedy was stale, only popular in its established traditions. Attempts were made to freshen up the mode, notably by cultural outliers like MTV’s The State, which itself only ran for 28 episodes, but the decades-old conventions of sketch comedy still overshadowed anything novel, innovative, or contemporary minded in the eyes of the mainstream.

Mr. Show can’t be said to have single-handedly reinvigorated, reinvented, or redirected the world of sketch comedy on television. The series was short-lived and notoriously low-rated, and after it was gone, Saturday Night Live, Mad TV, and a half dozen more-or-less-the-same traditional sketch shows continued on completely unfazed. If Mr. Show has had a meaningful impact on the culture of television comedy, it’s been on the fringes of cable, in the abstract absurdities of Adult Swim, the irreverent nonsense of IFC’s Portlandia and Comedy Bang! Bang!, and the less-talked-about curiosities peppered around Comedy Central’s schedule every season.

What Mr. Show actually did was prove there was an audience, however small, for alternative comedy on TV.

With an abundance of new distribution outlets willing to take risks on smaller projects, expanded audiences for shows that, in their original run, failed to capture a large enough crowd to retain their market value, and the booming careers of the original Mr. Show cast and crew, 2015 is fertile ground for the resurgence of Cross and Odenkirk’s sketch work. Netflix, in its short time producing original content, has already revived the 2001 cult film Wet Hot American Summer (itself of offshoot of The State) as a TV show, along with the much-beloved Arrested Development, of which Cross is also a star. If conditions weren’t right for W/ Bob and David now, they probably never would be.

It seems Cross and Odenkirk felt the same way. The show itself resembles its spiritual predecessor enough to satisfy returning fans while also making an effort to emphasize the modernity and originality that has been so characteristic of Cross and Odenkirk’s comedy for years. The narrative connectivity that structured Mr. Show in its time is revised for W/ Bob and David: sketches are delicately linked through characters and stories, often in intentionally absurd and abstract ways, lending some form of nonsense logic to the spontaneous comedy of the series.

Each episode begins with an out-of-context scene, for instance, a non-sequitur whose meaning is unveiled later on. For example, the first episode begins with a character (played by Mr. Show veteran Paul F. Tompkins) in a doctor’s office being informed that he can no longer eat red meat; later, when the character reappears in a sketch (and even at the end of the episode when the character delivers a line that closes the show), we have the context of knowing his medical problem. These introductory scenes aren’t necessarily funny, except maybe in a subversive, anti-comedy way (they provide a punchline before the set-up); in fact, in the behind-the-scenes special (the fifth episode on Netflix), we learn that these scenes were a way of tempering expectations for die hard Mr. Show fans, as well as a solution to the problem that they couldn’t figure out how to open each show. In practice, it’s messy, but it’s also a subtle and occasionally artful way of managing each episode’s loose plot structure without giving too much away.

Other components of the duo’s charm have evolved, as well, if only slightly. Key components of the team’s comedic identity -- like Cross’s timing and Odenkirk’s deadpan delivery -- are sharper than they’ve ever been. Most of the sketches are succinct and focused, the writing less often drawn to the tactic of belaboring a non-joke until it becomes funny that was so often integral to the structure of Mr. Show. Some sketches, such as the one in which Cross portrays a “cop watch” blogger intentionally provoking an amiable, good-natured officer (played by guest Keegan Michael-Key) with little success, are justifiably lengthy because they continue to deliver fresh material after minutes have gone by; others, like the one where the team write a Broadway musical about singing rooms, feel a little more tedious after the premise has been set up. Mixed bags should be comfortable territory for those familiar with sketch comedy of any kind, but overall W/ Bob and David is surprisingly more nimble and honed in than almost any other modern alternative comedy, or even Mr. Show itself.

Part of this is due to the fact that most of the humor in W/ Bob and David comes from taking routine comedy, spinning it out of control, and expanding on it to an absurd degree. For many of the sketches, the initial premise is completely typical, even rote: dry cleaners with dirty hands, zany and incomprehensible tech conference speakers, etc. The real comedic power of the show comes from driving those modern tropes into nonsensical and unexpected places, like dry cleaners with dirty hands who decide to write a Broadway musical with a disgruntled customer as reimbursement, or a zany and incomprehensible tech conference speaker who introduces the idea of having brothers (“the oldest technology of all”) as a way to be in three places at once. Instead of relying on overdone topical humor (barring a couple awkward, shoehorned-in bits about the Islamic prophet Muhammad, which may have been more fitting five or six years ago) or bland observational comedy, W/ Bob and David is all about subverting the conventional, even going so far as to laugh at contemporary comedy itself.

That’s why their humor still works 20 years later. W/ Bob and David presents an alternative to institutional sketch comedy -- even an antidote. Their style of clever absurdity has gained a lot of ground in the interim, not just from Mr. Show but from dozens of disparate sources, quietly altering the flavor of mainstream television comedy to be more nonsensical and irreverent at every turn. Say what you will about other niche TV series revivals; W/ Bob and David simply fits in 2015.

8

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