Published on November 19th, 2015 | by Michael0
Streaming Now – With Bob and David
In 1995, HBO gave relative unknowns Bob Odenkirk and David Cross the money to make two half hour episodes of sketch comedy. Odenkirk and Cross, took the money, cut costs and delivered four episodes, the first season of Mr Show with Bob and David. You might not have heard of Mr Show (fun fact: the ‘With Bob and David’ was added on the insistence of HBO, who wanted celebrity names added to the title, even if no-one knew who the celebrities were). I myself hadn’t heard of it until recently, despite the fact that I’ve been familiar with a lot of Bob and David’s subsequent work. In recent months I’ve read so many glowing tributes to Mr Show that I felt almost morally obliged to track it down. A full twenty years late to the party, I started to watch Mr Show and wouldn’t you know it, that same month I read that Netflix had commissioned a followed up series, rather cheekily named With Bob and David, the element of the title that had been foisted upon them. The same thing happened when I tracked down Wet Hot America Summer, incidentally, which also had a Netflix revival series in recent months.
Mr Show wasn’t just brilliantly funny, it way conceptually daring. It wasn’t just a showcase for two future stars, it was a breeding ground of so much alternative comedy and comedians, in front and behind the camera. Bob and David were joined by a whole host of now familiar faces (and voices). In the first series, they were joined by the (now) husband a wife team of Tom Kenny and Jill Talley, who provided voices on SpongeBob SquarePants as well as the hugely talented John Ennis. Though everyone in the cast was very versatile, each had their own strengths or personas they were comfortable in. Bob Odenkirk, unsurprisingly, had a certain huckster charm, like a used car salesman, but also tapped a seemingly bottomless well of rage. David Cross savagely parodied Gen-X slackers, performance poets and all manner of hippies and new age thinkers. Kenny played the overblown or absurd characters where Ennis, a warmer and more humane performer than the rest of the male cast in the early series, played normal folk or pompous authority figures. Jill Talley had to play a lot of roles early on as the only starring female of the cast but particularly excelled as talk show hosts, newsreaders and anyone else who addressed the audience directly. Later additions to the cast included everyman Paul F Tompkins (Mr Peanutbutter in Bojack Horseman), Jay Johnston; pratfaller extraordinaire, and human giant Brian Posehn. Other familiar faces made frequent appearances too, like Mary Lynn Rajskub, Jerry Minor, Jack Black and Dino ‘Starburns’ Stamtopoulos. Peyton Reed directed many of the outdoor sequences and went on to make Ant-Man.
It’s hard to sum up what made Mr Show fantastic. As well as the varied talents of the casts and the superb one off sketches (which covered everything from the absurd to homages, parody and slapstick) there was the underlying structure of each show. Like so many American comedies, it was a mixture of live performance and pre-recorded sketches but what made Mr Show stand out was that the sketches would flow naturally from one into the next (well, sometimes more naturally than others), a trick borrowed from the programme’s biggest single influence Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It could be a commercial seen on a TV, a shared image or simply someone walking out of one sketch and into the next. It is, of course, brutally funny. The range and breadth of the comedy means that’s it’s hard for fans to reach a consensus about what works and what doesn’t. For instance, I adore a quickie first season sketch ‘The King of Voiceovers’ in which Bob Odenkirk reads what is basically a succession of punchlines for his job as a voice artist. ‘Offer expires….now!’ and ‘not to be confused with the disease cancer’ are just two examples. But it’s a conceptually lazy sketch, and maybe not representative of the show. More typically Mr Show is the brilliant ‘Pre-Taped Phone-in Show’ which is exactly the shambles it reads like. It’s a fantastic idea made even greater by David Cross’ performance as the unravelling host. That’s another element that puts Mr Show over the top, the cast’s absolute commitment to even the weaker material. There was also a refreshing lack of catchphrases and, for the most part, returning characters.
I could continue listing highlights from the long finished series (go on them, Van Hammersley’s billiard educational videos, Third Wheel Legend, The Story of The Story of Everest) but this article, unbelievably, isn’t about Mr Show but the new With Bob and David. Mr Show’s influence can be felt far and wide – the two stars have had great recent success with Arrested Development and Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul, the rest of the cast have likewise gone on to great things, and the type of humour the pair introduced arguably peaked last year with the surreal masterpiece Too Many Cooks. But what can be gained from bringing Mr Show back in all but name more than 16 years after HBO finally pulled the plug? Well there demand is certainly there – nearly everyone who sees Mr Show becomes a prophet, proclaiming its genius to anyone who’ll listen, your writer included. And the show’s audience has only increased in the intervening years. Arguably, Bob and David have more pull then they ever have after huge successes recently both critical and commercial (hey, David does those Chipmunk films for a reason, you know). Finally, by making the shows for Netflix, the pair are freed from the restrictions of Television and indeed three of the four episodes clock in at over 30 minutes.
The entire series was added to Netflix at once of the morning I write this, around 3.30am East Coast time (and I bet there were thousands who stayed up for that!), just begging to be devoured in one sitting. Having just seen the older show, it’s strange and unsettling to see nearly twenty years added to the faces of the returning cast, almost instantly. Also unsettling is the new title sequence. Yes, the Mr Show logo was a little creepy but the new stuff is legitimately terrifying, a Cronenbergian mess of body horror. There are also obvious changes to the format, with each episode having a cold opening that isn’t immediately funny but which plays into something later. At the start of episode one, Jill Talley as a Doctor tells her patient that ‘this ain’t no show, mister’, a sly wink to the name change. After some fairly weak material about a real-time travel machine borrowed from Louis CK, the episode launches into the sketch that underpins the rest of the episode. At a guys’ poker night, everyone relates their outlandish New Year’s resolution – Jay Johnston wants to become a Judge, David Cross a mobile phone inventor, John Ennis a Hollywood director, Bob Odenkirk the first Jewish Pope. Paul F Tomkins merely wants to give up red meat on doctor’s orders. He of course is roundly mocked for this, accused of sarcastically tearing down his friends’ more realistic goals. Throughout the episode, the episode returns to each of these characters, each of whom of course enjoying great success.
I won’t spoil the material by describing the sketches – nothing is less forgiving to TV comedy than someone attempting to write it down – but rest assured there are plenty of superb bits of comedy in the new series. A real highlight for me was a good cop/bad cop routine that gets real emotional, real quick and a show about your legal rights in which David Cross attempts to entrap a nice officer played by Keegan-Michael Key. Key is such a gifted comedic performer that it can go unnoticed what an excellent straight man he makes, see also the latest series of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Another new addition to the cast is Paget Brewster, who is superbly deadpan as a TV host attempting to make sense of a revisionist film about slavery Better Roots. It’s also great to see Mary Lynn Rajskub back in a small role. She was in the first two series of Mr Show but left, and was banned from the set, after breaking up with boyfriend David Cross. By and large, most of the old gang are back and while they sport a few more lines and greyer hair than the original fun the humour has barely aged at all. It’s maybe not as ground-breaking as it was (and I’m in no position to give a proper answer on that, being seven years old when Mr Show premiered) but it’s still bloody fun, and whip smart. There are only a shade over two hours of material here but it’s almost all killer. Welcome back, Bob and David!
With Bob and David is available now on Netflix for both US and UK subscribers