It has been more than 20 years since Mr. Show first premiered on HBO and nearly 17 since the sketch comedy series aired its final episode.
In the years since, Bob Odenkirk has gone on to become an Emmy-nominee for his surprisingly heartfelt performance on the Breaking Bad-spinoff Better Call Saul. And his comedy partner David Cross has become a cultural icon for his role as Tobias Fünke on Arrested Development.
On Friday, the pair reunite for a too-short four-episode run of a brand new sketch show on Netflix, slyly titled W/ Bob & David, that reminds viewers not only how influential the original Mr. Show was on a generation of sketch comedy creators like Amy Schumer, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, but also how those newcomers have in turn changed the form in the intervening years. It was worth the wait.
Sipping on his second tequila to help soothe a broken arm, Cross reminisces about the “old days” of Mr. Show before the recent world premiere of two of the four new episodes before an audience and friends and family at the Vista Theatre in Los Feliz.
“What people don’t know about this is that we’ve had the theater wired, all the seats are wired, so if people aren’t laughing we have a kind of tickly, electrical current and if they continue to not laugh, that current will go up,” Cross jokes moments before it was time for the show to begin. “It’s kind of like the Stanford Prison Experiment.”
While Cross is quicker to make a joke and less inclined to exert energy dissecting the nature of his comedy, Odenkirk is the more analytical of the pair, eager to talk at length about the larger aims of their work beyond just making people laugh.
A passionate political point of view was often present in Mr. Show and has perhaps grown even stronger with the new project. That desire to become part of the larger social conversation can be seen in one of the few new sketches to be released online ahead of the show’s premiere.
The official title of the sketch is “Know Your Rights,” but Odenkirk remarks, “It should have been called ‘Reasonable Cop.’” Appearing in the show’s third episode, the bit features Keegan-Michael Key of Comedy Central’s recently ended Key & Peele, as a police officer who is forced to deal with Cross’s Gilvin Daughtry, a self-righteous driver who aims to show his handful of YouTube followers how to contend with an overzealous cop. The only problem is he can’t seem to find one.
“I wanted to make fun of those guys who do those videos online and tell you how to talk to cops, because I always think, ‘Yeah, but when you meet a real cop, they don’t give a shit about your fucking thing that you looked at on YouTube,’” Odenkirk explains, referring to the checkpoint dashcam videos that began going viral a couple of years ago. “It’s not easy to be cocky like that with a policeman.”
“On the other hand, the other thing I love about what we wrote was, a lot of policemen are reasonable guys,” he adds, “they’re just trying to get through their day.”
“I’m sure they have to deal with guys like this a lot, this kind of in-your-face, screechy, ‘Hey, man, that’s bullshit, man,’” Cross says of his character in the sketch.
To Odenkirk, the “worst nightmare” for a guy like that is a reasonable cop. “When you look at something like that, what we like to do, is not take a side, but take a narrative that everybody’s kicking around and sort of agreeing with or arguing for or against and just fuck with it. And put the human side into it,” he says.
In the age of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and threatened boycotts against artists like Quentin Tarantino for his decision to speak out against police violence, Odenkirk knows he’s wading into divisive territory. But by finding an entirely new angle on the issue, he and Cross are able to subvert expectations. “What if the cop is reasonable and the guy is unreasonable?” he wonders.
As a sketch comedy duo that consists of two white guys, running a show that features a bevy of more white guys like Jay Johnston and Paul F. Tompkins in supporting roles, it was rare for Odenkirk and Cross to tackle racial issues head-on in the original Mr. Show. But this time, perhaps inspired by the work of guest stars like Key, they don’t hold back.
“We do get a little bit have our cake and eat it too,” Cross said, noting that his character only gets beat up by a white cop once he returns to the checkpoint again, this time in blackface. For those keeping score, this is not the first time Cross has made that choice in the name of comedy.
“He kind of deserves the beating, but not for reason we are all talking about cops and brutality,” Odenkirk admits. He likens Cross’s role in this new sketch to another political activist character he played in an episode of Mr. Show who attempted to defecate on the American flag in public but was thwarted by something as simple as constipation.
“We’re not taking a side,” Odenkirk says. Instead, they “take the angry narrative, whatever it is, liberal or conservative, and shove a human being into the middle of it.” He sums up their approach to comedy like this: “It’s complicating the narrative with humanity, that’s what we do.”
But “Know Your Rights” is hardly the most controversial sketch of the new batch. That honor might just belong to yet another race-based sketch that packs the largest punch—and received the loudest laughs—of any piece shown at the premiere.
On the set of a Charlie Rose-esque talk show titled The Charlene Boyeur Show, the host, played by Paget Brewster, interviews film director Peter Allison Montcrief, played by Cross, who has produced what he is calling Better Roots, which “takes on the most disgraceful chapter in American history: the showing of Roots.”
In clips from the fictional miniseries that follow, we see a highly-sanitized version of American slavery—or as the director insists it be called, “helping”—complete with lemonade breaks and hugs. Montcrief describes the film as something you can show in any classroom across the country, “and those kids are going to walk out of there feeling good about themselves, feeling good about their ancestors, feeling great about me and good about America.”
Even more than the “reasonable cop” sketch, “Better Roots” is a bold move for a pair of white comedians. Without Key & Peele’s game-changing slave auction block piece that first aired three years ago, a sketch like this one from Odenkirk and Cross might not even be possible. It’s almost as if the pioneers are now taking cues from their disciples.
If there is one area in which W/ Bob & David resists the urge to imitate the sketch comedy of today, it is in the format that made the show feel unique when it first aired.
Like Mr. Show before it, W/ Bob & David expertly weaves one single narrative throughout each episode, providing unexpected transitions between scenes and maintaining a driving momentum at all times. This approach makes the show an anomaly in the current era of sketch on TV.
While segments of Inside Amy Schumer, Key & Peele and even Saturday Night Live are now designed to be consumed individually via YouTube and other social media platforms, episodes of W/ Bob & David are best appreciated in their entirety. And because viewers will be able to watch the entire new series in the span of just two hours on Netflix starting Friday, Nov. 13, it will likely be experienced by many in one sitting.
The only problem with the quick-binge approach is that fans will be left wanting more from Odenkirk and Cross, who, as we’ve seen, seem perfectly happy to take their time.