Review: Could ‘With Bob And David’ Ever Have Lived Up To The Legacy Of ‘Mr. Show’?
Big, ridiculous shoes to fill.
Netflix has been spending its money like a bleary-eyed Tim & Eric fan just awarded a long-lost aunt’s inheritance. How else to explain the resuscitation of Arrested Development, the last-minute Hail Mary purchase of NBC’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and the unlikely Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp reunion?
To that pile of alt-comedy revivals you can add With Bob and David, which is in every way (except the ones that would give HBO grounds to sue) the four-episode return of Bob Odenkirk and David Cross’ trailblazing ‘90s sketch series, Mr. Show. (Place your bets on Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos bringing back Party Down in a decade’s time. Netflix answering the prayers of niche comedy fans is now, after death and taxes, the third certainty of life.)
The History And Legacy Of ‘Mr. Show’
Mr. Show ran for just four seasons, introducing audiences to the frequently suited, more frequently outraged Bob Odenkirk (long before Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul established him as a genuine thespian); and the sardonic, shorts-wearing David Cross (his Arrested Development character, Tobias Fünke, would share that shorts-obsession).
A strange pairing, they nonetheless produced one of the most daring sketch comedy shows of all time, following in the footsteps of Monty Python’s Flying Circus by using innovative transitions to bridge between absurd bits.
You may not have watched Mr. Show when it aired between 1995 and 1998, but you’ve no doubt felt the reverberations. Just like Arrested Development and Wet Hot American Summer, it holds the distinction of training, inspiring and showcasing eventual comedy greats. The graduating class included podcast legends Scott Aukerman and Paul F. Tompkins; SpongeBob Squarepants himself, Tom Kenny, was a regular collaborator, as was Community’s Starburns, Dino Stamatopoulos; oddball comedienne Mary-Lynn Rajskub went on to become the second lead on 24, weirdly; and as for performers Sarah Silverman, Patton Oswalt and Jack Black? Well, I don’t know what happened to them.
Most of Mr. Show’s sketches are master-classes in comedy writing. Watch as the simple game in this ‘Lie Detector’ sketch – wherein the participants simply answer truthfully – escalates to the point of insanity.
Or ‘East Coast vs. West Coast Ventriloquism’, the ventriloquist-dummy response to the hip-hop wars we never knew we needed.
Or “The Audition”, which is, real talk, a contender for funniest ever comedy sketch, in the tradition of Monty Python’s ‘The Argument’ or Abbott and Costello’s ‘Who’s On First’.
They were innovators (to reference the logistical nightmare of ‘Pre-Taped Call In Show’), taboo-busters (see: ‘Larry Kleist: Rapist‘) and pitch-perfect pop culture parodists (their Brian Wilson homage, ‘Mouthful of Sores‘, is legit beautiful).
Yes, Mr. Show was a very good show. Tragically, its four seasons remain unavailable on DVD in Australia, unlike its unfortunate feature-length spin-off, Run Ronnie Run. (You don’t need to watch it. Odenkirk and Cross despise the final product, and its disastrous post-production has been well chronicled. That said, it does feature a heart-breaking sequence with Mandy Patinkin that briefly makes you think you’re watching a masterpiece.)
But as of Friday, Netflix made available four episodes of With Bob and David, alongside an hour-long making-of, giving Aussies (who hadn’t explored the internet’s many avenues) their first glimpse at the duo’s god-level sketch skills.
Expectations were high. In retrospect, we should have tempered them.
“This Ain’t No Show, Mister”
It would have been unreasonable to ask Odenkirk and Cross to reinvent the wheel a second time around, and any true sketch show aficionado knows most episodes of the greats are pretty patchy. (Today’s innovators, Key and Peele and Inside Amy Schumer, suffer from the same inconsistency, despite regular waves of brilliance.) Still, the first two instalments of With Bob and David are short of highlights.
Beginning – as each ep does – with a joke-and-context-free cold open, we segue into the disorienting credits sequence before welcoming Bob and David to the stage. Sure, the familiarity is there. The first sketch — which sees them exit a “real-time” machine having aged, terribly — is performed in front of a live audience. The second uses a similar set as the one from ‘Intervention‘, as well as the same actors.
Familiar faces (besides Silverman, Black and Oswalt) return, the transitions still work as connective tissue, and the audience’s laughter continues throughout the pre-recorded pieces. It certainly feels like Mr. Show, except for the fact it’s just not as funny. Button-pushing bits like ‘Better Roots’ and one about the Imams who secretly run Hollywood have bite, but little about them that’s actually amusing. The few pleasures of those early episodes involve spotting the “fucking hipsters” seated in the audience, and knowing that people we admire and adore at least collected pay checks for their work.
This writer, his hopes dashed, was found exclaiming Bob Odenkirk’s actual, real-life catchphrase at the close of Episode 2: “Goddammit.”
Mercifully, their groove returns in episodes three and four, where high-risk, high-reward sketches involving blackface, police brutality, the C word, and the other C word (Christianity) actually pay-off.
A spoof of the book Heaven Is For Real wonders how an evangelical audience would react if a young boy returned from the afterlife to let everyone know that Hitler had been forgiven by the higher-ups. (Spoiler alert: not well!) A lengthy send-up of the classic doco Salesman changes the door-to-door peddler’s product from bibles to the Koran. A reality cooking show satire sees Odenkirk’s single dad try to impress the judges by claiming his plight is worse than that of his deaf competitor. Best of all is ‘Know Your Rights’, where Cross’ SJW (social justice warrior) tries to provoke a cop into brutalising him on camera. The friendly cop, played by Key and Peele’s Keegan-Michael Key, is mostly just bewildered by the interaction.
It’s hard to say if newcomers to Odenkirk and Cross’ comedy will be convinced of their genius after watching With Bob and David. It might simply be an affair for super-fans alone. Good thing there are plenty of those out there. In particular, they’ll delight in seeing “lost” sketch ‘Rooms: The Musical’ brought to life. (It was previously performed in slightly different form on Comedy Bang Bang.)
Perhaps knowing that, Netflix has included an hour-long ‘Behind the Making of the Scenes’ that reveals the writing process in intricate detail. If you’ve always wanted to see how the Mr. Show sausage was made, it’s essential viewing — though the super-earnest talking heads might rankle more cynical viewers. You’d be better off looking behind the interviewees and towards their ideas board for sketches that didn’t make the cut, like this tantalising premise: ‘Lincoln Had It Coming’.
“Goodbye 2 Every 1 Ever”
Right now, Odenkirk is back at work on season two of Better Call Saul. In the coming years (with Jon Hamm and Bryan Cranston finally out of the picture) he can probably expect to pick up an Emmy for his dramatic work. And yet, armed with as much professional juice as he’s ever enjoyed and the entire world now opened up to him, he decided to spearhead a Mr. Show reunion. In the making-of, you’ll even see him act as the most vocal participant in the writers’ room.
Maybe that’s the most heartening thing about With Bob and David. It’s not that two of the best sketch writers ever have gifted us with an occasionally brilliant new series; it’s that we get to watch two friends whose professional successes pale in comparison to the joy they get from dressing up like goofballs and making live audiences laugh.
To paraphrase Wyckyd Sceptre: “Well, alright!”
With Bob And David is now streaming on Netflix.
Simon Miraudo is an AFCA award-winning writer and film critic for Student Edge, RTRFM and ABC Radio. He tweets here: @simonmiraudo.