In a way, it shouldn’t be too surprising that I’ve never really seen Mr. Show. When it was still on HBO, the “underground” sketch show was batted around the schedule from one horrible time slot to another, and often pre-empted by a sports-chat program or postponed by a late-night sex show. Worse, the network seemingly underfunded the program at every turn. All of which led Mr. Show to dissolve a mere 30 episodes and three years after it began in 1995. So chances are, most people today who spout Mr. Show quotes also missed out on it the first time around. It just took me a little longer to catch up.
Early last year, I rifled through the bargain bin at a local Best Buy and spied the entire Mr. Show series for a meager $20. Even as a Mr. Show philistine, I knew this was too good to pass up. It had always been a glaring omission in my sketch-comedy viewing. While Kids In The Hall and Simpsons quotes always flowed effortlessly, I was at a loss when people talked about Bob Odenkirk and David Cross’ “masterpiece.”
Previously, I had seen only a few scattered episodes of Mr. Show via Netflix while recuperating from minor surgery. I’m fine now, thanks, but I was on painkillers and was bedridden at the time, so I unintentionally drifted in and out of sleep, and only the faintest details of the episodes stuck with me. What I remembered didn’t really entice me: The forefathers talking about shit and flags, the sketches being tangentially linked, and David Cross smiling a lot. Really, if that’s all you took away from an episode, would you tell your friends about it?
But I guess it doesn’t make too much sense that I wound up hooked on Mr. Show earlier this year thanks to its 11-minute sketch about a suburban kid being ushered away to Tibet as the new Dalai Lama. On paper, it’s fucking stupid: two high-school seniors hanging out with monks? A summer-Olympics-style showdown against “those rich snobs from the fat kids’ camp?” An Adidas-clad monk who wins a rap-off with rhymes like “Rap, rap, a-rap rap rap?” Brian Doyle-Murray serving as the referee? What the fuck is going on here? Somehow, in the context of Mr. Show, it all works perfectly.
But what hit me more than anything is the show's gleeful idiocy, which Odenkirk sums up perfectly in the show’s episode guide/coffee-table book, Mr. Show: What Happened?!: “It’s silly, relevant, irrelevant and silly, all at the same time. God bless us for doing it.” The more I watched, the more I found that Odenkirk and Cross are masters of conjuring up moronic sketch ideas that were brilliantly executed and hilarious. For instance, take “F.F. Woodycooks.” In an America’s Most Wanted takeoff, Woodycooks is a Gene Shalit-looking fellow who fights crime with his “crime stick,” a tree branch with a jingle bell at the end. He narrates a caper gone wrong wherein a former Chicago cop who, upon finding a pair of criminals, “transform[s] himself into a human alarm” and, when, overpowered, “use[s] his natural drowsiness to his advantage” to keep the criminals at bay until the police arrive to wake him from his nap. Sounds stupid, right? It is.
Mr. Show retained its goofy spirit throughout, and its episodes became increasingly ambitious: More rewarding jokes began to emerge, their elements patiently planted in advance to reward those paying attention. This might seem labored, but the groundwork was already laid from the very beginning with sketches that seamlessly led into each other. Usually when people talk about Mr. Show, they focus on a sketch or two that supposedly exemplified the series as a whole, like “Altered State Of Druggachusetts” or “Ronnie Dobbs.” But Mr. Show’s genius is that each episode is like a finely sewn quilt: You can simply admire the stitching in one square, or take a step back to appreciate the entire pattern. So, sure, an individual sketch or character might be hilarious, but the show deserves a hell of a lot of credit for how it has characters roam from sketch to sketch. Bear in mind, too, that they rarely used recurring characters or transitions, and the writing staff would toil for days on a sketch link that might last only 30 seconds.
Sure, the show sometimes felt sweaty, or sagged under its lofty aspirations. One memorable misfire is also one of the series’ last sketches, “Goodbye.” It’s a six-minute sketch that documents a series of awkward run-ins between a pair of friends who meet unexpectedly at a bar. And then on the way to the parking lot. And then at the gas station. And so on, until one reads about the other’s death in a terse headline: “Friendly Acquaintance Dies.” Inexplicably, the reader somehow has a related sidebar titled “Friend Is Sad.” The joke is there, but it mostly falls flat. But the final episode was a little unusual for the series in other ways as well. That isn’t a bad thing; Cross, Odenkirk, and company weren’t content to merely churn out the same shtick every time. In the viral-video era, this isn’t merely refreshing: It’s exactly what we need more of in comedy today.
That helped me understand why people always said Tim and Eric's rabid comedy is so strongly influenced by Mr. Show. Odenkirk (who is largely responsible for getting Tim and Eric on TV) himself recently told me in an interview that Tim and Eric are “making fun of the public conversation and how it’s carried on and what’s ludicrous about it,” with a sleight of hand that entails satirizing “not the things themselves that are being advertised, [but] the way they’re being advertised.” Which was similar to many of Mr. Show’s satirical sketches, which lampooned local news and major news outlets. (Like a news team that shoots people and reports on that because, they're too impatient for actual news to happen.) That said, they were also capable of out-and-out silliness, like Bob Odenkirk’s odd learn-by-billiards tape I Oughta Be In Pictures:
Mr. Show understood that silliness can actually make satire smarter and more accessible. That balance is rarely seen in sketch shows or sitcoms anymore, so discovering Mr. Show was like a giant reminder of how far things have fallen since. After watching a bunch of episodes on a single night, my sides and face literally ached from how hard I’d been laughing. Then I’d realize that the show has already run its course and there’s nothing like it around today. (I had the same experience with Arrested Development a few years ago, I also got to that later than everyone else.) But, watching Mr. Show has, in all honesty, given me a greater appreciation for life, and for all the people I know who have been referencing it for years. I remember getting extremely excited after seeing a sketch called “Monster Mash,” about a reality-TV show called Probings, which dares to ask “Do mysteries really exist?” The fake show’s intro cites Probings’ quest—the IM status of our intrepid Madison City Editor Scott Gordon has cryptically quoted this line for as long as I can remember—to understand “the unexplained, the inexplicable… the hard to convey.” The rest of the sketch was pure frosting, because any comedy show that can have a sketch with a Dr. Demento-like character, Dracula, and a professor masturbating to someone describing a monster mash is good in my book.