Hello, fellow citizens of the Twin Empires of Meximericanada!
A funny thing happened on the way to writing this week's recap of Mr. Show With Bob And David: I actually had to watch the shows first.
Now, before you jump on me: I always watch the shows before finishing the recaps. But usually, I'm able to make a lot of my notes before actually putting in the DVD: I've seen most of these episodes at least a dozen times, and my opinions on them are pretty well-formed, so it's easy for me to make some general observations and start some thematic discussions before I actually re-watch them again. When I do, I'm always reminded of something I'd forgotten, and go back and revise my notes to make sure I got my facts straight (well, most of the time, anyway—goddamn you, Shannyn Sossamon) and to reflect any changes in my opinion from re-watching the shows, but up until now, I remembered everything with such clarity, right down to the order and the titles of the sketches, that doing so was really more of a formality than anything. I don't say this to brag; quite the opposite. It's pretty pathetic that I can cite episodes of a 12-year-old sketch comedy show chapter and verse but I can't remember to pay my gas bill on time.
But beginning with the middle of season 3—specifically with "Goin' On A Holiday"—I had to start watching the episodes first before I could even make general notes. I'm not sure if it was the memory loss caused by huge amounts of drug and alcohol abuse since the shows first aired, or the fact that in October of 1997, I had just started a relationship with a new girlfriend whereas now, I just sit around my empty house recapping old television programs, but I can't remember the details of some of these shows the way I used to. The names of sketches, the details, and a few of the specifics elude me and demand a close rewatching, though most of the themes, content and general details are still fresh. Hopefully this will make for an improved recap; if nothing else, some of you will finally get your wish that I be more specific about the premise of particular scenes, because now I'm going to have to write them down for my own memory's sake.
With "Please Don't Kill Me" and "Goin' On A Holiday", we get, I think, a couple of episodes that do the opposite of "Flat-Top Tony And The Purple Canoes". While that episode, good as it was, got bogged down by a few slow sketches where the performance wasn't able to surmount the material, here, we get the usual inspiringly great stuff, but on a few bits that aren't quite as good, the cast is able to push them over the top out of sheer dedication and enthusiasm. Other bits are transformed by that special Mr. Show genius of turning a clever idea into something way beyond clever; there's also a few straight-up classics here, some effective satire, and one sketch that's so good it almost single-handedly justifies the whole series. Let's get right to 'em!
EPISODE 3: "Please Don't Kill Me"
What Worked: I've never been one of those people who thinks cursing is a crutch in comedy. Skillfully done—or even clumsily, if enthusiastically, done—cussing can be one of the funniest things in the world, with precious little embellishment. Proof: the opening of this show, with Bob Odenkirk & David Cross' riff on the concept of the 'swear jar' segueing into the hilarious "Swear To God", where Bob's Rev. Winton Dupree portrays a televangelist with a gift for profanity. I've also always loved comedy based on commercials that sell products pandering to our laziest, basest instincts (and so does David, based on his stand-up), so the whole "Mustardayonnaise" bit works like a charm on me just based on the premise; the way they dress it up in phony action heroics and corporate rebellion with Jay Johnston's murderous Lincolnesque figure liberating us from the tyranny of condiments pushes it way over the top. And if I were teaching a class on sketch comedy and had to pick only a half-dozen bits from the history of TV humor to show students how it's done, "Hunger Strike"—where David brilliantly portrays an activist whose hunger strike has rendered him incapable of doing anything but think about food—would be my Exhibit A. It's a simple but effective gag, and he sells it so well with an incredible piece of acting that it belongs in a textbook.
What Didn't: There are a few weak bits here, but generally, they're overcome by enthusiastic performances or a solid premise. "Landlords", featuring David and Paul F. Tompkins as two emotional and hot-headed apartment managers, is a pretty silly idea, but the way they commit themselves to their ridiculous behavior makes it worth a lot of stupid giggles. "The Dr. X Annual Save The Earth Telethon", about a supervillain who raises money to prevent himself from destroying the planet, is a clever idea that goes on too long but is saved by Bob's absurd performance in the lead role and some funny throwaway characters added in. And "The Fad 3", while it too borrows some old jokes (David's "still scared" bit is a less-funny echo of Eric Idle's "shocked and stunned" riff in The Rutles), is much better than last week's Beatles goof, because even when it slows down, you're in awe of its high concept.
The Cast: David so completely dominates this episode with his performance in "Hunger Strike" that it's easy to ignore how many other good acting jobs there are: Bob gets to indulge his angry side as Rev. Winton Dupree and his goofy side as Dr. X (and the little shrug he gives to his daughter in "Mustmayostardayonnaise" to indicate that he's too busy making a sandwich to pay any attention to her life is terrific). Paul F. Tompkins has a nice bit as one of the landlords, trying valiantly to keep up with a manic David. And Jay gets two outstanding bits in this one, as the Singing Duke of Beepers and the hero of "Mustardayonnaise".
The Crew: While "The Dr. X Telethon" reminds us that we're still dealing with a low-budget show, there's some good work on display by the crew, especially in the set design for "Swear To God" (this show really has the televangelist aesthetic down to a tee) and the clever recreation filming of "The Fad 3". This episode also reminds us that a lot of the best jokes are unplanned: in "Mustardayonnaise", Jay was instructed to pump his arms up and down rapidly, and it would later be treated with slow-motion to make it look natural. This ended up not happening, and the resultant frantic flailing of his limbs ends up being one of the biggest laughs in the sketch.
Timely Comics: There's nothing much timely—and thus, nothing that seems dated—in this episode. Still, I'm not sure if it was intended this way, but if the "Fad 3" was intended to reflect that there were no longer four living Beatles, it seems a little bit creepier now that there's only two left (George Harrison was still alive when the sketch was filmed).
Pet Theories: David's opening scene outfit consists of a long-sleeved shirt and jeans. I need to come up with another pointless theory about this show. Here's a question: why is it that whenever there's a TV show or movie in which some major city or cities gets destroyed, Chicago is always one of them? Fuckin' Dr. X, messing with my beloved Windy City. How come nobody ever blows up New York or L.A. in TV shows? It's like the whole country forgets the place is even there unless they need to annihilate a major metropolis. Finally, there was no major break, but they came close so many times, I think David and Paul could barely get through their song-and-dance in "Landlords" without coming apart. FAKE SPECIAL THANKS: commie pinko/analytic linguist Noam Chomsky.
Deep Thoughts: There's a lot of reasons to love David Cross, and "Hunger Strike" has them all. Not only does he give a great performance (ably abetted by Dino Stamatopoulos), but it's a near-perfect example of one of my favorite comedic conceits, the idea of someone with an important thing to say, but who can't say it because he keeps getting distracted by something trivial. "Please Don't Kill Me" isn't transcendently great like the best episodes of season 3, but it does what a good sketch show should do: it wows you with the great material, and pushes the weaker stuff forward with enough enthusiasm that it isn't a distraction.
- "A little…fucking difference."
- "The Lord said, 'I am the light of the world'. Now, he could as easily have said 'I am King Shit of Fuck Mountain. Why would you fuck with Me?'"
- "Apartment is too hot—is Victor now to fix the sun? I cannot get up there."
- Dylan churns his own butter.
- "Okay, I am sorry, I have gotten way off track here. We were talking about food."
- "LET'S GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE!"
- John Ennis had a hell of a mustache going in the "Fad 3" sketch.
- A lot has been made of Bob's comically bad singing, and it's comically bad, all right. But what of his comically bad dancing? Surely it rates a mention. "Some end-of-the-world music, if you please, Evan!"
- Bill Odenkirk got more face-time playing his brother than he usually does as Fancy-Pants. I think he may have even had a line in "Swear To God"!
- "When there's danger from above/don't be a fool, share your love"
EPISODE 4: "Goin' On A Holiday"
What Worked: The intro, with Bob & David's families, is charming as well as funny, and it leads into the excellent "The Coming Age War" and "A World Run By Old People". The latter is a one-joke, SNL-type sketch, but the show sells it pretty well. "America Will Blow Up The Moon", in which the country engages in a campaign to get its pride back by detonating its only natural satellite, is a sharp bit of satire that ends up being even more successful that its premise. "Don Pratt", a non-lawyer played by Bob, is a supremely goofy premise sold by his loopy performance. And despite their grounding in deliberately outdated 1970s trends and ideas, the duo of streaker films, "Bare Ambition" and "Streak-Dome '97", are filled with laughs, simply because the writers give up so much space to play around in. It all ends up with the soulless, tortured cast singing "Goin' On A Holiday", one of the funniest endings Mr. Show ever delivered.
What Didn't: A lot of the sketches here are pretty standard issue: there's nothing particularly brilliant about "A World Run By Old People", "Secret Love", "Photo Shop", or "You're Fired". Luckily, they're all pretty short (except for "Secret Love", which goes on about three minutes too long), and while some are salvaged by good performances (especially "You're Fired", with Bob and David in their archetypical jerky boss and snotty employee modes), the ones that aren't are over with quick and don't harm the overall show too much.
The Cast: After overwhelming us with cute kids for a few episodes, this week's Mr. Show inundates us with the elderly. It's actually a refreshing change of pace, and the guy playing Bob's Grandpa Timmy is lots of fun, especially when ordering testicular electrocutions for all. Sarah Silverman returns as well, and she's downright perfect in "Bare Ambition", all foxy and sassy. Possibly this is because she sort of looks like she's a product of the '70s anyway.
The Crew: I don't know who wrote the moronic patriotic country songs performed by Bob's C.S. Lewis Jr. in "America Will Blow Up The Moon"; I assume it's Mark Rivers. But they're wonderful, as is Bob's costume—as we saw a while back in the "Marriage Announcement" scene, someone on staff has access to a nearly endless supply of Garth Brooks-style western shirts. A lot of the success of "Bare Ambition" and "Streak-Dome '97" depend on their ability to conjure, respectively, a specific kind of gritty '70s drama and a specific kind of cheesy '70s sci-fi, and director Troy Miller does great job of it.
Timely Comics: "Goin' On A Holiday" has a lot of satire in it, but fortunately, its dated elements don't work against it and often work in its favor. The kind of grandiose nationalistic posturing of "America Will Blow Up The Moon" never goes out of style, and C.S. Lewis Jr.'s shoot-the-messenger anti-monkey song would be right at home with the Tea Party crowd today. The origin of "Don Pratt" is in a bunch of low-rent lawyer ads that were ubiquitous on late-night TV in the '90s, but they also appear to still be around. And "Bare Ambition" and "Streak-Dome '97" don't rely on your having a clear memory of '70s b-movies; in fact, the less familiar you are with them, the funnier the sketches probably play. 1997 ahoy: There's a VHS copy of Mr. Show on top of the TV in "Secret Love", as well as a reference to Price Club. There's nothing dated about the sketch, but I didn't remember what it was about at first, and when I first saw the title "Photo Shop", I was wracking my brain to remember if Mr. Show had done some kind of "You Suck At Photoshop"-type gag.
Pet Theories: David is wearing cargo shorts in the opening, but Bob is not wearing a suit! I think I've found a new angle! I've already expressed my love of "Bare Ambition" and "Streak-Dome '97", but I've heard from a number of friends that they find them to be two of the weaker sketches in season 3. That perplexes me, but I'd like to know what y'all thought: yea or nay on the streaker skits? FAKE SPECIAL THANKS: Abraham Lincoln, America's funniest president.
Deep Thoughts: Having not remembered this one too well at first, I was surprised at how much I ended up liking it, despite its weak elements. Formally, it was a lot like its predecessor: a few spectacular sketches, and then a few more standard ones that were saved by strong performances or clever interpretations, adding up to a solid if not spectacular episode that played to its strengths but didn't get lost in its weaknesses.
- "Geez, David, what happened?"
- "54%? 1982? Rump roast? It all makes sense!"
- "I saw something printed! I can't trust you anymore!"
- "What kind of film did you use?" Droopy seems to have some trouble holding down a job.
- "When I was a boy, blowing up the moon was just a beautiful dream. Now it's science fact!"
- "Well, there isn't going to be any party now."
- "You call yourselves junior executives? YOU'RE SENIOR JACKASSES!"
- "This is bullshit!" David, too, knows the value of deliberately looking goofy.
- "Pratt Promise Number One: I am not a lawyer! So you don't have to worry about me hanging out at an office, or boring you with stories from work! I live with my mother, and I can get anywhere within a 30-mile radius anytime she doesn't need the car!"
- "All TV must be nice! For the nice people!"