Hello, fellow patrons of the Burgundy Loaf!
Let's talk about repetition, shall we? Many is the time you've heard me complain in this space about a sketch that goes on too long. It's death to comedy in general, but to sketch comedy in particular; the format is so geared to a sort of commando raid approach to getting laughs -- you get in, you deliver the charge, and you get out just as it blows -- that a sketch that overstays its welcome, overexploits its premise, or carries the joke into the territory of diminishing returns is liable to get a hostile reception from fans. (The same principle is behind a lot of the hostility to recurring characters in sketch comedy; in a sitcom, you get to know and like a character, but in a sketch show, you're just there for the laughs, and they decrease in frequency the more the writers try to squeeze out of an ongoing creation.)
But then there's sketches like we'll see in the second episode of today's recap: the titular sketch of "The Story Of Everest", which is one of my very favorites in the history of Mr. Show With Bob And David. What's that?, I can hear a few of you reprobates harrumphing. You, who despises a sketch you claim has gone on too long, embrace a sketch that is the very definition of going on too long?
Well…yeah. That's why there are no rules in comedy: come up with one, and some enterprising misanthrope will set his task to prove you wrong. Sketch-comedy efficiency is, in principle, a good thing, but plenty of comics have come up with a way to weave exquisite comedic tension out of absurdly delayed gratification. Sure, the gag of "The Aristocrats" is how vile and horrendous you can make the description of the act performed by the vaudeville troupe; but the real joke is delaying the punchline everyone knows is coming for as long as possible while still leaving your audience spellbound. There are even ways of making the very absence of a comedic payoff funny: while Andy Kaufman was the pioneer, dozens of smart-assed comedians have engaged in elaborate put-ons of the very medium in which they work, putting us poor suckers in the audience through the wringer as we wait for a payoff that may never come (see also the "Patience" episode of Wonder Showzen, the "7211" episode of Sealab 2021, and even, to an extent, the "Audition" sketch in the "Rudy Will Await Your Foundation" episode of Mr. Show.
But perhaps the most challenging thing of all isn't to make the audience wait for the comic payoff, or to simply remove it altogether and force the audience to realize that the joke's on them for waiting; maybe the hardest thing to do is to deliver the punchline, then deliver it again, then again and again, until you've completely violated the principle of never taking things past the point of diminishing returns, until everyone has gotten sick of the joke and wants you to move on, already -- and then keeping it going, again and again and again, until it passes 'funny', goes on to 'not funny', and then arrives at 'funny' again, like driving around the entire city by making a continuous series of left turns. This kind of gambit can easily go awry, because it's entirely dependent on the goodwill and sympathy of your audience; the greatest example of it in action is the rake scene from the "Cape Feare" epsiode of The Simpsons. It was a joke that grew out of the necessity to pad out a time-shy episode, but it ended up working transcendently -- for some people. Others still city it as one of the first warning signs of the decline to come.
"The Story Of Everest", to my eyes, pulls this gag off perfectly. It's not really a new joke; even back in vaudeville, a few performers were hip enough to try this sort of thing. But it's really illustrative of not only the Mr. Show genius for making sketches that weren't about the thing they were about, but the idea of the sketch itself, but also the fact that these were comics who weren't just out there on the edge, freebasing any comedic concept they thought might stick; they were professionals who were well-grounded in the principles of comedy, people who knew the rules, and were thus in a much better position to break them. Tonight's episodes aren't perfect, and each contains some draggy moments, but they also are filled with the kind of brilliance in concept and execution that proved that Bob Odenkirk, David Cross, and their writers knew how sketch comedy worked -- and knew it enough to approach it from a completely different direction.
EPISODE 3: "Rudy Will Await Your Foundation"
What Worked: The introductory skit, "Ultimate Blooper", is a killer, with Bob and David competing to show the most humiliating goofs from not only their show, but their entire lives. Its concept of upping the ante on what usually serves as a feather-light, inconsequential palate-cleanser of a gag works better the meaner it gets. "Phone Sex" has a pretty simple premise (Bob loses a bet and is forced to make phone-sex calls to his buddies), but it works largely due to some great performances by Bob and Brett Paesel, as well as the way the concept gets taken more seriously as it goes along. And "Audition", with David trying out for an acting role and delivering an impenetrable meta-performance to the embarrassment of the producers, is very nearly a masterpiece, a high-concept job that delivers almost on the level of "Pre-Taped Call-In Show", for many of the same reasons, but with an entirely different tone.
What Didn't: I've never been entirely sold on the title sketch. "Rudy Will Await Your Foundation", in which David visits a fancy restaurant where his eliminatory needs are tended to by a servant right there at the table, relies on the element of what would later become known as the comedy of humiliation, and David certainly delivers in that regard: his cringing discomfort at being asked to take a shit in front of his date almost completely sells the sketch. But something about it doesn't quite work for me; it might be the fussed-over delivery, or the way David's performance stands out while everyone else seems less involved (Bob's hammy performance and little sound effects are a rare misstep for him), but it just never won me over the way it did others. "Pre-Natal Pageant" is a strange case: it's a pretty solid sketch with some great moments, but it's sort of been superseded by reality. Anyone who's watched an episode of Toddlers And Tiaras -- and, woefully, I've watched quite a few -- has seen stuff far more horrifying and (unintentionally) funny than the sketch can provide. Kissing an elephant's ass would be sweet relief by comparison to watching that shit.
The Cast: Bob and David, as noted, are in top form; they really go at each other in "Ultimate Blooper", in that confidently aggressive way real pros use when they know how far to take things. Bob is also great as "Peppermint", the world's goofiest conception of a phone sex operator, but David gets two of the best roles in the episode in "Audition" (where the whole ability to sell the sketch is dependent on his performance) and in "Rudy Will Await Your Foundation". Indeed, it's the fact that he seems to be the only one particularly interested in that sketch that is a sticking point for me. Bob and Jill Talley are wonderful in "Pre-Natal Pageant".
The Crew: I'm not sure how much of this to attribute to the new directors and their lack of familiarity with directing Mr. Show, but the pace and snap of the filming seem a little lackluster this time around. Once again, though, props to the costume department, especially for David's leather-daddy outfit (shades of the future Tobias Funke!) in "Secret Superstar". Also, I don't know who was responsible for finding that sweet-ass gold lifted ranfla that played "Superstar Machine" on its horn, but I'd pay cash money for it right now.
Timely Comics: Do people still call phone sex lines? Or has that gone the way of the party line with the advent of free/cheap internet porn and webcams? I don't really know; I'm asking. My own taste in smut is woefully provincial. This show tries to bury "Weird" Al Yankovic, but "Weird" Al Yankovic will bury you! 1997 ahoy: Bob looks up something about Lassie on the internet by going to "the Lassie site", and not Wikipedia.
Pet Theories: Opening outfits on Bob and David: tuxedoes! It's a very special episode, as you can see by the fact that, for once, David seems to be wearing a suit that fits him instead of one made for a man three sizes larger. And we finally learn the lyrics to the Mr. Show theme! FAKE SPECIAL THANKS: D.R. Live, whatever/whoever that is.
Deep Thoughts: Despite the presence of one amazing sketch and two excellent ones, this one doesn't exactly blow me away. Maybe it's the pacing, maybe it's the malaise of knowing that it's now paired in my mind with its superior successor, or maybe the change of personnel really did cough up a show that felt a little draggier than it really was; or maybe I'm just being excessively cruel. But this one, while very good, seemed to, with the exception of "Ultimate Blooper", "Phone Sex", and "Audition", lack the brilliance that characterizes the show; a classic good-but-not-great.
- "First, here's a clip from a show where Bob got a little too upset." As if! Bob can never be too upset. He even vomits angrily.
- "'Cause I'm a superstar/In a superstar machine/takin' it to the stars/ooh, emotion lotion!"
- "I'm sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Odenkirk, it's simply too late to have an abortion. Your son is four years old."
- "Call me…Thor."
- "It's just so big, though! It's kinda scary."
- "Do you feel like being bad with Peppermint?"
- "When I first heart that Glenn Peterson was a dude, I wanted to talk to a chick. But Glenn's a dude's dude, who really knows what dudes want to hear when they're imagining talking to a chick!"
- "It's a good play! It comes from a real place."
- The way Jill refers to her daughter in "Pre-Natal Pageant" as "the old baby" just makes my heart hurt.
- "Oh, my God. It's a week late." Killer callback right at the end, I have to admit.
EPISODE 4: "The Story Of Everest"
What Worked: If it weren't for one sketch, this episode would be one of the show's best; it contains what's widely regarded as one of the best sketches of the show's run and one of the worst. On the good side, we have the title sketch. Discussed at some length above, it's a perfect exercise in going so far that you come back around in the opposite direction; excruciating on first viewing, it's painfully funny on second viewing, and by the third time around, it grows into a masterpiece. "Larry Kliest, Rapist" has lost none of its punch, and is especially effective at how it manages to actually make us feel a little sorry for the sick bastard. The TV-censored version of "Pallies" may be dated (networks don't much bother to show censored versions of movies in the age of premium channels and Netflix), but it's still funny for the perfect delivery of its central joke. "Gibbon's Market" is a wonderful exercise in wild hyperbole with a surprising emotional turn and a terrific, bitter ending. I'm also a fan of the "Sweetie-Pie Jonus" intro and outro, which is by turns shocking and adorable.
What Didn't: "Clumsy Waiter" is as widely reviled a sketch as you're going to find when discussing Mr. Show. I don't think it's as bad as "Dying Asshole In Vietnam", but it's pretty goddamn close, and more to the point, it simply doesn't belong on this show. It's an easy concept with lackluster execution and tired performances, and if we didn't recognize all the people in it, it would be easy to believe it was spliced in from another show entirely. It's bad enough to almost shut down a great episode.
The Cast: David does a great job of playing out the emotional arc of Mr. Gibbons; it's one of my favorite performances of his. Conceptually clever as it is, "The Story Of Everest" depends on good performances both to set up and execute the joke and to serve, to a degree, as audience surrogates. Bob (a particularly fine Angry Bob, in fact) and Jill do a great job in the latter slot, and in the former, Jay Johnston delivers what might be the greatest performance of his career, struggling against his own incompetence to prove his heroism. (He's also got just the right physique for the sketch; it's the kind of role that would have gone to John Cleese on Python.) It's a show-stopper in the best sense of the word; nothing can really follow it.
The Crew: The remake of "The Story Of Everest" was surprisingly well-done, and even a bit of an improvement on the old-time footage from "Megaphone Crooning" -- showing that the new-blood directors weren't entirely unwelcome. I thought the Sweetie-Pie Jonus bits were skillfully executed, too, and part of the reason I'm more generous with this episode despite the truly crummy sketch at the middle of it is that I think it's just better-paced, better-directed, and more lively than its predecessor. In television, this stuff makes a difference.
Timely Comics: Nothing much to see here, this time out, other than the ever-vanishing concept of something being edited for television.
Pet Theories: Bob and David look especially odd at the start of this episode, with the former in a pink chambray button-up that looks like it belonged to an especially boring engineer who wore it only on Casual Fridays, and David doing his best Charlie Brown imitation. We've already discussed why I think "The Story Of Everest" works so well; now, here's why "Clumsy Waiter" doesn't: it works the way standard comedy does. It sets up a premise, executes it, and waits for you to laugh. (Worse yet, it spends way too much time explaining itself.) That's enough for a lot of shows, especially those with lower expectations and a less capable cast; but here, we've come to expect brilliance. Premise-delivery-laughs just doesn't do it anymore; Mr. Show has trained us to look around the corner for what's coming, and this time, there's nothing there. FAKE SPECIAL THANKS: Mel Tolkin, head writer for Your Show Of Shows and father of writer Michael Tolkin.
Deep Thoughts: Especially when it's creators you're used to seeing, people whose work you've gained a pretty extensive familiarity with, execution counts for a lot. When you watch the same people work again and again, it's easy to get lost in the expectation of competence, to the extent that it doesn't impress you enough when you see it; at this point, dedication, execution, and snap count for a lot. That may be why I rate this episode higher than its predecessor despite the presence in the former of a truly lousy sketch, and in the latter of more good bits overall: after four years, how you do something starts to be as important as what you're doing.
- "Hell motherfuckin' yeah, rewrites! Funny that shit up, fool."
- "Rapist coming! Don't get raped!"
- "I tell you what: both of you can grab on to my books, you mother-father Chinese dentist!"
- "We've got apples! Look! We've always had apples! So how is that a difference? It's not."
- Brian Posehn, naked save for a diaper and bonnet, farting at the end of a conveyer belt. No other sketch comedy show can boast this feature.
- "I want to hear a funny story!"
- "Three times! You weren't here! He did it three times."
- "Whatta boob!"
- "And another thing. How many motherfuckin' times this motherfucker gonna fall down? That shit ain't funny."
- Next week: a new favorite episode, and one I haven't watched since it first aired. Join me or die!