Mr. Show With Bob And David: "The Biggest Failure In Broadway History" & "If You're Going To Write A Comedy Scene, You're Going To Have Some Rat Feces In There"
A

Mr. Show With Bob And David: "The Biggest Failure In Broadway History" & "If You're Going To Write A Comedy Scene, You're Going To Have Some Rat Feces In There"

Hello, fellow GV Corporation shareholders! 

In our latest TV Club Classic analysis of Mr. Show With Bob And David, we find ourselves in the middle of season 2, a period in which I think the show was moving from strength to strength, and this weeks' selection is no exception.  

I've mentioned before that reviewing a sketch comedy show presents unique difficulties for the critic:  in order to place it in the proper framework -- let alone earn your paycheck for writing about it -- you have to be able to find something to say about it other than just listing whether or not the sketches were funny.  (And, while we're on that subject, I continue to be amazed -- and impressed -- that there's so much legitimate difference of opinion about which Mr. Show sketches worked.  I find it startling that anyone could name "Change For A Dollar" as a favorite, and downright stunning that someone could dislike "Super Pan".  And yet you're out there, and you've generally defended your opinions well.  The fact that so many people like the show, but genuinely disagree about its best moments, is to me a testament to both the quality of the show and of its fans.)  So I've tried to find angles of attack for each of these installments that will give us talking points beyond the mere recitation of our favorite skits.

In these two episodes, for example, we find ourselves dealing with two phenomena that we've encountered before, but not in such concentration.  And they're phenomena that can, very frequently, sink a sketch show.  For on thing, we have a big influx of celebrity cameos -- not only one from Jack Black, who's been with the show from the beginning, but also from Ben Stiller and Jeanne Tripplehorn, both of whom where pretty well-regarded at the time.  Also, we have, especially in the first of the two episodes, an extreme infusion of timely topics, which can be great when first aired, but which, as time goes by, can be a skit-killer of epic proportions.  How did Mr. Show handle its celebrity drop-ins?  And did the inclusion of cultural references that resounded in the 1990s mean they were sacrificing longevity in the long run?  Let's take a look.

EPISODE 3:  "The Biggest Failure In Broadway History"

What Worked:  This is another episode where just about everything is going full tilt, and, by my reckoning, that means that every episode in season 2 so far has been a roaring success.  It begins well -- we'll talk more about this below, but the joke about Bob and David being from different generations despite being born only a year apart not only works great on its own, but sets up the episode's main theme in an effective way.  It moves on to some sketches like "No Adults Allowed", "Slacker Discrimination", and "The American Ad Awards" -- in which public service announcements are designed to rehabilitate the reputations of the likes of the KKK and NAMBLA -- which are risky, and teeter on the brink of falling apart, but hold it all together and end up being amongst the best sketches in the show's history.  And it all ends with "Jeepers Creepers, Semi-Star", a note-perfect goof on '70s Jesus-freak musicals that draws laughs on every level.

What Didn't:  This episode is full of difficult sketch ideas that forever risk losing coherence, but the strength of the writing and acting keep them together.  The only one that doesn't work for me is "Nathan's Pet Iguana".   Despite some strong elements -- Bob's insane physical performance as Sulu the Iguana and David's precisely realized pay-attention-to-me wardrobe -- it asks too much of us in terms of investment of time, and gives away its joke early on, settling for reiterations of the idea instead of the usual Mr. Show approach of taking things to the next level.  It's not terrible by any means, but it displays a little dullness in the field of gems that surrounds it.

The Cast:  "Biggest Failure" manages to rival "Who Wants Ice Cream" in terms of its acting, and it saves at least one sketch from perdition.  The success of one-joke "Drunk Cops" is completely attributable to the performances of everyone involved -- Jill "I Smell Bacon" Talley's shambolic hysteric, Bob and David's stumbling, over-emotional cops, and Jay Johnston's conniving troublemaker.  Bob gets in one of his great angry roles as Dr. Ken Thirby in "No Adults Allowed" ("STRAIGHTEN THAT CAMERA OUT!"), but Brett Paesel really helps to sell the gag that these folks have no clue how to pretend to be teenagers with her doting maternal performance.  I have no idea why they never used Warren Hutcherson again, but he was phenomenal as the KKK Grand Wizard.  And just about anyone with a line in "Jeepers Creepers, Semi-Star" -- especially Bob and Jill as the parental Annas and Caiaphas -- is wonderful.  There was an element of risk in stunt-casting that sketch -- not so much with Jack Black in the title role, who'd been on the show enough for it to seem like a homecoming, but with Jeanne Tripplehorn.  I think it worked, because her lines, her delivery, and her immediate disappearance reinforced the ambiguity gag of the sketch:  she gave a shrug of a performance and then vanished.  

The Crew:  I've mentioned before the way the show begins, in this season, to have ambitions that far outstrip its modest budget.  That can backfire and make everything look cheap, but more frequently, as the show goes on, it becomes a strength.  The costuming in "Nathan's Pet Iguana" is very nice, capturing the self-satisfied look-at-me/don't-look-at-me vibe of the slacker '90s, but the real triumph here is "Jeepers Creepers, Semi-Star".  Troy Miller's location filming has gotten downright slick, and everyone involved, from the choreographers to the costumers to the songwriters, do such a terrific job in emulating Jesus Christ Superstar that it turns from elaborate gag to masterful parody.

Timely Comics:  1996 ahoy:  David is sporting a Buffalo Tom t-shirt.  Making this episode revolve around the premise that slackers (that 1990s demographic invention) were a discriminated-against minority like Jews or blacks was another big risk.  I think it pays off because it's paper thin:  Bob and David knew they were using a cultural archetype with a limited shelf life, and I think they were counting on that.  They knew that they'd get some laughs from contemporary audiences, but I think they also suspected that future audiences, likely less familiar with the archetype, would laugh out of the sheer absurdity of it all.  As someone in the very depths of the slacker generation, that's not really my place to judge:  those of you who are in your early 30s or younger, how do the slacker gags hold up for you?

Pet Theories:  When he finally arrives on stage (after keeping Bob waiting for the "third motherfuckin' time") David is wearing cargo shorts -- and he's wearing a flapped snow hat, for extra quirkiness.  (Bob is also reading a copy of The Onion, because he has good taste.)  This one is just a panoply of people almost breaking character, especially in "Nathan's Pet Iguana" and "Jeepers Creepers".  FAKE SPECIAL THANKS:  Nicholas Ray, great American filmmaker and director of such films as In A Lonely Place, Johnny Guitar, and Rebel Without A Cause.

Deep Thoughts:  Just like a lot of other big Broadway failures, "The Biggest Failure In Broadway History" took an enormous number of risks.  Against the odds, though, and in conjunction with some tremendous writing, acting and directing, they all paid off, and the result is one of the best episodes of the best season of Mr. Show With Bob And David.  It features some of their most controversial ideas ("The New KKK" and "NAMBLA:  We're Not Killers" would be tough for anyone to pull off, even today), a bigger cast than they'd ever used, sketches by a handful of new writers (this was Jay Johnston's first episode actually penning material), and one incredibly ambitious parody to close it all off.  That it not only succeeded, but seems almost seamless in hindsight, is all the proof you need as to why this show enjoys the reputation it does.

Rating:  A

Stray Observations:
- This has been discussed in your comments, and we'll return to it later, but there's something about Brian Posehn's appearance that almost automatically gets a laugh without even having to say anything.  Here, his appearance cruising around in a panel van delivers one of the biggest laughs in "NAMBLA:  We're Not Killers", and he doesn't even have to say anything.

- "I was raised in a time when people respected each other -- the mid-'70s.  You came of age in a different time -- the late '70s."

- Oh, Dr. Ken Thirby.  "I'm 14 and I just love to play those damn video games!"  That and "CRAIG GODDAMN IT GET OUT HERE" kills me every time.  And he confuses the Nazis with the Beatles, but who hasn't done that from time to time?

- "Why do you wanna fight?  Ask yourself why you wanna fight.  Take 2 seconds and think about why you wanna fight."

- I want to know what the stage direction for David was in his scene with Mr. & Mrs. Creepers.  "Say 'check this shit out', then dance around like an asshole for ten minutes" would be my guess.

- "Shut that refrigerator door/I'm not paying to cool the out-of-doors"

- For those of us who suffered so terribly under the slacker oppression of the mid-1990s, "No!  I was on the 18th hole!" will forever be our "I have a dream today".

- "You know, why don't you kiss my ass?"

- "I ated too much pie."

- If you feel like paying close attention during the dance number that closes "Jeepers Creepers, Semi-Star", you'll see a ton of young comedians who are now part of the alt-comedy pantheon:  among others, in attendance are Scott Aukerman, Doug Benson, Ken Daly, BJ Porter, Dino Stamatopoulos, and Sarah Silverman. 

EPISODE 4:  "If You're Going To Write A Comedy Scene, You're Going To Have Some Rat Feces In There"

What Worked:  Just as "A Talking Junkie" was a very strong episode that simply had the bad luck to follow the supernaturally good "Who Wants Ice Cream", "Rat Feces" is a terrific installment of Mr. Show that only suffers in comparison to "The Biggest Failure In Broadway History".  Even though it doesn't quite stand up to its predecessor, it still has some all-time great bits:  "We Love Our Gay Son", "Greg Sniper", and "San Francisco:  The Theme Park" are all amazing pieces of work that hold up against some of the show's best. 

What Didn't:  There's no really obvious weak points in the show; even sketches with somewhat flimsy premises are elevated by one quality or another.  "Downsizing" is saved by its creepy mood; "Van Hammersly" shines because of Bob Odenkirk's total (and totally ludicrous) commitment to the character.  The main reasons I don't think this one is quite as good as "Biggest Failure" are its relative lack of ambition and the fact that its overarching 'corporate' theme doesn't cohere particularly well.  But that shouldn't be read to mean that this is a bad episode, because there are no bad episodes in season 2.

The Cast:  More than most, this is an episode where the cast is called upon to salvage sketch ideas that are a bit thin.  As noted, "Van Hammersly" is a downright ridiculous idea; there's almost no joke there.  It relies entirely on Bob throwing himself into the role, and because he does so with such incomprehensible gusto, it ends up making the sketch work, and in fact, a lot of people cite it as a favorite.  The regulars do a good job here; Tom Kenny does for "Downsizing" what Bob did for "Van Hammersly", and while "Greg Sniper" is a much stronger sketch overall, it still benefits greatly from David Cross' simpering interpretation of the kind of boss who thinks he's beloved but is in fact widely despised.  (The way he delivers the "These goats are all retarded" line is just perfect:  it's an unexpected line that's short and simple but results in explosive laughter, a virtual textbook delivery.)  But while Jeanne Tripplehorn's cameo in the previous episode worked well enough, Ben Stiller's role in "The New Economics of Child Labor" isn't as successful.  He's got some funny lines and avoids his usual hyperactive riffing, but his technique is so familiar by this time that it can't quite escape the feeling of stunt casting.

The Crew:  There's a lot of excellent technical work here, and lots of well-observed details (what else would a jackass like Greg Sniper use for transportation other than a recumbent bicycle?), but nowhere is it more noticeable than in "San Francisco:  The Theme Park".  The sets, backdrops, music, and (especially) costumes are so well-suited to the material -- and, as we've come to expect, done with skill and determination one a very strained budget (witness Greg Sniper's completely empty mansion) -- that they blow the whole bit into the stratosphere, and make it a perfect show-closer.  That's something that I haven't discussed enough:  Bob and David had a nearly flawless sense of what the money sketch was, the perfect one to wrap up the show on a high note.  We'll be revisiting this later.

Timely Comics:  Sadly, most of the themes of this episode -- child labor, layoffs, and corporate malfeasance -- are still quite relevant today.  Grass Valley Greg, though he was meant as a parody of the New Economy e-business pioneers of the late '90s, doesn't seem dated (well, except for his giant cell phone) at all, because offices worldwide are still populated by would-be just-folks managerial dipshits like him.  And "San Francisco:  The Theme Park" was inspired by gentrification efforts then taking place in New York, Chicago, and elsewhere, but that too doesn't seem all that dated, especially in the wake of the real estate crash.  1996 ahoy:  Van Hammersly's instructional videos are all sold on VHS.

Pet Theories:  David's in cargo shorts again (it's entirely possible at this point that he just didn't own a pair of pants), and a thrift-score "Gemini" t-shirt written in multi-colored glitter.  So far, my theory remains watertight.  I might be misremembering here, but I seem to recall that Bob & David hated the words "skit" and "sketch" -- they usually refer to the bits on Mr. Show as "scenes".  If that's right, apologies for slipping back into the more familiar language, and I'll go on record as saying this is the best American 'scene' comedy in history if that assuages anyone's ego.  FAKE SPECIAL THANKS:  Gabe "Mr. Kotter" Kaplan.

Deep Thoughts:  Returning to his performance as Grass Valley Greg, it has to be a testament to David's acting that you crack up at the character while simultaneously wanting to punch him in the face, right?  Also, it's nice how, in that sketch, they flip the usual roles, with David taking the overenthusiastic phony gig and Bob handling the exasperated pro role.  Although I rated this one lower than its predecessor, it's the best kind of lower grade:  one assigned to an outstanding piece of work that only suffers in comparison to the sky-high expectations set up by the creators' previous work.  This one was soaked in little Mr. Show drops of genius, from Grass Valley Greg's campaign to legalize tomatoes and shareholder Cal Peltin's question for the nonexistent "gentleman in the yellow hat"  to the way they took an already-fantastic sketch ("San Francisco:  The Theme Park") and elevated into outer space with the idea to have everyone badly lip-synching their own dialogue.

Rating:  A-

Stray Observations:
- Once again, Brian Posehn gets a huge laugh by just standing there being Brian Posehn.  Whoever costumed him as Rodrigo and put those scary scabs on his knees deserved an Emmy, and he also gets a big laugh helplessly trying to feed Greg Sniper's goats.

- Background sighting:  Andy Kindler, one of the funniest (and most underrated) stand-up comics around, is in the audience for this one.

- Joke I missed the first million times I saw this episode:  "You've seen him perform feats of unparalleled skill on TV and the radio…"

- "And that's when Lincoln said, 'Don't dis my homies!'."

- "You gay bastard!  No gay son of mine is a not-gay!  You better get gay, or I'll make you gay!"  John Ennis proves that Bob has no monopoly on funny yelling.

- "You know what's urgent?  Fun.  Have a circus peanut!  It's made from tofu and spider sugar.  It doesn't hurt the spiders."

- David does what we'd all do if we got a fancy new office and a promotion:  strips down to his underwear. 

- "Is there no other human on the planet but I?"

- "When you see the new San Francisco, you'll say, 'San Frantastic'." 

- "We are sensitive to the needs of those who suffer from homophobia.  So in our new San Francisco, we got rid of the dirt, but kept the pansies, by creating Bachelor Land!"

More TV Club