Hello, fellow Civil War re-enactors!
It's an old adage in comedy that it's not the joke, it's the joker. It's no secret that more often than not, the laughs come from the delivery as much as or more than they do the inherent strength of the material, and a joke that might kill when one person tells it could fall dead on the ground if another person tells it. Finding out what kind of material works for you — that is, developing your 'style' — is a major part of becoming a successful comedian, and one reason comics are so loath to steal from someone else's act, aside from the fear of being caught, is that they might not be able to deliver on it as well as its creator. There's no cover versions in comedy.
We'll be looking today at "Eat Rotten Fruit From A Shitty Tree" and "Like Chickens…Delicious Chickens", hands down my choice as the weakest one-two punch in the history of Mr. Show With Bob And David. Sometimes, as with the notorious "Date With The Queen" sketch, it's as easy as recognizing weak material, and there's far too much of that concentrated in these two episodes. But often, it's not quite that simple. Some of these sketches are quite strong on their own merits, including one highly-praised one that you're all going to hate me for not liking; it's just that they don't quite feel right coming from Mr. Show. One reason the show was such a success, even in season 4 where the thematic linkage of sketches got less and less emphasis, was that it always had a unique voice, a specific feel, tone, and character. A few of these sketches are funny enough on a cold read, but delivered by this cast, in this format, on this show, they just seem…off.
The little chinks in the previously impenetrable Mr. Show armor, the weak links that were almost invisible in seasons 1-3 and were only a minor distraction in the first six episodes of season 4, become impossible to overlook here. The lack of thematic consistency was easy to miss before, because there was always a handful of fantastic skits to cover up the cracks in the walls. Here, that's not the case; scene after scene is either weak or simply seems to belong to a different show, written and performed by a different group of people with different comedic sensibilities. They're real roadblocks, and the reasons I can never cite Season 4 as a favorite; while they all contained missteps, no previous season had so many moments as clunky as these two episodes.
The show would give us the happy ending we were promised when we first ponied up our cash at the HBO massage parlor front desk, as next week — our final recap! — features Mr. Show roaring back to the greatness of the past one last time. But they couldn't keep defying gravity forever. With these episodes, the show falls, but it doesn't crash and burn; it just seems to sink down into the atmosphere with ordinary comedy shows for a while.
EPISODE 7: "Eat Rotten Fruit From A Shitty Tree"
What Worked: The "Mr. Show Water Cooler" intro, while slight, was a clever parody of know-nothing political debate (sadly still relevant). "Fuckin' Guys", with the two assholes who marry each other to prove who's toughest, has a pretty obvious joke behind it, but it's good for some decent laughs along the way. "God's Book On Tape" is overlong, but worthwhile for Bob's ace Bob Evans imitation. And "Monster Parties" almost — almost — saves the whole episode, but even it's a little padded; David doesn't do his endless "uuuuh" because the writers thought it was such a hilarious gag. It smacks of time-filling.
What Didn't: "Date With The Queen" has already been thoroughly eviscerated around here, and y'all have done a fine job pointing out its weaknesses in comments, so there's no need to repeat them here. It's a good example of a sketch failing on its own merits; it's really hard to see it working no matter who might perform it. And "Lance Reports" just proves that no matter how much you smarten it up, drag it out (it's a painful three and a half minutes long), or turn it on itself, a fart joke is just a fart joke.
The Cast: Good to see the Chan non-twins again, but I haven't seen so many atrocious fake accents on display as we see in "Date With The Queen" this side of True Blood.
The Crew: Given how fine a job they do on the wardrobe in "Date With The Queen", it's really amazing cheap the sets look. It's community theater stuff. Which I probably wouldn't have noticed if I liked the episode more.
Timely Comics: Since I don't listen to them much myself, I always wondered what they call books on tape in the mp3 era. Oddly enough, this oddness was addressed on the most recent one I heard: a reading of I Drink For A Reason by David Cross.
Pet Theories: Bob Odenkirk begins the "Mr. Show Water Cooler" intro in a rust-colored suit, and David's wearing a long-pants version of his cargo shorts and a sweater stolen from Jean Teasdale's wardrobe. It might seem like I'm being too harsh with the grade here, since the bits I liked outnumber the ones I didn't, but with the exception of "Monster Parties", none of the good ones provided more than mild amusement, and the bad moments were really abysmal. FAKE SPECIAL THANKS: Jon Atack, author of A Piece Of Blue Sky: Scientology, Dianetics And L. Ron Hubbard Exposed.
Deep Thoughts: Even beyond the good-to-bad ratio, nothing really cohered in this episode, which ended on a real high note that nonetheless couldn't hold the whole thing together. I noted earlier in these recaps that the narrative of Season 4, contrary to popular opinion, may not have been "Mr. Show gets cancelled too soon" but rather "Mr. Show gets cancelled just in the nick of time. I've cited individual sketches as arguments that the show bit the dust just before it was able to wear out its welcome, but "Eat Rotten Fruit From A Shitty Tree" is the first entire episode I can point to in support of the theory. It won't be the last, though.
- Sarah Thyre as porn star Xona Chiffon: man, way to go, Andy Richter.
- "Well, this is an intriguing proposal, but it raises the issue: how many blowjobs can Congress give in a fiscal year?"
- "Glauman's. None for you, dear."
- "Ah! You wish me to waffle about and we shall have a private folly!"
- "Chickenshit! Come back!"
- "Oh! My life."
- "Jesus, you're tops, and you make me learn something new every day. This one's for you, kid. Now you're gonna learn more about your old man than you ever wanted to know."
- "Sure, the names and dates are there, but nobody caught the swagger, the attitude, the little-kid wonder — basking in praise at the Red Sea one minute, and then vomiting in a john next to Mick Jagger at Studio 54 the next."
- "Was I right? Oh, man, I was worse than right. I was wrong."
- "The unexplained. The inexplicable. The hard-to-convey. Since the dawn of time, men have wondered: do mysteries really exist? Some say 'maybe'. Others aren't so sure."
EPISODE 8: "Like Chickens…Delicious Chickens"
What Worked: It's not a good thing when the intro is the best part of the show, but I love the "Swiss Reparations" bit where David gets 82 cents and a nice card for millennia of discrimination. "Charles McHutchence", with dueling PSAs for two non-politicians, plays like a blend of "Don Pratt" and "Gibbons' Markets", so it has an air of familiarity to it, but it's still a funny idea cleverly executed and is good for some laughs. The "World's Oldest News Team" is a fun link, but they've gone to that well an awful lot, and in "Civil War Re-Enactment" the laughs are mere chuckles from a show we've expected to routinely blow our minds.
What Didn't: First, let's get the screaming out of the way: "The Great Hemingway", where Bob's African explorer describes the native wildlife in bewildering anatomical terms, has never worked for me. It's a good example of the joker-not-the-joke phenomenon I discussed at the outset: unlike, say, "Date With The Queen", it's by no means a weak sketch. It just doesn't seem to work for Mr. Show. In the hands of a more intellectual sketch troupe — Monty Python's Flying Circus, as a perfect example — the Hemingway prose (barely recognizable here despite the set-up) and the language-play, the idea (stated explicitly, and in a dismayingly ham-handed way, in the sketch itself) that Bob simply doesn't know the right words for things, would be played up. Instead, they choose to play up the word-substitutions themselves, making what's actually a quite clever sketch seem nothing more (or, admittedly, less) than scatological gags on a 7th-grade level. Likewise, I love the absurdity of turning the plane crash survival story of "Fat Survivor" into an extended goof on "The 2000-Year-Old Man", but it doesn't work, simply because Bob and David are not Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks. The Benny Hill parody of "Racist In The Year 3000" worked because fast-motion wolf chases to the accompaniment of "Yackity Sax" know no borders, but the "2000-Year-Old Man" riff really only works with the easy charisma of its originators, and the sketch, whether meant as homage or parody, just doesn't come across. "Bugged Drug Deal", with David as an all-too-obvious narc, is a joke that's been done a million times before, and better.
The Cast: Scott Adsit is terrific as the Mississippi governor, hustling Jerry Minor out of the state. "That says it, right there." Tom Kenny makes a surprise return, albeit in voice-over form only, as the announcer in the "Charles McHutchence".
The Crew: Another bad wig fiesta this time around, especially on poor David, forced to contend with off-center toupees as Kevin Ferguson and Charles McHutchence. Bob gets off two of them as the plane crash survivor, first a terrible Hollywood ponytail and then a Rick James jheri-curl (he doesn't like it, he doesn't dislike it), suggesting that he found some activator in the wreckage.
Timely Comics: Nothing much dated here; the episode failed on weak material, not timeliness.
Pet Theories: Bob's in his usual suit this time around, and David's rocking a tuxedo tee, top hat, and novelty Texas-size cigars from Stuckey's. Other than that, I got nothin'. It's odd: like a lot of critics, I usually like bad stuff if for no other reason than that I can get cleverly nasty in tearing it apart, while really good stuff leaves me at a loss about what to say other than "it was great". But with Mr. Show, I could praise the good moments endlessly, while a bad episode like this just seems embarrassing; I want to say as little as possible and just move along. There's no joy in punishing something you love. FAKE SPECIAL THANKS: T. Herman Zweibel, publisher of a beloved newspaper we all know and adore.
Deep Thoughts: Overall, this is easily my least favorite episode of Mr. Show. Its best sketches were slight and insufficient, and its worst were pretty dreadful; on balance, it played like an episode of Saturday Night Live from around the same era, with sketches that assumed their concept would be enough to carry them. this proved not to be the case, and the scrimping done at the acting and writing levels are obvious. No one seemed to be particularly into the sketches, and it shows. I'm often overly critical of a bad Mr. Show sketch just because I'm so used to Bob and David producing works of genius, but "Like Chickens…Delicious Chickens" is simply bad; it's not merely bad by comparison. If this had been the first episode I ever saw, I might not have tuned in again, and it's probably the only episode I flat-out don't like. But that's a 97% success rate, and that ain't bad.
- "You know, my people have been harassed, murdered, and, well, bedeviled for thousands of years. And we're finally getting a big paycheck from the Swiss government. You know Hitler's up in heaven going 'Rrrrr! You got me!'"
- "See, the country is like the cat, and the spilled milk is, like, your relatives."
- "Relax, Kevin, I'm just havin' a chatty pee in here."
- Between his voice-of-reason skydiver and his ambivalent water-skiing instructor, Jay Johnston has been on a real kick of confident authority figures these last two episodes. Hell, I'd vote for him.
- "You fucked with the wrong guy, Reverend."
- "Let me describe the roar of the lion: it is impossible for me to describe the lion's roar."
- "No more news. No more."
- "Thousands would come and pretend to be brave."
- "Lamar was a two-time state yelling champion who dreamed of one day finding a box of money."
- I will also cite the ending of this show, with its incessant repetition of the "y'all got fake poo?" catchphrase, as an SNL-style unfunny moment. And I am fully prepared for the barrage of 'you hate joy' responses, so please commence.