Hello, fellow Dewey Award winners!
Today, we're starting our review of Season 3 of Mr. Show With Bob And David, or, as we like to call it, "the red box at last!". By 1997, HBO had enough confidence in Mr. Show to commission the longest season to date. (Although not enough confidence to market it competently; as we're reminded by the DVD set, the network thrice found it necessary to put the show on hiatus for a week to "air a late-night sex show".) And as anyone who's ever written comedy for a living can tell you, nothing kills the funny like having to produce it quickly and regularly.
Still, Mr. Show was more than up to the challenge. Though Bob Odenkirk & David Cross had to nearly double their previous show commitment, a ten-episode season was hardly daunting, and they felt they could deliver at a level of quality far higher than most sketch comedies were capable of. They'd also assembled an incredible team of writers, who, in season 2, had shown themselves perfectly matched to Bob & David's comedic sensibilities. The cast was in place, the crew was in place, the network had given them more time and (slightly) more money, and they were ready to show off what they could really do in what passed for a regular season on HBO.
Season 3 is my second-favorite after season 2. It develops some rough patches late in the season, but it starts off with the two episodes we'll be analyzing today, which can stand with the best work the show has ever done. If they wanted to convince any doubters, this was the way to do it. 1997 was also the year that word of mouth was beginning to spread about Mr. Show through its devoted cult fans, so "Heaven's Chimney" and "Peanut Butter, Eggs And Dice" were the first episodes a lot of people — pestered for months by their comedy-nerd friends — ever encountered. It's not like I've taken a poll or anything, but it seems like these are two of the most-remembered episodes, which might be attributable to the fact that a new audience was finally beginning to seep in. They'd be richly rewarded.
EPISODE 1: "Heaven's Chimney"
What Worked: One of the most interesting things about this episode is that its sketches, for the most part, aren't the kind of over-the-top masterpieces the show usually delivers. While "The Limits of Science" and "Hail Satan Network" are high-test genius, most of the early scenes aren't outside the realm of what you'd see on another, lesser sketch show. They're not exactly high-concept metahumor, but they work because the entire cast has a firm foundation in the basics of sketch comedy. This is something we probably haven't discussed enough: as with any other artistic medium, you have to know the rules before you break the rules, and the Mr. Show staff all had pretty solid grounding in the way regular skit comedy worked. If they'd come in with no experience determined to subvert every trope of the medium, it likely would have resulted in a lot more misses (this was, I think, one of the problems The State had). But the fact that they were pros as well as mavericks allowed them to take relatively simple sketch ideas like "Watch Us Have Sex" and "Directions" and elevate them to something special.
What Didn't: That same lack of complete over-the-top inspiration did slow this episode down a bit, and it was starting here that the connecting bits started to seem a bit more padded than usual; with a ten-episode order, links that previously might have lasted 30 seconds now went on for a few minutes. But even the least of this episode's scenes isn't bad, and there's nothing that just outright doesn't work.
The Cast: The "Hail Satan Network" sketch, which delivers a pitch-perfect Satanic mirror image of Christian evangelical programming, is a hilarious high-concept bit that would have worked just great by itself, but everyone in it — David's lazy wheelchair-bound Kevin, Tom Kenny & Jill Talley as the unctuous host couple, and especially Bob's amazing physical comedy as a fat preacher — goes way above and beyond, making it one of the best bits in the show's history. Elsewhere, Bob does a fine job translating his ingratiating showbiz phony persona into a cult leader role in the "Up Heaven's Chimney" intro, and in the amazing educational film parody "The Limits of Science", Tom demonstrates the value of having a top-notch voice actor on call. With Mary Lynn Rajskub sadly departed (love's a bitch, baby), Karen Kilgariff would start showing up more often, and "Watch Us Have Sex" is a good intro to what she could do.
The Crew: In season 3, Mr. Show would start looking better and better, thanks to a slight but badly needed bump in the show's budget. That's in evidence right away, as the excellent film-work on "The Devastator" and "The Limits of Science" make clear. (Of course, it could still look cheap as hell: check out "Directions" and the sloppy animation in "Crazy Religious Beliefs" for evidence.) Paula Elins' work in costumes continues to excel, with "Hail Satan Network" — check out Tom's suit and Jill's wig — riding the fine line between outstanding re-creation and absurd parody.
Timely Comics: Cult behavior — Christian and otherwise — never seems to change, so it doesn't make much difference that "Heaven's Chimney" is a specific parody of the "Heaven's Gate" cult suicides of 1997. "Crazy Religious Beliefs" is still funny, but probably suffers a bit more from its dated reference to TV's Bloopers & Practical Jokes, which was already a decade old when this episode aired. Otherwise, nothing feels especially old here — in fact, one of the reasons "The Limits of Science" works so well is that it applies and old-fashioned aesthetic to an even older-fashioned one.
Pet Theories: David is wearing torn jeans this episode, shooting to shit my theory that any show where he doesn't start out wearing shorts is a lesser episode. Ah well, it passed the time. Anyway, one of the reasons I love the first half of Season 3 so much is that the first five episodes feature the underrated Michael Stoyanov — a longtime TV veteran best known as the older brother on Blossom — as a staff writer; he's a hell of a funny guy who doesn't get enough work. Also, if you were raised on cheap, crummy religious programming like I was, you'll get a familiar chuckle out of the cheeseball multi-camera during Bob's song in "Hail Satan Network". FAKE SPECIAL THANKS: "Flanagan". That narrows it down to about a hundred people. You'll have to be more specific, Mr. Show Fake Special Thanks!
Deep Thoughts: I've had a number of you request that I provide a list of skits in each episode of Mr. Show as well as what they refer to. Although I understand the impetus behind this request, I'm a bit hesitant to do so — these recaps are already quite long, and to provide that information (for around ten sketches per episode and two episodes per recap) would make them even longer. I've tried to provide contextual clues as to what the sketches are about, but this feature is meant to be critical, not informational. Obviously, if you're following along with the episode, you know what each sketch is; if not, that information is pretty easy to find on the internet. However, if any of you have some ideas as to how I could accomplish this without spending the whole day writing these entries, I'm all ears.
- "It's time to eat the poisoned s'mores. Come on up here, and get them while they're poisony! That's when they're best." It's slightly creepy hearing people laugh so hard at a gag that plays on the then-recent mass suicide of almost 40 people, but honestly, they were pretty ridiculous.
- "And Buddah will be there, and Mohammed, and Vishnu, and maybe even…Shaquille O'Neal!" (No fatwah was issued at the cartoon representation of Mohammed in this episode. Was it a simpler time, or was it just that no one was watching?)
- "I like to masturbate in a closed room while people are waiting for pie to cool!"
- "Oh, we're terrific."
- "I ain't afraid of no rolly-coaster!"
- "But, uh, fuck! God damn it! I can't believe it, about your cancer, too!"
- "Questions, questions, questions. The modern mind can come up with three questions."
- "Kimberly, you are just the mother of all whores."
- "He said…I was…lazy."
- "He can hear fine."
EPISODE 2: "Peanut Butter, Eggs And Dice"
What Worked: This one's pretty much a tour de force, folks — far and away my favorite episode of season 3. There are skits that blow you away with their sheer conceptual brilliance ("The Bob Lamonta Story"), ones that succeed because of a powerhouse performance ("Fuzz: The Musical"), and ones that seem ordinary until a great twist or a bit of sheer weirdness carries them over the top ("The Ratings Man" and "Best Friend's Marriage Announcement"), but everything just clicks, scene after scene. It's one of those shows that's so good that you find yourself surprised that all these great sketches were in one episode; my memory had fooled me that they were spread across several.
What Didn't: There's really nothing I can find to complain about here. There's a lot of stuff that might not have worked, but it all does: Mr. Show takes a chance by bringing back a previous character in Ronnie Dobbs for "Fuzz: The Musical", and it's a triumph. There are a few slight ideas salvaged only by their sheer lunacy, and the show wisely keeps them at link length rather than padding them out ("Tatiana The Weather Hermaphrodite" and "Cock Ring Warehouse"). This one just works across the board.
The Cast: There's a few noteworthy bits here from the supporting cast; John Ennis is a fine anchor in the "Best Friend's Wedding Announcement" skit, congratulating his buddies for not brutalizing poor Bob, and he does a great job as Santa, too, veering between boisterous joy and crazy paranoia. Jill is great as a self-congratulating actress in "The Brave Choice Awards". But really, this episode belongs to David Cross. He comes out swinging in the "Coming Out" opener; he's jaw-droppingly odd as Tatiana; he sells the hell out of his role as Bob Lamonta; and, of course, he's beyond great as Ronnie Dobbs in "Fuzz: The Musical". He simply owns this episode, which should be all over any demo reel assembled to illustrate that the guy is flat-out a good actor.
The Crew: "Fuzz: The Musical" looks great as well, especially compared to the previous Ronnie Dobbs skit in season 1. With the increased budget, Mr. Show would do a lot more parodies, and "The Bob Lamonta Story", with its '80s After School Special feel, is a good start.
Timely Comics: "The Bob Lamonta Story" is based on a real TV movie, but seeing it, or even knowing about it, isn't necessary, thanks to the scene's general attack on mawkish feel-good true life docudramas. Otherwise, there's not much in the way of topical or timely elements this time around.
Pet Theories: This one starts with the ol' switcheroo, with David wearing Bob's suit and Bob in…DING DING DING! Cargo shorts! I remember when this episode first aired feeling a tinge of dread when "Fuzz: The Musical" started, because the last thing I wanted this show to do was fall back on lazy SNL-style recurring character gimmicks. But those fears were dispelled in an instant. This really was a special show, and it handled its recurring characters in a special way; "Fuzz: The Musical" turned into one of my favorite bits (and one of yours, too, it seems), and earned one of the most unlikely Emmy nominations of all time. I notice that a number of you have cited this episode as evidence for those who aren't yet on board the Mr. Show bandwagon to stick around for; I couldn't agree more. FAKE SPECIAL THANKS: Roberta Sanchez. Again, I have no idea who this is.
Deep Thoughts: "Peanut Butter, Eggs and Dice" (the title comes from the lunch prepared for Bob Lamonta by his mentally retarded parents) is one of those episodes that illustrated a founding principle, one we've discussed before, of why Mr. Show was so innovative. That principle is the idea of taking a sketch idea and carrying one step further, one step ahead, so it's no longer about the sketch idea, but about the sketch itself — a quality that usually adds an absurd twist that carries it over and above what most shows would do with the material. That's all over the place here: David coming out as bald takes an obvious joke and makes it into a commentary about self-congratulatory ratings bids, and having the already-bald Bob wear a bald wig is an early signal of how it's going to go. "Ratings Man", where Santa is also in charge of TV ratings and "Best Friend's Marriage Announcement", where a man's friends are driven to inexplicable murderous rage by his engagement, thrive on the sheer absurdity of their concepts. And "Fuzz: The Musical" and "The Bob Lamonta Story" are paradigmatic of the Mr. Show approach. (The latter ends with one of my favorite joke constructions: the disclaimer of how something we've just seen contains one exaggeration, then another, then another, until it's clear that the whole thing was a total invention.) This is as close to being a perfect television episode as any American sketch comedy has ever gotten.
- "Then I reject God."
- "Now you just keep bein' Santa, see? And never die. Or you'll get it!"
- "I decided to use the actual cops and actual criminals for actuality's sake!"
- "Hello, 911, it's me again/Ronnie's beatin' me again/I got you on speed dial/Wish you'd call me once in a while/911, it's me again."
- "Well, what the hell? Let's go have us a champagne jam."
- This marks the 13th year that I can't see an Emmy without thinking of it as "The Biggest Asshole in the World" Award.
- Another astonishing example of Brian Posehn getting huge laughs for just looking like Brian Posehn: Fervel Lankman as Donnie in The Crack'd Mirror and its sequel, Goin' Crackers. Accepting the laughter of hundreds of people because you sort of naturally look like a big retard: now that's a brave choice.
- "It's been a big, brave year for us as ac-tors."
- "I hope you find my life story as reminiscent of my life as it is for me."
- "I'm strong! Like the Hulk! RRRRRR!"