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Of course, it’s been nearly 17 years since Mr. Show ended its 30-episode (plus a couple specials) run on HBO, and even among fans of sketch comedy, it’d be acceptable for some blurring to have set in. I have days where I can’t necessarily remember which performers and writers were part of Mr. Show versus The State versus the short-run Upright Citizen’s Brigade series versus The Whitest Kids U’ Know, among other contenders. (It’s much easier to remember who was in Key & Peele.)
As a memory refresher, Mr. Show premiered in 1995 and starred Odenkirk and Cross and featured a recurring cast of performers and writers including Paul F. Tompkins, Sarah Silverman, Tom Kenny, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Scott Aukerman and Jack Black. Episodes were framed by Cross and Odenkirk before a series of sketches joined together loosely through passing characters or lines of dialogue. The material was absurdist and rule-breaking and the structure owed more than a little to Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
W/ Bob & David may have dropped the “Mr. Show” part of the title and added some typographical quirks, but it’s pretty much the same thing, with only minor shifts in format and almost unnoticeable shifts in tone. The opening credits are, if anything, more Monty Python-esque. The connective tissue between the skits is perhaps a little flimsier. And only the first episode begins with Bob and David directly in front of the audience, directly linking the new show to its legacy by having the stars emerge from a Port-a-Potty Time Machine that transported them from 1998, sadly aged by 17 years. The catch-up will take about five seconds for Mr. Show fans, and for viewers who didn’t watch Mr. Show before? Come on. You’ve seen sketch comedy before and the only question is: “Is it funny?” Because the only thing more excruciating than unfunny sketch comedy is unfunny improv comedy.
And the answer is: “Mostly funny, yup.”
Because Odenkirk and Cross are busy guys, W/ Bob & David‘s Netflix run is only four half-hour episodes, which hardly counts as anything in our binge-happy culture, and critics have seen the first and third installments. There’s a certain acclimation process that leads to some clunkiness in the first episode, with the Time Travel Port-a-Potty sketch taking a particularly long time to unfold and reach an admirably grammar-wonky punchline. The first episode is additionally plagued by an audience that acts as if it might also have been sitting in the studio for 17 years, waiting for this return, prompting some of the easiest laughs I’ve heard outside of 2 Broke Girls crowds I have to assume were plied with alcohol. There are moments in that episode in which a Brian Posehn shrug generates a roar — and heaven knows I like Brian Posehn and admire the expressiveness of his shrugging, but perhaps a mere reactive smile would suffice. The second episode, freed from the constraints of needing to reestablish what loose premise the show ever had is much smoother, and my decree from on high is that the audience’s laughs were generally more appropriate.
As usual, Odenkirk and Cross’ humor ranges from easily explainable silliness that escalates in unexpected and extreme ways to more savvy and formally adventurous sketches that play off the familiar in smartly escalating ways. A good example of the former would be Digital Soothsayer Shangy, who has mastered the art of being in three places at once mostly through a series of amusing wigs, accents and exhortations of “digital!” The latter might be represented in the 30 for 30 parody about the life of downhill skier Waif Nickelson, whose motto — “Get it over with” — became a national mantra. Oh, and then there are sketches like the Time Travel Port-a-Potty bit that goes from poo to punctuation when it comes to comedic targets. So maybe what I’m saying is that the show has no set rules and does many things amusingly.
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In addition to Cross and Odenkirk, much of the original cast is back including Posehn, Tompkins, Aukerman, Jay Johnston, John Ennis, Scott Adsit and Dino “Starburns” Stamatopoulos.
Rajskub makes one appearance, playing a deaf chef, that will have some sensitive viewers cringing, but this is generally a pretty masculine universe, with Jill Talley, Brett Paesel and Paget Brewster as the other women appearing, usually only briefly, in the two episodes I’ve seen.
There’s also a pervasive whiteness to these two episodes. The only two sketches featuring African-American actors are a talk show parody with Cross playing the director of a revisionist film that attempts to recontextualize slaves as “helpers” and another in which Cross plays a driver trying to get Keegan-Michael Key’s cop to pull him over. Both sketches are very funny and both sketches generate humor from mocking people who would negate African-American suffering, but I’m definitely hoping that somebody like Mr. Show veteran Jerry Minor pops up in one of the two additional episodes.
Those, however, are mere comments and not criticisms. Mining humor from the power of the C-word, the challenging logistics of the Most Dangerous Game, a Jewish pope and Gallagher, W/ Bob & David will sate comedy appetites for the Mr. Show faithful, albeit very briefly.
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