Like a lot of the lists we do here at Paste, this one could have been at least five times as long as it is. That’s just how good Mr. Show was and remains to be. The short-lived HBO sketch show from the late ‘90s was destined to be a cult favorite considering the network’s inability to keep it in a regular time slot or really understand how to promote it.
At the same time, the folks at HBO also gave creators Bob Odenkirk and David Cross complete artistic control, letting them try anything they wanted to. With that spirit and the help of their many talented friends, the two left behind an amazing legacy, with four seasons worth of smart, riotous sketch work that has inspired a new generation of comedy talent. And by all accounts, the pair’s new Netflix series W/ Bob & David is going to be a continuation and deepening of their place in the comedy firmament.
With the debut of this new series today, we decided to take a look back and choose our 10 favorite sketches from Bob & David’s first run as showrunners together. As it should be, we could easily have swapped out each one of these sketches with a dozen or more different bits from Mr. Show, but for today, these are the best of the bunch.
A sadly apropos sketch as it came at the very last episode of the final season of Mr. Show. Again, a simple situation—in this case, two old friends parting ways and then running into each other again after they’ve said their farewells—escalates and escalates into something strange and sublimely funny.
What sells this relatively lightweight sketch about a job interview that involves a lie detector and an applicant who has had the most unbelievable life experiences is that rapport between the five men performing in it. Cross, Odenkirk, Tompkins, Johnston and Brian Posehn look like they’re having so much fun playing out this very silly premise as a group.
As farcical and cynical as Mr. Show often was, the writers often injected a premise with a surprising amount of poignancy and heart. While most folks would point to the “Recruiters” piece from this same season, it’s even more apparent in this delightful piece that looks back at the battle for megaphone singing supremacy that went on between Dickie Crickets and Kid Jersey in the ‘20s.
The appearance of Jack Black as a kindly farmer and the Devil is just one highlight of this marvelously absurd musical theater parody that pokes holes at Our Town, Damn Yankees, Oklahoma, and much more. The insanity piles higher and higher until you think it can’t possibly get any crazier…and that’s when Odenkirk wanders onstage as a singing milking machine.
Another Stamatopoulos/Forrester gem. It’s one of those sketches that shouldn’t work as well as it does, as if there’s some kind of flaw in its internal logic. Yet, if you map it out, everything falls into place, further revealing the brilliance at its core. Don’t take my word for it. Just remember the title of the sketch as you watch it and enjoy this little bit of twisted brilliance.
Another simple premise—a porn store with all the “Aw, shucks” charm of the general store in Mayberry—that keeps delivering by perfectly placed obscenities and the show’s writers and producers embracing the fact that they had no budget to work with. When a deity bursts out to offer words of wisdom to the charming owners of the shop, they make almost no effort to mask the fact that it’s Paul F. Tompkins sitting on top of Jay Johnston’s shoulders.
A metal band visits the kid who was encouraged to jump into a vat of acid by one of their songs (“Try Suicide”) and has to contend with his badly deformed body (“He looks like a wet cigar!”) and his insistence that he spend as much time as possible with them on tour. As Bob Odenkirk told Kevin Pollak in an interview a few years back, the key to this sketch’s success is how Cross plays the kid with such insane glee.
The premise that kicks off this sketch, a young metalhead is tapped to be the next Dalai Lama and has to contend with his burnout buddy coming for a visit, is wonderful all on its own, but Bob & David don’t just leave it there. In the middle, it turns into a parody of a Meatballs-type competition between rival summer camps. Extra points for great cameos by Brian Doyle-Murray and Jon Cryer.
A holdover from Bob and David’s pre-Mr. Show stage show, this parody of infomercials takes increasingly darker and darker turns, leaving poor co-host Nancy Gumphrey (the wonderful Jill Talley) a changed woman. Like their best work of the early years, they get the little details down perfectly to make the madness even greater.
Ask most any comedy actor or sketch writer what their favorite Mr. Show bit is and invariably the answer will be this simple, crystalline piece written by Dino Stamatopoulos and Brent Forrester. In it, Cross plays an actor trying out for Odenkirk and Stamatopoulos by using the ultimate audition monologue.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.