Thursday, October 20th, 2011

The Lost Projects of Bob Odenkirk and David Cross

When Bob Odenkirk and David Cross’s HBO sketch series Mr. Show first aired in the mid-90’s, it went largely unnoticed by the general public. Now, more than 15 years later, Mr. Show has earned the cult classic status it rightfully deserves, inspiring an entire generations of comedians and serving as the gold standard for a modern sketch show. While Odenkirk and Cross have yet to create a work that rivals Mr. Show in the years that have followed, Mr. Show was such an artistic success that it established the duo as the most talented and perfectly-matched comedy team of the past 25 years. Odenkirk and Cross’s partnership works so well because they both have equally strong but vastly different comedic voices that coalesced into something greater than the sum of its parts.

After Mr. Show ended, David Cross moved to New York, while Bob Odenkirk remained in L.A., making it hard for them to collaborate. Besides Run Ronnie Run, the Mr. Show spin-off movie that was wrestled out of the duo’s hands and subsequently disowned by them, Odenkirk and Cross haven’t had a project make it to screens since Mr. Show – but that doesn’t mean they haven’t tried. Let’s take a look at the various movies and TV series that David Cross and Bob Odenkirk have almost taken part in – as a team and on their own.

Bob and David Collaborations:

Hooray for America! – The Mr. Show Movie (in development circa 2002)
In 2002, Bob Odenkirk and David Cross performed a live Mr. Show tour, under the name Mr. Show: Hooray for America!, playing all over the country with cast members Brian Posehn, John Ennis, and Stephanie Courtney. Hooray for America! was a mix of classic Mr. Show sketches and new material culled from an unproduced screenplay that Odenkirk and Cross wrote together. The pair hoped to turn Hooray for America! into a movie, but they were unable to get it financed. The stage show and the script followed the evil GloboChem corporation starting a third political party and running an actor for president.

One of the sketches in the live show was called “Fagit and Morello,” and it involved a Martin and Lewis-esque comedy team who are hired by the Catholic Church to make movies. The title Hooray for America! comes from a Season 1 Mr. Show sketch, in which David Cross lies to puritanical U.S. Senator Howell Tankerbell (played by Odenkirk) by saying that his comedy show is called Hooray for America.

David’s Situation (failed pilot 2008, HBO)
Bob Odenkirk and David Cross reunited three years ago to create a TV show together for the first time since Mr. Show. They wrote and filmed a pilot to David’s Situation, which starred Cross as himself and featured a murderer’s row of talented comedians in the supporting cast, including Zach Galifianakis, Mo Collins, and Matt Besser, with cameos from Odenkirk, Andy Dick, and Scott Aukerman. David’s Situation was a sitcom-sketch hybrid in which Cross flees from Hollywood to take a job writing in-flight magazines and live in a gated community in the suburbs. As Cross puts it, his character has “two roommates – one is extreme right wing, a cranky conservative pro-America guy. The other is this left wing, hippie, liberal-activist guy. And I’m right in the middle."

David’s Situation never made it to series, but not because HBO didn’t want to move forward. Odenkirk and Cross “lost interest in the overall concept.” Odenkirk said, “The sitcom framework really felt like a drag on our energy and sensibility. This was fairly obvious to us and not as disappointing as it might sound because the whole experience energized us to create something new and more better.” It’s now been three years since this project came together and fell apart, and Odenkirk and Cross have yet to work on anything new together.

Just David:

Playing Tobias Fünke on The O.C. (2004) and Scrubs (2006)
At the start of Arrested Development’s second season, the idea was floated that David Cross would guest star on the teen drama The O.C., playing his Arrested character, struggling actor Tobias Fünke. Cross would have been playing Tobias playing a character on The O.C., and this would have tied in with an Arrested Development story arc about Tobias landing a part on The O.C. This idea sounds amazing, and it’s not really clear why it didn’t happen. Dan Harmon ended up pulling off something similar just this past year when the Community character Abed appeared on as an extra on an episode of Cougar Town, which he referenced on Community.

Scrubs star Zach Braff, who played Tobias’s fellow never-nude Phillip Litt on Arrested Development, wanted David Cross to play Tobias on his own show. In 2006, he gave an interview indicating his intentions to book Cross to reprise his role on Scrubs, saying “I want David Cross to come on as Tobias. I’m trying to broker that deal. I think that it would be so funny because I love [that character]. I want him to have at least one more life.” Cross was said to be interested, as was Scrubs creator Bill Lawrence. The deal never came together, probably because of how complicated it would have been to get Fox and ABC to sign off on things.

Paid Programming (2009 Adult Swim pilot)
A faux-infomercial created by David Cross and Jon Benjamin, Paid Programming was intended to be a series of phony commercials for sketchy products that would air on Adult Swim it the wee hours of the morning. The pilot episode for a product called “Icelandic Ultra Blue,” used only unknown actors and, to Cross and Benjamin’s demands, aired at 4:30am sandwiched in between other infomercials with no promotion whatsoever. Benjamin has said that Adult Swim was “very difficult to work with” on the project, but when his demands were to air an original series at such an odd hour and without promotion, you can’t really blame them.

David Cross’s Lost Acting Roles:

  • The Big Lebowski (1998) – Cross auditioned for the role that eventually went to Phillip Seymour Hoffman in the Coen Brothers classic. When discussing the experience years later, Cross said, “I thought I did a really good job….But then I saw what Philip Seymour Hoffman did with the part, and I was like, ‘Oh — that’s the way to do it.’”
  • Arrested Development (TV, 2003) – Although he ended up starring in the show as Bluth in-law Tobias Fünke, David Cross was first approached to play the part of Buster. Cross liked Tobias, a character who was originally just to appear in the pilot, better and won that role. If Cross had played Buster, then Tobias might have stayed a forgettable one-off part, sending a horrifying ripple effect off through this beloved show.
  • Clerks II (2006) – David Cross was the first choice to play “Hobbit Lover,” a Lord of the Rings-obsessed fast food customer in this Kevin Smith sequel. Cross declined the part, which was a brief but memorable cameo, and Alias’s Kevin Weisman was brought in instead.
  • I’m in Hell (2007 CBS pilot) – Cross was cast as an “emissary from hell” in this Jason Biggs-led sitcom about a dickish Wall Street exec who “who dies in a BlackBerry-related car crash and is reassigned to Hell on Earth.” Sound kind of edgy and too funny for CBS? Well, they passed on it in favor of The Big Bang Theory.

Just Bob:

Life on Mars (1994 HBO pilot)
Following the demise of The Ben Stiller Show, Bob Odenkirk created this surreal comedy-drama as a starring vehicle for himself and Stiller co-stars Janeane Garofalo and Andy Dick.  In the pilot, Odenkirk and Garofalo played “Hollywood writers who hang out at a café and organize a poetry reading for their idol, Warholian protégé Lou Cage.” This could have been something great – especially considering how funny this trio was at the time on Ben Stiller; however, had Life on Mars gone to series, Odenkirk would have been too busy to create Mr. Show the following year, which would have been a tragedy.

The Near Future (2000 HBO pilot)
Bob Odenkirk created this series with Howard Kremer (host of the podcast Who Charted) and Chip Pope, both former stars of the MTV show Austin Stories. The Near Future was a sitcom set in the year 2014 that followed a slacker (played by Breckin Meyer) who moves to L.A. to try to work things out with his girlfriend, accidentally becoming the target of a killer from the post office in the process.

Next! (2002 Fox pilot)
The Fox network was looking for a new sketch comedy show back in 2001, and they went to Bob Odenkirk to come up with one. Odenkirk created Next!, which felt like Mr. Show 2.0 (minus David Cross), giving an indication of what Mr. Show’s cast might have looked like had it lasted a few seasons more. Naturally, Cross was half of Mr. Show and an integral part of its success, but Odenkirk stacked the deck so high with talented comedians for this pilot that it almost makes up for Cross’s absence. Newcomer Fred Armisen joined Mr. Show stand-outs Jerry Minor, Jill Talley, and Jay Johnston to make up the central ensemble. Odenkirk also recruited alt-comedy gods Brian Posehn, Patton Oswalt, and Zach Galifianakis to guest star. Despite this impressive assembly of comedic talent, Fox went with Cedric the Entertainer Presents over Next!

The Big Wide World of Carl Laemke (2003 Fox pilot)
Odenkirk created this family sitcom as a starring vehicle for himself, but the Fox network opted not to order it to series. He would have played the patriarch of a suburban family who refuses to grow up. He assembled quite the cast to play his family, including Daily Show alum Beth Littleford and future stars Zac Efron and Leighton Meester. Greg Mottola, the director of Superbad and Adventureland, helmed the pilot.

Highway to Oblivion (2003 Comedy Central pilot)
Bob Odenkirk directed this pilot from a script by Howard Kremer, Chip Pope, and Neil Mahoney. The first episode was structured like an E! True Hollywood Story and starred Kremer as Erskine Brubaker, “a celebrity-obsessed, delusional loser who leaves his hometown for Hollywood after briefly meeting the actor Dave Foley… [taking] him up on a casual, insincere invitation to look him up if he's ever in town.” The premise on this one is pretty strong and Howard Kremer is reliably funny, but Comedy Central had its hands full with new programming in 2003, with Chappelle’s Show and Reno911! debuting that year. Highway was likely competing for airtime with these two series, which surely didn’t help its chances of making it to air.

The Fuck-Up (film, in development circa 2004-08)
Odenkirk bought up the rights to Arthur Nersesian’s novel The Fuck-Up, which follows a movie theater usher who loses his job and ends up resorting to robbery make ends meet. Odenkirk wrote a screenplay and intended to direct the film, even lining up Jesse Eisenberg, Juliette Lewis, and Michael Shannon to star. This was before Eisenberg and Shannon’s careers really took off, though, with them both having become Oscar-nominated actors in the years that followed (for The Social Network and Revolutionary Road, respectively). Odenkirk wasn’t able to convince a studio to back the film and his rights to the book ran up. If The Fuck-Up does eventually get produced by the current rights holder, they could use Odenkirk’s “well-received” screenplay as the basis for the movie. Also, the movie’s title would have obviously needed to be changed to something blander and less funny.

The Derek & Simon Show (2005 HBO pilot)
Bob Odenkirk created The Derek & Simon Show for HBO with comedic actors Derek Waters and Simon Helberg. It was a low-key, realistic comedy in which Waters and Helberg played fictional versions of themselves. HBO passed on the show, but Odenkirk sold Derek & Simon to the comedy video site Super Deluxe in 2007. Super Deluxe commissioned an order of 12 episodes, most of which can be viewed here. The web series features guest appearances from, Bill Hader, Casey Wilson, Zach Galifianakis, Steve Agee, Michael Cera, and Odenkirk himself. Post-Derek & Simon, Simon Helberg has gone on to find mainstream success as a cast member on The Big Bang Theory, while Derek Waters is involved with Funny or Die.

Kanan Rhodes: Unkillable Servant of Justice (film, in development 2007)
Odenkirk wrote the script to this spy comedy with fellow alums of the Mr. Show writing staff, podcast mogul Scott Aukerman and his writing partner BJ Porter. Rainn Wilson signed on to star as “a man who serves subpoenas with the suaveness, intensity and conviction of James Bond, though that is where the similarity ends.” Filming was set to begin in the summer of 2007, during Rainn Wilson’s Office hiatus, but he ended up using this time to film The Rocker instead. The Rocker became Wilson’s first lead role, the failure of which prevented him from being offered more starring vehicles and likely put the kibosh on Kanan Rhodes.

Other unproduced writing projects:

Bob Odenkirk’s Lost Acting Roles:

  • The Office (2005) – Along with Hank Azaria and Martin Short, Bob Odenkirk was said to have expressed interest in the Michael Scott role that eventually went to Steve Carell in this American adaptation of the hit UK sitcom.
  • Team Spitz (2010 CBS pilot) – This sitcom pilot was a starring vehicle for Rob Riggle, who would have played a high school football coach (presumably a loud and intense one). Bob Odenkirk filmed a supporting role in the pilot – as the school’s jerky principal – but he was recovering from surgery when it was time for re-shoots and he was dropped from the project. Kurtwood “Red Foreman” Smith was brought in to take his place, but CBS passed on the project anyway.

Bradford Evans would climb to the top of Mt. Everest to see some of these lost pilots.

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  • Megh Wright

    This is great! Never heard of Paid Programming. Even though Odenkirk wasn't involved, I think of him whenever I see a really well done commercial parody in the vein of "The Fairsley Difference" or the McHutchence vs Greeley III one. These guys are both so good. Thanks for this!

    • http://twitter.com/bradfordevans Bradford Evans

      @Megh Wright Thanks, Megh. Yeah, those sketches are both super amazing. Fairsley Foods is one of my favorite Mr. Show sketches, but I wish they hadn't included that fart sound effect when Brian Posehn is dressed up as a baby. They talk on the DVD commentary that there was a debate about whether to use the fart sound or not, and I think it would have made the sketch stronger to not do so.

    • Megh Wright

      @Bradford Evans haha yeah, can't argue with you there.

    • HerooftheBeach

      @Bradford Evans Ha, I actually felt the opposite. I normally don't care for fart jokes, but I thought that one was well played. It was always the ending of that sketch that got me down, not because it was bad, but because I find little guys getting beat up to be really depressing.

      BUT IT'S OKAY, because it immediately passes the baton to the greatest thing in the history of television, The Story of Everest.

    • http://twitter.com/bradfordevans Bradford Evans

      @HerooftheBeach I love how depressing and dark that sketch gets. Different strokes.

      And I agree about that somebody should just hand cash to Louis C.K. and Bob Odenkirk and just allow them to do whatever they want.

  • HerooftheBeach

    Oh my god, the Odenkirk section of this article is just tragic. Highway to Oblivion sounds like it could have been one of my favorite shows.

    There are a few people who just deserve to be given a couple million dollars to see what they come up with. Louis CK is one, but Odenkirk would top my list.

  • Will Harris@facebook

    @Bradford Evans, nice piece! FYI, you probably know most of this already, but I talked to David Cross about "Paid Programming" awhile back, and this is what he had to say about it:

    "Jon Benjamin, who I have worked with in the past on a number of projects, had this idea for…well, basically, he had this Icelandic Ultra Commercial idea, and he asked me to help him with this, and together we came up with a couple of scripts and sort of the idea that it kept peeling back another layer of…you know, each infomercial would trip into the next one and become a commercial for that product itself. So we got together and wrote them up, and we pitched it to Adult Swim, who loved it, then hated it, then really loved it, and then hated it again. I was bummed out. I actually watched it for the first time on TV…you know, outside of an editing booth…only about three weeks ago, and it was fucking funny! I’m really bummed out. We have another script for it, and I’m really bummed out that they didn’t pick it up, because that would’ve been fun. And the whole point of it…the guy at Adult Swim fucked up, I think intentionally…was that it was actually called 'Paid Programming,' and it was only going to air between 3 to 5 AM, and we just wanted people to come across it and go, 'What the fuck is this?' I mean, we had no credits, you don’t see my name or Jon’s name anywhere, we’re not in it, and there’s nobody recognizable in it, so the whole point was for people to go, 'Did you see this thing? It was on at 3 AM, it was paid programming, it’s some product, but…I don’t get it.' It would’ve been great. It could’ve been really, really cool. But they completely fucking flushed that down the toilet. It would always have been the same product, but it would’ve been different commercial spoofs within it. It would’ve always been Icelandic Ultra Blue, and each time there would’ve been a little more detail about who the nefarious people behind Icelandic Ultra Blue are and what their mission really is. We had this whole thing worked out, but they totally fucked us."

    • Megh Wright

      @Will Harris@facebook haha oh my God, thank you for this. This is a tragedy on every level.

    • http://twitter.com/bradfordevans Bradford Evans

      @Will Harris@facebook Thanks, Will. It's really a shame Paid Programming never went through. It's a pretty off-the-wall concept.

  • Phil Davidson

    Great article. Can't believe David's career survived after he passed on Clerks II.

    • http://twitter.com/bradfordevans Bradford Evans

      @Phil Davidson David doesn't do sequels. Only squeakquels.

  • Neil Mahoney@twitter

    Wow! Pretty comprehensive! I don't think Fagit and Morello was in the Live show, though.

    • http://twitter.com/bradfordevans Bradford Evans

      @Neil Mahoney@twitter Thanks, Neil. I stand corrected. I guess it was just a sketch from their Hooray for America script, not something from the live show. I'm looking forward to seeing Freak Dance!

  • BillBrasky

    "Next!" and "Life on Mars" are actually available on the torrent site myspleen.org, and there's actually a recording of one of their live "Hooray for America" shows on there too. But the real rarity, that I've never been able to come across anywhere, is Bob's "Big Wide World of Carl Laemke" pilot. Apparently, a screener of the pilot was released by the scene group Cheetah-TV back in 2003, and then promptly disappeared from the Internet forever. With all the people that are in it, you'd think at least clips would have shown up on some "What did Zac Efron or Leighton Meester do when they were really young" show. But I've never seen even a frame of this mysterious show. Bob as a typical sitcom dad sounds like it would be very funny.

    • http://twitter.com/bradfordevans Bradford Evans

      @BillBrasky Good to know. I'll have to look for "Life on Mars" and "Hooray for America." It is pretty strange that "Carl Laemke" hasn't surfaced. Bob Odenkirk created the show too, so I imagine it's a cut above your average network family sitcom.

  • Davis Bailey@facebook

    I hate Fox so much, I can't believe they went with Cedric the Entertainer presents instead…. That company is run by idiots.