Splitsider

Friday, August 2nd, 2013

How to Make a Sketch Comedy Show with Bob and David and the 'Mr. Show' Writers

The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)

Recently, the Internet exploded with big news that Bob Odenkirk and David Cross would be going on a reunion tour and publishing a book celebrating their collaboration on Mr. Show. Their seminal HBO program ended almost 15 years ago but it still impacts the comedy scene today as it is continually rediscovered and built upon by new generations of comedic minds. Today, we travel back in time to February 1999, just a few months after the last episode of Mr. Show aired on HBO as Bob, David, director Troy Miller, and writers/cast members Brian Posehn, Jay Johnston, and Bill Odenkirk sat down to discuss how they made Mr. Show and the comedic philosophies that drove it forward.

1999 is an interesting time in Mr. Show history. The show had just wrapped up and Bob, David, and Troy are preparing to make what would ultimately become Run Ronnie, Run which resulted in the pair being kicked out of the editing room and Bob disowning the final cut of the film. The show had just ended, and while it had some success it was hardly as well known as it is today (the fourth and final season was given the timeslot of Mondays at midnight on HBO). And just hearing the credits of the writers and performers as the moderator brings them onstage gives an indication that these folks have a ways to go before the get the respect in the industry that they'll later enjoy (Cross's credit is "you may remember him from Men in Black, where he played the memorable coroner's clerk"). But with memories of the TV show being fresh in everyone's head and the obvious friendship between the panelists, the panel becomes an insightful and entertaining glimpse into the process of making a quality sketch comedy TV show.

Bob, who had experience writing for The Ben Stiller Show and Saturday Night Live, (which during the course of the panel he describes as "messy" and "a disaster," respectively), says over and over that the thing that set Mr. Show apart from other shows (with the exception of Monty Python's Flying Circus) was the fact that there was a "show head." By this he means that the show had a sensibility that goes beyond a certain performer or a certain writer. A big part of that comes from staffing the writers' room, and if you look at Mr. Show's staff, you'll see a lot of names that are consistent heavy-hitters in comedy and make news here on Splitsider daily. No doubt, Bob would attribute this to the show's unique staffing process, which he describes as being much more reflective of television writing than how most other shows do it. Once a writer got through the door to them, they would work directly with the writer to help them with a submission. This is due to the fact that there are many different skills that a writer needs to have such as "coming up with ideas or punching up ideas or taking notes from someone else to make [a sketch] better." By working with a writer directly in the submission process, Bob and David were able to get a much clearer picture of what this person would be like to work with and ultimately maintain that "show head" that Bob speaks so highly of.

If you are somehow unfamiliar with Mr. Show and made it to the fourth paragraph of this piece, first of all thank you, and second of all you should know that the format of each episode was different from most sketch shows in that it was a combination of live and pre-taped material and each sketch was linked together and flowed seamlessly into the next. When Bob and David went into HBO to discuss their potential show, Bob claims that they came in with a page literally taken from a book discussing the process used to create Flying Circus and followed it to the letter. Like Python, they wrote the entire series of episodes first before filming, and then completely produced all of the pre-taped material, editing them into their final forms. Then, when it was time to film the live material the audience would be shown the pre-taped portions in sequence and their laughs were recorded live. According to Bob, when constructing a TV show it's important to spend as much time as you can writing. "It's easier to produce a well-written piece than to try to fix a poorly-written one." 

Due to the subject material and language, Bob and David knew from the beginning that the only place they'd be able to create the exact show that they wanted was HBO. And while they admit that some of the people in the New York offices who are in charge of scheduling the show may not completely get the program (Bob on why their show was moved from the weekend: "Can we swear here? I don't know, some fucking retard."), they were continually supported by LA executives Carolyn Strauss and Chris Albrecht and were basically given no restrictions. In fact, the only notes that are mentioned in the panel were on "The Bob Lamonta Story," which David says the notes "actually helped us. Asked us to put it in a different context and it made us work really hard, but it came out better."

When asked about subjects that the show shied away from, David talks about a sketch he had written that they ultimately decided not to use not because of the topic but because ultimately "the political point of view was too strong" and they couldn't make it feel like they weren't lecturing the audience. In it, a mentally handicapped man was on trial and the state wanted to put him to death but they weren't sure if he was cogent enough to recognize what he had done was a crime. So, in the sketch, the state invests money in him, puts him in a program, and gets him to a seventh grade reading level. "He's really excited, and then he understands what he did and he's remorseful." Then he's put to death on his graduation day. The sketch was inspired by a real-life trial in California from that time and while Mr. Show did occasionally have topical satire, such as their really silly version of the Lewinski scandal, this sketch ultimately had too strong a viewpoint to fit into the overall philosophy of the show.

While the panel was chock-full of really intelligent discussion on what makes a sketch show as consistently hilarious and entertaining as Mr. Show, there was also a lot of goofing around and non-answers given as well (please see the audio commentaries for Mr. Show seasons 1-4 for fifteen hours worth of examples of this). Jay Johnston doesn't have all that much to say throughout the panel, but he does chime in to interrupt other people's sentences from time to time. For example:

David: I'm not exaggerating when I say that we…
Jay: Are the tallest people in the world? I mean collectively.

Or when talking about how annoying it can be to wear wigs and beards on location:

David: The performing part is really fun. But sometimes you have to have glue on your face. It's so hot some times and we have a cheap show…
Jay: So we have to go closer to the sun.

Or when talking about how working on Mr. Show compares to other programs…

Bob: Jay, this is your first show you've worked on. You don't know what I've been through.
Jay: That's the one thing I do know.

What we can learn from this panel is the importance of having a group of like-minded individuals collaborating to create a single voice. With such timeless comedy as that from Flying Circus and Mr. Show as models, clearly the concept of a "show head" is one that produces enduring comedy that remains relevant long after the series has ended. In an interview with Vanity Fair, David talks about his and Bob's desire to helm Mr. Show 2.0 for HBO someday (as soon as they call them back). Let's hope when they start up again that these rules will still apply.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, the head writer of his website, a podcaster and a guy on Twitter.

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  • infirmier

    What is the name of the book you allude to in the fourth paragraph?: "When Bob and David went into HBO to discuss their potential show, Bob claims that they came in with a page literally taken from a book discussing the process used to create Flying Circus and followed it to the letter."

    • ramsobot

      Bob doesn't say specifically in the panel. He just says something like "a book about Monty Python." If I had to guess I'd say it was probably a book like Kim "Howard" Johnson's "The First 20 Years of Monty Python" that would have been around at the time

      • infirmier

        Thank you.