Sketch Anatomy: Jonathan Stern Breaks Down ‘Mr. Show’s “The Audition”

mr_show_auditionWelcome to our column Sketch Anatomy, where we ask some of our favorite comedy writers to choose any sketch — one they personally wrote or one from history they find particularly hilarious, notable, or underappreciated — to learn from a writer’s perspective what separates a successful sketch from the rest.

For this week’s installment of Sketch Anatomy we spoke with Jonathan Stern, who is the founder and president of Abominable Pictures and the executive producer behind Burning Love, Childrens Hospital, NTSF:SD:SUV, Hotwives, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, and more. Ahead of the Netflix premiere of With Bob and David this fall, Stern chose a fan favorite that ranked #1 on our list of the 24 best Mr. Show sketches — season 4’s “The Audition” starring David Cross, Bob Odenkirk, and writer Dino Stamatopoulos. I spoke with Stern about how he first discovered Mr. Show, what makes “The Audition” a perfectly constructed sketch, and what it is about Mr. Show that has, and continues to, inspire comedy writers today.

You’ve been working on a lot of stuff this summer — Childrens Hospital, Wet Hot American Summer, The Hotwives of Las Vegas — how’s it been?

Yeah! Well, this summer we shot season 7 of Childrens Hospital, and right after we wrap every season, Corddry, Wain, and I usually synchronize our vacations — not intentionally, really — so we’re all on vacation this month. Over the course of June we were finishing delivery on Wet Hot, and then we’re just now finishing delivery on Hotwives of Las Vegas, which goes up I guess next week, and then we’re also finishing post on a show called Filthy Sexy Teen$ that Paul Scheer, Curtis Gwinn, and I created. And then we’ve been doing a lot of these Fox presentation pilots, so we’ve been in post on that, and we start shooting a bunch more in September and October. Then hopefully we’ll do more of those fake 4:00am infomercials that “Too Many Cooks” made famous. We’ve done like 20 of them, and then “Too Many Cooks” came around and now people are really watching them. So that’s kind of what our summer’s been like, but August is always a month at the company where we try not to be in production on anything. Wherever we’re on our holidays we just keep getting cuts sent to us and we’re all emailing notes back and forth, but we’ve been able to avoid really having to work too hard this month.

The premiere of Wet Hot, though, that’s just been a pleasure. It’s so much fun to read the analysis — there’s just a level of observation about the show that we’re not used to with stuff that we do where it’s generally just like “All right, here’s a review!” or “Here’s some press on it!” But with this people are really thinking about it, and it reminds you that people are paying attention and you can’t just blow things off — you actually have to keep focused.

How do you feel about that, where all the episodes are posted at once and within 24 hours you can already read articles and reviews about it? Are there more pros to that than cons?

Well, the very nice thing about a situation like Wet Hot and pretty much every series that we do is because it’s not a network sitcom where it goes up every week, we’re not responding to what’s going on online. That isn’t affecting the show that we make. I mean, potentially it affects the next season when we read all of it, but we’re not sitting here able to say “Oh, a lot of people are writing that they hate this character — let’s kill that character next week.” We don’t have that choice because we’ve delivered a whole season. The bigger question, I think, is because there is so much blogging and writing and available feedback and input for anyone and any TV show, how much should you filter out and how much should you take to heart and how much should you go against your gut instinct? And it’s really hard, because you don’t want to work in a bubble, but you also don’t want to be oversensitive to things, so that’s a constant balancing act.

Before I ask about the sketch you picked, can you tell me a little about how you first got into comedy? What were the earliest comedy shows you were into?

Probably everyone who’s exactly my age would say the same thing, but it was Letterman and Ghostbusters. Letterman premiered when I was in high school, and I would creep downstairs at 12:30am and stay up and watch Letterman for an hour. And of course Letterman’s first guest was Bill Murray and there’s a real common sensibility there, and then at one point I saw Ghostbusters, and it was the first time where I thought about what it would’ve been like to make a movie as opposed to just being a viewer, and I thought, “That looks like it was so much fun to make.” It didn’t take me out of it, but I suddenly thought “Wow…I would like to be able to enjoy doing that as much as it looks like they enjoy doing that,” and I started trying to write comedy right about then. That was still high school.

But Letterman, man, I would just stay up every night and watch Letterman, and that’s still something where you go back and watch some of the old Lettermans now and you remember just how groundbreaking that was. This was stuff where you would never know that this type of comedy existed from what was available to you through movies and television, then suddenly, just the newness of it was mind-opening. It was kind of the same experience I had the first time I went to an art house theater. I grew up in a suburb of Washington DC and there was this place called the Circle Theatre, and they had so many art house movies. All I knew was normal Hollywood movies, and someone took me to go see — I think the typical double feature was A Clockwork Orange and 2001 — and I was like “Oh my God, wow!” I realized movies could be a lot different than I thought they could be before.

But…Letterman. Short answer: Letterman.

When did you discover Mr. Show? Did you watch it when it aired on HBO, or did you find it later?

I couldn’t afford cable, so I definitely couldn’t afford HBO, and I always thought of HBO as this rich person’s channel. Me at 23 years old — I definitely wasn’t going to be able to pay for HBO. So for me, I was aware of Mr. Show, but it was like this untouchable thing — it was something that was behind a velvet rope, I couldn’t get to it. So I only knew about it, but I found myself doing some work for HBO, and for a couple days they set me up in some executive’s office because he was out of town. I don’t even remember what they had me doing, but at the end of the day I saw they had every HBO show on VHS tapes on the shelf there, and they had every Mr. Show. And I thought “All right, I could take these home, watch them tonight, and then bring them back tomorrow and no one would ever know.” And that’s exactly what I did.

That’s the best “discovering Mr. Show” story out there.

[laughs] And it was such candy for me. It was so forbidden. So that’s how I discovered it.

You chose to talk about one of Mr. Show’s best sketches, “The Audition.” Why did you pick that one?

I remember when I first watched it, however many decades ago, just never laughing so hard. It’s just one of these things that over and over I find myself referring to it, so when you actually stop to analyze it, it’s really very simple and super classic, but I didn’t realize it at the time. I think over time the more I analyze it the more I admire just how perfectly it works. But as far as the gut reaction, I feel like when I first saw it, I’d never laughed that hard at anything as I did when I saw that sketch.

How would you introduce it to someone who hasn’t seen it? What would your pitch for it be?

Well, I mean, my pitch would be “You should watch this because I think you should watch this.” That’s my pitch — I’m not gonna give anything away: “If you trust me as a friend, watch it. It’s only four minutes, don’t give me a hard time about it.” But if you really want me to explain what the sketch is, it’s really about our fear of offending someone. Tensions build for the casting director and producer as far as should they say something, shouldn’t they say something, and then trying to do what’s right. They’re trying to be polite by not speaking and then by saying “Please, have the chair,” and then they realize that was the wrong thing. So whatever they do is wrong, but the comedy is in the tension of whether they should speak or not, and then this baton being passed back and forth of who stepped on whose toes, and David Cross still wanting to get the job and trying to be polite and subservient to the casting director.

But I think what makes it work where it wouldn’t have otherwise is David Cross’s really unfair anger — almost rage — at them interrupting him. There’s such a lack of sympathy, of empathy for them for having misinterpreted his audition, and if he didn’t get so mad at them, it wouldn’t have been nearly as funny. And then his anger somehow cows them into…I mean, what casting director and producer wouldn’t just throw someone out of the audition room for expressing any, any animosity towards them? But he’s got such a powerful anger as a comedian that of course it shuts them down — he dominates the room. And every time he repeats the part of the monologue that he’s already done, he does it just so subtly where suddenly you realize “Oh, he’s just acting,” but you can’t put your finger on it. It’s just a shade less real than when he did it the time before.

Watching the sketch again made me think about how often sketch show writers/performers are asked about how much of their scenes are improvised vs scripted. Obviously “The Audition” is a written sketch, but it seems to play with that idea a little.

Right, because you do have to keep asking yourself “Is he just messing with him? Is he just making this up as he goes along?” But I choose to believe no, he came in with a fully scripted audition, and I take him at his word. But yes, you have to keep asking yourself that question. The fact that the sketch is so tightly scripted probably helps you believe that he could be making it up.

One of my favorite things about Mr. Show is the way they dealt with ending sketches and wove threads throughout each episode.

Well yeah, and Mr. Show’s device of the way they’d link one sketch into the next one sometimes would give you a way out if you didn’t have an ending. In this case, absolutely it had an ending. And also, I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was the perfect way of building beats. So I go back and I realize what a classic constructed sketch that was, but I didn’t know that at all. I mean, it took years for me to even identify what works about it, so I think there’s something very satisfying for me being able to appreciate the sketch on a formal level over time. And you know, years later, Bob Odenkirk was a guest on NTSF:SD:SUV in an episode that I wrote where he played an evil robot basically — I always like writing robot stuff, so — and that was such a thrill, it was such a thrill, that I forgot to do what I intended to do, which was work a reference from “The Audition” into that episode.

Oh no…

And I’d been planning it forever. Just something simple like “Do you mind if I use this chair?” Just that line and everyone would’ve gotten it.

Well, I’m sure you’ll get another opportunity to do it.

Yeah, but I think you have to do drama now to get Bob Odenkirk. [laughs]

This is the first Mr. Show sketch featured in this column, but almost every writer I’ve interviewed has cited it as a big influence. What do you think it is about Mr. Show that resonates with so many people working in comedy?

I mean, if you look at some of the people who actually did work on Mr. Show, they’re out there working with a lot of people who you’re interviewing. These aren’t people who are behind a glass case somewhere — these are all people we have the opportunity to interact with and work with and still be influenced by.

It was such an American sketch show. Obviously we all knew Monty Python and that was probably most people’s introduction to sketch, and then Saturday Night Live, but this was the first version of something that was as formal as Monty Python but truly American and new — otherwise, I really couldn’t tell you, except for the timing of it. I think the timing makes a huge difference, and I assume people keep discovering it, and that’s great too. The fact that it was on HBO I guess gave some credibility to it…but who knows? And in hindsight, I’m surprised HBO even did it. It seems very risky.

What do you look for as a producer? When it comes to shows or projects you potentially want to take on, are there things you want to see more of, or less of, on TV?

There is stuff that I personally want to see less of, and that might have to do with how old I am more than it has to do with how much stuff is out there. But someone’s biggest problem being that their girlfriend dumped them doesn’t inspire me a lot anymore. There’s a lot of workplace comedies floating around, so it’s hard to really rise to the top of those. I don’t have anything against that, I just think that’s a particularly competitive genre. I also personally am turned off by stories about making movies or TV shows or web series — I also have exceptions to that and things I’m developing, but in general, the first thing I ask myself is “Does this really have to be set in that world to tell the story, or is that just the creator tapping into what is immediately around them?” Because I think that’s a very limited world to look at and it’s insular and too navel-gazey. Now, there’s certain stories where that is what the story is — it’s about a TV star who does X — but if X doesn’t have to happen to a TV star and could happen to a house painter, then I’m generally more interested in the house painter version of it.

I think that real people and real-world experiences are as rich or richer with possibility than show business stories, maybe because so many show business stories have been told over the years because the people telling them are in show business. I also want to be able to offer people who are looking for entertainment something that’s more reflective of life in general in America rather than just what sometimes seems like “rich people’s problems.” I mean, I feel very conservative when it comes to stories about rich people, because that’s harder to identify with. Now again, that’s not always the rule, it just means that if that story works without them being rich, the non-rich version of it is probably more interesting to me and maybe to audiences. If the main character’s being rich is the story, then that’s a different animal, and the story works or not on those merits.

But my general barometer for what I’m interested in developing or producing or working on is something that I want to see — something that I personally would want to turn on a TV or go into a movie theater and watch, because that’s really the only way I can judge things. Now, I’d be a terrible prognosticator trying to guess what other people would want to see or what a focus group would like — I’m sure there are people who are very good at that, but I’m not one of them. And also because if you’re gonna work on something, you are gonna see it 500 times, so you should like to see it because you’re gonna be seeing a lot of it. And if it’s not something you want to see, you’re definitely not gonna wanna see it the 421st time. I’m happy to say that I feel like everything I’m working on I enjoy watching over and over. Take Wet Hot — we continue to find things to laugh at in the editing room that we hadn’t appreciated before until we’d seen it 20 times. At Childrens Hospital we go through each cut a number of times, and the stuff that makes us laugh makes us laugh each time. So I’m really pleased to be able to, for the most part, keep to that criteria.

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