How to Watch ‘W/ Bob & David’ in the Shadow of ‘Mr. Show’

wbobanddavidI had a single thought fixed in my head as I fired up my laptop to preview Bob Odenkirk and David Cross’s first post-Mr. Show series, W/ Bob & David, all four episodes of which will premiere exclusively on Netflix on Nov. 13.

It wasn’t “Will this be any good?” or “God, I hope this doesn’t suck” but rather, “How brilliant will this be?”

Like plenty of Mr. Show fans, I blame Bob and David for giving me a high and incredibly specific set of standards for sketch comedy. Their groundbreaking HBO series, which mixed live and pre-taped bits in labyrinthine, Pythonesque ways, was a cult favorite during its 1995 to 1998 run and has gone on to attain mythic status. Much like the stories that have trickled out of the Seinfeld writing staff over the years, Bob and David maintained a rigorous approach to vetting ideas, attempting to root out anything predictable or unintentionally groan-inducing. Their disregard for convention was institutional. Their vicious senses of humor were intoxicating and genuine.

The approach didn’t always work, as Bob and David would be the first to admit, particularly during the show’s more experimental first and second seasons. But it helped Mr. Show find a voice that was simultaneously silly and sarcastic, smart and willfully grotesque. Its 30 original episodes helped introduce viewers to Sarah Silverman, Paul F. Tompkins, Karen Kilgariff, Scott Aukerman, Brian Posehn, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Jay Johnston, and other key, 21st-century comedy players. But they also polished and reshaped alt-comedy’s basic tenets, making subversion palatable for a new generation. The show’s voice has resonated in other series — Wonder Showzen, Human Giant, The Sarah Silverman Show, Arrested Development, Portlandia, Key and Peele — but its loudest incarnation over the years has been in the influential, polarizing Tim and Eric Awesome Show! Great Job.

That makes sense, since Odenkirk himself took Hollywood’s first real chance on Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim in the form of Adult Swim’s animated Tom Goes to the Mayor, which ran from 2004 to 2006. When the first of Tim and Eric Awesome Show‘s five seasons premiered in 2007, it featured both a noticeable Mr. Show cable-access TV aesthetic and many of the same players. Since then, Tim and Eric’s work has continued tweaking and refining the concept of TV as a delivery method for horrifying and snappy soullessness. Each intelligence-insulting, marketing-driven somersault of logic is more ridiculous and arresting than the next, even if the abrasive visuals and innovative editing go far beyond Mr. Show‘s aesthetics.

Still, it was Mr. Show that firmly established this comedic playing field, certainly more so than any other network sketch comedy (see Season 3’s “Cock Ring Warehouse” as an example of the proto-Tim and Eric template). Tim and Eric’s choice of guest stars, subject matter, and other creative projects continues to bear this out, as do Odenkirk’s other protégés.

This is important to remember, since Tim and Eric’s Abso Lutely Productions is behind W/ Bob & David, and the latter’s sprightly opening sequence plays like a 50/50 split between Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Awesome Show. Watching something like Key and Peele may hint that Mr. Show was a major influence, given the self-contained, detail-oriented, cinematic nature of the sketches, or their fearlessness in hitting multiple topics in lighting-fast but coherent fashion (director Peter Atencio has said as much). But when fans and newbies settle in to absorb two new hours of Bob and David on Netflix, they must keep in mind that it arrives in the shadow of all it influenced, and therefore may never feel as sharp or groundbreaking as it did two decades ago.

That’s less a preemptive defense and more an acknowledgement of reality. Sketch comedy in the U.S. wasn’t exactly hard to find during Mr. Show’s original run, but it certainly wasn’t as celebrated or prestigious as it is today. Regardless of your feelings about them, Inside Amy Schumer, The Birthday Boys (another Odenkirk-approved, Abso Lutely-produced series), Kroll Show, truTV’s Friends of the People, and others are firmly part of the zeitgeist-y conversation about comedy’s ability to shape public opinion. From its humble stage beginnings through its postmodern growing pains, sketch remains an efficient delivery method for familiar characters and ideas that can be instantly subverted. The matrix of late-night TV shows, standups, and edgy animated fare that holds much of our mediated attention gives sketch a more diverse background to play against, but also a set of expectations to undermine and abuse.

Bob and David were keenly aware of this in the mid-’90s (even if the ’90s weren’t keenly aware of them), exploring race, gender, class, and economic disparity in intensely self-conscious ways (see the faux-Playboy Mansion “Boy’s Club” opening of Season 4’s “Show Me Your Weenis”). Forbears and contemporaries like Kids in the Hall, In Living Color, The Ben Stiller Show, Upright Citizens Brigade, and select Saturday Night Live sketches covered some of the same ground. But few bristled with the same neck-snapping fury as Mr. Show. Even less strident Mr. Show sketches like “Rich Guy Negative Ads,” “Young People & Companions,” and numerous awards-show parodies feature a comedic self-confidence and freedom of tone that dare viewers to see their own stupidity and complicity on screen.

Mr. Show always seemed like a direct reflection of not only what Odenkirk and Cross liked, but what they wanted to see more of in the world, carrying their points of view and senses of humor in ways that implicitly argued against formula. If you’re judging their new show against other contemporary comedies, don’t forget that it’s still a delivery method for these points of view, for better or worse. Elements of the original Mr. Show were often inscrutable and idiosyncratic (or, as some would say, “not funny”) such as the ambitious but lopsided “Jeepers Creepers” musical sketch, or the high-concept, low-impact “Racist in the Year 3000.”

W/ Bob & David sports a few of these clunkers, too. But since they’re simultaneously echoing and reviving something that was pretty airtight to begin with, all we really needed was for them to not fuck it up. Having watched these episodes, it’s clear why Bob and David didn’t want to name this show after their old one. It’s a different animal, out of necessity. And damn, it feels good to climb back in that saddle with them. Just go easy on it when you realize how much weight it’s carried over the years.

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