“The Great Philouza”: A Masterpiece of Old-Timey Comedy

philouza“I’m going to the general store! For a phosphate!” The fact that these quaint-sounding words are shouted in anger by David Cross is just one of many funny aspects of “The Great Philouza,” a brilliant sketch from a November 1997 episode of HBO’s Mr. Show with Bob and David called “Bush is a Pussy.” The bit takes the basic storyline of Amadeus, in which a mediocre composer is driven so mad with jealousy that he tries to sabotage the brilliant Mozart, and transplants it to America in the 1890s. And instead of composing complicated, intricate operas, the battling composers in “The Great Philouza” are churning out bombastic, ear-assaulting marches.

Cross plays the F. Murray Abraham character, the thwarted, covetous Salini, who angrily demands that his always-pregnant wife give birth to an entire marching band. Bob Odenkirk plays Salini’s utterly guileless, childlike rival, John Baptiste Philouza (the name is a spoof of march king John Philip Sousa), who improvises marches effortlessly and who is such a dunce that he not only wears a drum major’s hat wherever he goes but occasionally gnaws on the chin strap. Upstaged and humiliated time and again by the “amorous rogue Philouza,” Salini is haunted by the ghoulish, snickering Mediocrity, played by a top-hatted Jay Johnston in monster makeup. Providing a counterpart to the tin-eared Emperor in Amadeus, John Ennis portrays “the eleventy-twelfth President of the United States,” who holds the fate of Phillouza and Salini in his 19th century hands.

In the Mr. Show Season 3 DVD commentary, the program’s writers and actors remember the sketch, written by Bob Odenkirk and Dino Stamatopolous, as deriving from Bob’s angry rant about the utter stupidity of marching band music. They also lament the fact that the filmed bit, which utterly killed at the table read, got a rather muted response from the live audience. Tom Kenny, who portrays hack comic Kedzie Matthews in the episode and reprises his role in the commentary, opines: “There’s too many ideas going on.” (Intentionally or not, this neatly corresponds to the infamous “too many notes” scene from Amadeus.) Bob humbly suggests that maybe he and David should have switched roles, but this idea is promptly and loudly shouted down by everyone else present.

Despite all this, Odenkirk takes an obvious paternal pride in “The Great Philouza,” calling it “really one of the smartest, best sketches.” He’s careful to give credit to director Troy Miller for how convincingly cinematic the parody looks. “It was so amazing,” Bob recalls. “We had film. We had a dolly. And a real old record player.” Along with an impressive set, the piece was largely filmed at the same large Victorian house that also served as a shooting location for Mr. Show sketches like “Mustardayonnaise” and “Return of the Revenge of the Creature’s Ghost.” Special thanks are also due to musical director Eban Schletter who somehow translated Odenkirk’s improvised sound effects and turned them into actual music. Schletter admits that “Philouza” was “probably the hardest thing for me that whole season.” Schletter is also presumably responsible for the one, ridiculously repetitive Salini composition we get to hear.

In addition to being a valid statement about creative ambition, “The Great Philouza” can be viewed as a masterpiece of “old-timey” comedy, referring specifically to humor aimed at America of the late 1800s and early 1900s. “Philouza” is a veritable museum of old-timey references, with its mustachioed men (Ennis in particular sports a real beaut), hoop-rolling children, and overripe dialogue about peanut brittle, sarsaparilla, and “those delectably thick pantaloons that are just under her underskirt.” This period of American life has long been a popular subject for humorists, and Odenkirk and his castmates isolate the reason why: pure human misery.

Bob Odenkirk: “One of the most horrible times to be alive was the late 1800s, anywhere in the world, of course, but definitely in America. If you wanted to relax, you had marching band music. Otherwise, you had to wear, like, a wool suit all year.”

David Cross: “Unless you were lucky and poor.”

Paul F. Tompkins: “Clothing manufacturers would have competitions to see who could make the most uncomfortable clothing.”

Meanwhile, Jay Johnston learned exactly how unpleasant life in the 1890s could be when he attempted to ride a penny-farthing bicycle for the sketch:

“I saw the bike, and I heard I get to ride it, and I was so excited that I just put on the ‘Mustardayonnaise’ outfit, the big yellow tuxedo, and I jumped on the bike, trying to ride it, and the handlebars broke instantly. And I couldn’t turn, and I hit a curb and flew into a bush. Straight over the fucking handlebars, seven feet high, and I got all muddy, and poor [costume designer] Paula [Elins] had to scrub the pants and fix ’em.”

The penny-farthing was not in working order when it came time to actually film “Philouza,” so the vehicle was propelled by unseen stagehands, and the precious few seconds of footage of Johnston “riding” it were slowed down.

“The Great Philouza,” creative as it is, belongs to an entire tradition of “old-timey” American comedy. Comedians have been mocking this stuffy, uncomfortable era for decades with varying degrees of affection. Take, for example, Chuck Jones’ animated short, The Dover Boys at Pimento University, released in 1942 by Warner Bros. as part of its Merrie Melodies series. The cartoon takes dead aim at the numerous, utterly square Rover Boys novels written by Arthur M. Winfield between 1899 and 1926, chronicling the adventures of three brothers at a military boarding school. Jones’ cartoon transforms the Rovers into the ridiculously wholesome Dover Boys, who abstain from such earthly pleasures as drinking and gambling in favor of playing “hide, go, and seek” with “dainty Dora Standpipe,” the prim, sexless virgin to whom all three are engaged. Such useless clods are the Dovers that they manage to knock each other unconscious in their failed attempt at rescuing Dora (who actually doesn’t need rescuing). Elsewhere, Jones’ cartoon also gives us a glimpse of what college life was like in those ludicrously uptight days, back when fraternity boys amused themselves by harmonizing on songs like “Oh, Genevieve.” Jones leaves no doubt as to how corny and moronic he thinks all of this is.

The “good old days” were sent up much more gently in 1957 in Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man, which opened on Broadway before being turned into a film in 1962.  That musical, like “Philouza” and The Dover Boys, is awash in deliberately out-of-date references to knickerbockers, Sen-Sen, and Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang. But while Wilson pokes a little fun at the naivete of his characters, he obviously has some lingering affection for the era they inhabit, hokey as it may be. In recent decades, the greatest inheritor of Meredith Wilson’s legacy is talk show host Conan O’Brien, who actually performed an updated version of “Ya Got Trouble” from The Music Man when he hosted the Emmys in 2006 and strongly considered an offer to play the lead role of Professor Harold Hill onstage. Deliberate quaintness has long been a staple of O’Brien’s comedy, and he himself cites his “old timey baseball” sketch from Late Night as a personal favorite.

Conan O’Brien was right in his element as a writer on The Simpsons, where “old-timey-ness” is an important part of the show’s DNA. In 1993, O’Brien famously penned “Marge vs. the Monorail,” an episode-length parody of The Music Man whose villain, Phil Hartman’s fast-talking salesman Lyle Lanley, is only about a century past his sell-by date. But Lyle was right at home in Springfield, a town that still cares deeply about barbershop quartets, patent medicine shows, and children’s lemonade stands. Local tycoon Charles Montgomery Burns is a one-man encyclopedia of out-of-date references (“These banjos couldn’t carry Pie Traynor’s glove!”) and can never get the hang of such newfangled concepts as “iced cream” or “pretzeled bread.” In 2002’s “Helter Shelter,” the Simpsons signed on for a reality show that forced them to live as families did in 1895. As expected, the episode is a treasure trove of old-timey-ness, including this memorable complaint from Bart: “Mutt & Jeff comics are not funny! They’re gay! I get it!”

Perhaps the greatest storehouse of old-timey humor on television today, however, is another Fox animated series, Family Guy. The show did its own elaborate tribute to The Music Man, don’t forget, and the series’ rapid-fire gags and cutaways are frequently riddled with top hats, over-starched collars, outmoded amusements, and the clunky, slow-moving technology of America’s semi-distant past. These things seem to fascinate Seth MacFarlane just as much as they captivate Conan O’Brien. Among the show’s colorful supporting characters are luckless vaudevillians Vern and Johnny, resplendent in straw hats, red-and-white-striped shirts (complete with sleeve garters), and those prerequisite turn-of-the-century mustaches. The duo’s dusty repertoire includes such arcane tunes as “Where Did Robinson Crusoe Go With Friday on Saturday Night?” As much as anyone, Vern and Johnny represent the perpetual discomfort that makes turn-of-the-century America so dependably funny.

But “The Great Philouza” remains the definitive statement in the specialized field of old-timey humor, the ne plus ultra of the curious subgenre. It’s a high-wire act of tricky conceptual comedy, commanding eight full minutes of Mr. Show’s 26-minute running time and doing so with a brave lack of obvious punchlines or moments when the audience is directed to laugh. It’s one of those sketches that improves over time, which may be why it commanded the top spot on this fan-created list of the best Mr. Show sketches and also made the cut on this Top 10 list, where it lands at #7, nestled between “Indomitable Spirit” and “The Chip on the Shoulder Club,” both of which are more raucous and “jokey” in nature. And unlike The Simpsons or Family Guy, “The Great Philouza” doesn’t have cute, eye-catching cartoon characters to sell its central concept. Just good old-fashioned human suffering.

David Cross’ vengeful protagonist Salini is not only profoundly unlikable but slaps his very pregnant wife (long-suffering Jill Talley, subtly excellent here) across the face. On the DVD commentary, the Mr. Show actors even debate whether this ugly moment caused a problem with HBO. Bob Odenkirk has the fun part here as carefree Philouza, talking in a squeaky, quasi-adolescent voice and making “marching band” noises with his mouth as he struts around the set. But it is David Cross’ dark, obsessed commitment as Salini that truly sells the piece, as when he delivers a monologue that would be heartbreaking in any other context: “John Baptiste Philouza’s music revealed a world of unimaginable beauty! Was this God and the angels conversing? Or was it the Devil? Or was it God and the Devil, interrupting each other?” The only thing that renders this moment comedic is the fact the music he’s praising so highly is utterly moronic. In the world of old-timey comedy, context is crucial.

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