What became Mr. Show was honed on L.A. stages like the Diamond Club and the Upfront Theater, and its cast and writing staff were drawn from the pools of talent gathering in these so-called “alternative comedy” spaces. Jill Talley and Tom Kenny had performed in Chicago and Boston, respectively, but their paths to Mr. Show (and to the couple’s marriage) ran through the other sketch series Fox put up in the fall of 1992, The Edge.
Mr. Show was a chorus of young, hungry voices, but its primary point of view stemmed from Bob and David, the “head” of the program whose two halves both had to sign off on a pitch before it moved forward. One excelled with self-evident buffoons like marching-band savant John Baptiste Phillipa or teaching-by-billiards instructor Van Hammersly; the other’s characters, like Grass Valley Greg or the Victrola-toting hipster in “Donut Shop,” hide their stupidity under a thick armor of pretension.
It’s a bit of a misconception that Odenkirk, Cross, and company locked a freshness into their sketches by eschewing any topical material, because plenty of 1990s touchstones made an impression on Mr. Show. The difference is that viewers who don’t recognize the bases for prop comic Blueberry-Head or Brit pop brother act Smooth can still pick up the jokes, characters, and concepts coloring in these era-specific outlines.
Mr. Show always had something to say regardless of a sketch’s gag-reflex quotient, a satirical edge that dug into corporate greed, political overreaches, religious hypocrisy, meaningless showbiz awards, condescending advertising, lowest-common-denominator entertainment, and nearly indistinguishable blends of mustard, mayonnaise, mustard-mayonnaise, and mayonnaise-mustard. The series Prémare, “The Cry Of A Hungry Baby,” is a fine introduction to Odenkirk and Cross, but the style, pet themes, and impressive ambition of Mr. Show make themselves known in “What To Think.” Religion attempts to suppress, but fails spectacularly, in Good News, ” while commerce triumphs over good taste, common sense, and the son of God in “Commercials Of The Future” and Jesus & Marshal.” Bob and David are given a foil in the form of Senator Howell Tinkerbell (Odenkirk), a representative of the status quo whose folksiness belies an obsession with a tired, filthy joke about a traveling salesman, a farmer, and three holes in the wall.
The Musical,” “Gang Of One.” Most importantly, Sch letter’s wide range helps introduce the silky-smooth sounds of Three Times One Minus One, the quietest of storms (and the least apologetic of cultural appropriators) in Mr. Show’s stable of bogus recording artists. “If You’re Going To Write A Comedy Scene, You’re Going To Have Some Rat Feces In There” (season two, episode four) In which the show goes public, and the majority of its shares are scooped up by eccentric entrepreneur Grass Valley Greg (Cross).
The commercial parody makes some breathing room within “If You’re Going To Write A Comedy Scene, You’re Going To Have Some Rat Feces In There,” a pure premise executed to perfection before the episode barrels into its next conceptual workout. Bob and David’s self-serving charity work leads to handicapped people volunteering their time to help fill the “empty trivial lives” of celebrities.
They didn’t quit cold turkey, but they did throw themselves a hell of a pre-sobriety bender with “Heaven’s Chimney,” a series of sketches about beliefs and the way people impose them. That goes beyond religion, as seen in the Bill Odenkirk piece Watch Us Have Sex, ” in which a friendly dinner party devolves into a frank discussion about the attendees’ extremely specific bedroom kinks.
Lest it appear that the show is merely pointing and laughing at world religions and suicide cults, Odenkirk and Cross step in as the hosts of a faith-based take on TV’s Bloopers & Practical Jokes, showing what it really looks like to callously “put our hands together for some loonies who put their hands together.” Perhaps sensing that such people rarely take kindly to being called “loonies,” there’s also a thread about grave bodily harm running through the episode, be it the “local favorites” maimed by the roller coaster in The Devastator, ” or the rudimentary medicine practiced in Medieval Science Film.” And although “Heaven’s Chimney” is a last gasp for heavily themed material, it still manages to set up a motif for season three: Gleeful portrayals of the Church Of Satan. An appropriately kaleidoscopic production number, “Druggachusettes” ties into the increasingly ludicrous truths told by Odenkirk in “Lie Detector” (“It was great.
Several scenes in “Story Of Everest” deal with losing control of your own narrative: Bob and David have their show acquired by a Sure Knight-esque hip-hop mogul, the foul-mouthed wise guys of Allies can’t even flip a bird without a sanitizing intrusion by the censors, and poor independent grocer Len Gibbons (Cross) is beaten into submission by a succession of smear ads from faceless, monolithic supermarket chain Fairly Foods. But the episode’s unluckiest mug is the star of the eponymous sketch, a proud mountaineer (Jay Johnston) introduced at the top of the Gibbons spots, whose tale of daring is undone by an unfortunately placed tea cart and dozens of knickknacks.
For those bored by SNL’s relentless topicality and notorious inconsistency, Mr. Show has proved to be something of a bottomless well of comedy, even nearly two decades after it first aired. Odenkirk and Cross’s work on the show is as mind-bendingly complicated as it is straightforwardly crude, and their near-unbeatable ensemble of future stars and comedy-nerd heroes cohered perfectly to produce some of the most ingeniously hilarious sketch comedy in, well, forever.
Mr. Show’s four seasons were meticulously constructed and, at times, full of inconsistencies; there are great sketches buried in otherwise-meh episodes, and vice versa. As with many cultural artifacts, the strongest highlights have survived on YouTube, and many of them are still effectively isolated from their context.
“Recruiters” (Season 2, Episode 5) Proof of Mr. Show’s influence: the conceit of recruiting preteen basketball players to invest in their future recently reappeared in slightly different form as a business model on the third season of Nathan for You. The sketch itself lands somewhere between funny and sad, but doesn’t really possess enough force in either direction to feel truly effective.
The relative flatness of “Racist in the Year 3000” is particularly disappointing since exploring what racism would look like in the future is a pretty plentiful concept! “Soul Singer (Larry Black)” (Season 1, Episode 3) Almost any sketch where Odenkirk unleashes his so-bad-it’s-kind-of-great singing voice is guaranteed to be hilarious.
The cheery-in-corpse-paint angle is later done better in the show’s final season, too (“Marilyn Monster Pizza Parlors”). “Men’s Club of Allah” (Season 4, Episode 6) Personally, I know this sketch deserves to be in the bottom half of this ranking because I’ve seen it countless times as a lead-in to the highly superior “It’s Insane, This Guy’s Taint” and can never quite remember what the point of it is.
“Night Talk Senate Committee” (Season 3, Episode 9) A brief late-night-TV-themed sketch mainly notable for a Jon Stewart cameo and the return of two Mr. Show recurring characters: Blueberry Head (and he brought props!) This Jesus Christ Superstar spoof is pretty spot-on in execution, but in terms of laughs-per-minute, it’s not as successful as other attempts (but not as bad as, say, “Rap the Musical” or “New San Francisco”).
“Prenatal Beauty Pageant” (Season 4, Episode 3) A decent idea executed pretty well, mostly worth watching for Odenkirk’s character claiming that finishing school is “where they teach you how to finish.” I always believed the same thing! Simpson–trial riff runs through the majority of season-one episode “Who Let You In?” The jokes might be slightly dated in 2015, but even topicality couldn’t make this concept come across a little stronger.
That’s pretty much the entirety of this sketch, and even if it’s not the funniest one in the show’s history, I’d still read a Hemingway novel in which he can’t stop writing about his balls. “The Dewey Awards/Bob Lamont” (Season 3, Episode 2) The first of this pair of interconnected sketches was a full decade ahead of Tropic Thunder’s satirization of actors portraying developmentally disabled characters as awards-season bait.
“Deprogramming/Heaven Tour/Crazy Religious Beliefs” (Season 3, Episode 1) A trio of interconnected skits that starts with some thinly veiled (and, in late 1997, extremely timely!) Jokes nodding to cults like Heaven’s Gate, ending with the truism that assholes will make fun of anyone’s beliefs.
“Weeklong Romance” (Season 4, Episode 10) This is Mr. Show’s take on Ross and Rachel’s “We were on a break!” argument. Of course, this being Mr. Show, the “break” includes Christian new-wave bands, blowjob contests, and a Tex-Mex cooking class that doubles as a mark of betrayal.
“Siamese Twins” (Season 3, Episode 7) Much of Mr. Show’s genius comes from comedic concepts so obviously clever that it’s surprising no one came up with them before. This sketch, about a pair of conjoined-twin brothers who undergo detachment and end up desperately wanting to be reattached, is a great example of that.
“Culture Hunt/Frankly Anne” (Season 3, Episode 8) An extremely spot-on Road Rules parody gives way to a particularly awkward situation we all know too well: How do you carry a conversation at Anne Frank’s house while you’re looking for a secret beanbag? “Most Trusted News Team” (Season 4, Episode 8) Another TV-news spoof, this time with ancient people as the anchors.
One of the funnier TV-news spoofs, if only because Cross is wonderful at playing a doddering old fool. Initially this one seems like it’s skewering Hollywood, but it’s really just making fun of how stupid actors can be sometimes.
“Blind Girl” (Season 4, Episode 5) Mr. Show does Neil Late, kind of. “Wicked Scepter” (Season 4, Episode 2) A sketch that starts with an exploration on “gay panic” (“It’s not gay, it’s a party!”) Ends with hard rockers Wicked Scepter finding a new audience, and a new sponsor (thanks, King Royal Butt Plugs).
Plus, we learn an important lesson at the end: Never share sad information with someone who’s driving you somewhere. Sarah Silverman has the big moment (or lack thereof) here, as what seems like a delayed pause on her part turns into a brilliant punchline-by-omission.
“Sarcasm” (Season 3, Episode 9) A brief sketch that teaches an important lesson about sarcasm: Nobody will get that you’re being sarcastic, especially if you’re attempting to convey it through the written word. “Hit By Truck” (Season 1, Episode 1) A simple concept (everything is changing, constantly) with a surprise ending that, as the title suggests, comes at you fast.
“Watch Us Have Sex” (Season 3, Episode 1) A sketch about how everyone has their own peculiar sexual hang-ups. I’m sure there’s someone out there who gets off on the sound of Bob Odenkirk exclaiming, “The incredible, edible … RUMP ROAST!” Hey, it’s not unimaginable.
“Clumsy Waiter” (Season 4, Episode 4) What is “creamy steak subset”? This sketch has made me obsessed with this quandary for years, and I’m not sure I’ll ever find the answer, either.
“Inside the Actor/Lost Inside the Actor” (Season 4, Episode 9) Hate to say this, but this is one instance where Saturday Night Live has Mr. Show beat: Will Ferrell’s James Lipton imitation is just a smudge funnier than Cross’s here. Some points awarded, though, for the Land of the Lost –issue second connecting skit, bringing things back to the realm of Drugachusetts.
“Good News” (Season 1, Episode 2) This conversion therapy-spoofing sketch gets a little tired as it goes on, but the moment when Cross’s character looks into the wrong camera is a solid, gut-busting gag. “WWW Girl Video/Video Soul/Homage Awards” (Season 2, Episode 2) In which the Mr. Show audience is introduced to Three Times One Minus One, perhaps the first alt-R&B act in existence (take that, the Weekend).
Featuring ballads catchy enough to almost make you forget they’re about suicide, as well as a riff on cultural appropriation that lands more effectively than most think pieces (take that, internet). “Time Capsule/Drugachusetts” (Season 3, Episode 3) T his Sid & Marty Profit–inspired trip of a sketch is as much an homage to the Land of the Lost creators as it as an outright spoof of the source material’s hallucinatory lunacy.
Anyone who’s ever even touched a magical flute (if you get my drift) will relate to the paranoid exclamation, “THEY KNOW!! Cross wears one of the worst fake bellies ever seen in this sketch, but it does seem great for storing pretzels that you’re not quite finished with.
“Spank/Founding Fathers” (Season 1, Episode 4) A fairly brilliant pair of connected sketches that dare to answer the question, “Why is it so hard to take a shit on the American flag?” Tom Kenny’s inexplicable accent while portraying Abraham Lincoln is the type of deliciously absurd detail that makes Mr. Show so endlessly rewatchable. “Dream of a Lifetime” (Season 3, Episode 8) There are start-ups of all stripes founded to compete with existing corporations, but as this sketch suggests, taking on the Make-A-Wish foundation might not be worth it if you don’t have the money, power, or influence.
This sketch is just like Don Pratt himself: enjoyable while it’s there, and just when you’re afraid you’re going to get sick of it, it disappears. “I’ll Marry Your Stupid Ass” (Season 4, Episode 7) A series of escalating dares take two men on the emotional and romantic journey of a lifetime.
Senator Tinkerbell (Season 1, Episode 2)Bob Odenkirk is genius in the role of a censorship-happy senator who opens first season episode “We Regret to Inform You” with a filthy barnyard joke and ends up in an illicit tryst with a wooden stick puppet. “Superstar Machine” (Season 4, Episode 3) Mr. Show had some great original songs during its run, and Cross’s bathroom-mirror solo cut that makes waves through this sketch is one of the best songs the writing staff ever came up with.
“The Fairly Difference” (Season 4, Episode 4) When a supermarket conglomerate comes to blows with a mom-and-pop shop, who will win? “SMC/Streakers/Streak Dome ‘97” (Season 3, Episode 6) Bare Ambition, a Vision Quest rescue 1970s inspo-drama about how one young man found success through streaking: pretty funny concept.
The futuristic-streaker sequel that bookends this series of sketches is hilarious, too, but the money shot (pardon the pun) comes when Cross’s big shot streaker Coco Robins shames Odenkirk’s streaker underdog Jimmy Costello by making him get dressed in front of everyone. “Announcements” (Season 1, Episode 2) Short-and-sweet joke depository stuff, as Odenkirk rattles off a bevy of capable one-liners as a voice over artist and seemingly threatens to break character at a specific line’s audaciousness (“We’ll bring out the kid in ya!”).
“Monster Parties: Fact or Fiction?” (Season 4, Episode 7) “The werewolf was drunk and loving the funk!” This Unsolved Mysteries spoof examining the veracity of actual monster mashes would’ve already been genius if it had stopped at the inane question asked by voice over in the opening seconds: “Do mysteries really exist?” Bonus points for Odenkirk’s Dr. Demented–issue figure, Dr. Retarded. “It’s Insane, This Guy’s Taint” (Season 4, Episode 6) Pound for pound, this iconic sketch is almost as effective of a retro-porn mockumentary as Boogie Nights (yeah, I know Boogie Nights isn’t a mockumentary, just roll with me here).
The second of these interconnected sketches, “Blowing Up the Moon,” is pure absurdist gold. I would personally watch an entire sketch focusing exclusively on Odenkirk’s photo–Toby Keith country singer C.S.
Obviously, the shallowness and originality of Hollywood is in Mr. Show’s crosshairs here (and in today’s reboot-obsessed climate, it still carries a lot of truth), but it’s just as easy to marvel at how movie-looking the fake trailer for Coupon: The Movie really is. “Bad News Breakers/Mafia Mathematicians” (Season 3, Episode 7) The adorable “Bad News Breakers” appear several times throughout the series, and here they provide the perfect lead-in for one of Mr. Show’s most bafflingly brilliant sketch concepts.
“The Audition” (Season 4, Episode 3) The “Who’s on First” of modern comedy, and a bit so maddeningly funny/just plain infuriating that you’ll never think of the phrase “Can I use this chair?” the same way again. And it does, as this legendary sketch plays to Mr. Show’s expert sense of pacing: The conflict escalates, steadily, before exploding so grandly and gloriously onscreen that it’s practically comedic fireworks, a conceptual payoff that’s as Trippe as it is inspired.