When Mr. Show with Bob and David aired from 1995 to 1998, the level of respect that comedy insiders had for the cunning, cutting sketch series was almost inversely proportional to the size of its audience. The lucky few who did tune in to HBO on Fridays at midnight were treated to a half hour of subversive, absurdist sketches all woven together à la Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Over time, though, through the power of VHS tapes, DVDs, and YouTube clips — and the post-Show rise of its writer-producer-stars, Bob Odenkirk (Breaking Bad) and David Cross (Arrested Development) — the series has transformed from underground gem into…aboveground gem.
Two of the many comedians who claim Mr. Show as an influence are EW guest editors Key and Peele. In fact, the duo had a bunch of questions about the series. With Cross, 50, working in London and Odenkirk, 51, filming AMC’s Breaking Bad prequel, Better Call Saul, in Albuquerque, we did something perfectly understandishable: Using telephone magic, we reunited the boys (who are working on some kind of celebration of the show’s 20th anniversary ”via your television box”) to get K&P’s questions answered — while sneaking in a few of our own. On with the Show!
1. Keegan wants to know, did you always want to do Mr. Show at HBO? Or were you thinking about other networks, too?
Bob Odenkirk We had HBO or Showtime and that would have been it, right, David? There weren’t too many possible options that would’ve allowed for the freedom of ideas and styles that we wanted to get to.
David Cross But here was the trade-off: HBO wasn’t that big a deal yet. It was still creating an identity for itself, and our show was very low-budget…. HBO was a pretty logical place to go.
Bob And [former HBO execs] Carolyn Strauss and Chris Albrecht were people we knew. But it was really, really hard to sell it. And it was very precarious. David and I put our own money into it…. It was a different world than the one that we have now with Key & Peele and The Birthday Boys and Portlandia and Nick Kroll and Amy Schumer. No one wanted to do sketch.
2. Who were the performers and writers who influenced your style of comedy? Obviously Monty Python…
Bob I don’t think you can avoid how strong an influence [Python] was — they wound their shows together with ideas, and they were absurdist but extremely smart. And not more absurd than they were funny, which I really appreciate, because at some point absurdity is easy to do. So we always wanted to be funny first.
David I was kind of anti-Saturday Night Live in how restricted it was, and I thought, ”They’re doing so many things that are antithetic to good comedy: They’re writing for a Top 40 singer and they have to do this…” There was a freedom that Mr. Show had that in part was looking at what was the most successful sketch show and doing things that they didn’t do.
3. Do you wish you had done one more season?
Bob I do. We were on a roll. Our fourth season was really strong. But there are a couple things that conspired against us. One was we got moved to Monday at midnight just two weeks before the premiere. It really felt like the network dropped their support of the show — what little they had just fell away in a crucial moment.
David I would love to [have had] this conversation in the mental state I’m in now, going, ”Yeah!” But at the time, I was wrestling with it, which I told Bob later. We finished and we did the Ronnie Dobbs movie [Run Ronnie Run!], and I moved immediately to New York. I felt my personal life was not what it should be. It had nothing to do with Mr. Show — I’m monstrously appreciative and understand what it did for me and to me — but after four years, I just felt like I needed to do something else…. But I can’t tell you I would have said no.
4. What struck you when you reunited for a live tour last year?
David The one thing I keep noticing is our audience has grown as we have — people who have come to Mr. Show because people have given them DVDs or it’s on YouTube…. Also, it just feels like we’re hitting that really important 18-to-34 demographic in our live shows, and we’re selling a lot of jeans, a lot of Scions, and lots of SunnyD. We’re moving a lot of SunnyD.
Bob I was thrilled by how we worked together and how much fun it was. We made the mistake of starting out in New York and prepping it as we went to smaller cities so, by the end in Portland, it was an incredible show. [Laughs]
David I feel confident we’ll do it again.
5. Which sketch show out there do you watch and say, ”I wish we had thought of that”?
David I like something that has a bit of a purpose. Key & Peele does that, Amy Schumer does that too…. [Key and Peele] are such strong performers. They’re at a Fred Armisen level of just inhabiting a character…. The East/West game rosters — I mean, f—. I laugh till it physically hurts. I imagine them writing that and cracking up like Bob and I do when we’re writing.
Bob I’m going to vote for Key & Peele for performance and writing. And I’m going to ask everyone to give IFC’s The Birthday Boys a chance [Odenkirk is an exec producer].
6. Jordan wants to know, who’d win a physical fight between you two?
David Maybe 10 years ago…me? But not anymore. Bob has a Midwestern thickness. He’s stout and taut. And I’ve let myself go.
Bob I think David would last longer in a fight. If we fight for more than a minute, he wins. So I’d have to put him out really fast.
David Bob’s got ham fists, though. Mine are like five Pixy Stix taped to a lollipop. We’re two different types: He’s UFC, and I’m more of a Muay Thai guy.