HBO's comedy show has a small but dedicated fan base, including Conan O'Brien and Chris Rock

By Dan Snierson
October 23, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

Open on a well-worn production office, with young hipsters buzzing about. Bob Odenkirk, star of HBO’s tres bizarro sketch series, Mr. Show With Bob and David, explains an upcoming skit to his art director: ”So I’m Ernest Hemingway, wearing a white beard,” says Odenkirk.

”Uh-huh…”

”And I’m holding my hunter’s vest open.”

”Right.”

”And I’ve got an ass on my chest.”

”An ass?”

”With nipples on the ass. And scrotums here…[pointing all over his torso] here…and here.”

”Nipples. Scrotums. Got it.”

The director leaves the room, and Odenkirk shakes his head. ”That,” he says, ”is gonna be a funny f—in’ scene.”

If anatomically altered literary figures make you slap your knees with glee, perhaps you’re already privy to the shameless silliness that Odenkirk, 36, and his partner in crime, David Cross, 34, bring to Mr. Show every week. Then again, given the series’ weensy audience size — around 1.2 million folks, or about one seventh of Saturday Night Live‘s fan base — maybe not. For much like another HBO comedy, the now-departed Larry Sanders Show, the brainy-loopy series (which kicks off its fourth season Oct. 26) is largely a juicy industry secret: cherished among comedians and the Hollywood elite, virtually ignored by everyone else. But with sketch comedy looking rather sketchy these days (when’s the last time you enjoyed a ripsnorting laugh watching SNL or Mad TV?), these dudes are more than happy to pick up the torch. ”There are a lot of stories written about how sketch comedy sucks, but it’s like, ‘Wait — what about us?”’ says Odenkirk. ”Even some TV critics don’t know we exist.”

It certainly hasn’t been for lack of trying. Forgoing the traditional catchphrase-and-recurring-character route, Mr. Show whisks viewers through a half hour of zany sketches, from barbed social commentary (a performance artist tries to defecate on the U.S. flag, then sues it for making him constipated) to unabashed absurdity (a Montana nutjob secedes from America only to seek political asylum after growing lonely in his cabin). All skits — filmed, taped, and live — are then intertwined into a seamlessly surreal telescape. ”It’s one of the most inventive shows I’ve seen in a long time,” observes high-profile fan Conan O’Brien. ”In this age when network promos are telling you everything — Paul’s taking Viagra/Jamie’s stuck in a towel/The ending’s funny/Here’s what happens/Please watch! — Bob and David assume the audience is smart. They’re picking up where Monty Python, SCTV, and Kids in the Hall left off.” Janeane Garofalo is even more adamant: ”When sketch comedy gets too good, people turn away,” says the vet of the short-lived but sweet Ben Stiller Show. ”The average person who watches TV doesn’t even deserve Mr. Show.”

Thankfully, HBO disagreed. In 1995, after commissioning Stiller vets Odenkirk and Cross to present four live workshops in a Santa Monica theater, the cable net scooped up the series. ”Bob and David offered a point of view for the whole show,” recalls HBO president of original programming Chris Albrecht, ”which is hard to do because everything in variety is a different sketch.” It helped that the duo were essentially a one-stop-shop operation: They created, wrote, acted, and exec-produced the series. ”I’m not in a roomful of strangers writing for other strangers who report to other strangers,” explains Cross.

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