Bob Odenkirk, David Cross look back on Mr. Show
They rejoin, you rejoice: Bob Odenkirk and David Cross have teamed up once again in the name of sketch comedy, except this one is not named Mr. Show. Instead of reviving their beloved cult HBO series, they created W/ Bob and David, a four-episode Netflix series (debuting today) that features the pair in fine satirical, absurdist form, reunited with plenty of Mr. Show alums, including Brian Posehn, Paul F. Tompkins, and Scott Aukerman.
You can read about Cross and Odenkirk’s new project right here, but what follows is an interview that EW did with the duo last fall as part of our comedy issue, which was guest-edited by another dominant sketch comedy team that are huge Mr. Show admirers: Key & Peele stars Keegan-Michael Key (who guests on With Bob and David) and Jordan Peele. If you don’t scroll down this never-before-seen bonus version of that Q&A, you’ve got guts… the guts of a man who’s fired!
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 … above-ground gem.
Two of the many comedians who claim Mr. Show as an influence were EW guest editors Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. In fact, the duo had a bunch of questions about the series and have been wandering this planet with a bunch of burning questions about the series. With Cross writing season 3 of IFC’s The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret in London and Odenkirk 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!
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: 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.
ODENKIRK: And [then HBO execs] Carolyn Strauss and Chris Albrecht were people we knew. They were willing to come out and see our live performance of Mr. Show and I think we did five episodes over the course of a year and a half. And each episode was different and we would do it one time, live. Because in L.A., if you are going to do a show more than once, then no one will come. But if you do it only one night, one time, they have to come. So, we practiced and rehearsed and shot films for a live show. It was a lot of work and we did it every three months for a year and a half. But it was really, really hard to sell it. And it was very precarious. David and I put our own money into it. Both of us didn’t work at other jobs when we had careers or at least were getting started with careers. I mean, we went way out on a limb.. 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 … Now, you probably could submit a script for a sketch and have somebody back you. But back then, people just didn’t know what a sketch show was. It was like, “Is it Saturday Night Live?” That was it.
Who were the performers and writers who influenced your style of comedy? Obviously Monty Python…
ODENKIRK: 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. You just be weird and you don’t have to be funny. So we always wanted to be funny first.
CROSS: 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 the most successful sketch show and doing things that they didn’t do.
ODENKIRK: Look, I know that SNL is always seen through a person’s personal prism and people are always like, “Oh, the best years were when I was in high school.” [Laughs] Everyone thinks that. After Wayne’s World, SNL had really gotten into, it seemed like, repeating characters just to repeat them. You almost saw characters at that time that you thought, “Well, no one liked it the first time. And you’re doing it a fourth time. And you’re just doing it to what? Show that you can do it again?” So I think we had a reaction against that, too. We didn’t really repeat any characters in the show. Maybe one or two people popped up in the four years we did it.
Which sketch did you guys almost not get through filming because it was making you laugh too much?
CROSS: There were a number of things where we would crack ourselves up, and they weren’t even the funniest sketches.
ODENKIRK: We laughed our asses off constantly … Jay [Johnston] couldn’t do Marty Farty, remember that? At one point we wrote a sketch — Jay plays the President and you know the little children’s playground rhyme, “Marty Farty had a party/all the girls was there/Tutti Fruity laid a beauty/and they all went out for air”? And we had him do that, as a Bill Clinton-type who was revealing some scandal, which was that he farted at a party. And he’s claiming he didn’t fart, it wasn’t him, so he was very solemn and very dry and very straightforward. And there was this really complex justification of using the word Marty Farty — using Marty Farty, he was talking about the Dominican Ambassador Martfi Pharti. He had to do this speech and he could not get through it. And it’s just super silly and idiotic.
CROSS: You can see me trying not to laugh in Change for a Dollar [from] the very first episode, when Bob is on the golf course as the president and it devolves very quickly into him doing this kind of dance and throwing his golf clubs around. We had to use certain takes or even cut away because I couldn’t stop laughing. I have my shoulders hunched and I’m looking down, and you could see my shoulders shaking because I’m laughing so hard.
What was the biggest argument over a sketch that you had in the writers room?
CROSS: I can tell you without hesitation, the biggest, dumbest, longest f—ing argument was when Santa’s been kidnapped. This was a f—ing day of arguing. The logic of whether that really was Santa who was kidnapped or whether it was an actor that kidnapped somebody who’s playing Santa. I don’t remember the rest of the sketch; I don’t remember the context around it. It was a long day. And it was equally, right down the center, five people arguing really passionately for it, and another five saying no. It was f—ing crazy.
ODENKIRK: At a certain point, you just got to stop arguing and commit to the joke and let one person win and carry on. It’s not worth it, you know?
CROSS: Somebody’s got to stop and go, “Okay, okay.” But then you have two people who are “Well, now wait a minute! I’m sorry but if this is this …” and then it just starts up again. I don’t think we maintained a 100-percent level of argumentative energy — there was some acquiescence — and then somebody went, “I hate to bring this up, but I’ve been thinking about this, and…” And then you’re back to the same discussion about it. Because you care, that’s why.
ODENKIRK: We cared too much about sketch comedy. Couldn’t help ourselves, but, man, we cared about it.
Which sketch worked better than you thought when you guys were plotting it out? And which one did you think was going to hit but just fell flat?
ODENKIRK: I’ll tell you this: Philouza did not get the laughs that I thought it would get. I thought The Great Philouza just read so well and was so much fun to shoot. It’s kind of a take-off on Amadeus, but it’s marching bands. It really just came together so well in every way. And then we showed it to people and it just did okay. They were probably picking apart what it was about, not really sure until it was over. And it didn’t do that well. But it’s a good piece. It’s strong. We had pieces that were dogs that didn’t work, but we knew that from rehearsal time.
CROSS: I remember really laughing when we were writing and rehearsing the Law School sketch. Not to say it tanked, but I don’t think that one quite translated like we thought it was going to, like it did in the writing, in the rehearsal. That one fell a little flatter.
ODENKIRK: But it’s still very funny. The one that did better than I would have thought — Pre-Taped Call-In Show. It just seemed like more of a puzzle piece and a think-y piece on the page. Like, it was just cleverness, which doesn’t always play that well. It’s like a mind game. And it’s neat and all, but I mean David’s performance put it over the top and made it great. I didn’t see the performance that was in it when I read it. And I think the performance in it made it super funny as well as clever, which is a one-two punch… Now if you throw some swear words in there, we got a real sketch. And we did throw swear words in there. It certainly wasn’t the reason we went to HBO, but it was so wonderful to be able to just talk on TV like people. And it gave us some punch where you wouldn’t necessarily have it if you have to keep it like TV talk.
CROSS : One for me that I didn’t feel very strongly about but everybody else did, and then I was proven wrong once we did it live was the Hemingway scrotum sketch. I didn’t feel like it was that strong. It was okay. But people loved that.
ODENKIRK: That came from an Esquire article. Esquire printed an excerpt from a non-finished Hemingway novel and the first line of it was, “You hear the lion’s roar first in your scrotum.” And I thought that deserved to be ridiculed.
Do you wish you had done one more season?
ODENKIRK: 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.
CROSS: 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. I guess I wanted to be in a different place, physically. So, in this conversation, yeah, it would be great to point to 10 more shows that we did and how cool would those have been. But at the time, I was really struggling with the idea for another season. But I can’t tell you I would have said no. I wouldn’t have been the guy to go, “Nope, I’m going to New York, there’s a barstool with my name on it.”
When you look back at the show, what are you most proud of?
ODENKIRK: I’m always most proud of the really hard laughs we got. When we talk about Mr. Show, there’s so much talk about the way the sketches transitioned, one to the other. There’s a lot of talk about the cult audience. There’s talk about sketch comedy in general — how to write a sketch, how did you come up with ideas? I mean, the sketches are just funny as f—. That’s what I’m proud of. We got huge, hard laughs from an audience that was genuinely surprised by the ideas and the execution. And if you watch them again — The Story of Everest, Pre-Taped Call-In Show, Wyckyd Sceptre, Titanica, The Week Long Romance — these are just f—ing great sketches that kill. So I’m always proud of the laughs we got.
CROSS: I’m proudest that it still holds up. That was a very conscious effort we put into not making it too specifically topical to that thing that’s in the news right now. So if it’s about Paris Hilton, the character isn’t Paris Hilton, this character represents that idea. And it’s really important to the success of it to this day — with how it’s viewed now, which is it’s not dated… And there’s a lot of prescient stuff to what we did. Gavin McInnes was compiling this, where things that we talked about kind of came true five or 15 or 20 years later. I think that is a key to its current success — that combined with what Bob was saying. And we got laughs from somewhat complicated ideas that were about something, too. You look at most of the sketches that Bob referenced, or Prenatal Pageants or things like that, you’re getting big, hard laughs about something that’s not just a throwaway thing. It’s an idea that resonates.
What struck you when you reunited for a live tour last year?
CROSS: 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. When we started, we didn’t see a whole lot of 45-year-olds in the audience. And now 40 percent of the audience is 40 and above. Also, it just feels like we’re hitting that really important 18–34 demographic in our live shows, and we’re selling a lot of jeans, a lot of Scions, and lots of Sunny D. We’re moving a lot of Sunny D.
ODENKIRK: I agree with David that it’s grown, thanks to YouTube. Thank you, YouTubers, who post our videos. 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]
CROSS: I feel confident we’ll do it again.
Which sketch show out there do you watch and say, “I wish we had thought of that”?
CROSS: What I respond to is the idea that something has a feeling of an end to it, or it’s not just a middle. I like something that has a bit of a purpose. Key & Peele does that, Inside Amy Schumer does that too … I love [Key & Peele]. They are such strong performers. They’re at a Fred Armisen level of just inhabiting a character, making it real — whatever the sketch is about I don’t even care, because I’m just watching them…. I know this is the go-to one, but I’ve seen it a dozen times and I think I laugh just as hard now as I did the first time I saw it: 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.
ODENKIRK: I’m going to vote for Key & Peele for performance and writing. And I’m going to ask everyone to give The Birthday Boys a chance [Odenkirk is an exec producer]. Writing-wise, they deliver really solid off-beat sketches that progress and have curious ideas that they dig into. In a lot of ways, they are more writers than anything else.
What music album best exemplifies the feeling that Mr. Show gives you?
ODENKIRK: David, I actually think I might have an album: Frank Black’s Teenager of the Year.
CROSS: What makes you say that?
ODENKIRK: It just has a lot of ideas—
CROSS: Right, there’s like 23 tracks that are, like, 2 minutes and 20 seconds.
ODENKIRK: And they’re just so different. He has a song in there about The Three Stooges. There’s so many different ideas in it. If you look at Mr. Show, it’s so stuffed with ideas and parody and satire — a piece can be its own joke but there’s also a level of parody to it. And there’s also a reference to some social phenomenon in it. And there’s also an impersonation of a type of celebrity of the time in it. It’s just stuffed full. We did a lot of rewriting and sharpening pieces and filling them with more notions and references. So I’m going to go with that.
CROSS: I’m going to go with Negativland’s U2 album. Negativland did an album called U2 and they got sued, but it’s filled with all kinds of craziness. And it also makes me sound really cool.
If you were to star in a serious biopic, who would you want to play?
CROSS: The Bob Odenkirk Story.
ODENKIRK: Bill O’Reilly. The story must be told.
CROSS: To answer that seriously, I’d be the guy who really invented television and had television completely stolen from him.
ODENKIRK: What’s his name? Philo Farnsworth?
CROSS: It’s a pretty fascinating story. And sad. And tragic. He just got railroaded. But I’d put a twist on the end — I’d change it so he isn’t ripped off and he does get his reward and NBC comes back to him and is like, “You’re great!” and he’s made president of NBC.
Who’d win a physical fight between you two?
CROSS: Maybe 10 years ago … me? But not anymore. Bob has a Midwestern thickness. He’s stout and taut. And I’ve let myself go.
ODENKIRK: 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.
CROSS: 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.