Published Jun 01, 2003"SCTV kicks ass." To a Canadian audience unfamiliar with the work of Bob Odenkirk, that's the closest thing to a summation of his Mr. Show with Bob and David as you can get in three words. "There's an intelligent silliness to SCTV and Monty Python that you don't find in a lot of American comedy, and that you do find in Mr. Show," Odenkirk continues. "I don't know how to characterise what Saturday Night Live is that's more American and less silly — usually things are so anchored by their concept, they're not floating out in that intellectual silly realm."
Floating in the realm of the intellectually silly is what Mr. Show — a sketch comedy series that enjoyed four abridged seasons on American cable channel HBO — has become known for. It enjoyed a small, dedicated audience during its run, from 1995 to '98, but its cult status has only grown in stature, especially after its first two seasons (a total of ten episodes) were released on DVD last year (seasons three and four will be released in August).
But more than that, there's a book. In 1995, when Bob Odenkirk and his partner David Cross were taping the first episodes, a woman named Naomi met and eventually married Bob. Now Naomi Odenkirk has parlayed her inside perspective into Mr. Show: What Happened?, an awesomely comprehensive, fascinating and hilarious look at the show (including a very detailed episode guide) but also the careers of Bob and David and the evolution of the early '90s alternative comedy scene.
David Cross has enjoyed some high-profile recent success with his spectacular two-CD comedy album Shut Up You Fucking Baby. Bob Odenkirk — whose career has included writing stints on SNL and played Larry Sanders' agent on his show — met Cross when he joined the writing staff of the short-lived The Ben Stiller Show. "At first we didn't hit it off because I ignored him, not because I didn't like him," Bob says. "It was David's first job in L.A.," Naomi continues. "First job as a writer. [David] remembers that moment very clearly."
When Odenkirk finally looked up and noticed Cross, the pair began a fruitful collaboration that resulted in HBO giving them enough money to make a single pilot episode of their sketch comedy show. With that money, they squeezed out four episodes and Mr. Show with Bob and David's first season was born.
"We had huge fans at HBO," says Bob, but it remained a tough sell to the rest of the network higher-ups, who weren't sure what they had on their hands, exactly. "Sketch comedy is always popular with younger people who are excited by ideas," he continues. "It's always unpopular with older people who are annoyed by ideas. The metabolism in your brain slows down — you want to see the same thing happen slowly in front of you. You don't want to be challenged by TV."
"That's why Saturday Night Live plays the same joke three times in a row," Naomi offers.
The refusal to repeat "hit" characters — a staple of shows like SNL and even SCTV — is just one element that distinguishes Mr. Show from its sketch comedy brethren. In its transitions and continuous thematic threads running through a given episode, it's more akin to Monty Python, albeit without the cross-dressing. Its intelligent crudity and topical political satire — distinctly American elements that break from the Canadian or British model — probably damned it in the eyes of the network, and almost took Naomi Odenkirk's book with it.
"I got permission from HBO and started interviewing people and collecting photos and artefacts while the show was still happening," Naomi says. "I had almost finished the book when I lost my publishing deal. The book sat on the shelf for years before I decided to self-publish it."
Just as archivists pour over Python and SCTV as the golden age of sketch comedy, Mr. Show's status as a ground-breakingly hilarious show will only grow with time — making the What Happened? book all the more valuable. It not only gives the most inside perspective on the intricate workings of the show — from the vibe of the writers room to the challenges of low budget guerrilla location shooting — but it places its cast and creators in a broader context of the comedy scenes from which they all emerged.
"Let's face it," Bob deadpans. "The book is better than the show."