A title card announcing “A Message from National Entitilitus Foundation” appears on screen, followed by a shirtless guy with a baseball cap named Ronnie Dobbs sitting in a rocking chair, announcing that “by the time you see this, I will have passed.” (This will not be the case; Dobbs will, in fact, go on to achieve fame and fortune, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.) He stumps for sponsoring somebody for the Talk Backwards for One Day to Raise Awareness for Entitilitus Day, then suggests that people wear condoms in their ears, because “I think it’s funny.” Then a crude drawing of grotesque, smiling stick figure in heels comes on screen, as what sounds like a merry-go-round song played at the wrong speed fills the soundtrack. And with that modest, WTF-did-I-just-see cold opening, comedy was about to experience a profound paradigm shift, courtesy of something called Mr. Show.
Twenty years ago, David Cross and Bob Odenkirk’s HBO sketch-comedy show premiered, treating viewers to dim-witted convenience store employees, one-man musicals about Adolf Hitler, and the single most filmed Cops arrestee of all time. Some four seasons and 30 episodes later, the series left behind a small but devoted comedy-nerd cult following, tons of quotable lines (“I ain’t got no flyin’ shoes!”), and, as bootlegs circulated, a growing reputation as being Generation X’s answer to Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Now, it’s rightfully considered one of the funniest and most influential sketch shows of all time. And when W/Bob and David premieres on Netflix on November 13th — a miniseries that the duo insist is not a “Mr. Show reunion” so much as a collection of sketches featuring the old cast and channeling the original’s anarchic spirit — their new show will be greeted like the second coming of Jeepers Creepers Semi-Star.
In honor of Mr. Show‘s platinum anniversary, we reached out to several collaborators, fans and cast members to ask them about their favorite sketches, how it inspired them and the way that its legacy left an impact on comedy. Happy birthday, Mr. Show. Terra da-loo!
Maynard James Keenan
Musician, Winemaker; appeared in several Mr. Show sketches
I knew those guys through Laura Milligan and the Diamond Club scene; she had a regular thing she did called “Tantrum,” this variety show where she was a former child actress named Tawny Port. She had a boyfriend named Vince, this loser rocker who’d been in a Sunset Strip hair band but now he was in to whatever was popular that week: New Wave, grunge, metal, “improvisational” hardcore. That was my recurring character. We’d end the show by doing a song in whatever style he was into. It was a lot of fun. That’s really where the roots of Puscifer starts, long before the “Ronnie Dobbs” sketch. So there were a lot of Mr. Show sketches in their infancy that I got to see getting worked out on stage.
There’s a sketch where Jay Johnston talks about climbing a mountain and he keeps falling into the shelf full of knickknacks…it cracks me up every single time I see it. “The Audition” is absolutely genius. And anything they did with Pit Pat [a mascot for the GloboChem corporation] was awesome. Those three are the ones that really stick out to me.
I always make the parallel between what was happening in that underground comedy scene in L.A. to what was happening with bands in the late Eighties…you had some burned out space that you’d pay the landlord under the table and staple some cat-piss-smelling carpet on to the walls, and you could jam without being hassled by anybody. Those places are all hipster charcuterie spots now. But I feel like the comedy scene had that same thing: You had all these different little pockets of folks, your Diamond Club and Largo and Uncabaret groups, who were working their shit out without people coming in and killing the vibe. You’d watch people getting up there and trying to combine both of those things, or see where they could push stuff. It was a great time to just wander into those places and watch amazing shit happening in the comedy world. And Mr. Show was both the byproduct and, now, the time capsule of that moment.
It completely influenced what I did, and what I do…I still collaborate with Laura on film ideas. When you’re exposed to stuff like that, it pushes you to do your own crazy shit. “Okay, so now my character is split into two and he’s two different people. Why does it have it make sense? Just fucking go with it!” They brought that wide open thing they were doing in clubs to TV sketch comedy, and that was it. It was on from there.
Comedian, Voice of Spongebob Squarepants, Mr. Show cast member
I’d started doing stand-up and ended up in Boston, so I knew David from there; later, when Jill [Talley] and I were doing a sketch show called The Edge, we’d see Bob and David on the lot, because The Ben Stiller Show was filming there as well. We knew these guys separately, but that was the first time we’d encountered them as a team. Eventually, we got folded into this other thing they started doing, and, well…20 years later, you and I are on the phone talking about it. Where did the time go?!?
Personally, I love the “Monsters of Megaphone” sketch: It’s this really great idea that’s well put together, really well-shot and it achieved pathos without seeming cloying. You know when comedians will do that thing where they’re straining to make you sad — that Patch Adams kind of thing? [Laughs] It never does that. And the “Hail Satan Network” sketch came from this bit my wife and I would do before Mr. Show started, these holy rollers who were pitching for the Dark Lord. If I could be in any spin-off show, I’d want to do those characters. Should anyone from Amazon or Netflix be reading this… [laughs]. And I have a weakness for the “Superstar” opening sketch, because any time my wife plays a foul-mouthed harridan, I crack up.
It’s funny to me how Mr. Show has become so much stronger in death than it was in life — it’s the Obi-Wan of sketch shows! It was a real labor of love, and even people who don’t know the history behind it, the way that Bob and David had to fight to get it on and how HBO sort of fumbled the ball at the end, they can tell that this was something that had a lot of creativity and sweat put into it. And the idea that you could take a simple premise — like, say, the “Change for a Dollar” or “Family Porno Store” skits — and see how insane and complex you could go with it, people really responded to that. They still do.
Right now, I have an 18-year-old kid who’s sitting in the other room; that bump in Jill’s belly in Season Two? He’s hanging out on our couch. And it’s not like he cares about what’s on his dad’s resumé, you know, but as we speak, he’s watching Portlandia and I can hear him laughing. And Fred [Armisen] has more or less told me that, if it wasn’t for Mr. Show, there would probably be no Portlandia. That just boggles my mind, the influence and the life this thing has had. We were inspired by SCTV, other folks were inspired by us, and my son’s generation is inspired by Fred and Carrie [Brownstein]. And 20 years later, somebody from Rolling Stone is calling me up to talk about it. Where did the time go?!?
Keegan Michael Key
Actor, sketch comedian (Key & Peele)
I was at graduate school hanging out with some friends, and a re-run of it came on; I remember noticing the way they transitioned from sketch to sketch and thinking wait, what was that? What the hell did they just do? Years later, I talked to Bob about it, telling him how incredible I thought the way they went from one scene to the next was so graceful. And he kinda went, “Yeah, we realized later we never really had to do any of that. I don’t know why we did.” [Laughs]
I’m sure I’m the 17,000th person to pick this, but my favorite has to be “The Audition.” I’ll argue that this is one of the top five sketches ever written — not just for Mr. Show, top five ever written. It has that wonderful quality of letting you know what’s coming next, because they’ve set it up so well and the scene’s comedic game is so strong, but you still don’t know what they’re going to say. It almost feels like an old Second City sketch, but with this surrealist bent to it. For me, that was a big moment: Oh, you can keep the classic and the new?
There’s also the one where Odenkirk is playing Jesus, and Cross is one of his followers who’s trying to get him to expand his profit margins and maximize his potential. “Jesus, what if I told you that the meek could inherit something a lot better than the Earth?” So funny. Tom Kenny’s Satanic televangelist would be up there as well…again, simple premise but the execution of it is perfect. And the rock band that kept bragging about how completely and savagely rock and roll they are, while they are watching videotapes of themselves having sex with each other. What’s the name? Right, Wyckyd Sceptre!
And there’s one sketch that…I don’t even remember what it’s about, but there’s a character in it called Borden Grote. I’ve always thought that name was hilarious on its own. I remember when I was on Mad TV, we were trying to come up with names for characters and they kept saying “Just use the random name generator.” I was like, really, that’s a thing? So we’d go into that site and just have it spit out names, and I remember thinking “None of these are as funny as Borden Grote.”
Whenever I find myself getting into conversations about Mr. Show, it’s almost always with other artists: comedians, writers, actors. You had the stage element, the transitional stuff, and solid sketch writing, and there was no favoring one over the other. Bob and Dave inspired a whole generation to put sillier stuff into comedy. And it gave us permission to mix shit up.
Head Writer, Saturday Night Live
I first saw it in high school, when I would stay up late on Friday just to watch it. I can still pretty much recite all the promos from memory, that’s how obsessed with it I was. Eventually I went on eBay and bought every episode on bootleg VHS, and then did the same thing for The Ben Stiller Show when I heard that was where Bob and David met.
The moment where Ronnie starts singing in “Fuzz: The Musical” — it’s the hardest I have ever laughed in my life. I remember watching it with a friend who also became a comedy writer, and we rewound that moment about 50 times. I also love “Larry Kleist: Rapist” and “The New KKK”; the way they try to put an upbeat spin on such irredeemable people is something I try to emulate all the time.
For a long time I tried to write sketches like “The Pretaped Call-In Show” and “The Audition,” which are basically perfect, and I really never got in the ballpark. Mr. Show made me want to be funny, but I had to figure out another way to get there besides copying Mr. Show. It’s just an impossible bar to set for yourself. It hurts my brain, it’s so good.
Comedian, The Daily Show Correspondent
If you look at something like “The Audition,” which is probably my favorite sketch of theirs, it’s incredibly precise with just a touch of anarchy to it — it’s also dumb in the most beautiful of ways, which is true of all of my favorite sketches of theirs. You can tell that they took their time with it, and yet they’re sort of giving the middle finger to the notion of a traditional sketch at the same time. I love that about it.
There’s this other one where the two of them are these dudes who bump into each other at a bar, and their testosterone forces them to spend the rest of their lives with each other. But the best part is that it ends with Odenkirk at Cross’s death bed, they’re still talking trash, and suddenly, Odenkirk realizes that he’s wasted his life being a bro. [Laughs] It’s a classic. That odd melancholic ending is just the perfect punchline to it.
I came to Mr. Show late, long after it had come out on DVD and all my comedy friends had forced me to watch it. But once I discovered it, I just felt like: Yes. This is it. The way they synthesized a lot of sketch comedy that came before them, as well as adding this almost punk rock feel to it, was what really got me. And suddenly, I could see where all this absurdist irreverence that had been sort of bubbling up in the comedy world had come from.
Writer, Actor (SNL), Comedian
I was working in the Second City Chicago box office while I was taking classes there, and a guy passed me videotapes of Mr. Show that he’d taped off of HBO…it wasn’t even a complete set, because he’d have to live tape them, and thus I only saw the episodes that aired when he was at home. But I binge-watched these things before “binge-watched” was a term. It was this weird coming-together moment for me, because I was talking classes in long-form improv — and now here was this show that was doing something very similar to what I was learning, but on this whole other level.
People always compare them to Monty Python, and I love Python, but in a lot of ways, they’re like the band that my dad likes, you know? [Laughs] Mr. Show was ours. It felt new and cool, which is how I imagine the earlier generation felt about those first few seasons of Saturday Night Live.Here was this new, subversive thing for the people who grew up in the 1970s, and now we had our equivalent.
The two sketches that jump to mind immediately are “Joke: The Musical,” with Jack Black singing “don’t stick your dick in these holes.” Though it’s the bit at the end that really got me, for some reason, when Bob shows up as a sad milk machine. I mean, who would do a musical version of the one about the traveling salesman, where you take the oldest joke and then heighten everything so it gets its own song — and then you add in a milk machine who claims he’s just doing his job? [Laughs]
The other one is Odenkirk in a donut shop, taking an extremely long time to order a donut. “I … will … have … a … single … do … nut…” That’s funny enough on its own, but for some reason, he has blood trickling out of his ear. That, to me, is just this little detail that somehow makes the sketch one of my all time favorites. I came up with this idea years later about a Blockbuster manager with blood coming out of his nose for no apparent reason, and I thought, oh, this is so good. Then I suddenly realized I was blatantly ripping off that Odenkirk character.
That’s the same sketch where Cross plays a guy who’s too cool for vinyl; he can only listen to music on a Victrola. This is a great example of how they could take fully realized characters who could hold their own in a sketch by themselves, and put them together, and still make it work. If I had to pick one way that Mr. Show influenced modern comedy writing, it would probably be that: You’ll see people give a waiter one weird, funny line and suddenly, he’s at the center of the next sketch. People were doing that before them, I’m sure, but the Mr. Show version of that…I see it everywhere now.
Comedian, Actress; appeared in several Mr. Show sketches
I was so lucky to be a part of Mr. Show, and just to be a part of this crowd of vital inspired comedians. I have so many favorite sketches but the one that sticks out in my mind is one where Jay Johnston comes home from climbing Mount Everest and his parents gather to hear about his amazing adventure and — get ready for it — he keeps knocking over this shelf of knickknacks. That’s it; the bit is really that simple. But it is physical comedy at its most brilliant. I would love to know what the pitch for that sketch sounded like.
Actress, Mr. Show cast member
I knew Bob from Chicago, when we did this stage show called “All You Can Eat and the Temple of Dooom”; there’s an extra “o” in there so we wouldn’t get sued. Robert Smigel was in it as well. Then we ended up in Second City together, which is how I fell in with those guys once we all ended up in L.A. years later. It felt like a progression of what we’d already been doing.
There are certain sketches that, to this day, crack me up whenever I start thinking about them. Bob and Dave doing the Three Times One Minus One music video still makes me laugh: “Damn. Daaaaaaamn!” [Laughs] Any time Bob had to sing, I was pretty much on the floor, but that song just kills me. But my all-time favorite, for my own selfish reasons, was the “Hail Satan Network” sketch. Tom and I had been doing those characters years before Mr. Show, this evangelist couple called the Pridgetts, at the Diamond Club. It was always fun to play them, and to flip it around like they were devil worshippers…it didn’t take a lot of effort. I love the fact that David’s character can’t get out of the wheelchair not because he’s disabled, but because he’s lazy. That, to me, is such a Mr. Show joke.
Everything has a format: Second City shows have a format, or at least they did while I was there; SNL has a format. But our show didn’t have a format, really. Scenes bled in and out of each other, there were all these callbacks, sometimes a vague sort of theme would tie things together, or not. I feel like that was made it a game changer for a lot of folks, because it did transform how sketch shows were done. We’d film bits throughout the week, and it wasn’t until we were taping the live show with the audience that we, the cast, would see the whole thing put together. And I can remember standing on the side and watch how a live piece would go into pre-taped piece, and it was like, “Oh, now I get it!” A joke or a sketch in the script that had confused my in the script two weeks ago suddenly made sense. It was like watching a puzzle being out together. A weird puzzle made by weird people.
It doesn’t feel like it’s been 20 years. I’ll work with these young directors on projects now, and they’ll tell me, “My parents would never let me stay up to watch Mr. Show, I had to see it from bootleg tapes from my friends.” This whole generation grew up loving it, and now they’re in positions of power where they can green light projects and start their own sketch groups. It’s crazy to me.