W/Bob And David, And the Return Of the Curse Of Mr. Show’s Ghost

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I’ve said this approximately seven billion times to anyone who will listen:

WATCH MR. SHOW.

If we could be said to share a sense of humor, or you are even mildly a fan of TV comedy, go do it right now. 30 episodes. Brilliant television. Revolutionary style. It’s magical, flaws and all. I’ve taken the liberty of assembling a complete Youtube playlist…

Okay, you’re done, I hope. As you can see, Bob Odenkirk, David Cross and their band of insubordinate lackeys totally changed the face of comedy. Now there are shows like Key & Peele, Inside Amy Schumer, Portlandia, Kroll Show, and others that owe them a huge debt. Not to mention that the many talented performers they featured have found a lot of fame elsewhere. If it had continued on in quality and relevance instead of being canceled before its time, Mr. Show would very closely resemble Comedy Bang! Bang!, the best sketch comedy on TV right now (run by Mr. Show alum Scott Aukerman, incidentally). But here we are in 2015, about 15 years after the show ended.

Surprise! The original cast and crew found the time to regroup and make a new miniseries for Netflix, one they were insisting would be lighter and less rigorous (and not a sequel to Mr. Show, though it may as well be). It’s called W/Bob And David, and it’s decent. I started with that background information because it can’t help but be measured against its predecessor in some ways, and against its contemporaries in others.

I’ll start with the bad: comparing it to Mr. Show. I guess you could be charitable and say this series is unhurried and less hyperactive, but in the constantly evolving world of comedy, that translates to “bloated and boring”. There’s almost none of the rapidfire pace of its predecessor, and scenes are dragged out uncomfortably long. This slowed tempo can still work for some sketches, but it’s not measurably better than the competition as a result. Additionally, if a premise doesn’t take off, that just means it awkwardly gets stretched out for longer than usual. W/Bob And David’s style is updated, but somewhat barren and still relatively low-budget, which means it lacks the detail and nuance the original had. There’s also a deficiency of interconnected bits and clever links, which tied their first show together in brilliant ways, and the loss of which underlines the sequel’s flabbiness.

A typical Mr. Show scene featured numerous reversals, memorable punchlines, character tics, surreal escalation and conceptual contrasts out the wazoo. This meant the tone, subtext or focus of a skit could change instantly (which you know if you watched it like I requested), and it was those qualities that made it the second best sketch comedy ever. In comparison, W/Bob And David seems content to wallow comfortably and stick with one well-trodden idea per sketch, for the most part.

Perhaps more distressingly, it seems like most of the sketch conceits and topics in these four episodes are things that have been at least touched on, if not played out, in comedy of the last 15 years and these guys are arriving late to the party to put in their two cents. Sketch spoilers ahead: There’s the (admittedly cool) Cyriak title sequence, a tech conference scene, a millionaire “outlaw” country music video, a “Thanks Obama” joke, a terminally ill child shilling his religious epiphany, a benign drug commercial, a whole runner of Seinfeld/Star Wars fandom digs, a couple takes on prestige biopics and whitewashed historical melodramas, and a spoof of that Glengarry Glen Ross scene that went viral about, oh, six years ago. These “trendy” takes confirm that this visionary duo is sadly following the trends now instead of starting them. Mr. Show certainly had its share of topicality, but its genius lay in the idea of attacking general archetypes in a self-aware way, and nesting them in timeless comedy concepts. In contrast, some of these bits are quite on the nose and not held up by anything besides the parody.

However, getting to the good stuff, Bob and David unmistakably put their own spin on all these topics. I admit, it’s extremely refreshing to see everyone returning and being slotted in where their strengths lie. There’s Cross and Odenkirk’s respective personae and undeniable chemistry, John Ennis’ stern commitment, Paul F. Tompkins’ naturalistic affability and improvisatory tone, Jay Johnston’s inherently silly body language and character versatility, Jill Talley’s still-pretty-weird straight women, Tom Kenny’s zaniness and malleable voice, and so on. But that familiarity is a double-edged sword, as keen fans of the original can find alarmingly derivative precedents for many different segments here, in terms of characters, premises, stylistics, voices and much more.

Despite the duo’s love of theatricality (and maintaining an ironic distance from it), W/Bob And David’s performances and scripts seem very direct and conversational. That’s clearly the product of elongated “yes-and” riffing in the writers’ room, rather than disciplined construction and variation. It’s still solid comedy, but has an air of complacency. Before, this was their job, and they were young unknowns with something to prove. That resulted in comedy brilliance from a revolutionary group of folks bouncing ideas off of each other. But those folks have since conquered the world and now enjoy hanging out, and so W/Bob And David seems consciously like a trifle.

So even though Odenkirk, Cross & Co. lost a step and didn’t want to overwork themselves on this product, these are still immensely talented writers and actors, who – it bears repeating – are responsible for most of the style of modern cutting-edge comedy (WATCH MR. SHOW *ahem*). Thus, it is also reasonable to measure their new material against all the recent stuff they inspired. Their middling attempts to catch up on popular concepts and spoofs have to count as modernizing in some regard, and the cinematography is still nice when it has the rare chance to be. This comparison is even less impressive than it was to Mr. Show in the 90s, but even these rote topical ideas are still better written and acted than modern-day SNL, and roughly equivalent to the recent spate of sketch comedy hits. And really, it’s miraculous that everyone got back together when a reunion was unnecessary and logistically difficult, so it’s easy to be thankful for this surprise content. Bob and David constantly said on a press tour they were trying for a new kind of comedy here. The result decidedly isn’t. But the boldest part of this miniseries may be the episode that isn’t comedy at all.

The special extra episode is the most risky, ambitious and maybe rewarding of them all. I thought for sure there’d be some goofy wrinkle to it, and it would essentially be a focused style parody of making-of docs. For a brief while, it’s genuinely confusing and hard to tell (which is a neat feeling), but this is REAL and SERIOUS. This revealing look into the team’s process and quiet chance to just hang out with these legends as they play together is even more fun than some of the sketches. It confirms how lackadaisical and tossed-off the writing process was. It demonstrates that the sum of this miniseries is ideas that some guys thought were funny enough without trying too hard during a brief, brisk period of working. Nothing more, nothing less. (In fact, one sketch is funnier and Mr. Showier in their punch-up than the finished product.)

The titular duo generously depict their process and sometimes frankly pedestrian spitballing sessions, which is a brave and interesting move. The insight of how a comedy show gets made in a general sense is very informative, and something rarely seen but briefly shown here. You’d think that explaining the genesis of these jokes would ruin them, as the adage about comedy goes, but they’re ephemeral enough and these guys are charming enough on their own that it’s cool. Plus, the half-seen comedy stylings of the extraordinary Paul F. Tompkins keep things fresh. (The tantalizing hints of cut material are intriguing as well.) Elsewhere, the talking heads segments are far more than just recapitulation and self-congratulation. They conjure a mood of genuine friendship and creative inspiration, especially the lifelong bond between Odenkirk and Cross, and they’re surprisingly honest and heartwarming when speaking of their first meeting and early work.

So this miniseries amounts to four breezy episodes of pleasant, autopilot sketch comedy and a warm victory lap of a featurette. I laughed out loud a handful of times and there were one or two stretches of skits that almost came close to the old Mr. Show magic. The whole enterprise was worth it for that, I suppose. (I’m sure you were wondering: “Is there yelling and swearing Bob Odenkirk?” Yes, there is, and it’s rare but precious.)

To balance out my mild recommendation to modern comedy fans and mild disappointment knowing that they could have done better, I give W/Bob And David a B grade, which is reserved for inoffensively competent material that’s not quite great, and has some flaws or boring spots, but remains nicely effective and far from terrible. I’d say this is definitely worth experiencing for fans of the creative team, and since I think everyone should be a Mr. Show fan, perhaps that’s a backdoor endorsement of this show after all. If you go in not expecting it to topple its insurmountable legacy and formidable challengers, but instead embracing that it’s just a fun bunch of uneven jokes and that’s all it was supposed to be, you’ll do fine.

Context is ultimately what lets down W/Bob And David, both because of the similarities to the original, the looseness of the material, and the edge they’ve lost in the intervening time to younger and fresher talent. But if you watched the original first (WHICH YOU SHOULD), with that same damning context in mind, you’ll know that there’s still much talent and joy to be found here. It wasn’t meant to be more than a lark, so here we are. It’s fun, it’s lightweight, it’s old hat, it’s whatever. It’s Bob and David.

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