With Pleasure

Anyone who knows me, has read my writing, or has spent agonizing minutes in my company hearing me gas on and on about television knows that I think Mr. Show with Bob and David represents one of the high points in the history of TV comedy.  It was, and still is, one of the most audacious, complex, and mind-searingly funny sketch shows ever made, and it helped launch the careers of so many of my comedy idols that it might as well have been its own studio system.  It was critical in the development of my writing, my own sense of humor, and the direction of the kind of comedy writing I most came to value over the subsequent two decades.  Recapping it for the A.V. Club was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life.

So when I heard that, after 19 years, Bob Odenkirk and David Cross would be doing a…sequel? Reboot?  Revival?  Whatever you wanted to call it, Bob and David would be doing a new sketch comedy show for Netflix, and I was as excited as it was possible to be while still having one’s neck attached.  I’m forever cautious of late-period sequels, reunion shows, and the like, and I knew there was a good chance that W/Bob and David would just end up crapping on the legacy of one of my favorite shows.  I also knew that both creators had gone in very different directions over the passing years; Cross’ humor had become more pointed and sharp, with a tinge of hostility, while Odenkirk had developed as a writer, director, producer, and most surprisingly, a dramatic actor.  So there was a strong possibility W/ Bob and David would just shit the bed.  But what was I going to do, not watch it?

So watch it I did, and it can’t be denied that it is a very different, and, yes, lesser show than its legendary predecessor.  It’s a bit more relaxed, without the desperate intensity to wring laughs out of every second of film; in a lot of ways, comedy is a young person’s game, and since Cross and Odenkirk have both had success in other ways, they don’t have the hunger to make the most out of what little exposure they could get that drove them when they were young.  This is inevitable, and not even really a bad thing, but it does show up on screen, and in small ways, it hurts.  These are two comics who are far more at ease with themselves and their careers, and that’s all to the good, but the problem with not having anything to prove is that you also have a lot to lose.  Some of the manic, careening pace of Mr. Show is as vanished as the speed of a hot young gunfighter, and the result is sketches that drag on a bit too long.

Bob and David are also not the same people they were in 1994, nor would I want them to be, and their own changes aside, they made it a point to bring back as many of the original Mr. Show cast members as they could.  This provided generally excellent results; Jay Johnston is still the ensemble’s secret weapon, Dino Stamotopoulos is the best writer in the bunch, and Paul F. Tompkins has become a much better comedian and an outstanding actor over the years (as illustrated by the way he absolutely steals the show in a great first-episode sketch about a group of friends making absurd New Year’s resolutions).  But there are a lot of new faces as well, and thankfully, most of them work out well.  Some are mere cameos, but it’s good to see the likes of Dave “Gruber” Allen and Keegan-Michael Key, who’s terrific in one of the high points, a bit about a self-appointed civil rights expert filming the police; Paget Brewster does a great job too and is always welcome.  Bob Odenkirk has thrown his lot in pretty heavily with Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, but outside of the grotesque opening credits, their influence is thankfully minimal.

The series itself starts out amazingly well, ‘explaining’ the near twenty-year absence of Bob and David with a bit about a time machine that relies heavily on their trademark use of the ambiguity of language.  There’s a bit more topical material in W/ Bob and David, but its forebear was never free of current-events humor; it was usually just presented in such a way as to add a timeless quality to the proceedings.  That’s the case here as well, though, sadly, some of the topical bits — the white culture’s attempts to whitewash slavery and the ongoing police abuse of African-Americans — are evergreen for all the wrong reasons.  Bob has become a much better actor over the years, but so has everyone else, and this maturity of performance helps save a lot of otherwise average sketches, like how David’s sweetly baffled old judge, Sandy Whistleton, becomes such and instantly memorable character just on the strength of the familiar way he’s portrayed.

Other sketches are as strong as anything ever done on Mr. Show (miraculously, Bob and David find a genuinely funny and fresh take on the idea of portraying the prophet Mohammed, and not only manage to make it relatively inoffensive, but use it to launch into a hilariously absurd bit about Hollywood executives being replaced by radical Islamic imams).  At its worst (a misguided and far too lengthy riff on The Most Dangerous Game), W/ Bob and David ‘s hit-to-miss ratio is no worse than that of most sketch-comedy shows; at its best (a deftly acted take on the good cop-bad cop routine, a surprisingly sensitive use of the word “cunt”, and, astonishingly, a hilarious parody of the classic Maysles Brother documentary Salesman), it’s a reminder of how amazing its predecessor could be, and how much Cross and Odenkirk deserve their high praise in the comedy pantheon.

There isn’t much to W/ Bob and David.  Even its five-episode run is a bit of a cheat, as the last episode is just an extended making-of documentary; while it’s absolutely worth watching, it shouldn’t be counted as part of the actual show.  That leaves a little less than two hours of new comedy from the men and women who took it to a whole new level in the mid-’90s.  But really, that’s more of a blessing than a curse; Mr. Show itself probably went on a few episodes too long.   W/ Bob and David is the best kind of reunion show:  engaging, entertaining, easy-going, and fun, with lots of new material but the good sense to leave the stage before wearing out its welcome.

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