Last Laugh

Mr. Show doesn't have a first name. That's OK; its irreverence demands respect. Behind the program's ambiguous, satirical title is comedy growing wild, clipped right from the vine. Make that Hollywood and Vine. Running at least through January on HBO, Mr. Show is a sketch-comedy half-hour predicated on the considerable talents of Bob Odenkirk and David Cross. Perhaps it should be called Dr. Show; they're like two scientists in a joke lab, experimenting with comedy using not test tubes but the tube.

The findings: Cross and Odenkirk have invented the funniest half-hour now being produced for television. They treat political correctness like not being able to cut up in church -- a rule made to be broken. Mr. Show doesn't go out of its way to offend, just to entertain. Sketches segue one into the next, connecting like dominoes with extra dottiness. Indeed, Mr. Show is a game of comedy that's played (not so) strictly for laughs. Cross and Odenkirk are influenced by Monty Python, SCTV and Saturday Night Live -- but the bizarre, unlike-anything-you've-ever-seen show drops in references ranging from Benny Hill to European art movies. The writing is constantly inspired, and what doesn't work is a brave martyr in the war against seriousness. Besides, Cross and Odenkirk are fine actors -- a fact that tends to be obscured by the effortless hilarity of the material.

I recently spoke with the stars of Mr. Show:

RFT: I worship you guys.
Cross: What do you mean, "worship"?
Odenkirk: Have we helped you in any way? Any miracles? Has anything been healed?

I just put my hands on the TV and I'm healed. In a way, you guys are the real Not Ready for Prime Time Players because you can do things on HBO that you couldn't on network TV.

Odenkirk: We have a lot of freedom in content and format. Because our show uses video, film and live, and because we're on HBO, we can go just about anywhere.

You have sophisticated film segments.
Odenkirk: We have our sophisti-cam. Have you heard about it?
I've heard talk about it.

Odenkirk: It's called a sophisti-cam, and we have the only one. It was designed in Japan. It sophisticates anything you shoot.

Hey, it's about time.
Odenkirk: You don't have to beat around the bush -- it's past time.
How do you put together Mr. Show?

Cross: We just get together for a few months, write a bunch of sketches, try to put those sketches together in a way that makes a good show, pacing-wise and energy-wise. Then we film the remote pieces for those five shows -- we do five at a time -- edit them and then rehearse the live part. Then we tape the live show where we roll those things into a big screen so the audience can see them -- how one thing goes to another.

Odenkirk: It takes months to do the shows. Basically, it works out to be about three weeks a show. We rehearse our live scenes; there are no cue cards. We have to know everything we're doing. The pretaped stuff, which is about half of every episode, is fully produced before we do the live show. The audience watches it and we record their laughs; it's all live laughs. And there's a lot of rewriting that has to be done because you don't have a lot of room to edit. Once it's down with the audience laughter, you can't change much. It's really a show that no network would do. In an eight-month period, we do 10 episodes. That's not enough product.

Bob, you're from the Chicago area. How about you, David?
Cross: I'm from Atlanta. Then I moved to Boston.
Odenkirk: We were part of a Chicago-Atlanta exchange.
Cross: Something the government put together.

Odenkirk: It's where Chicago and Atlanta take people who they don't want, and they all chip in and they ship them out, one from each city, on a two-for-one air-flight coupon which links from Chicago out to LA -- or any city that's over 500 miles away from Atlanta or Chicago. I was, luckily, chosen as one of the citizens of Chicago that was not wanted within 500 miles, and David also had the distinction and honor. We won that year. We flew together on a two-for-one buddy-pass ticket and ended up out here in Los Angeles.

Cross: The rest is history.
Odenkirk: It's an incredible story. But there's another story you could tell: David was in Boston.

Cross: It's true.
Odenkirk: I was in Los Angeles. I had just done Get a Life -- having written for it -- and I was hired to write and perform on The Ben Stiller Show.

Cross: "Hired" being the key word there.
Odenkirk: Then David was hired as a writer on The Ben Stiller Show. We met there, didn't talk, didn't do anything together. Then the show ended and we carried on with our lives, did different things. About a year later we were ...

Cross: ... fishing ...
Odenkirk: ... hanging out with this group of people in LA who do standup, which includes a lot of people you're familiar with, like Janeane Garofalo, and some you're not. We were all doing sketch comedy together, and David and I just started talking about sketch comedy. We'd both done a lot of it, and we sort of both shared this vision for Mr. Show, like, immediately. It was really just an automatic thing. So we just got into it; we produced five of them in theaters around LA. We'd do it for one night. We'd do an episode and produce our own video pieces, write the scripts, rehearse people, and we'd invite HBO executives and other people out. We'd do it one night, and then two or three months later -- because it took that long to make them with our own money -- we'd do another episode. And over the course of that process, since we both had a certain amount of stature -- I'd done Saturday Night Live and Ben Stiller, and David had done nothing; David was a co-headliner at Yuckles -- we were able to get a lot of people from the industry to come and see these shows, and they could see we clearly had a vision for the show. HBO started to back us and after we'd done a couple of them, over the course of about a year-and-a-half, they financed the first four Mr. Shows. And then it was us just begging and pleading every year to do some more -- until now, where we're not going to beg and plead and neither is anybody else. Except you, we hope.

Do you have any favorite episodes?
Odenkirk: I have some favorites. The one this year with the prenatal pageants. The next couple of upcoming ones I'm really proud of.

On the surface, it might seem you're testing the waters of good vs. bad taste.

Odenkirk: When we're provocative or whatever, we try to think about what we're saying, or why. Usually there's a point being made or it's so silly that you can't really get upset about it. We have whole episodes that have no swearing in them. We don't just do it, like, "When do we get to swear next?" If we're writing a scene and the character would use foul language, we let him use foul language because we can. We have some rules, but they're our own rules; no one put them on us. We don't do impersonations, really. We sort of create an alternate universe. We try to reflect general social trends and not do topical stuff; that's Saturday Night Live's area. I think we touch on things that are sort of political issues, or important cultural issues. We want to create a show you can watch on tape -- because God knows nobody's watching it now.

Mr. Show can be seen on HBO at 11 p.m. Mondays.

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