That might sound like a convenient analogy for a music publication to make, especially one that's gunning for some screeners, but it's not a reach. It's hard to talk about Mr. Show without making music comparisons, and not just because it parodied Metallica and inspired Blink-182 songs. The regrouping of Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, along with their erstwhile Mr. Show all-stars, for four new half-hour sketch shows on Netflix, is like finally crossing that group off your bucket list. It feels like a band reunion. Personalities have softened, the market has opened up, and their dulcet-whispered legacy has laid a smooth path for a victory lap. It's time to collect.
If Monty Python was the Velvet Underground of sketch comedy shows, Mr. Show was the Pavement. It only existed for a few years in the '90s and, though it never played the game enough to achieve widespread mainstream success, it went on to inspire a whole generation of acolytes, many of whom did. They became movie stars. They started bands, hosted podcasts-cum-talk-shows. They landed roles in other beloved cult comedies that were cancelled before their time. It didn't get that many viewers, but those who saw it started their own Mr. Shows.
"Alt"-comedy is no longer that weird show at the dive bar that three people showed up to. In many ways, it's the mainstream.
All this is to say the time was ripe for Bob and David to take a break from their myriad other projects and get the old band back together. And the Coachella of streaming media services — Netflix — was ready with its chequebook to make it happen.
Though it reunites most of the original cast and writers and follows vaguely the same format, there's a good reason this is called W/ Bob & David and not Mr. Show with Bob and David. Likely, David Cross has learned from his experience with Arrested Development, another show he was in that was "rescued" by Netflix. Though it experimented and broke format to focus each episode on an individual character, it was billed as "Season 4," which confused and disappointed fans who wanted to slink back into their old favourite show. By calling this something different (but similar), Bob and David are able to sidestep that intense nerd pressure and just put on some comedy.
I saw Pavement during their reunion tour at Osheaga in 2010. They did every song with a smirk, treating the band's exalted legacy with distanced irony. Malkmus played his guitar behind his head. He even laughed off a beer that hit him in the face. They were loose, they were having fun, and they weren't taking anything too seriously. They were messy and under-rehearsed. In short, they were Pavement. And it was glorious.
This is where the analogy falls apart, because despite Mr. Show's ironic, often absurd take on race, gender, class, Jesus Christ Superstar, everything else, they were always respectful to the sketch comedy form itself. An episode of Mr. Show was like a Russian nesting doll as sketches would push into unexpected directions, sprouting off into new concepts and unexpected directions seamlessly and then folding back in on themselves. It was impeccably crafted, elegant. Nothing was a throwaway. By many accounts, the writer's room was an uncomfortable place and the shows titular stars were, well, kind of jerks. They took this shit seriously, and it showed.
But W/ Bob & David is noticeably more relaxed. It essentially follows the same format, blending live and taped sketches with flowing continuity. But not always. Bridge pieces are sometimes absent, or are just marked with a title card on a set piece. Some sketches meander. A news sketch about a newly discovered, and deceased, "Extra Beatle" makes room for a long, uninterrupted improv by Dave "Gruber" Allen.
They filmed the four episodes in a week, putting their sketches out into the world on Netflix rather than saving them for paying audiences (they were initially planned for a tour). There's not that much riding on this. David Cross is a big ticket stand-up, while Bob Odenkirk is the star of his own cable show, not to mention a go-to bit player for prestige movies and TV shows like Nebraska, Fargo and Breaking Bad. They don't need to do this.
In some ways, the looseness of W/ Bob & David is its strength. They're clearly having fun with their own reputation, telling stories about their own ageing (the series starts with the the two emerging from a "real-time machine," 17 years older because of the hyphen) and winking at their devoted fans grilling them about when they're going to do more. Some of those jokes are the highlights, like a scene that begins with Brian Posehn at a dry cleaner returning an outfit stained by a bridge piece that was cut out.
That also lowers the stakes for the moments when the guys hearken back to their glory days. The dry cleaner sketch is a perfect example. It's classic Mr. Show storytelling, a sketch that starts with a simple premise — a negligent dry cleaners that covers its ass with a convoluted ticket policy — and ends with the costumer and dry cleaners together accepting an award for Rooms: The Musical.
The musical itself is a leftover idea from the Mr. Show days (Bob Odenkirk played some of the musical numbers, in which the rooms of a house come alive and sing, on an episode of Comedy Bang Bang a few years ago), but that's not what makes it so impressive. It starts in one place, pushes unflinchingly into absurd, unexpected directions, and lands you somewhere else. You're not where you expected, but you're in the same world. There are references back to the beginning. It all fits. You step back and marvel.
These moments aren't as prevalent as they were on Mr. Show, but they're there. And this new format allows them to come back together whenever they feel the itch. Netflix always has room for an old favourite. As long as it's still fun, they'll keep playing the hits.