The first episode of W/ Bob and David, the new sketch comedy show that reunites Bob Odenkirk, David Cross and pretty much everybody else that was associated with Mr. Show, almost feels like a commentary on how angrily fans often react to sequels or revivals of beloved old shows. It’s the worst of the show’s four episodes, to a significant extent, and it made me worry that the entire show would be a failure. It’s such a notable difference in quality from both the worst Mr. Show episodes and the rest of W/ Bob & David that it makes me wonder if it is, for some weird reason, intentional—if, after seeing the unjustified scorn heaped upon the great fourth season of Arrested Development and (to a much lesser extent) Wet Hot American Summer: The First Day of Camp, Odenkirk and Cross assumed a vocal segment of the old fan base would reject the new show no matter what, and tried to bait them into that reaction with a lackluster episode. Or maybe it just suffers from having two of its sketches already released on-line in advance, making almost a third of the episode into a de facto rerun. Either way, that first episode looks like Mr. Show and is structured like Mr. Show but rarely makes me laugh like Mr. Show. It’s not a good start.
It’s all uphill from there. And not even like a gradual ascent—the second episode charges up that damn hill and the show hangs out around the summit for the rest of its three episodes. The second episode features a few classic sketches that recapture the intricately layered absurdity of Mr. Show, from a sketch with an emotionally fragile good cop / bad cop duo trying to interrogate a subject, to a broad in-studio bit about dry cleaning that segues seamlessly into a filmed vignette that very specifically targets movies about writing musicals. I can’t think of any movies about writing musicals off the top of my head (NBC’s Smash is the first thing that comes to mind, and that, of course, was a TV show) and yet I recognize all the clichés that W/ Bob & David plays with. That ability to hone in on the minute details of the often arcane pop culture they’re parodying is part of what made Odenkirk and Cross’s work on Mr. Show so memorable, and it’s a skill they (and their writers) still have.
If you told me these last three episodes were made back in 1997 or 1998, during Mr. Show’s last two seasons, well, I wouldn’t believe you, but only for two reasons. First off, everybody’s obviously older. You can’t really stop time, even in Hollywood. Secondly sketches occasionally make references that simply couldn’t have existed back in the ‘90s. One of the best sketches is an extended riff on Shingy, AOL’s bizarrely coiffed “digital prophet,” and nothing about that man or his job would have made sense in 1996. Otherwise, yes, those three episodes are easily the equal to Mr. Show’s final two seasons.
Other sketches that seem somewhat timely could have easily existed back in the days of Mr. Show with a few small changes. Sketches framed as a YouTube-style show or as a parody of the weird “kids who’ve been to heaven” sub-genre of religious books (think Heaven is For Real and The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven) could have easily existed without references to specific books or to filming cops with smart phones. That sort of timelessness is also crucial to Mr. Show’s enduring appeal—most of the first show’s 30 episodes stand on their own still today, with perhaps only the MTV parody sketch with the Oasis and Marilyn Manson knockoffs feeling outdated today.
Of course much of Mr. Show’s legend is based on how groundbreaking the show was, and it’s impossible for any reunion to recreate that. Sketch comedy wasn’t new when it debuted in 1995, but no American sketch show combined intelligence and absurdity so thoroughly, or expended such effort to weave every sketch and bit together into a digressive but connected whole. Characters would walk from one sketch into the next, offhand lines would reel off into the next vignette, and episodes were usually tied together thematically. That level of care can be found in how W/ Bob & David’s episodes are structured, but if it wasn’t, Mr. Show fans would probably reject this reunion immediately. What was unexpected in 1995 is mandatory today.
Mr. Show rightfully earned the reputation as ground zero for the explosion of alternative comedy over the last 20 years. Without it there maybe wouldn’t be an Adult Swim or a Funny or Die or so much of the other less traditional comedy that has flourished over the last two decades. No matter how well-written or smartly put together these episodes are, almost no show could live up to such a massive reputation, or to 17 years of expectation and anticipation from the most dedicated fans. That instant backlash that’s so common on the internet these days is a very real possibility, but it would be a shame, as after the first episode W/ Bob & David is about as great as anyone could expect a Mr. Show reunion to be after such a long absence.
W/ Bob & David premieres on Netflix tomorrow, Friday 11/13.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections.