Alternative comedy—a vague label affixed to any comedic material that seems unusual, iconoclastic, or transgressive—has gained incredible cultural cachet in the past 30 years. While there have always been alternative comedy figures and material in American post-war pop culture (Ernie Kovacs, Andy Kaufman, SCTV and Saturday Night Live, Bill Hicks, Second City and the rise of improv, etc.), they either conformed to mainstream standards over time (see: Kaufman, SNL) or dissolved as those associated with such outlets and acts either moved on or died, as in Kaufman, Hicks, and Kovacs’ cases, taking their singular perspective with them.
But much has changed in Western civilization, for better or worse, in the past 30 years. Sensibilities, perspectives, and our relationship to technology have all experienced a radical paradigm shift, and the rise of the omni-directional effect of technology on both culture and reality itself has much to do with this seismic shift.
Concurrently (and as part of that paradigm shift), comedic figures, forms, and outlets that were once considered “alternative” in their approach to the craft and the risqué subjects they addressed now dominate the comedy world, and what was once considered alt is now not just mainstream but a reflection of mainstream culture’s ironically “alternative” sensibilities in the modern Western world. The absurd, the satirical, and the transgressive are now core components of comedy in the 21st century.
This is reflected most obviously in online culture, where intense knowledge of niche pop culture references are necessary to understand most memes, which have become the one-liners of the future. Seemingly the more self-reflexive and meta the nature of a joke and reference, the more appreciated it is by the media-saturated online audience. Violent content and incredibly blue—if not outright offensive—jokes are the proverbial bread and butter of daily online humor. The internet has made everyone a comedian, and it seems everyone has decided to be a shock comic.
Or maybe what was considered “alternative” comedy in the past was just slightly ahead of the postmodern turn, holding a mirror up to culture and norms and performing hyper-self aware concepts far ahead of that being the daily norm as technology, the self, and culture meshed together suddenly in the early 21st century.
So it goes. What was once considered alternative has gone mainstream in the 21st century. But it wasn’t always this way. Instead, one of the most fertile alternative comedy scenes in history—late 1980s and early 90s Los Angeles—produced the next generation of mainstream comedy as its figures rose to prominence in the entertainment business. They in turn helped nurture, produce, and inspire the generation that followed, which happen to be the figures that currently rule the mainstream comedy world today in television and film.
This seems like a lot of front-loading for an article about a premium cable sketch comedy show that ran for four seasons in the mid- to late-1990s, but context is needed to understand the seismic shift in comedic sensibilities that this show represents. Meta self-reflexivity is baked into the DNA of the show, while its approach to comedy was both bizarre and often daring for the time, not exactly transgressing as much as absorbing transgressive elements and placing them in traditional tropes and settings.
Besides its form, it helped launch the careers of a number of notable talents both in front of and behind the camera in the comedy world and influenced a generation of alternative comedians on how to blend absurdity with postmodern satire.
This is Mr. Show with Bob and David, and it is Great TV.
Great TV: Mr. Show
Bob Odenkirk and David Cross were two comedians from different backgrounds who first met during Cross’ brief stint on the excellent (and short-lived) The Ben Stiller Show, a sketch comedy show that aired on FOX in the early 1990s that also featured Odenkirk, Janeane Garofalo, and Andy Dick. Odenkirk was already a seasoned professional comedy writer at this point, having written on Saturday Night Live and Get a Life¸ while Cross was a rising East Coast stand-up comic with biting and edgy material reminiscent of Bill Hicks.
After the Stiller show ended, Odenkirk served on the initial writing team for Late Night with Conan O’Brien for two seasons and began performing live sketches with Cross. From this came Mr. Show with Bob and David, or just Mr. Show for short.
Airing on premium cable station HBO from 1995 to 1998, Mr. Show wasn’t bound by the regular standards, time limits, or commercial breaks of broadcast television and could instead use its time to craft a complex comedic tapestry every episode. It could also satirize subjects that would be verboten on mainstream television, including casual drug use, extreme violence, anti-authority satire, and iconoclastic perspective. Commenting on corporatocracy, media, and in general sending up the entirety of history, society, and Western culture (all while making pussy and fart jokes) makes Mr. Show both profane and profound.
As such, Odenkirk and Cross crafted a radical template for every episode: each sketch would seamlessly transition from one to the other without break, often with a common link that ends one sketch and starts the next. Episodes would often be thematic, with the sketches incorporating variations of the theme, which would continue up to the conclusion of every episode that often joined the various characters from the sketches together in a grand finale.
The show was also an engaging mixture of live-action sketches and more intricate filmed sketches, which would continually become slicker and larger in scale as the show went on. While every episode started as traditional as possible—with the show being announced to a live in-studio audience seated at nightclub tables as the camera pans over to the stage and Bob and David walk out to host and start the show. From this initial simple setup, the show flowed from one sketch to another and from such a mundane opening would spring a wild array of entertainment in so many forms in a Matryoshka-like structure.
Subversion and Satire
Besides its original format, the sketches were often inspired juxtapositions of normalcy being subverted, and then heightened, then subverted again. A clear example of this structure is a simple live sketch where two couples are relaxing during a cozy dinner party as their pie for dessert is baking in the kitchen.
One couple begins to explain that they have something serious to ask and begin talking about wanting to have kids but are having issues conceiving. The other couple begin happily assuring them they would be honored to donate sperm. The couple then reassure them that his sperm is fine, but they can only have sex to completion if someone is watching them.
While the husband of the couple expresses shock at this request, his wife begins to get into position to watch them through a peep hole they made in the wall for such a purpose and begins to undress. The couple says that she doesn’t need to be naked to do this, but she confesses that she likes watching other people have sex but has to be nude to enjoy it.
Then her husband gets upset—not because of what she’s doing, but because he was really looking forward to making some sperm. He also confesses that he likes to masturbate in closets while pie is cooling. The wife then angrily asks if that is why they live next door to a pie factory, to which he admits.
The couples now begin arguing with each other over their various issues until they hear a ding from the kitchen. The pie is done. They all start laughing and embrace each other, smugly announcing that they are the best. Then they break and hurriedly get into position. And then it transitions into the next sketch with footage of a train going through a tunnel and a hot dog being jammed awkwardly through a donut hole.
It’s a simple sketch that has a lot of crazy things happening inside of it. The sketch starts in a normal setting and then continually ratchets and twists the expectations of the audience, all while also being somewhat profane and subversive with its sexual nature. Then the sketch heightens and breaks, wrapping up with everyone in bizarrely cheerful agreement of their own, and each other’s, sexual kinks.
That was only a mild example, of course: the show goes completely off the rails at times. Often, even.
One memorable sketch is the intricate and spot-on “Altered State of Drugachusettes,” a Sid & Marty Krofft parody that features an entire original score, puppetry, unique costuming, and is filmed rather than live. Besides being literally about the use and effects of illicit drug use, it’s so slickly packaged and in-tune with its source material that it’s entertaining in its own right even without knowledge of the original material it’s parodying.
This is an example of alternative comedy completely embodying its parody subject, and if a measure of a satire’s success is that it’s nearly indistinguishable from what it’s parodying, than this sketch is a stellar example—and Mr. Show is stocked with similar sketches that embody this quality.
The show’s satires and parodies are perhaps its comedic highlights and why it has become so influential to comedy in the 21st century. From satirizing blockbusters and the greedy logic of Hollywood in Coupon: The Movie, to the Dalai Lama becoming embroiled in a 1980s-style summer camp movie, to its numerous extreme parodies of the news media and its various failings in both ethics and priorities, to larger set pieces like “New San Francisco,” an entire live stage musical that’s presented as a hollow corporate presentation to entice the public to visit the city, which has become a gigantic theme park that takes the city’s stereotypes to create different sections of the park, Mr. Show sneered at popular culture’s staid conventions and threw all of culture and history into a blender to discover radical new comedic combinations that hit the mark more often than not (and being impressive in their own right).
Another distinguishing hallmark of Mr. Show was its distinct approach to absurdity. Mixing very silly humor wrapped in sincerity has become one of the most potent combinations in 21st century humor, but this format—which combines parody with surrealism while framing it as a genuine product of its genre—was not commonplace in the 1990s.
Absurdity runs through the entire show, where even tamer filmed pieces like a promotional film satire about a house for blind people where every object loudly announces what it is (“I am a lamp,” “I am a sofa,”) is already silly, but tacked in is also a deluxe model where the voices are various (poorly imitated) celebrities, and also the company that makes the house is called Menocu (Me No See You), give their parodies a weird energy unique to Mr. Show.
Silly is a misunderstood mode in comedy. When people think “silly,” The Three Stooges or Jerry Lewis come to mind. Instead, Odenkirk’s approach to what “silly” is in comedy, and how it can be both stupid and smart, were purely distilled in Mr. Show. It’s also tricky: something that’s supposed to be silly can instead come across as juvenile or amateur.
While Odenkirk helped Conan O’Brien get his talk show off the ground with the philosophy that “silly” can be sophisticated, thanks to standout members of the cast that handled silliness very well, Mr. Show could be dynamic in its comedy. In one sketch, violence in the rap community is being satirized, and in the next you have something like “Choo Choo the Hurky Jerky Dancer.”
Often both collided, such as the sketch where a Ghandi-like figure is holding a press conference while on a long hunger strike. As he continues speaking with the rhetoric of a man seeking peace and justice for his country, he is also pleading that if he dies, to bury him in mashed potatoes.
Profanity and Gratuity
Mr. Show was unconstrained by broadcast standards. As such, they added a new dimension that has since stuck to comedy in general: by adding often gratuitous profanity and going even more extreme in content and delivery.
With unrestrained barriers regarding language usage, a casual exclamation of “Goddammit!” or “Fuck!” could fly freely, while more intricate and explosive profanity-laced dialogue could also be delivered (“You opened my big, fat asshole eyes,” “Then I took a balloon up my ass to Spain,” “ I spit on your spit. I piss on your spit. I shit on your piss. I fart on your shit. I laugh at your fart. We are friends again! Hey!” or the beautifully crafted, “He could as easily have said, “I am King Shit of Fuck Mountain. Why would you fuck with Me?!” Now, I’ll tell you what. I am the only preacher with the fuckin’ balls, and you know this, you all know this, to say, “Satan I damn thee! You goddamm motherfuckin’, shit-eatin’, cock-suckin’, son of a B!” Can I get a fuckin’ A?”). This added to the subversion of expectations (after all, profanity simply wasn’t done on television, much less a comedy show) while allowing the writers and performers to swing for the fences with their material.
Some examples include a sketch where a fan of a heavy metal band was inspired to kill himself by one of their songs and jumped in a vat of acid. He survives and the band visits him in the hospital. He seems like a normal young kid until they take the sheet off his body to reveal the rest of him now looks like a shrunken, overcooked sausage. The sketch proceeds as his tiny burnt body gesticulates as he continues talking to the band.
Another sketch takes on the guise of an educational program, only it highlights how the geniuses of the past were so inspired because they were molested as children. Famous figures such as Ben Franklin, Isaac Newton, and Albert Einstein give short testimonials to camera about how being sexually violated when they were young was a good thing, as Newton states: “My father touched my butthole. This made me thirst for knowledge.”
Talent to Spare
A production like this lives and dies on the talent invested in creating such a complex show. Fortunately, Mr. Show had a loaded deck of talent on-hand. Besides Odenkirk and Cross, core performers Jill Talley, Tom Kenney, Paul F. Tompkins, Jay Johnston, John Ennis, and Mary Lynn Rajskub brought their own sensibilities to every performance, each with their own strengths. Featured guest stars included rising comedians such as Sarah Silverman, Jerry Minor, and Jack Black. The writing talent was similarly stacked, with Brian Posehn, Scott Aukerman, Dino Stamatapoulos, and much of the cast contributing to writing and producing the sketches.
One fun way to watch the show (if you end up watching it over and over, as I have) is by focusing on the performance of one actor in a scene and watching what they add to it to heighten the humor. Jay Johnston is a perfect example of how each performer brought something to every sketch. Whether in the background, playing a small character, or even a main one, Johnston seemingly tweaks every performance so one specific look, gesture, or utterance would draw a laugh.
Having such a stable of talent that represented the Los Angeles alternative comedy scene in the early to late 1990s made Mr. Show one of the hippest shows on TV. If you didn’t have HBO, friends would pass tapes around.
It was the comedy show that was cool to like in the 1990s if you were in your teens and twenties. It was hip, subversive, profane, and absurd. It tapped into a new vein that was rich and ripe, one that National Lampoon magazine had ridden to cultural and commercial success in the 1970s before flaming out in the 80s. One that SNL used to represent before it went corporate and mainstream. Its timing was perfect, as it captured the alternative zeitgeist of the 1990s, both parodying and representing it along the way.
“It’s insane, this guy’s taint!”
Mr. Show was recognized in the industry, having been nominated for four Emmy awards during its run. While only 30 episodes were produced over the course of 3 years and 4 seasons, the influence of Mr. Show on comedy cannot be underestimated. It proved that the sensibilities of the alternative comedy community would be embraced by a wider audience. Similarly, Mr. Show exemplified that profane, controversial, and surreal comedy that was once exclusively relegated to little black box theaters and clubs could be situated in a conventional medium such as television.
Its outré nature presaged the approach to comedy in the Western world in the 21st century. Certainly the rise of alternative comedy as it branched out and began to influence other formats and mediums during The Naughties (including the Adult Swim block of programming, MTV 2’s Wonder Showzen, various gambles Comedy Central took with alt comedy shows over the past 20 years, Tim and Eric…, and the increasingly influential sphere of early streaming content and online humor in general).
Around the time the show came out on DVD across three releases in the early 2000s, alternative comedy became popular, with Silverman and Cross both becoming big-name stand-up comedians. Odenkirk began producing the next generation of off-center comedy, having his hand in some of the most notable enterprises on television of the past 20 years and nurturing the next generation of alternative comedians. Hell, Tom Kenney is the voice of Spongebob Squarepants!
By the end of the second decade of the 21st century, it seems mainstream comedy has either retained the staid slapstick, farce, and sitcom formats that died sometime in 1992 or has embraced audacity. For a historical locus, a watershed moment that broke open that barrier between alternative comedy and the mainstream, Mr. Show is as good as any.
Although the references may be dated (this show is now nearly a quarter-century old, after all), the format, humor, and content remain innovative and fresh today. What could be taken as trite in the show in present-day may simply be the Seinfeld Effect: it has become so embraced and influential that its once-unique perspective seems commonplace now. Such is a standard of quality entertainment: when it is so good that it eventually becomes a part of the grammar.
Mr. Show rejuvenated the by-then creaky format of a sketch show and rebranded it with razor-sharp satire, finding refuge in audacity, and smartly warping the medium with dead-on pastiches and parodies. It also demonstrated that left-of-center voices in comedy and those with a different vision than mainstream culture can produce accessible quality content, with the understanding that their audience is smart and hip enough to get the joke.
Mr. Show with Bob and David was hip out of the gate and remains hip even after all this time. One final qualifier for quality, especially in comedy: if it’s funny decades after its creation, then it’s a classic. And that’s Mr. Show: groundbreaking, alternative, innovative, and hilarious, from its first episode in 1995 to a quarter century later. It’s influential, it’s smart, and every episode is a polished gem of comedy. For these reasons, and many more, Mr. Show is Great TV.