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Comedy TV Review 2015: Netflix's "W/Bob and David" (Written by and Starring Bob Odenkirk, David Cross, et. al)
What was the last thing you remember from 1998? Perhaps it was the impeachment of President Clinton on charges of obstruction of justice and perjury, the European Union agrees on the single "Euro" currency, the sixty-six day blackout in New Zealand, or the terrorist bombings at two US Embassies in Kenya. It was also the year that comedians Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, new kids on the block nearly twenty years ago, had their last hurrah for their season finale of "Mr. Show With Bob and David", a mind-bending and Monty Python-esque sketch comedy series of groundbreaking proportions. With their only direct competition at the time being the still-young MadTV, a spin-off comedy show based off of Mad Magazine and the falling faster than a meteor SNL, these guys were hear to save comedy and boy did they. Their mission was clear - how do two charismatic and very well-read nerds go for broke to not only entertain but to enlighten and inform with the spirited whimsy of the greatest British comedies? As many audiences would soon realize with their VHS' in hand to record every single show (sorry kids no DVR and the term "streaming services" hadn't been invented yet), two heads were clearly better than one and their chemistry seemed as natural as mixing eggs and milk. However, the greatest part of their dynamic as we would later discover was just how their opposing personalities and personas clashed with the volatility of oil and water to produce biting, Dr. Strangelove-level satire in blink-and-you-miss-it ways.
"W/Bob and David" reunites all of the original cast members that include Paul F. Tompkins, John Ennis, Scott Aukerman, and Jay Johnston. Whats noticeable this time out though is the absence of some female powered comedy, the most of which was very well utilized in the original 1990s show. It is unclear why this is the case as I highly doubt it has anything to do with Odenkirk and Cross struggling to write fresh and invigorating female characters. Sarah Silverman, a guest star on Mr. Show for a solid portion of its run, essentially owes a chunk of her career to these guys. Regardless, Netflix's unflappable faith in the duo and their immense cult following has allowed for them to be granted a grandiose budget that allows them to really deliver a well-polished package and not just a series of low-fi sketches. The intro alone - a pastiche of Terry Gilliam and the madcap styling of executive producers Eric Wareheim and Tim Heidecker of "Tim and Eric's Awesome Show" fame is beyond fitting in capturing the zany, off-kilter format that they've mastered. Eighteen years on has not dulled their timing but only served to fortify it in ways you'd never thought possible. The direction mixes a myriad of styles - found footage, turn of the century vintage, horror, shaky cam, and alternative art-house varieties that blend and transition with surgical precision. Each episode is faster and more fluid and, for the uninitiated, may come off as too speedy. Thank goodness for that Netflix pause button. In the span of only four half hour episodes and a one hour, highly educational making-of featurette, they unleash good natured madness that bleeds through in every interlude, triumphant exchange and unabashed rowdiness that acts as a deft callback to the former show while trailblazing a new identity to reflect the changing and evolving world of twenty-first century media consumption.Where "Mr. Show" was compelling but still rough around the edges, this one is akin to carefully sculpted ivory with hand-carved etchings adorned with diamond and 24-karat gold. They accomplish a lot more with fewer episodes and a more centralized focus. However, not everything hits.
The pilot EP acted as an appropriately strong bridge between the old and the new as we meetup with Bob and David after they have seemingly traveled through time to get to the set in a "real-time time machine". Laughs abound when you soon realize their time machine is really just an over sized Porto potty that they've been sitting in for seventeen years. Most of the old cast comes out to greet them amid the smokey fog after their landing with all of them taking note of how they've aged. The skit cuts to a video loop of all the big events of the last 18 years and of course, some good natured potty humor that amounted to a reveal that there's nearly two decades worth of backed up diarrhea and feces galore. Odenkirk and Cross angrily exclaim that they've been duped by a crackpot physics professor (who, of course strongly resembles Doc Brown of the "Back To The Future" films) so they fast forward another sixteen years as Cross turns to Odenkirk and says "man do you look so fake old". The wily professor takes them inside their time machine contraption again and turns some funny bells and whistles to make them return to the present to officially begin the episode. It definitely proves to be a stitch. This episode has some really well executed skits to follow that certifies that no matter how the two have spun off into other comedic and, in Odenkirk's case dramatic territory, they haven't lost their enthusiasm or their spirit.
The second episode proves to be the most confounding and, personally, its also the season's weakest entry. I say this because Odenkirk and Cross really went for the jugular politically and while their aim was to be subversive and opinionated, their satire was more scatterbrained than it should've been. In particular, the skit that focused on Islamic screenwriters was a real miss because it was really difficult to tell just who was the target. Most shows would never attempt what they did and I suppose some credit should be given to them but at the same time, if there intention was to anger those of Muslim faith or make them the World's two most wanted men by terrorist networks spanning the globe, then they succeeded by leaps and bounds. Addressing politics in sketch-based comedy is nothing new (*cough SNL*), but more care should've been given to the sensitive nature of the material especially in the wake of this weekend's massacre in Paris and the ongoing ISIS conflicts of the last year and a half.
The program's third EP was the absolute standout of the bunch. Switching gears a bit from the second, this one was more in line with the burst of energy of the pilot. Sketches involving Cross playing dual roles and multiple incarnations is downright skillful and something you never knew he was truly capable of until now. Odenkirk's acting really reaches some venerable high notes and you can plainly see how he's grown from affable funnyman with a twisted sense of humor to a remarkably excellent actor who can seamlessly transition to different roles and accents frequently in the same scene. It's a masterclass in comic timing, dual personality, and ensemble rapport that demands to be seen. The scene-stealing work he's accomplished in "Breaking Bad" and its well earned, universally lauded follow-up "Better Call Saul" is generously tapped into here as he is unstoppable. Similarly, Cross has also evolved immensely since his early stand-up days and his work as a character actor in films like the "Men In Black" franchise, "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind", "Small Soldiers" and "Ghost World". The one flub in this episode was a rather crass character that Cross plays - a satirical barb aimed at the "typical douche" who throws the derogatory c-word around and gets his comeuppance when all the women he insults (living and dead) come back around to haunt him. I could see the trajectory they were trying to go for but the sketch meanders and never gels until the very end when two counter-terrorism agents played by Odenkirk and original "Mr. Show" cast mate Paul F. Tompkins enlist Cross's douche on a mission to hurl words at a nefarious insurgent to break him as a means of torture. It seemed really forced and bizarre and I definitely think it should've wound up on the cutting room floor.
The duo's finale is also an extremely strong showing but doesn't reach the dizzying heights of the first or third. Self-described by both as "their weakest" (but, really, to the contrary), this one has a number of memorable set-ups, many of which were directly inspired by movies and plays. The opener, called "Amazing Moms" has Cross portraying twin sons - one, a very busy Hollywood screenwriter and the other his lazy, pot-smoking brother who believes he's in the film industry because his more successful brother made him his assistant. What follows is gold. This, of course, was inspired by the Charlie Kaufman scripted-Spike Jonze directed fantasy/drama film "Adaptation" that sees Nicolas Cage playing fictionalized versions of screenwriting brothers Charlie and his non-existent twin Donald Kaufman to which he was nominated for an Academy Award at the 2003 Oscars. The other highlight, a sketch based off of the New York Times bestselling Christian propaganda book "Heaven Is For Real" that was also adapted into a film of the same name, is an on-point dissection of the Christian right and how ludicrous the book is. The other, my personal favorite, is the "Salesman" sketch which was directly inspired by the David Mamet play and film "Glengarry Glen Ross". Another poke at religion, this one sees a team of salesman, led by an overly-energetic mean boss meant to break their spirits if they don't deliver (Cross) as they peddle religious texts. Odenkirk's salesman who is directly inspired by the part played by Jack Lemon in the movie version, who has never went far enough to actually close a sale teams up with a rookie to peddle a Quran. It was so tightly scripted, genuinely inspired and well shot.
In sum, "W/Bob and David" is crafted lovingly and with utmost respect to the show's original fanbase as well as newcomers to their own, highly original brand of comedy. The show, from a tonal standpoint, shares much in common with not just "Monty Python's Flying Circus" but also the BBC series "The IT Crowd", a wonderful tech-industry workplace comedy. Since its more formative days, the Mr. Show ensemble and its creative staff have influenced at least a dozen shows including "Portlandia", "Key & Peele" and "Kroll Show". With great guest stars like original "Daily Show" host Craig Kilborn and Keegan-Michael Key of "MadTV" and "Key & Peele" fame, your jaw will frequently be on the floor with introspective comedy that makes you think, feel and bust a gut with wild send ups, palpable of the era dissections and insights, and top-notch production that proves Odenkirk and Cross are the venerable stalwarts of alternative comedy. Here's hoping for more.