It’s very likely that, if you’re around my age, Mr. Show with Bob & David was nowhere near your radar when it originally aired on premium cable during your awkward middle-school-years. In the waning years of a parentally enforced bedtime, I was rarely lucky enough to sneak downstairs and catch brief glimpses of things like “Titannica” or “Megaphone Crooners” (if it wasn’t one of the frequent weeks when HBO pre-empted Mr. Show with a sex documentary). People who were several years younger than me definitely never got it and most people older than me weren’t bothering to watch it. With the exception of those lucky enough to be hip to the alt comedy underground in the 1990s, Mr. Show was mostly ignored and unimportant, despite a few Emmy nominations. HBO canceled it after 4 seasons—the first two of which weren’t even given full season orders—in a quiet and unceremonious fashion.
But in 2015, Mr. Show is certainly a big deal and seemingly everybody is a fan. This November marks the sketch comedy show’s 20th anniversary and later this week, Netfilx will begin streaming the brand new original sketch comedy series With Bob & David, starring Bob Odenkirk and David Cross along with many of the other writers and actors from the original Mr. Show crew. As a result of all of this excitement, clickbait listicles have been plaguing social media streams over the past few months—and expect it to pick up in the next few days—with what armchair experts like myself think are the greatest sketches of Mr. Show’s short run on HBO. And while the show certainly should be celebrated, most of these “best of ” lists tend gravitate towards the same 10-20 sketches. Nobody’s opinion is wrong, and Mr. Show probably has the best average of any sketch comedy show for producing consistently high-quality comedy, but there are a few forgotten sketches that deserve equal praise.
I could have easily listed another 20 sketches that seem to fly under most fans’ radars, but I kept it 6. Why 6? It averages out to about 2 sketches per every 10 episodes (even though Mr. Show ran for four seasons, it only aired 30 episodes). And yes, I am aware that there are no sketches from season 1 on the list. Frankly, the whole season is great and if you’re not familiar with those early sketches, it’ll take you less than 2 hours to watch all 4 episodes. Without further ado, here are 6 of the most underrated sketches from Mr. Show, listed in chronological order:
“Hate Group (Operation Hell on Earth)” (Season 2, Ep. 5)
Outside of the occasional, overtly 1990’s pop culture reference (i.e. parodies of Oasis and Marilyn Manson), very little about Mr. Show seems dated. Another possible exception might be this sketch, with Odenkirk’s broad and non-P.C. depiction of the impressionable Punjabi assistant leader of an impossibly misguided and inexplicably multi-cultural hate group, led by Cross’s Ken, a white supremacist. Plans for annexing portions of the U.S. to all ethnic groups represented in the hate group fall flat, after minor squabbles over who is going to be closest to the beach. Furthermore, their titular “Hell on Earth” domestic terrorist attack de-evolves from a bombing to blaring a Billy Ocean song from a rented van at 8pm (“8:15! We eat late!”). The hate group collapses much to the chagrin of Ken, who rather poignantly admits “You gotta be taught to hate…it don’t come natural!” That might as well be the ethos of Cross’s entire comedy career.
“Recruiters” (Season 2, Ep. 5)
Everything works in this loose Hope Dreams parody, from the theme music, to the gritty image quality, to Cross delivering the line, “I feel like Santa Claus!” while dispensing gifts. Sure, maybe the concept of Kindergartners being recruited for college basketball is a bit broad, but the execution is perfect. Odenkirk’s Ty Keenan asking a 5-year-old about his intended major segues wonderfully into the father (Jerry Minor) asking the kid, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Ty Keenan then desperately plugging a “two-year cowboy program” adds an absurd reality to the sketch. Later, he frustratingly tries to recruit an infant…for the third time! Cross’s competing recruiter Carter Blanchard’s obsession with his homemade potato soup also adds a hilarious dash of humanity, making this sketch feel like a legitimate late-1990s PBS documentary. And Jerry Minor might be one of the unsung heroes of sketch comedy, if only for the way that he can deadpan scold a Kindergartner for getting fat from eating too much chocolate. God, I love this sketch!
“The Last Donut” (Season 2, Ep. 6)
This sketch is basically a link between the “Five Voices in Your Head (aka, ‘Subway’)” sketch (one of the series’ most memorable, but least successful sketches—sorry) and the classic “Megaphone Crooners.” Sandwiched between two big sketches and clocking-in at just over two and a half minutes, “Donut Shop” is easily overshadowed by its louder and broader contemporaries. It’s a shame, since in a very short amount of time Bob and David simultaneously bridge the gap between the present and the future. Odenkirk’s Dylan is a grade-A 1990’s slacker (I would love to have seen a “day in the life” type sketch with this ear-bleeding character) while his pal, Cross’s Victor, is a definitive 2000-10’s hipster snob (15 years before Portlandia). Particularly with the latter, subculture is skewered with expert precision. Cross especially seems to know those on the fringe so well, it’s hard to tell if he’s actually joking when he takes on culturally elitist characters.
“Trip to Europe/Frankly Anne” (Season 3, Ep. 8)
The idea of a group of spoiled American slackers traveling through Europe to collect beanbags for an MTV Road Rules-type show is still relevant. When the show brings Cross’s Judd and Odenkirk’s Dilly to the Anne Frank House, however, it becomes a bit more tied to reality. And while it would be easy for them to just have a bunch of jackasses look for a beanbag while ignoring their surroundings and play it for laughs, the sketch takes the high road. Judd and Dilly can’t hide the fact that history is affecting them. They try to distract each other by relating their own lives to the horrible experiences of Frank and her family. It might read insensitive, but it actually feels very real: this is exactly how 2 immature guys with passing knowledge would react in the Anne Frank House. There is something touching about Judd choking-up when he says, “What kind of God would make a world where…” while Dilly encourages him to “walk it off.” Granted, the sketch ends with them finding the damn beanbag (complete with a hilarious map of Europe at the end), but their struggle to cope with the crimes of humanity shows how tragedy may be the unfortunate equalizer between dumbasses and intellectuals. As much as the Mr. Show crew seems to be a part of the cultural elite, they seem to be (occasionally) apologetic for the culturally ignorant.
“Monk Camp Academy” (Season 4, Ep. 5)
When it comes to compiling lists of the greatest sketches in Mr. Show history, nobody is ever WRONG, but the fact that this sketch is often omitted from the discourse doesn’t seem right. Much like the aforementioned “The Recruiters” sketch, the second half of “Monk Camp Academy” is a loose parody. This time, the premise borrows from those relay competitions that are the climax of many summer camp movies, most notably Ernest Goes to Camp (1988) and Heavyweights (1995). It’s the little touches, like having perennial comedic authority figure Brian Doyle-Murray appear in the sketch as the referee (his “Ah, screw it!” dance after trying to award the monks is spot-on) and the appearance of Pretty in Pink’s Ducky (Jon Cryer) cement the sketch’s sound 1980’s comedy film pastiche. And when the sketch takes the most expected turns (i.e. luring a kid to distraction with candy bars), it quickly swerves into unexpected territory (i.e. slitting that same kid’s throat after he’s already been successfully distracted). Some of the biggest, genuine belly laughs in Mr. Show history lie in this highlight.
“Josh Fenderman” (Season 4, Ep. 10)
Since this sketch does not prominently feature Bob or David, it might be missing from a lot of “Best of…” lists. Playing the titular role as a Corey Haim/Corey Feldman hybrid, Mr. Show writer B.J. Porter was not often seen acting in any sketches. Co-written with his then-writing partner, Scott Auckerman, we get something of a nucleus to the sketches we currently see on IFC’s Comedy Bang! Bang! It’s literally vintage Auckerman, from perfecting the tone of those sensational E! True Hollywood Story documentaries, to the name of the pizza arcade (Frankie P. Cheesewinkle’s) and the film titles of the Saul Stevenburg movies (Goober Patrol and Tunafishing ‘87). It’s all very sharp, but incredibly silly. That icnonic, repeating shot of Josh Fenderman shimmying, though, is what really makes this sketch a classic. It would have inspired millions of GIFs in 1998, had they existed.
“Video Complaints” (Season 1, Ep. 3)
The absurd premise of encouraging viewers to send in video complaints when you’ve only been on the (premium cable) air for 3 weeks would likely have lead to Odenkirk looking at a blank screen in this sketch. Instead, the images of a stern and seething David Cross in a “Hug Therapist” t-shirt endlessly shouting, “I have never! Ever! Never! Nurvor!” and an incredibly young Brian Posehn threatening physical violence (once he gets his tracking ankle bracelet removed) are pretty special. It might not one of the absolute best sketches, but it’s certainly worth it for a peak into the early days of their burgeoning absurdity. I also wonder if anybody ever received a t-shirt for sending in a video…