A boardroom of Hollywood executives agonizes over why its latest literary-property-turned-movie, “Coupon,” has failed to generate boffo box office.
A hate group leader decides to wreak hell on Earth, not with explosives, but by cranking up an annoying Billy Ocean tune.
A monstrous chemical corporation decides to buy San Francisco and turn it into a family-oriented theme park.
And one lucky fellow gets his own sitcom, “Second Wind,” simply by virtue of his phenomenal flatulence.
These are just a few of the remarkable scenarios one encounters on “Mr. Show,” a sketch comedy show airing on HBO Fridays at midnight. The brainchild of comics Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, “Mr. Show” offers up a mad world of silliness and satire that recalls the heyday of Monty Python.
Cross and Odenkirk begin each show by bounding onto a stage set like a couple of eager Mousketeers, delighted with the chance to entertain the audience at hand. By the time their opening bit is done, the show has unfailingly jetted off into some of television’s smartest and darkest comedy. With a mix of live skits and taped segments, the show gleefully seizes upon foibles of entertainment, politics, religion and human behavior in general. No convention is left untrammeled, no target left unskewered. And, perhaps most remarkable given the recent spate of less-than-hilarious sketch shows, hardly a moment of the show is left unfunny.
“Neither one of us is afraid to go after targets we feel deserve an attack,” says Cross, the more excitable half of the “Mr. Show” duo. “But we also enjoy doing really silly stuff. I think our specialty is doing absurd but almost logical extensions of what already exists out there in the real world.”
The pair quickly discovered they shared a sense of the absurd when they were introduced to each other in 1992 by comic-actress Janeane Garofalo. Odenkirk, a former “Saturday Night Live” writer, and Cross, then a Boston-based stand-up comic, were soon working together on “The Ben Stiller Show.” When that Fox series was canceled, Cross and Odenkirk decided to pursue their own uniquely tweaked comic vision and went to work developing their own material.
“When we first wrote together, it was so easy it was weird,” Cross says. “I’ve enjoyed writing with a lot of different people, but Bob and I had an unspoken understanding of where we were going. We ended up with a much more realized version of things we’d been doing before we even met each other. When we got together, it made a lot of sense.”
The two began hosting nights of sketch comedy at a variety of venues around town and eventually settled in at the Upfront Theater in Santa Monica, where the “Mr. Show” format was crafted over 18 months of performances. The pair’s exuberantly irreverent work there earned them a deal with HBO, which premiered four episodes of “Mr. Show” last year and will air six new episodes this year.
“HBO was great to us,” Cross says enthusiastically. “They gave us T-shirts. And raised money for us to go to summer camp. A special camp. I lost 300 pounds!”
Odenkirk, a more dapper and slightly calmer counterpoint to Cross, says that it’s his and his partner’s sense of comedic purpose and their investment of development time that has given “Mr. Show” its payoff of sharp material and deep laughs.
“Sketch comedy has always been the primary interest for me,” he says. “I did stand-up to make a living, but I’ve always had a real love of sketch work. It’s easy to do sketch work badly, though. You can’t just throw writers and performers together based on some target demographic and expect great comedy to come out of it. You need to develop a group that shares a sensibility. The one thing that carries through from episode to episode of Monty Python is their sensibility--and David and I had time to work on our own sensibility and get it right for ‘Mr. Show.’ ”
Aiding and abetting the hosts of “Mr. Show” is a revolving ensemble that includes versatile performers Jill Talley, Tom Kenny, John Ennis and Mary Lynn Rajskub. Episodes also feature cameo appearances by Garofalo, Stiller, Julia Sweeney, Dave Foley and Jean Tripplehorn.
Cross and Odenkirk themselves turn up in all manner of wigs and makeup as characters that range from white rappers to sadistic infomercial stars to a gee-whiz New Age entrepreneur who squanders his fortunes on Tofutti for his herd of brain-damaged goats.
As fast and freakish as the comedy gets, there’s often a serious subtext to “Mr. Show’s” madness. This year’s episodes indirectly take on such themes as child labor, corporate downsizing, bad parenting and unwholesome industrial practices (“If you’re going to write a comedy scene, you’re going to have some rat feces in there,” Cross explains to one audience). But Cross and Odenkirk do not consider themselves men with a message.
“Sometimes we think of something funny, and then think of how it’s pertinent to society,” Cross says. “If--without ruining the joke--we can draw a connection and make the sketch meaningful on another level, we’ll do it. But if being meaningful ruins the joke--forget it. We’ll just do the joke. The main thing is, it’s comedy. We’re supposed to be funny.”
Odenkirk says that the comedy itself may be the message.
“I think there’s something subversive just in presenting this perspective on life,” he explains. “In the very fact that we’re twisting conventions and questioning the way things are. Thinking this way in general is subversive, beyond any specific political points that might get made. There’s subversion in looking at the world and saying, ‘It’s ridiculous.’ And that’s our job--to be silly subversives.”
It’s a job the two relish, and in “Mr. Show” they have found work that makes perfect use of their brilliantly bent talents. In fact, Odenkirk sometimes believes the work is almost too good to be true, or at least too much fun to be televised.
“Our show makes us laugh,” he says with a shrug. “I love it. And when we tape these, I really feel like we’re getting away with something. To the extent that it makes me very anxious. I’m constantly afraid that somebody’s going to walk in and say, ‘Hey--you can’t do whatever you think is funny and put it on TV. Show’s over. Everybody out.’ ”