erasing clouds

Mr. Show: The Third Season, 2-DVD set (HBO Home Video)

reviewed by john wenzel

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who know Mr. Show, and those who don't.

If you're part of the latter group, I'm sorry. You're missing out on one of the greatest television sketch-comedies ever produced. Turn off that ridiculous Friends rerun, get on the Web, and order Seasons 1 and 2 of Mr. Show immediately. It's not stuffy or hard to get into. It's just really, really funny.

If you're part of the former subset, you probably comprise one of two additional categories: lovers and haters of the program. To you lovers out there, this review will be another affectionate sermon to the choir. You probably bought the Mr. Show book What Happened? and have pre-ordered the commemorative,hand-carved Mr. Show jade figurines.

The haters, on the other hand, are reading this review with typical skepticism. "This guy is obviously a fan, so everything he writes will be tainted with that fanaticism." Well, yeah, what do you expect? Mr. Show is polarizing. Its caustic humor can turn on a dime, mutating from absurdist jokes to acerbic cultural indictments that are as brilliant as they are unexpected. Its subtly intellectual approach is not for everyone, which, like anything innovative, is both its biggest asset and biggest liability. You don't decide whether or not you like Mr. Show. It decides to like you.

Taking cues from Monty Python, Kids in the Hall, Saturday Night Live, and the entire tradition of comedy from vaudeville to Bill Hicks, Mr. Show started as the brainchild of ex-Ben Stiller Show writers Bob Odenkirk and David Cross. You may recognize them for their cameos on syndicated episodes of Just Shoot Me! or in various films, but don't let those crude sketches of their talent taint your opinion. They're better than that. Way, way better. They started as part of L.A.'s alternative comedy scene and worked their asses off to pull Mr. Show together.

HBO originally ran their 30-minute programs at midnight from 1995 to 1998, during which time I was too busy getting drunk or studying amateur tropical botany to notice. Luckily, their re-release on DVD allows us latecomers (along with a growing league of cult devotees) to watch the episodes. The Third Season, consisting of two discs, including a "best-of" retrospective, commentaries and various promotional spots, satisfies the need for more of Mr. Show's inimitable, cat-fucked goodness.

Some of the skits seem like ideas you and your friends would have come up with in high school: replacing the product in a mindless television commercial with something vulgar or ridiculous (Mustardayonaise, Mayostard). Or in another episode, taking a cable televangelist format and substituting the words "God" and "Jesus" with "Satan," while retaining the same sickly, over-earnest sentimentalism and forced vocal cadence. The sarcasm in bits like these is dead-on and appropriately multi-layered, and Mr. Show's writing staff is well-versed in the language of pop culture. Nothing is taboo: racism, sexual orientation, domestic violence and mental and physical handicaps are all targets of post-modern satire. The profanity is ever-present, although self-consciously so, as in an episode where the "Swear Jar" nets millions of dollars. Other sketches take bizarre ideas beyond their logical conclusion and skewer assumed notions of what's funny (America Will Blow Up the Moon, Dr. X's Doomsday Telethon). By contrasting outrageous subject matter with our knee-jerk response to it, we inadvertently broaden our horizons.

What distinguishes Mr. Show from other sketch comedies are the elaborate links between sketches, which tie together seemingly random ideas into a thematic whole. Ingeniously combining pre-taped pieces with studio audience sketches, the transitions are as predictable as your average strobe-lit pinball match. Each episode is a painstakingly-constructed Mobius Strip of twisted logic.

By that token, even hardcore fans are sometimes left confused by the frequent left-field excursions. The truly funny sketches contain more than enough material to make up for these head-scratchers, and realistically, if every sketch was as funny as "Blowjob," I'd have to purchase a new set of boxers every time I watched. What continually redeems the episodes is their hermetic construction and interwoven themes, and the ways in which those reveal themselves over repeated viewings. The dizzyingly talented ensemble cast clearly has fun parodying newscasters and limelight prima donnas, or doing dead-on impressions of has-been celebrities. The wardrobe for Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" video seems to have been raided and reworked, making the plethora of characters as distinct and memorable as the bits themselves.

Mr. Show's underlying political and social conscience is impossible to ignore, especially if you're already a member of its target audience (educated, liberal-minded Gen X'ers). These bits were tailor-made for cynical college students, sensitive indie rockers and pot-smoking academics. It's only a shame Mr. Show isn't around today to skewer the neoconservatism that has infected our media culture. Recurring themes include the inanity of our TV-addicted society (via frequent infomercial parodies), the gulf between illusion and reality, double-standards in the workplace, canned nostalgia, and the futility of objectivism, all delivered with a heaping dose of extreme sarcasm. Sure, they hit some easy targets along the way, but it's delightful to watch them fall.

If I had any complaints, they would be about the inherent limitations of TV comedy. The canned laughter is distracting, and often, the live audience reacts with silence or polite chuckles to some of the more difficult material, which psychologically weighs on the sketches. Ideally, good comedy would be funny regardless of audience response, but let's be honest: borderline stuff benefits from a laugh track. Look at 90 percent of sitcoms.

Still, this doesn't diminish the quality of the writing or acting. How these guys keep a straight face most of the time is beyond me, and lesser-talented comedians wouldn't know what to do with this material (I'm looking at you, Jimmy Fallon). Some of the more topical bits don't age well - parodies of Forrest Gump and The Firm seem especially dated - but considered in context, the writing is airtight.

If you already own the first and second seasons, buying the third one will be a no-brainer. You'll want to watch and re-watch these episodes until they're seared into your gray matter, subtly enhancing the overall completeness of your being. If you're a newcomer, the first two seasons will likely be the best place to start, although The Third Season is just as coherent as any other. The inclusion of a short bit from Bob and David's appearance at the Aspen Comedy Arts Festival (featuring a Tenacious D cameo) is a welcome extra, exhibiting the duo's confrontational humor in a different context.

Wickedly funny and endlessly entertaining, Mr. Show stands as a document of inspired avant-garde sketch comedy that was mostly ignored by its contemporary audience. Thank you, Satan, for DVD players!

For more info, or to buy Mr. Show schwag, visit Bob and David's website.

Issue 15, September 2003

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