Even before the days of Peak TV in America, it was impossible for everyone to watch everything on television. We all have pop culture gaps. One of mine is “Mr. Show with Bob and David,” the HBO sketch comedy show, created by and starring Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, that aired from 1995-98, and that employed Jack Black, Sarah Silverman, Paul F. Tompkins, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Scott Aukerman and more as actors and/or writers.
I was in college when “Mr. Show” debuted, then didn't have an HBO subscription for the next couple of years, and by the time I started hearing comedy nerd friends singing its praises, it was virtually over, and though the series had an afterlife on DVD(*), other shows kept getting in the way. I've seen, and laughed heartily at, a handful of sketches over the years on YouTube, but that's it.
(*) Like many of HBO's original series pre-“Oz” and “Sopranos,” the channel doesn't own streaming or On Demand rights to “Mr. Show.”
All of which is my long-winded way of explaining why I can't compare “W/ Bob & David,” a new four-part Netflix series (it debuts Friday) reuniting Odenkirk, Cross, and many of their former collaborators, to the original “Mr. Show.” Does it stack up to the work these guys were doing 20 years ago? Is it, as Odenkirk has suggested, different enough to warrant the title change? I have no idea.
What I can tell you, based on the two episodes Netflix made available to critics, is that “W/ Bob & David” is terrific sketch comedy: absurd, inventive, surprising, and just damn funny.
A lot of “Mr. Show” alums (including Tompkins, Rajskub, Aukerman, Jill Talley, Jay Johnston, Brian Posehn, and John Ennis) turn up, along with guest stars like Keegan-Michael Key, Paget Brewster, and Jeffrey Tambor. It's a blend of live sketchwork and more elaborate filmed pieces. Sometimes, the individual sketches stand alone, while concepts bleed across entire episodes, like a running gag in the debut about Tompkins as a man who's been told he'll die if he doesn't stop eating meat. There's a lot of of pop culture satire, but rarely do those rest on a single joke. At one point, Cross plays a director being interviewed by Brewster's talk show host about “Better Roots,” a “Roots” remake where the masters are always nice to the slaves – now redubbed “helpers.” The premise is durable enough that the sketch doesn't need anything more, but on top of that, it layers confusion between Cross and Brewster over where each “Better Roots” clip (all of which feature a “The End” title card) fits into the context of the movie.
And even when a sketch sticks to one idea, it exhausts every iteration of it, like a riff on “The Most Dangerous Game” where Odenkirk plays an accountant who keeps finding new ways to convince Cross' big-game hunter to make their competition more even, or a filmed piece that takes the tired “She's right behind me, isn't she?” trope to ridiculous extremes.
Most of those involved have day jobs (Odenkirk on “Better Call Saul,” for instance), and it's a testament to their love of the original collaboration that they all came back for this, as well as a sign of the new flexibility in the business that they'd be able to reunite for these four Netflix episodes, then go back to other gigs.
Early in the premiere, Cross and Odenkirk emerge from a time machine that they entered right after finishing the last episode of “Mr. Show,” but something's gone awry that's caused them to age in real time, despite the trip. It's a comment on the difficulty of recapturing the magic of an old series years later – which fans of another series featuring Cross and Tambor that had a belated Netflix sequel unfortunately know too well – but one that, like so much of “W/ Bob & David,” isn't satisfied with being the only joke in the scene.
The new series is a great advertisement for me to finally catch up on the old one, but it's damn funny in its own right.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org