Something Completely Different

Austin Heart of Film Festival: Hangin' With Mr. Show

Something Completely Different

In the beginning, there was darkness. Then came to pass a man named Philo T. Farnsworth who hit a switch, and the world changed. There was now television. Two men, Sid Caesar and Milton Berle, took, borrowed, and stole from radio and vaudeville the elements of sketch comedy and turned it into something uniquely television. In the 1960s, sketch comedy lost its top billing to sitcoms, Westerns, and detective shows, but held on as part of the "variety" show. Sometimes hackneyed (The Dean Martin Show), sometimes innovative (That Was the Week That Was), sometimes both (The Smothers Brothers Show), it took Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In to paint it psychedelic colors and make it hip again. From there, we go overseas to Monty Python's Flying Circus, then back to the States for Saturday Night Live, to Canada for SCTV, and hang there for The Kids in the Hall. Somewhere in this tale, Bob Odenkirk and David Cross were born, grew up under the spell of the blue glow, and decided to pursue careers in comedy.

Odenkirk hails from Naperville, Illinois, and made his way to Chicago, where he performed stand-up and wrote sketches. He helped Second City performer Chris Farley create the "Motivational Speaker" sketch, and when Odenkirk's friend, actor/writer Robert Smigel (who later was the lips of Bob Dole and Bill Clinton on Late Night With Conan O'Brien), got a job writing for Saturday Night Live, Odenkirk was soon hired as well. He won his first Emmy with SNL, then headed to Hollywood to write Chris Elliott's hilarious, though misunderstood, series Get a Life. Odenkirk was brought on as a writer and performer on The Ben Stiller Show, where he won his second Emmy. He also co-starred on The Larry Sanders Show as Larry's coke-sniffing, obnoxious agent, Stevie Grant.

David Cross was born in Atlanta, Georgia, and has referred to himself as "Baldy McJew." He made his way to Boston to study film at Emerson College but quickly found it more fun to perform comedy along with friends Marc Maron and Janeane Garofalo. He formed a group called Cross Comedy, and though it was going well, he hopped on a plane after a call from Janeane to become a writer on Ben Stiller, where he shared the posthumous Emmy (it was given after the show was canceled) with Odenkirk and the show's other writers.

It was there Odenkirk met Cross, and though it wasn't love at first sight, they got a little taste of each other's sensibilities. They were part of a new wave of alternative comics -- including Julia Sweeney, Margaret Cho, and Andy Dick -- who performed at the hippest clubs in Los Angeles. Out of that scene, Odenkirk and Cross created HBO's Mr. Show, which finally let the world in on their edgy brand of humor.

For the uninitiated, Mr. Show begins like a standard variety show, with Odenkirk and Cross coming onstage for a monologue. Suddenly, the monologue heads south, and you are now in a different dimension and inside a sketch. One or more characters from the first sketch are used to segue into the next, and so on, with some of the material being performed onstage and other parts filmed on location. But while others had used similar technical tricks like this in the past, it was the sketches themselves that made the show something completely different.

Among one of the show's classic sketches, Odenkirk played a daytime talk show host stranded on a lifeboat after the cruise ship on which he was hosting a show sank. On the boat are some of his guests -- a redneck loser (Cross) and his fiancée, his fiancée's mother (who is carrying his baby), and his secret gay lover. Though they are without food and water, possibly about to die, they keep yammering at each other as if the show were still taping, unable to grasp how pointless and insignificant their personal problems are in light of their current situation.

Something Completely Different

Mr. Show ran for four seasons on HBO and was beloved by those in the know and otherwise ignored by the general public. Although it's been canceled, if you have T/W Digital Cable, you can catch reruns on HBO-C weeknights at 10pm. The duo are coming to Austin to present a collection of short films from Mr. Show as part of the Austin Heart of Film Festival.

I spoke with them both, separately, on the telephone to discuss their past, present, and future. On Comedy and Mr. ShowBob Odenkirk: David and I had worked on Ben Stiller together but didn't really talk then. I had a friend, Dave Rathe, who rented out a theatre [The Diamond Club] in Los Angeles every Thursday, and I started to do some sketches there and so did David. It was there we started to come up with the idea for Mr. Show. I was working on a pilot with Janeane Garofalo, and HBO was familiar with my work, so we made a run for it.

David Cross: I had done sketch comedy with my own group in Boston, Cross Comedy, and we'd do things like have two stages, one with a projection screen on it. We would be doing a sketch and then we'd, like, go off the stage, and the projector would come on with a prerecorded scene where we'd leave the club, get into a cab, whatever, and then eventually come back to the stage. The Diamond Club, in L.A., was this disco dive. But it was pretty much a vacuum -- we were performing with friends, for friends -- and Bob and I got together to write a couple of sketches. He'd be on the week after me, so some of the sketches would be in both shows and those got the best reaction. So we said, "Fuck it, let's really do it."

BO: It came very fast, though we had to work things out like how insular the references could be within each show between one sketch and another. We shot five shows over the course of a year and a half. All with our own money. We hired the camera guy to shoot it, we wrote it, and had our friends perform in it live in clubs around town. We weren't making much money at this time, a little writing here and there, but mostly it was about this.

DC: We went to HBO and hoped it was up their alley. We spent a lot of time cultivating it to present it to them. It seemed pointless to try and explain it to them or show them a script because they just wouldn't get it. So we decided to do it and simply show it to them.

BO: We needed to find the hook because the theory was that no one was going to buy a sketch show without a hook. At the time it was stuff like all women or all Latinos -- and well, we weren't that. So how could we get HBO and audiences to trust us that the show'd be funny when it's completely different every week? We decided our hook would be the show's sensibility, which would stay the same week after week. Kind of like Monty Python. You could always tell you were watching a Python sketch.

DC: Monty Python was the smartest, funniest, and most ballsy show ever on television. I mean, they did Hitler sketches, which you could never do on American television. I remember at the time reading about all the trouble they used to have on the early days of Saturday Night Live getting sketches on air. I think we tried to do stuff like that. One of my favorite sketches we did was "The Last Indian." There were these federal marshals hanging around waiting for him to die to take the last of the Indian land. And the prenatal beauty pageant sketch was a lot of fun.

Something Completely Different

BO: HBO gave us just enough. Most people there championed the show and went through the battles with us every year to bring it back. The thing about sketch comedy is that if it's done well, every sketch is a new world. But people don't want that. They want familiarity. For me I think of shows like Monty Python and The Twilight Zone where there was something different each week, but those days are past, I think, though perhaps Mr. Show proved that it still can be more than just familiarity.

DC: We tried to make the show have a point to it. Not just cool for cool's sake or funny for funny's sake. But I think, in the end, the show was an aberration. It's not the normal thing you see on television. As for the future of sketch comedy, I don't know.On Ronnie DobbsBO: David and I just met with producers two days ago, and it looks like we're doing The Ronnie Dobbs Story. It's going to be called The Ronnie Dobbs Story: A Mr. Show Movie. Ronnie began as a sketch we did on the show about this guy who keeps showing up on TV cop shows getting arrested. This producer sees him and then he gets his own show where he's the star, just going around the world and getting arrested all the time. It's a basic rags-to-riches-to-rags story, but it's not the same old -- we fucked with it a lot.

DC: We're rewriting the script right now and hope to begin shooting it at the beginning of the year. I play Ronnie, but I wouldn't say that I'm the star of the movie or anything.

BO: We're hoping it will work for people who don't know us. I mean we couldn't do a Kids in the Hall movie just for our fans -- and that didn't work too well, did it? So we wanted to make a movie that would turn people on to us. It's told in chapters, and between each chapter is a completely unrelated sketch. So hopefully our fans will be happy, and it will either work and be the coolest sketch movie ever, or it will suck. You'll be the judge.On Other ProjectsBO: I produced [the HBO series] Tenacious D, and that's turned into a real cult hit. We're not doing any more of them, unfortunately, because we couldn't work out the whole credit thing. I really respect them [Kyle Gass and Jack Black] and their decision and I hope they respect mine. It was the worst way for a show to get killed, but it was cool because otherwise you just end up hating each other later on. I'm also producing a pilot for Comedy Central, Super Nerds, with Brian Posehn and Patton Oswalt (Spence on The King of Queens).

DC: I have a new HBO one-hour stand-up special [The Pride Is Back] running right now. It's all new material, and I try to walk that fine line in keeping things funny but not too preachy. It's hard sometimes, though, when it's something I'm outraged about. I'm not really touring that much these days and I feel stale sometimes because I can only get so much from sitting in a room writing something and then getting feedback a year later when it's screened, you know? I also just finished [acting in] a new film called Shiny New Enemies, which is sort of undescribable. It's sort of a crazy, cyclical ensemble thing that takes place over 48 hours. It stars Steve Zahn, who's incredible in it [the film co-stars Salma Hayek and Jeff Goldblum].On Austin and the FestivalBO: For the festival, we've put together a 45-minute package of Mr. Show short films from the series, directed by Troy Miller. We've taken the laugh tracks out because when we taped the shows we did them with a live audience and mixed in the laughter. We're really looking forward to showing them in a theatre.

DC: We've selected pretty much a random collection of our bits -- parodies, spoofs, mock documentaries, and none of the above. I had a good time last time I was in Austin for Waiting for Guffman, and I actually stayed a few extra days at my own expense and just tooled around, ate barbecue. I really like the girls in Austin.

BO: David and I came down for Waiting for Guffman. But I was cut out [of the movie]. In fact, I'm thinking of doing a lecture on the experience of getting cut. How to survive it. One: Don't see the movie. Two: Get bitter. And three: Stay that way as long as possible. But seriously, I had a great time. Chris Guest was great. I was just told to fuck around, and we were all having a good time, but I guess I wasn't funny. I heard there was a four-hour version when he first finished it. I just hope to fuck I made the four-hour version.On Each OtherBO: David is funny, smart, witty, chewy, shorts-wearing, dancy, temperamental, and determined -- though he has no idea where he's headed.

DC: Bob is family, a bon vivant, a cherub, school girl, taskmaster, head of West Coast programming, an iconoclast, scared, bold, spicy -- but not too spicy -- and diuretic. end story


Bob Odenkirk and David Cross will be in Austin as part of the Austin Heart of Film Screenwriters Conference and Film Festival, running October 7-14. They will introduce their 45-min. Mr. Show compilation Thursday, October 7 and Friday, October 8, 7pm, at the Dobie Theatre. $6.50 individual tickets sold at all theatres prior to showtime (space permitting). $35 Film Passes on sale now at all Star Ticket Outlets, or charge by phone, 469-SHOW. $195 Weekend Pass, good for Sat. and Sun. Screenwriters Conference panels and all films. For more information, call 800/310-FEST or visit http://www.austinfilmfestival.org.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

David Cross, Bob Odenkirk, Austin Film Festival, Mr. Show, Ronnie Dobbs, Tenacious D, Hbo, Monty Python

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