A Sketch Primer: Part 1 – Mr. Show

When most people think of sketch comedy, they immediately think of Saturday Night Live. And I suppose we shouldn’t blame them for this, since SNL is basically the only game in town in the US. It’s also an institution. You know about it, your parents know about it, and your little sister knows about it. But believe it or not, there’s more out there. So I’m starting a series about other great sketch shows. If you like SNL, or you would like SNL if it were funnier, then you should check some of these other shows out. If you like MadTV, there’s still hope you can be saved.

Our first show is Mr. Show, in my opinion the best pure American sketch comedy show in history. Some may quibble with my ranking, since I’m obviously rating it higher than SNL, but also above Your Show of Shows, Carol Burnett, and the other oldie-but-goodies. I have my reasons. First, SNL killed the old-style sketch show. It probably isn’t fair, since YSoS produced some amazing writers* and doesn’t deserve to be forgotten. But SNL was “hip” and the kids liked it, so most Americans under a certain age don’t even know sketch comedy existed before 1975. To be sure, most of the old shows seem dated now. It’s too bad.

*Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, and Carl Reiner all wrote on it. Woody Allen did not, but he wrote for the show “Caesar’s Hour,” which followed. Thanks, Professor Wikipedia!

As for SNL, it’s hard for me to say it’s the best when the great majority of its seasons have been mediocre or downright unwatchable.  Sure, from 1975-79 and from about 1988-1993, it may have been the funniest show out there. But 10/33 isn’t great. Plus, with all the musical guests and the different hosts, it sometimes feels more like a Late-Night show than a sketch show. So maybe Mr. Show isn’t a better show than SNL, but I think it’s a better sketch show. And you can disagree. It’s fine. But watch this first:

That, in my opinion, is the best sketch ever done by Americans. From the concept to the writing to the perfect performance by David Cross, “The Audition” is sublime comedy.

Mr. Show was on HBO in the mid 1990s. Written and produced by Bob Odenkirk and David Cross,* Mr. Show featured a talented group of writers and actors, including Jill Talley, Tom Kenny**, John Ennis, Jay Johnston, Paul F. Tompkins, and Brian Posehn, among others.

*I’d say it’s unfair that David Cross is going to be forever remembered as Tobias Fünke from Arrested Development, but let’s be honest. If you could be remembered as one character from anything, wouldn’t Tobias be a pretty good one?

** Yep, the same guy who is now raking in the big bucks as the voice of Spongebob Squarepants.

Unlike SNL and traditional American sketch shows, Mr. Show used links to move from one sketch to another. Linking sketches may or may not be more difficult and more rewarding than simple blackouts. You don’t need to write a button. Good ending lines are notoriously difficult. They often seem unsatisfying and forced. That said, linking sketches is tough. Even if you use a “runner,”* it’s still hard to force your characters out of their sketch world and into a different sketch world and make it funny. Monty Python often used Terry Gilliam’s cartoons as easy links. Mr. Show had no such luxury.

*A runner is a sketch broken up into pieces and spread over the course of a show. Instead of one 4 minute long sketch with 3 beats, a runner is three 1 minute sketches with one beat each. It’s much more common in Britain. When I get to Mitchell and Webb, I’ll have a big discussion about runners. Isn’t this fun?

Bob and David generally played the best characters themselves, which is only fair since their names are on the title. Unlike SNL, which creates character sketches and runs them into the ground over a few weeks (or years), Mr. Show’s recurring characters often come in pairs, or are put into different situations, or are used as links later on. There aren’t many. Ronnie Dobbs is the most memorable. The reason is that Mr. Show uses more premise sketches than character sketches. Rather than “isn’t this guy hilarious?” it’s “isn’t this situation hilarious?” An example is the very funny “Pre-taped Call-in Show” from season 3:

Basically, David Cross is a straight man, and he’s the only character in the sketch. It’s a difficult thing to pull off, but Mr. Show does it better than anyone. Other sketches are even more difficult to justify*, such as the “24 is the Highest Number” sketch. But somehow, Mr. Show always pulls it off.

*“Justification” is a term thrown around a lot when discussing sketches. Basically, a person has to have a reason to behave the way they are behaving in the sketch. The Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater emphasizes justifying over almost everything but the Game of the sketch itself. I don’t know if it’s wrong, but it seems to me that other sketch philosophies putting less emphasis on justification are inherently more interesting. Mr. Show’s justification for the actions of the 24 sketch is vague. The only possibility is “I’m reading the racing form.”And yet, the sketch kills. It’s possible, I think, that emphasis on justification is a huge reason American sketch is weaker than British sketch, and why UCB only did one really great sketch in their entire TV show.

What makes Mr. Show so great is that they are simply doing sketches no other show has done or even could do. They have more leeway being on premium cable, but it’s more than that. They come up with unique ideas and develop them in interesting ways. They know when to play a sketch more conservatively, hitting their bits and hightening uniformly, but also when to blow it up and do something crazy.

If you like Monty Python and other British sketch shows, I guarantee you will like Mr. Show. If you like 1970s SNL better than late 80s-early 90s SNL, you will probably like Mr. Show. I recommend starting with Season 3 or 4, which are more well-rounded and polished than 1 and 2 (although they are all good). It truly has everything, from sardonic satire of the world around it to silly, meaning-free sketches about Iguanas and urine. They were unafraid to take on religion, politics, and society as a whole. Since its cancelation, there has not been another show like it in the US, and unfortunately, unless someone gets really lucky, there won’t be again in America.

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3 Responses to “A Sketch Primer: Part 1 – Mr. Show”

  1. […] Sketch Primer 2 – The Fast Show For part two of my several part series on Sketch Comedy I was going to do Mitchell and Webb, but I called an audible at the last minute and switched to The Fast Show, another English sketch show, for reasons I’ll get into in a minute. Anyways, the point of this series is to try to get you, the reader to watch more and different sketch comedy, while learning a thing or two about what makes it great. The first installment, Mr. Show, was covered here. […]

  2. another good one. looking forward to more show reviews…

  3. […] Sketch Primer 0 – What is Sketch Comedy? Part 1 – Mr. Show […]

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