Not long ago, media writers were talking about a “sketch boom” with shows like Inside Amy Schumer, Portlandia, Kroll Show, Key & Peele, and the perennial Saturday Night Live along with a handful of others all carving out their own little niches in the media landscape. One of those, The Birthday Boys was executive produced by Bob Odenkirk who was no stranger to sketch himself. He started on SNL before moving to The Ben Stiller Show and then continued experimenting with the sketch format with the classic Mr. Show. Today we look at what could have been in Bob’s sketch evolution, a 2002 pilot for Fox known as Next!
Next! was a sketch show made for network television that is sort of the combination of all of Bob’s TV experience to that point. A good example of this is the pilot episode’s first sketch, “Next News.” In it we have a series of “Weekend Update”-style jokes on the news of the day, filmed components to the sketch which were so expertly done on Ben Stiller, and the blending of live in-studio sketches with pre-filmed components that Mr. Show perfected. Also, Mr. Show did a ton of news sketches.
So, you’ve got a guy who at that point had somewhere in the neighborhood of a decade’s worth of experience writing sketch comedy for television writing and starring in the show. Why didn’t this show get picked up for a million seasons? Well, obviously it must have been because the cast wasn’t any good. Let’s take a look. You’ve got Mr. Show alumns Jay Johnston, Jerry Minor, and Jill Talley, first timers Raskia Mathur (Wild ‘N Out), Susan Yeagley (Parks and Recreation), and Fred Armisen (You don’t need parenthesis on this one) and guest stars Brian Posehn, Patton Oswalt, Ray Romano, Zach Galifanakis, Tom Kenny, and David Cross.
Nope, that’s not the reason. That’s a friggin’ dream team.
Going down the list, I guess, maybe it’s the sketches. Let’s look at some examples. Next! shares the same sensibility of a Mr. Show, without the links between sketches and without the HBO-level content. The difference is that Next! takes that sensibility and blends it with a bit more of topicality. Whereas Mr. Show worked hard to mostly keep the headlines out of their sketches and keep them rather evergreen, Next! allows a little of the real world to filter in. A great example of this comes from a sketch in which Jerry Minor plays an R&B musician named L’Tony who “has noticed a lot of flags” and “knows something went down with America recently” (the final cut of this episode was locked in January of 2002) and wrote a song to help out. In the song he sings a loving tribute to the American flag since he notices she’s been down lately (half mast), but promises to ride it all the way to the top. He pledges allegience to her, swearing he will never cheat with any other flag (plot twist: he is eventually caught in bed with the flag of Panama).
In another sketch, Jay Johnston plays Billy Essy, who is making a commercial for Essy Bros. Auto. He declares that you can always steal a deal at Essy Bros. Automotive, and even more so this week because his brother Billy is out of town and Steve is “not that smart, not good with numbers,” is “easily distracted,” and he “doesn’t know about cars.” He shows off a “pretty blue” car that was listed at $5,995, but he let it go for $200 because “every time I told the guy the price would be less, he got happier.” Later in the episode, we get a second commercial in which Steve, played by Bob, gets home from vacation. He stands as Billy sulks in the background on a completely empty car lot. “All right, let’s start at the beginning. Bring the cars back. All of you.” These include his personal car that wasn’t for sale, and the soda machine. We even get a few classic Bob yells in here too.
Fred Armisen plays a German accented host of a James Lipton-style show called “Focus on Talent” with guest Ray Romano. I’m pretty sure Romano was told the basic premise of the show – Fred is going to insult you – but I think that the questions themselves may have been partially improvised. A clear extension of Fred’s early “Guide to SXSW” and an obvious precursor to Zach Galifianakis’ “Between Two Ferns,” Fred asks Romano questions like “I think that the show must not be very much work for you, because you go in front of the cameras and do anything, yes?” or “Congratulations on your retirement.” Ray protests, but Fred continues, “Yes, but when I watch it, it seems to me that you have stopped acting a long time ago.”
Nope, nope. That’s all fantastic. The sketches are wonderful.
So why didn’t Next! end up on Fox? Cedric the Entertainer Presents. In 2002 there was very little sketch comedy on network television. To be fair, in primetime, there still is very little, excepting Maya & Marty. So the odds of Fox picking up two new sketch shows was very unlikely, and at that point, Cedric the Entertainer was the bigger name. This show lasted the full season of 21 episodes and was picked up for a second, only to be cancelled after being picked up.
In a 2014 interview with Salon while promoting his book, A Load of Hooey, Bob talked about the state of comedy: “I honestly think that in particular sketch comedy is having a heyday, which of course is wonderful. But also will end. So, what I would say to anybody is: What is the next thing that happens after sketch comedy has its heyday? And I don’t really know what that is, but it could be dramatic pieces…I do think that after sketch comes story. After you’ve done sketch for a while, you start to look at story, or what stories people tell.”
This is basically the trajectory Odenkirk took with his comedy. Following this pilot he moved on to narrative pieces such as Melvin Goes to Dinner, Tom Goes to the Mayor, The Brothers Solomon, and David’s Situation. Eventually, he returned to the warm embrace of sketch through his work with The Birthday Boys and his reunion with the Mr. Show crew on Netflix’s With Bob and David.
For whatever reason, there are actually two Next! pilots (and a few extra sketches). I am uncertain as to if the show was originally going to be an hour long and it was chopped into two, if Fox wanted two full episodes, or if they just made more than they needed. Whatever the reason, there’s plenty of material that you now get to enjoy, and dream about what could have been.