Mrs. Show: The Women Behind a Comedy Classic

Anyone who took the “Mr. Show Boys Club” sketch at face value might be tempted to skype Gloria Steinem immediately after watching it. The scene opens with the male cast members lounging in silk robes and cravats, brandishing martinis. They’re surrounded by scantily clad young ladies who are identified as The Mr. Show Objects. Soon a female cast member emerges wearing sparkly short-shorts, a tank top that reads “OBJECT”, and a tiny barrel of brandy around her neck like a storybook St. Bernard. When she accuses the show’s two main stars of running a “boys club,” they respond in the most literal way possible, with footage revealing how Mr. Show Boys Clubs have been shaping the lives of young boys and girls for years. Only when we see a montage of these clubs in action, a group of little boys is shown learning how to dance (with cardboard cutouts for partners), while their female counterparts are seated off to the side.

Meeting a staged accusation of sexism with a phony admission of much deeper ingrained sexism is exactly in keeping with the tone of the series. Part of the brilliance of Mr. Show was its encyclopedic hyper-awareness of seemingly everything its predecessors had done — essentially it was a sketch comedy show about sketch comedy — and the lack of good comedic roles for women is something its creators wouldn’t have missed. Bob Odenkirk and David Cross were well aware of the venerable Saturday Night Live’s reputation as a misogynistic institution where men flourished and women floundered. While SNL specifically bore the brunt of this criticism, other sketch shows were said to be unfriendly to women as well. Mr. Show refuted the accusation, though, by continually getting great performances out of its female comedians.

The show has been off the air for almost thirteen years now, and its legend as ground zero for the alt-comedy scene has only increased. However, the distribution of credit for the work that ensured the show’s highly lauded status is heavily lopsided in favor of men. When people talk about the greatness of Mr. Show, rarely do they single out the contributions of Jill Talley or Sarah Silverman. Part of the reason for this oversight is that the show was officially written by men only.

Perhaps Mr. Show wasn’t as inclusive as a show ballsy enough to air a skit like “Mr. Show Boys Club” should have been. Some of its most hysterical sketches didn’t feature any female characters at all: “The Founding Fathers,” “Lie Detector,” “The Audition,” and “Pre-Taped Call-In Show,” to name a few. However, those sketches could not have been improved upon — and for each of these examples, there are plenty more sketches which gave the female performers roles they could sink their teeth into. One thing that distinguished Mr. Show, aside from its post-modern head-trips, biting satire, and clever links between skits, was its terrific performances. This was a show that leaned heavily on acting ability and commitment to character for its cerebral laughs. All the women of Mr. Show earned their keep in this regard, and they deserve credit for helping to create one of the most revered comedies of our time.

Who: Mary Lynn Rajskub

Started on Mr. Show: season 1, episode 1

Episodes featured in: 10

Key sketch: Rap: The Musical

Where else you know her from: The Larry Sanders Show, 24

Where she is now: After spending a thousand years playing Chloe O’Brian on 24, Rajskub got married and had a baby and wrote a one-woman show about the experience. She spent most of 2010 performing “Mary Lynn Spreads Her Legs” in LA. Most recently she guest starred on an episode of Modern Family.

Mary Lynn’s specialty was reacting to unpleasant things in a really upset manner, which she does in several sketches (see above photo). She also revealed her potential to be a gifted physical comedian with her goofy dancing in “Rap: The Musical” and “New San Francisco” in the second season. Mary Lynn was dating David Cross during her tenure on Mr. Show, and their falling out lead to her decision to not return for the third season. Overall, she was underused on the show, but still made an impression.

Who: Becky Thyre

Started on Mr. Show: season 4, episode 1

Episodes featured: 10

Key sketch: Psychic Emergency Hotline

Where else you know her from: she played the fake surrogate mother on Arrested Development

Where she is now: After spending three years on Weeds, she is still performing, most recently on Parks and Recreation and True Blood

Becky Thyre was an improv actress from Chicago who’d been on failed women’s sketch show SheTV before joining the cast of Mr. Show. She had previously worked with Bob Odenkirk and producer Dino Stamatopoulos on The Ben Stiller Show. Becky specialized in unusually chipper, New Agey roles — besides the Psychic Emergency Hotline Operator, she also played a hypnotist in the Monster Parties skit, and always gave off the aura of someone who said “aura” a lot.

Who: Sarah Silverman

Started on Mr. Show: season 1, episode 3

Episodes featured: 10

Key sketch: Indomitable Spirit, a sketch about a band with various disabilities who still manage to rock out and inspire high school kids. David Cross plays the armless drummer; Sarah Silverman plays a woman whose disability is… you should really just watch it.

Where else you know her from: Several movies, her self-titled program, fucking Matt Damon, her book The Bedwetter, duh — she’s Sarah Silverman.

Where she is now: Will next star in actress-turned-director Sarah Polley’s new movie, Take This Waltz, alongside Seth Rogen and Michelle Williams.

Sarah Silverman had already written for Saturday Night Love before coming to Mr. Show, and she had almost a decade of stand up under her belt, even though she was only in her mid-twenties. She is introduced in a scene which subverts viewer expectations about gender by having Sarah replace David Cross (who had just been seen wearing a dress) in a sketch about a kissing booth. It soon emerges that Sarah is not playing a woman, but a man who happens to be wearing a dress for reasons that are never explained. In the “Chip on the Shoulder Club” from season three, Sarah already has down the smartass persona that would later make her famous.

Who: Karen Kilgariff

Started on Mr. Show: season 3, episode 1

Episodes featured: 15

Key sketch: Lifeboat, although to be fair, everybody is amazing in this skit

Where else you know her from: The Girls Guitar Club, her comedy-music duo with Mary Lynn Rajskub

Where she is now: After a stint as head writer and producer on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, she is now back to doing stand-up and sketch work.

Karen Kilgariff often played characters who revealed their sexuality in surprising ways; for instance, the blind woman who seduces men by having them compete over who gets to describe things to her, or the woman who can only have a baby if her neighbors are watching the conception. Also, her delivery of the title line in the episode “Oh, You Men” (it’s around the 2:30 mark) is one of the best things ever.

Who: Brett Paesel

Started on Mr. Show: season 3, episode 1

Episodes featured: 22

Key sketch: No Adults Allowed

Where else you know her from: Guest turns on Six Feet Under

Where she is now: Has reinvented herself as a writer. Her book, Mommies Who Drink: Sex, Drugs, and Other Distant Memories of an Ordinary Mom, was a bestseller. She keeps a popular blog and occasionally contributes to the New York Times

Brett Paesel made a great foil for some of the larger personalities on Mr. Show to clash against. She was terrific at playing sitcom-y housewife/mother types in bizarre situations. Along with Janeane Garofalo, she offers one of the great turns as a harried mom in the Stenson’s Mayostard commercial.

Who: Janeane Garofalo and Laura Kightlinger

It’s worth mentioning here that Mr. Show featured cameos from a plethora of future stars in the comedy universe, among them Patton Oswalt, Jon Stewart, and Jack Black (who had standout turns in several episodes.) This cameo parade included brief funny sketches from Janeane Garofalo and Laura Kightlinger, who would both go on from unmemorable stints on Saturday Night Live to bigger success in television and movie roles later on.

Who: Jill Talley

Started on Mr. Show: season 1, episode 1

Episodes featured: 27

Key sketch: Super Pan, the infomercial that turns into a deranged horror movie, is a litmus test for how uncomfortable a sketch can get and still be unbelievably funny. The premise couldn’t possibly work, however, without a bravura acting turn from Jill.

Where else you know her from: You know her voice if you ever watch animation.

Where she is now: Occasional acting roles, most recently in Little Miss Sunshine and The Sarah Silverman Program.

Jill got her start at Second City in Chicago, performing on the main stage with Bob Odenkirk in Robert Smigel’s sketch group, All You Can Eat. She and her husband, Tom Kenny, were both on the Fox sketch show The Edge (with a pre-FriendsJennifer Aniston) before Mr. Show began airing. Like her husband, who is now famously the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants, she is also an amazing vocal actress, and she lends her voice to shows like American Dad!, The Boondocks, and of course, SpongeBob.

Jill Talley is the most criminally underappreciated member of the Mr. Show cast. She was not only the most visible female performer by far, she was one of the most visible performers period. She was like Kristen Wiig in her ubiquity, except with much more range (and this is coming from a Wiig-fan). Jill can and did play multiple versions of hillbillies, entertainment moms, and newscasters, and she made them all unique. Her specialty was that she disappeared, chameleon-like, into any role she inhabited, with serious movie-caliber acting and remarkable timing. From her broad performance as a mentally challenged mother in “The Bob LaMonta Story” to her faux-serious demeanor in “Car Wash Change Thief Action Squad”, Jill was never less than on point. She was the only female comedian on the show who got anywhere near as many standout opportunities as Bob and David, but she arguably acquitted herself in that area better than her now-more-famous co-stars Paul F. Tompkins and Brian Posehn. Along with Mary Lynn, Karen, and Sarah, Jill Talley proves that if Mr. Show is best remembered as a boys club, it’s remembered incorrectly.

Joe Berkowitz edits books and writes stuff. He also has a Tumblr.

Mrs. Show: The Women Behind a Comedy Classic