Looking Back at Mr. Show

Mr. Show is by far the most influential and important sketch show of the 90’s. It’s often described as one of the first “alternative comedy” shows to get on TV. That’s a term I’ve never really liked. Yes, it describes the surreal humor of Tim and Eric, but it’s just as often been applied to more straight-laced, but still hilarious, comedians like Patton Oswalt. More often than not it just seems to mean comedians who aren’t trying to land a sitcom on CBS. Perhaps in the era of YouTube, when there are now more than one path to comedic success, the term has become a bit antiquated. Other than some of the folks who got their big break on SNL I can’t think of many leading comedians today who weren’t labeled “alternative comedy” at some point in their career. If Mr. Show is the standard bearer for the term (it’s not) you could mistakenly think all it means is a cynical attitude and esoteric cultural references. That being said, it is the first sketch show I’ve looked at that was produced for a premium cable channel, HBO. Without advertisers to please or censors to bow to the show was allowed a tremendous amount of freedom to perform the humor they wanted to, and it’s fair to say that their sense of humor was pretty far from the “mainstream.”

Among the show’s many rabid fans there are various opinions about what era of the show is the best. Some feel that the show achieved perfection right out of the gate and only deteriorated in quality as the time went on. Others feel the show didn’t really find its groove until the third or fourth season. Personally I tend to enjoy the later episodes more than the early ones, but all of them are hilarious. Although produced over four seasons the entire show consists of just 30 episodes, so there’s really not all that much material to argue about.

Although almost constantly hilarious, Mr. Show is also probably the most serious-minded show I’ve covered so far. While the cast routinely delivers great, high-energy performances, there is none of the youthful excitement or chaos that characterized The State or even MADtv. Part of the reason for this may be the type of humor Mr. Show specialized in. Recently, Tina Fey wrote about Saturday Night Live alumni coming from two main traditions, the intellectual humor of the Harvard Lampoon and the visceral, boisterous improv comedy of Second City. “If you had nothing but Harvard guys the whole show would be made up of commercial parodies about people wearing barrels after the 1929 stock-market crash… if you had nothing but improvisers, the whole show would be made up of loud drag characters named Vicki and Staci screaming their catchphrase over and over.”

While Mr. Show had more improv actors than Harvard alumni behind it, the show was clearly slanted more towards the cerebral, intellectual humor Fey describes. What really sets the show apart though is it’s heavy use of satire. Sketch comedy is by its very nature satirical of course, but different shows employ it to differing degrees. The Kids in The Hall is full of brilliant satire, but there is also plenty of amazing sketches that are funny just because they’re silly and goofy rather than satirical. That’s rarely the case with Mr. Show, which is why there is a lack of goofy characters like the Chicken Lady on it. In almost all of Mr. Show’s sketches there is an obvious public figure or topic that is being targeted and commented on, like this take on corporate training videos.

There are some moments when Mr. Show veers away from satire, but they are rare. One example is one of my favorite sketches, (and one of the most divisive among fans) “The Story of the story of Everest.” There’s no obvious target here, it’s just an amazingly executed physical gag, repeated again and again until it goes from funny, to obnoxious to hilarious.

One pitfall of satire is that it frequently can be quite timely and topical and as a result not age well. The Colbert Report delivers amazing satire of current events four nights a week, but the episodes don’t have much replay value once the headlines their riffing on have faded. As I’ve discussed in my previous articles, many sketch shows have this same problem. There a moments when Mr. Show is no different. The first part of this clip, with its references to slackers and Seattle, is clearly a product of the Generation X 1990’s.

Most of the more timely sketches from the show haven’t suffered too much from age because the actual humor of the piece is separate from the the topical issue they’re mocking. Take this sketch about a deadly rivalry between East Coast and West Coast ventriloquists. This bit is of course based on the actual rivalry between East Coast West Coast rappers during the 90’s, but being familiar with that isn’t necessary to enjoying the sketch, because the idea of ventriloquists having a coastal rivalry is ridiculous enough on its own.

Although Bob Odenkirk and David Cross were the obvious stars of the show, and featured in almost every sketch, the rest of the cast was pretty amazing in its own right. As my colleague Joe Berkowitz has pointed out, the show featured a number of criminally under appreciated female actors, chief among them Jill Talley. There were also plenty of excellent males featured like Jack Black, Paul F. Thompkins, Brian Posehn, Scott Adsit, Jay Johnston and many, many more. Over 10 years after it’s been off the air, Mr. Show remains one of the most consistently brilliant sketch shows to have ever existed. Along with several other contemporary shows it helped usher in a new generation of comedians and sense of humor. Although it did feature a few classic characters like Ronnie Dobbs, it’s true legacy is in its broadening of the comedy landscape, setting the stage for much of the comedy that followed it.

Carleton Atwater lives in Boston. He also writes about beer at Beeriety.com.

Looking Back at Mr. Show