First of all, I’m very sorry for writing a thing about a DVD commentary. I know they are kind of a silly thing to begin with, and many people don’t take them seriously even when they are doing them.
For example, one commentary track of Xavier: Renegade Angel features a robotic Stephen Hawking voice reciting some weird academic paper about the possibility of time travel. For the Step Brothers commentary, Adam McKay asked Jon Brion to record an original score live as they watched the movie. And then of course there’s perennial classic Spinal Tap, which features the cast doing commentary in character the entire time.
In the pantheon of great DVD commentaries, these are the choicest cuts from what I’ll call the “Bit School” – commentators who decided to use their commentary to do bits. Sure, bits are fun. Yes.
And then of course there’s the other style, the “Film School Approach.” Paul Thomas Anderson once said you can save your money on film school and just listen to John Sturges’ director’s commentary on Bad Day at Black Rock. Then there’s Quentin Tarantino’s screenwriting lecture on the True Romance commentary, and Ben Stiller, Jack Black, and Robert Downey Jr. dissecting Tropic Thunder or Louis CK explaining how he got different shots on season 1 of Louie. Even the ASSSSCAT DVD is a good example – the cast decided to just talk very dryly about the scenework happening and noticeably do no bits at all.
But if you really wanna record a DVD commentary that people will be writing articles online about 10+ years later… well then you gotta go for the sweet spot between those two styles. The perfect blend of bits and real information. For my money ($.01 on Amazon!) nothing does this better than the Mr. Show DVDs.
Yes, the Mr. Show DVD commentary. The secret handshake of true sketch comedy completists. A great overlooked work in a dying medium. The gold standard of DVD commentary as far as I’m concerned, and here is why:
First of all, there are 30 commentary tracks over the 4 seasons (3 DVDs), all recorded in, I believe, 2004. So that’s like 15 hours. Here is a “special features” joke video about the cast and writers getting together to record them:
It’s worth mentioning that although Mr. Show has experienced a much-deserved resurgence in popularity due to the internet and the huge success of a lot of these peoples’ other projects (Odenkirk, Scott Aukerman, Paul F. Tompkins especially), in 2004 it was still a pretty low-profile show and nobody had any reason there would ever be, for example, more episodes.
So they are doing these commentaries like five years after the shows themselves aired, and what ends up happening is this cool mix of reminiscing about writing/producing the sketches and fucking around with their friends who they haven’t worked with in a while. So there’s a lot of classroom-like explanations of the process behind making good sketches good, such as:
Titannica, where they describe taking Brian Posehn’s initial idea and reworking it until they discovered the funny wet cigar body.
Audition, which was a Dino Stamatopoulos sketch he brought basically fully-written from a bit he used to do with Scott Adsit after some play in Chicago.
And Pre-taped call-in show, which is kind of a flat concept that relies on David Cross’s desperate frustration to make it a dynamic sketch, and still viewers were confused and thought it was real.
And also behind what made bad sketches bad, such as:
The Date with the Queen sketch, which was a party trick someone tried to stretch into a full scene, but didn’t really work.
Or that one restaurant sketch that goes on so long they wanted to put a “Countdown Until Sketch is Over” in the bottom of the screen, but ultimately decided against it.
These are maybe the best instances of when these commentaries are like taking a sketch writing class. But here’s the thing: they also mix in a bunch of bits and stuff so they’re even really funny even if you don’t give a shit about sketch writing! The best of both worlds!
For example, this part where Jay Johnston says marching bands are people dressed as toys and parades are “made of fancy colors”:
When people talk about the sensibility of Mr. Show being like “smart and silly” I think that’s exactly what they’re talking about. Then of course there’s a bunch of Bob Odenkirk screeds about how, for example, one of Brian Wilson’s “genius” songs is just singing the directions to his house, and you’ve got some high quality DVD commentary, my friend.
This all adds up to a whole new dimension of these episodes that is often just as funny as the sketches themselves, and also gives you a richer understanding of the whole thing. You’ll notice that I didn’t link to these commentaries on YouTube. Well it’s because they’re not on YouTube. (Well, some are, but only over still images.) You actually have to get the DVDs, which, again are now $0.01 on Amazon. You really haven’t seen Mr. Show until you’ve seen it with commentary on. You damn kids! Thanks.