the more things change the more they stay the same

Bob Odenkirk and David Cross Explain How /W Bob & David Is and Isn’t Different From Mr. Show

Photo: HBO; Saeed Adyani/Netflix

Bob Odenkirk and David Cross’s seminal sketch show Mr. Show With Bob and David, which ran on HBO for four seasons, from 1995 and 1998, quickly became a cult favorite and gave rise to a generation of alternative comedians and comedy nerds. In the time since, Odenkirk and Cross have each starred on other classic TV shows – Breaking Bad (and its spinoff Better Call Saul) and Arrested Development, respectively. Now, thanks to Netflix, they’re returning to their sketch roots with W/ Bob & David, a show that has the same spirit as the original and two-thirds of the same name (HBO still owns the “Mr. Show” part). The format will feel familiar to fans – Bob, David, and a writing staff of mostly Mr. Show veterans making a sketch program that mixes live and taped pieces – but the hope is to create comedy that feels current. Vulture recently spoke with Odenkirk and Cross about what has and has not changed with the new show.

Bob Odenkirk: Our sensibility is the same. We still love live sketches. We still love pre-taped sketches. We still love what you can do when you can talk directly to an audience. We still love live laughter; it matters in sketch comedy. It’s important to have an audience watch and laugh. But at the same time, in a very subtle and small way, we’re ignoring a lot of the rules we set for ourselves that were just natural years ago when we made Mr. Show.

The Title
David Cross: For legal purposes, we don’t own the rights to the name Mr. Show. That was always the abbreviated version, as the full name was Mr. Show With Bob and David, so we thought it would be clever and still feel different to call it just W/ Bob & David. We wanted it to have a new name, as we didn’t want to do Mr. Show again. We wanted to do a new show and not have any of the rules.

B.O.: With the punctuation, it was just me trying to figure out a different way to present the thing and it came off this thing called “the internet” and the way people tweet — or is it Twit? — and blog. It’s like “hashtag this and tweet that. I’m gonna block you.” Shit like that. You can look at the title and say, “Wow, that’s something I would see on the web!”

Working With Netflix
D.C.: HBO was great when we were there, but none of those people are there anymore. The people at Netflix that we worked with were even better than we imagined. They’re very encouraging. Much like HBO did when we first brought the show to them back in the ‘90s, Netflix was like, “Hey, man, this is your thing. This isn’t our thing. You make the shows; we don’t make the shows. Do what you want, that’s why we have you here.”

B.O.: We’re not doing this to make big money; we just love working together and wanted to see what would happen. Both HBO and Netflix are very generous, but I would say Netflix was a little more forthcoming to help us make a show that had this many elements to it. 

Cast and Crew
B.O.: We didn’t feel obliged to work with any Mr. Show people. We see this as a new show. We’re excited about working with new writers and new actors, but we certainly wanted to meet up with friends of ours who did that show because we still think they’re funny and we like them. We were surprised at how much they wanted to do the show and how good they were. We were just blown away that people were just funnier and better and stronger than they were 16 years ago. Which I guess shouldn’t have surprised us, but it did, it surprised me. Scott Aukerman has done Comedy Bang! Bang! for years now. Paul F. Tompkins has had numerous shows that he’s written and produced. They’re better writers, they’re better producers, they understand the limitations. Everybody’s a better performer because they’ve had years of work.

The Writing Process
B.O.: It was pretty close. David, what do you think?

D.C.: We follow this formula that we had, where Bob and I would get together before we brought everybody in, and Bob would show his sketches, I’d show my sketches (although Bob had way more than I did, this time). Then we’d also really informally go, “Oh! I saw this thing!” and just shoot the shit and come up with ideas and have lunch. We worked together for about a month, maybe even longer, before we brought people in. It was actually the same exact way we did it before.

B.O.: We seemed to slip right into a productive place easily and inexplicably. We are alike in important ways, and we each respect the differences and what they bring to our work together. David came up with the sketch where the kid goes to heaven and sees Hitler there, among many other people, good and bad, and while I would not have come up with that myself, I immediately loved the challenging nature of that concept. It was a shocking notion that also had some texture, not just shock value.

Being the Boss
D.C.: Those roles didn’t change, and if anything there wasn’t any kind of transition period into that. We all picked up almost like where we left off and just got right back to it. That was always Bob’s and my role. The one good thing that’s important was that you didn’t have to deal with anybody’s hurt feelings. 

B.O.: And, I’m a loudmouth asshole wherever you put me. Part of it was we weren’t as afraid of having those guys in for the final choices. Sixteen years ago, everyone was much younger, so it was harder to cut their sketch with them standing right there.

Linking Between Sketches
B.O.: We spent a lot of time on those links. We don’t do those in this new show except when we feel like it – when they’re easy. We would literally spend two days on trying to link up sketches; you could easily write three really funny sketches in two days. That’s just a really dumb way to spend your time because no one really cares how you get from one sketch to the next.

B.O.: The last episode ends with an eight-minute sketch that’s kind of quiet. It’s not really trying too hard to make an episode that has this forward movement. We don’t feel like we have to do that because of who we are now and because of where we are, which is Netflix. The way you watch TV on Netflix, you don’t have this sense of impending commercial break. You used to have this sense of this pacing that was set by commercial TV, which is still informing shows even on HBO. With Netflix, if it’s 38 minutes long, it doesn’t matter as long as the ideas keep moving and the energy keeps staying up – just as simple as that, it just needs to keep being rewarding. If you see the construction of the fourth episode of this series, we’re already breaking it down even more and going wherever we feel like going and following the idea wherever it feels like going.

Influence of Working on Other Acclaimed Shows Like Arrested Development and Breaking Bad
D.C.: I would say the one thing is a constant thinking of how a sketch will, in practical terms, work. “How do you shoot this?” “This is not as simple as you guys think it is.” It’s good to have that mind-set when you’re approaching stuff. You don’t want it to dictate what you want to do and what not to, but it does. I’m like, “Bring me ideas.” But then you have to say to that writer or yourself, “Okay, let’s be realistic here. We have 12 days to shoot all this stuff, this is going to take a full day. Do we want to do this?” That’s something we didn’t necessarily have when we were doing Mr. Show initially. 

B.O.: Both of us have improved as actors. We are both able to modulate and play things more subtly. That said, this here’s sketch comedy and it is rightfully kind of loud and silly and sometimes ironic is how it is best played. 

Their Relationship After Success Elsewhere
: I believe everyone is jealous of me, and rightfully so, being on this great show Better Call Saul, created by Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould. This role is surprising to me every day that I do it. There is a richness, a complexity, and a sensitivity to how it’s written and explored that is mind-boggling. So if you’re an actor and you have any taste, you should be jealous of me. What can I do about it? Not a damn thing except my best job playing it. But David and I don’t really relate to each other any differently, which makes it like a great marriage. Another way we’re like a well-married couple is that we don’t bother with that “sex” thing.

Culture As a Whole
D.C.: Technology has changed culture, but not so much that culture has made some sort of wholesale change.

B.O.: When I think about the sketches, it’s not that different. That kid going to heaven sketch is something that could have existed easily 20 years ago. Obviously we name-check internet shit and we have a riff on that Shingy guy, but even there you don’t have to know Shingy to laugh at that character. You just know that he’s basically a bullshit tech guru. You don’t even have to know that type exists to know that type exists.

D.C.: The one thing that I can think of that’s changed, off the top of my head, is there used to be a sense of selling out or commercialization in our generation that simply does not exist anymore. That’s gone and will never come back. You had little pockets of people who are purists, but that’s gone. That was a big deal when Bob and I were coming up, for musicians, for comics, for artists, it’s just completely gone.

Online Critics
D.C.: The only arbiters for us are Bob and I. We never had a concern, we never will have a concern like, “Oh, what will the internet think?” It’s whether we like it, whether we find value in it, whether we think it’s funny.

B.O.: People who think of reasons to hate us, that’s not a problem. The internet gives everyone a great platform to share their displeasure. That is what it is. One thing that isn’t different is we do talk our sketches out when we’re dealing with religion. Our second episode is all about a picture of the prophet Mohammad. We’re like, “What is this sketch saying and who is it making fun of with this point of view?” We did that 16 years ago, too. We both have a conscience about that kind of thing, but we also like to talk about what’s referred to as tasty subject matter. Things that have spice in them, maybe a little kick and some pain involved.

D.C.: Ironically, that describes a lot of Middle Eastern food.

The State of Comedy
B.O.: Everyone told us we were ahead of our time, so perhaps now if we just do a similar thing (which is to say: Make ourselves laugh with the best ideas we got), we can be right on time and fit in. God, how great would it be to fit in. I’m sick of being ahead of my time. I would like to be relevant now, not after I die. Honestly, the way we responded to the current crop of comedy was the feeling that, perhaps, we are now going to actually get a fair-size audience to enjoy what we’re doing, and not just distant pockets of comedy nerds.

And I don’t think we need to hand-hold as much. In fact, I’m sure of it. People see a lot of comedy and they don’t have an issue with understanding the basic premises of a sketch show. I’m not worried about people being too far ahead of us, and I think that since we’re not a daily or weekly show, and have no single point of view, we just naturally fill a space that is open and won’t cross wires with too many other shows.

Odenkirk & Cross on /W Bob & David Changes