Illustration: Giacomo Gambineri
“The Story of Everest” is one of Mr. Show With Bob and David’s most beloved — and most divisive — sketches. In it, an explorer returns to his parents after climbing Mount Everest and, while trying to recount his adventure, accidentally knocks over some trays of thimbles. Over the course of eight long minutes, we see him tell the story, fall, attempt to tell it again, fall, attempt, fall, attempt, fall, fall again, fall yet again, attempt, and then learn that his story has been made into a movie. However, to his dismay, he learns that the movie is about him falling down. We gathered Jay Johnston (who plays the explorer), David Cross (who plays his brother and co-created the show), and Bob Odenkirk (who plays his father and is the other co-creator of the show) to discuss the origins and execution of this arduous bit.
Jay Johnston: We were eating lunch.
David Cross: Let me preface what you’re about to say by telling you that Jay Johnston is truly one of the most gifted storytellers you’ll ever meet. Whenever he tells a story, there’s a whole production to it. There’s a show. He does characters. It’s physicalized. It’s the most engaging thing. I swear to God, I’m not being facetious. He’s one of the most entertaining storytellers.
Bob Odenkirk: I always loved hearing stories about Jay’s childhood and youth because they were interesting and offbeat. In this one, he told a story about his uncle. I don’t know what the healthy variation on hoarding is, but it’s what Jay does, and his mom. We were talking about how his house had a lot of stuff in it. His mom would collect a lot of stuff, and one of the things he had was a grill inside.
Johnston: The guy was my cousin. The grill had the two wheels and the one leg, y’know? My mom had a lot of tchotchkes, those types of things, and they were in these printing trays that were on the wall. Like, frames with hundreds of compartments for lamps and dice and a rabbit’s foot, shit like that. Many rabbits’ feet. Then, one day, my uncle-cousin guy or whatever — cousins, somehow —
Cross: “Uncle-cousin guy”?
Johnston: Yeah, I know, I was really trying to nail down what he was, and he’s just, like, a cousin. Just a cousin. But it’s like, twice-removed, I think? So anyway, they’re at a Cubs game, and they got all drinkled up, he and his friends, and he came by after the game and was visiting. He’s about six foot six, and his name’s Clarence. Huge guy, red hair, red beard, and he goes on this story, telling about what a great game it was, and this play or some shit that happened in the game. He was standing in the kitchen, and my sister and myself and my mom were sitting on stools. He’s going on and on about, [loud, sloppy voice] “Well, we, y’know, we’re out there, we were chillin’” — and as he’s talking, he’s feeling a little bit uncomfortable because we’re kind of in a smallish room and he wants to sit down. We’re sitting and he sees the Weber grill, and he doesn’t really look at it, just sees it out of the corner of his eye and goes to sit on it, and it just takes off immediately, and he flies backwards and grabs both of these printing trays with all of this shit in there, and just rips them off the wall because he’s such a huge dude.
Johnston: The whole wall fell down, it sounded like. We were laughing our asses off, oh my God. It was so funny.
Johnston: And then it took us ten minutes to clean it up. My grandpa comes in from the front room. He was watching the game and it just ended, and he goes, “What in the Christ was all that noise in here? It sounded like a wall fell over or something!” [We said,] “Ah, my gosh, it’s so funny! Clarence did this thing!” And [Clarence] goes, “No, no! I’ll tell ya! I’ll tell ya, bud!” So he goes to tell my grandfather. We had just finished picking up, of course. And [Clarence] said, “Here’s what I did: I went to sit down on the —” and it went out from under him again, and he flew backwards and grabbed the same shit and knocked the same shit off the walls.
Johnston: And my mother went, “God dammit!” and walked out of the room. That was basically the genesis.
Odenkirk: It actually happened! It’s real life! The funniest things happen in real life if you’re a Johnston.
Johnston: It’s basically a documentary.
Odenkirk: It is a documentary. And we just added the fact that —
Cross: Well, we really Mr. Show–ed it up with the telescoping out of the whole thing.
Odenkirk: As I recall, it was pretty much Jay and I who wrote the first draft. But I might be wrong.
Cross: The whole thing, from the inception of Jay telling the story to whoever came up with the idea of, let’s make that a bit, to the writing, the rewriting, the rehearsal — it was never not funny.
Odenkirk: I remember Jay telling the story to me about that and saying, “There’s a great sketch in that.” Us figuring it out, either Jay and I or the whole group.
Johnston: Brian [Posehn] was a bit against it. There was a faction of people going, “This is stupid! The fuck?” Then we had the ongoing discussion or argument over how many times I should fall down.
Cross: Don’t forget: When we shot that, even though they had a bunch of people working on it and they did the best they could, it took anywhere from six to 12 minutes to get the set ready again [after each fall]. And the audience didn’t know how many times we were gonna do it, and it kinda stopped being fun for them because it took a good 40 minutes to shoot that fucking bit.
Johnston: Oh my gosh, yeah.
Odenkirk: Guys! Guys! Do you not remember that we did it one more time than is in the final scene?
Cross: Right, we cut a beat out.
Odenkirk: In the dress-rehearsal show, we did it one more time. That last one, which we cut out, had no turn or twist or build or anything. It was literally just putting ‘em up and kinda doing it again, just to see how far we could go. It got no laughs at all. There was no laughter. Nothing.
Johnston: That was so uncomfortable onstage.
Cross: They were over it.
Odenkirk: Then there was one more time after that, but that last time was clearly the last time because of the dialogue, so the audience was tolerant of that and enjoyed it, in fact. But we did do it one more time than they would’ve preferred.
Odenkirk: In the taped show, we cut it back to what you see. What you see is how many times we did it in what we would call the “air show,” the second show. So that was part of it, too: Going too far was always an intention of ours. Seeing how far it could go. A lot of people hate it, by the way! It’s a sketch that some people love. I think it’s one of the best. Maybe my favorite of the show. On some days it’s my favorite. And some people hate it. Literally, they despise it. It doesn’t make them laugh at all. They just think it’s dumb behavior over and over.
Johnston: It’s such a big, messy vehicle.
Odenkirk: In this conversation, we’re not giving enough credit to the writing that turned it into a story about a guy who just climbed Everest.
Odenkirk: I mean, it’s super funny to see a guy fall a bunch of times in the same way like an idiot, and Jay can do that all day long and make everyone laugh, he’s that good. But the fact is, it’s about how, very often, when you come to your family with some achievement of any kind, you rarely get the appreciation in the way or the level that you wish you’d gotten it.
Johnston: Right, they focus on something.
Odenkirk: They focus on some aspect that’s just secondary to you, meaningless.
Cross: It goes beyond the family into, y’know, this guy climbed Everest and nobody at all cares. They’re just entertained by his buffoonery.
Odenkirk: To give the scene its real credit, it’s about a family dynamic that everyone can relate to. It has more meaning to it and value to it than just the wonderful value of Jay falling over.
Johnston: It was probably one of the scariest things to perform because I had no idea if it was gonna be funny. Especially with how many times we had to do it.
Odenkirk: I have to say: Jay Johnston is America’s John Cleese, and that’s the proof right there.
Johnston: Aww. Well, happy birthday to me.
Cross: He meant because you’re tall.
Johnston: Oh, okay.