Fans of the seminal '90s HBO sketch comedy series Mr. Show With Bob and David, which ran for 30 episodes between 1995 and 1998, have likely spent the weekend devouring Netflix's new W/ Bob & David, which offers a rough Mr. Show update for the 2010s.
The Bob and David of the title (Odenkirk and Cross, respectively) have enjoyed massive success elsewhere since Mr. Show went off the air, and the series' many side players and co-stars have also moved on to huge alt-comedy careers. But there's always been something a little magic about Mr. Show, and even if the cast only reunited on Netflix for four episodes and a behind-the-scenes documentary, it's terrific to have this sort of anarchic comedic spirit back on TV.
The best Mr. Show episodes functioned simultaneously as series of individual sketches that also told larger stories when laid end to end, with characters carrying over from one sketch to another and providing a throughline for the episode as a whole. It's a monstrously difficult thing to do, and if W/ Bob and David has lost a step, it's in this regard (though the season finale manages this trick incredibly skillfully, so not all is lost).
But the individual sketches themselves are things of beauty, running the gamut from old-school setups with one big joke that's repeated in a variety of ways right on up to those that make fun of current trends and pop culture. (Both YouTube vloggers and reality shows are allotted their fair share of snark.)
Sketch comedy, by its very nature, is hit-or-miss, and even if W/ Bob & David boasts a higher batting average than most other sketch shows, simply diving in with its first (and weakest) episode might not be the best course of action. Here, then, is one sketch from each episode worth checking out.
Episode 1: Poker buddies make resolutions
The idea: A bunch of poker buddies discuss what they want to do with their lives, and their plans are mostly ridiculous (become a blockbuster filmmaker; start a cellphone company). But the one resolution everybody's sure won't pan out is one man's decision to stop eating red meat.
Why it's so good: One major reason to pick this sketch is that it's freely available on YouTube, so you can get a taste of W/ Bob & David without necessarily having a Netflix subscription. But it also provides a good glimpse at how the show's episodes are structured. Almost every other sketch in the premiere spins out of this one, which means it might not be full of punchlines, but it contains some great setups you might not even realize are there. It's a great introduction to how W/ Bob & David's sketches work both as individual pieces of comedy and parts of a greater whole.
Best performer: Acclaimed standup comedian and podcaster Paul F. Tompkins makes for a great straight man as he grows increasingly frustrated by how nobody thinks he can give up red meat.
Watch it: The sketch starts five minutes and 30 seconds in. Or you can just watch it above.
Episode 2: Good cop/bad cop
The idea: A criminal is brought in for questioning by two cops, played by Cross and Odenkirk. Over the course of the interrogation, it becomes clear that neither really wants to think of himself as the bad cop — and they kind of hate each other.
Why it's so good: Cross and Odenkirk are great writers and spotters of comedic talent. They're also terrific scene partners, and any time a sketch primarily boils down to the two of them having fun with each other (or another of their longtime collaborators), it's great. But what's also funny about this sketch is the way it builds in both gags and ferocity. The gaps between either cop being in the room to interrogate the criminal grow shorter and shorter, and they both grow angrier and angrier, until things spiral out of control. It's one of the best sketches filmed in front of the show's live studio audience, rather than pretaped beforehand.
Best performer: Odenkirk is now an official Emmy nominee for his acting on Better Call Saul, and in this sketch he shows off just how great he is at wringing every single laugh out of any given line.
Watch it: It starts at seven minutes and 40 seconds.
Episode 3: A man possesses the world's weirdest superpower
The idea: Cross plays a self-described douchebag who is willing to call just about any woman he knows something incredibly horrible. Of course, each time he does this, he learns that the woman is standing right behind him, in true sitcom fashion. Things get weirder from there.
Why it's so good: Odenkirk and Cross excel at singling out the absurd situations we take for granted on other TV shows and reducing them to their wildest implications. That's definitely the case here, as Cross's character's seeming ability to conjure people out of thin air shifts the gag from "this guy is kind of an asshole" to "this guy has superpowers the government would find very interesting." The best comedy sketches tell miniature stories with beginnings, middles, and ends, and this is one of the most successful in W/ Bob & David's run.
Best performer: Cross's slow-building realization of his ability is a perfect parody of every superhero who's realized how much power he now has. His greatest skill as an actor is making the ridiculous seem completely ordinary, and he uses that skill to its utmost here.
Watch it: It starts at 24 minutes and 10 seconds in.
Episode 4: A little boy went to heaven
The idea: A little boy who's written a memoir of his visit to heaven appears on a morning talk show with his parents to discuss the book and his sojourn in the afterlife. You will see the joke in this one coming from a mile away. It won't stop you from laughing at it.
Why it's so good: Escalation is a key facet of comedy. Jokes need to keep topping each other, so we laugh harder and harder as more and more arrive. That's in full effect here, as the sketch plays with its silliest ideas, taking them to their logical conclusions and beyond as everybody involved in the talk show (including the parents!) turns on the little boy who just wants to spread Jesus's message of love and goodwill to everybody on Earth. Plus, it all ties into the episode's final scene, which culminates in the season's biggest laugh.
Best performer: As the little boy, Rowan Smyth has the difficult task of playing the sketch's simultaneous straight man and punchline. He pulls it off with aplomb.
Watch it: It starts at 15 minutes and 20 seconds in.
If you're a megafan, don't skip the behind-the-scenes documentary
It's a surprisingly entertaining and loving tribute to everything Odenkirk and Cross have built, and it's also the most forthright examination of their comedic evolutions between Mr. Show and right now. It's well worth a watch.
W/ Bob & David's first season is available to stream on Netflix.