In the 1990s, David Cross and Bob Odenkirk helped pioneer a more thoughtful, less structured, innovative style of comedy.
Back then, this style was identified with the oft-maligned term, “alternative comedy.” Now, it’s solidly in the mainstream: Alternative comedy is just comedy. (See also: Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, who serve as executive producers on W/Bob & David, Kristen Schaal, et al.)
Seventeen years later, the pair who brought the groundbreaking, influential sketch comedy program Mr. Show with Bob and David to HBO from 1995 to 1998 has reunited for four new episodes of a sketch show called W/ Bob & David, which will stream on Netflix beginning on Friday, November 13.
The half-hour show reunites Cross and Odenkirk with many of their Mr. Show writers and performers, including Paul F. Tompkins, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Scott Aukerman, and Brian Posehn.
Despite the passing years and newfangled distribution outlet, the show is a clear reflection of the duo’s innate comedic sensibility, retaining Mr. Show’s absurdity, while reflecting more topical concerns.
One sketch, “Know Your Rights,” stars Cross as a social justice warrior trying to bait a police officer into misbehaving on video. The twist is that the officer, played by guest star Keegan-Michael Key, is a good cop who refuses to take the bait, no matter how outlandish Cross’s provocations.
But the sketch’s real twist might be its perceived perspective. Cross, as anyone who has seen his standup comedy knows, stands firmly on the liberal side of politics. But both Cross and Odenkirk agree that this sketch could fit comfortably on a conservative comedy show. This is indicative not of any shift in their political leanings, but in their emphasis on character over ideology, and their somewhat Zen-like approach to the show’s creation.
W/ Bob & David emerged from discussions about a possible tour to celebrate Mr. Show’s 20th anniversary–conversations that revealed that a live tour was not the right outlet for the pair at this time, personally or creatively.
“We’ve done a couple of tours since Mr. Show ended, and they take a lot of time,” says Odenkirk. “You have to plan the show, write and rehearse it, get the props, fly them somewhere, rehearse in the venue–it’s a pain in the ass, and a lot of work. So why not take that same amount of time and make some new TV that everyone can see, even if they don’t live in one of the six major cities you were gonna visit?”
Netflix was a logical home for the show since, with an HBO pedigree, the pair are used to working with the level of freedom the site offers.
“The only way we had more freedom on Netflix is that they don’t have a time limit,” says Odenkirk. “Some of the episodes are, like, 35 minutes long. You couldn’t do that, even on HBO. There are a number of places that offer creative freedom nowadays, and Netflix is certainly one of them. They want you to make a distinctive show that will draw people to the site, and that will satisfy people with not just general audience taste.”
Many of the then-little-known performers who worked on Mr. Show have, like Cross and Odenkirk, gone on to bigger things. Rajskub costarred on 24, Aukerman cofounded the Earwolf podcasting network and hosts Comedy Bang! Bang! on IFC, and Tompkins and Posehn became successful standups.
When they all reunited for W/Bob & David, the creators were delighted to find that as a group, the old creative magic kicked right back in.
“We didn’t know this–we hoped and expected it would happen–but when we all met for the first time, it picked up exactly where it left off,” says Cross. “It was awesome, beyond our hopes and dreams. We did the first one before we had a deal anywhere, and it really made us go, we’ve got to do this.”
Cross and Odenkirk approached their new material with only one goal: to have an outlet for their comedic sensibilities.
“Neither of us comes into this with an agenda, or a feeling like, oh, ‘We need to talk about race or sexism or gender,’” says Cross. “Those things can be somewhat limiting and defining to sketch comedy–or any comedy, really–but we don’t have that.”
That the new series could easily be seen as season five of Mr. Show speaks not to a blatant attempt at continuity, but rather to the comedians’ inherent sensibilities.
“It seems very similar [to Mr. Show],” says Odenkirk. “That’s a testament to David and I still being the lead brains on this thing. We could do whatever we wanted with this new real estate. We ended up doing something that is definitely similar, but that’s just because we haven’t changed that much comedically. We still like this great mix of silliness, smartness, pop culture reference, and social trend reference, all mixed with just outrageous stupidity.”
For the “Know Your Rights” sketch, the pair’s target was not so much the beliefs of Cross’s fictional social justice warrior as it was his over-the-top actions. Part of what makes the sketch work is the way it subverts expectations, especially from comics with a strong liberal pedigree.
“If you take the sketch and ask yourself, ‘What’s it saying?’, what I come back with is, it’s a sketch about a reasonable cop. That’s the core of the sketch,” says Odenkirk. “I’m certain there are tons more reasonable police than there are racist police in America. They don’t get seen anywhere, because there’s no reason to film a reasonable police officer treating you [well], and put it up online. The funny thing of taking a character like David’s, who is desperately trying to get a reaction, and giving him his worst nightmare–which is a reasonable cop–is at the core of that sketch.”
Cross sees this idea as representative of their comedic tradition.
“It feels more Mr. Show to come at that kind of thing from the angle of the self-righteous social justice warrior who is validated through this falseness of him trying to exacerbate the situation for his own purposes,” says Cross. “We didn’t go into it with that idea. That’s just what it became. That’s the funny stuff at the core of the piece, and that can only happen when you have two guys who don’t have a particular agenda.”
Given that, it would be a mistake for viewers to try to extrapolate what they perceive to be the duo’s deeply held beliefs on social issues from this work, although it might be indicative of their take on certain aspects of humanity.
At the end of our conversation, I mention to Odenkirk and Cross how the sketch lends itself to a possible conservative interpretation, in what could be seen as its pro-police, anti-protester stance.
“If it was couched in the form of a conservative comedy show, then it would be trying to make a very specific point. We’re not trying to make that point,” says Odenkirk. “In a lot of ways, it’s more about a certain type of person than about the actual social phenomenon. What we try to do is take the narrative everyone’s playing with right now and fuck with it, poke it, mess with it. The narrative is that cops beat people randomly, constantly, are easily provoked, and just kind of crazy all the time. This just messes with that. It doesn’t say it’s not true, it just asks the question: Like, really? Is that really what’s going on?”