If Mr. Show, the much adored but negligibly rated mid-90s HBO sketch series, could be said to have a breakout character, it would’ve been Ronnie Dobbs—a man who was constantly being arrested.
That this character was a rascally hillbilly, and not a Black man minding his own business, speaks to either the sociopolitical landscape of the era, or the ability of David Cross, who played Ronnie, to crush in the writers’ room. But while this recurring bit may be a relic of its time, a lot of other Mr. Show sketches went the other way, accidentally predicting what life in America would be like in 2020.
The show’s prescience extends far beyond the sketch featuring a hate group whose slogan is “America First”—and beyond the fact that its cast included a baseball roster of future comedy stars. (Aside from Cross and cocreator Bob Odenkirk, the show had early turns from Patton Oswalt, Sarah Silverman, Paul F. Tompkins, Karen Kilgariff, Scott Aukerman, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Brian Posehn, and Jack Black.) Buried within Mr. Show’s instantly dated jokes about Marilyn Manson and “slackers” lurked an impeccable sense of America’s contradictions, hypocrisies, and hubris. The writers deftly illustrated these national attributes in some sketches, and ascribed them to individuals in others, in a way that feels more relevant now than ever.
Was the series just ahead of its time? Or has America finally sunk into a swamp of self-parody? Judge for yourself with these nine Mr. Show sketches that eerily reflect the reality of 2020 America.
Change for a Dollar
In the very first episode, Cross and Odenkirk slipped in an ode to pointless bureaucracy. A clerk is uncertain about whether he can give a customer change for a dollar, so he runs this query up the flag pole—all the way to the President of the United States. Here we are now, 26 years later, locked in political gridlock over whether and how to enact seeming no-brainer decisions like paying people hundreds of dollars a week to stay home during a pandemic. It’s something your average person on the street might think to do, and yet our brightest political minds can’t find a way to break through the chain of approval and spark some action.
Blow Up the Moon
There is no good reason to blow up the moon and yet nearly everyone in this sketch is hellbent on doing so. “America can, will, should, and must blow up the moon,” an egghead played by Cross announces from a podium up top. It’s a play on American exceptionalism, the indomitable spirit later embodied by the Onion article, Fuck Everything, We’re Doing Five Blades. Everyone from President Guy Whitey Corngood (Jay Johnston) to country singer C.S. Lewis Jr (Odenkirk) is all in on absolutely evaporating the moon. They’re so excited to do it that they never bother to consider why they’re doing it in the first place. (The monkey NASA plans on deploying the moon-bomb is the first one to ask.) It’s a sketch that feels deeply embedded in the DNA of 2020, where blindly following wherever patriotic winds may blow (We’re bombing Iran! We’re opening the country back up in time for Memorial Day!) increasingly leads to dead ends.
Trip to Europe
While the Road Rules iconography feels part and parcel of the 1990s, setting a Road Rules challenge in the Anne Frank Museum feels a lot like getting through your day in 2020. Not only is the sketch about Americans failing to understand the gravity of a situation, it’s about trying to keep up some ultimately pointless mission in the face of horrifying reality. We’re in the middle of America’s most consequential election possibly ever and a global pandemic has killed over 160,000 Americans, robbed millions of their jobs, and forced untold thousands into homelessness. At any moment of frivolity, perhaps during a Zoom happy hour or a socially distanced picnic, or when those still employed enter a flow state of work, all it takes is one sideways glance to remind you that the world is currently one big monument to unspeakable tragedy.
Night Talk with the Senate Subcommittee
Much like Mr. Show’s “Night Talk with the Senate Subcommittee,” sometimes in 2020 politicians seem indistinguishable from late-night talk show hosts in terms of their impact. Bonus prescience points for including “filmmaker” Jon Stewart, who did in fact put out a movie in 2020.
Jack Webber is an emblem of McCarthyism with an unspecified job title, who has recently had a change of heart. “My series of propaganda films scared a lot of good people into doing some pretty bad things,” he says. “Now I’m here to clean up my mess.” Webber proceeds to explain why he was obviously wrong in the past, without ever apologizing for the harm he caused, and would now like to sell you a crappy humorous desk calendar. The character’s too-late reform is similar to the members of the Lincoln Project, many of whom happily cheer-led America to an utterly pointless war in the Middle East, and would now like you to be their friend. No thank you!
The Devastator is a “soul shattering” roller coaster that ends with two minutes underwater. It will probably kill you and yet people cannot stop going on it. The sketch about it opens on Day 97 of the Devastator’s reign of voluntary tyranny. “The question on everyone’s lips is, ‘Why? How could this be happening?'” asks a reporter played by series regular (and voice of SpongeBob Squarepants) Tom Kenny. Nobody has the answer. The ride is open, so people continue to go on it. Much like blowing up the moon, or attending a Smash Mouth concert during a pandemic, they do it because they can.
Not all protests are created equal. Some are comprised of people selflessly putting their lives on the line in defense of grave injustice, while others are made of people pissed they can’t dine in at Subway. Mr. Show seemed to have an intuition about the trolling ways in which the tool of protest could be misused.
Late in 2019, I deemed BuzzFeed‘s infamous Dress the image that best summed up the 2010s. It was a bellwether for an era where two people could look at the same thing and see something completely different. In the telling of one of Mr. Show’s most famous sketches, though, it’s possible to look at two identical things and see something different in only one of them. Wyckyd Scepter is a homophobic metal band that exhibits homosexual tendencies whenever they party. Their manager confronts them with video footage of their gay exploits, which they find disgusting when they think it’s just random gay dudes, but find awesome when they’re told it’s actually them. Because of how awesome and not-gay the band believes itself to be, footage of the band partying is inherently also awesome and not-gay, no matter how gay it may appear. It’s sort of like the way Trump supporters in 2020 would be livid if 160,000 Americans died on a president’s watch, unless it’s their guy, in which case there are a lot of extenuating circumstances to consider. They also think charity fraud is fine, unless the wrong charity is allegedly doing it, and that it’s okay for the military to invade American cities, as long as it’s not for the wrong reasons. This past year has revealed a lot about who some people really are, based on the obvious truths they’re willing to overlook in others.