Monday, January 16, 2006

The Return of Chris's Continuing Adventures in Public Transit: The San Francisco Fun Bus

Or; Mr. Q&A with Bob and David

This past Thursday was the start of the San Francisco Sketchfest, a two-week celebration of established and emerging sketch comedy. I found out about it last week via an online article on the Mercury News web site; it seemed curiously under-advertised, as there was no similar mention (at least that I saw) in the SF Chronicle or the local alt-weeklies. Everyone else's loss was my gain, though, as I managed to grab a ticket for the event I was most interested in: A tribute/Q&A with Bob and David of Mr. Show with Bob and David!

Anyone who has known me for a while, and specifically has stayed up with me past midnight on any occasion, has almost certainly been treated to a special screening of Mr. Show. Granted, these are also the occasions where you've likely imbibed copious amounts of caffeine and/or alcohol, and likely got little sleep that night, so allow me to refresh your memory. Mr. Show was an amazing, revolutionary comedic show that played on HBO for four years. Its structure and quality are reminiscent of Monty Python's Flying Circus, with one absurd sketch flowing into another over the course of the show. Mr. Show was brash, profane, lyrical, satirical, dirty, and relentlessly funny; I don't think there's a single bad show in all four seasons. Many of the sketches seem divinely inspired, like the one where NASA announces it will blow up the moon or the one where the Dalai Llama leads his Tibetan monks against the rich kids' camp across the lake. Even ones that sound like SNL fodder turn brilliant, like the talk show host stranded with his guests on a liferaft or the rock band of disabled people. And their satire, from "Coupon: The Movie" to "The Altered State of Druggsachusetts" to "The Joke: The Musical," is some of the sharpest I've ever seen.

So, yeah, I'm a fan. In 2002 I even made a special trip to see their "Hooray for America!" touring show, which tragically bypassed St. Louis. Even though they haven't produced anything new since then (unless you count the tragically flawed "Run Ronnie Run"), interest in the group remains high, both for their brilliant past and their ongoing careers: David has completed two successful comedy tours and albums, "Shut Up You F**king Baby" and "It's Not Funny," plus he's arguably the funniest member of what is unarguably the funniest cast on television, playing Tobias Funke on "Arrested Development." Bob directed the excellent film "Melvin Goes to Dinner" and produces "Tom Goes to the Mayor" on Adult Swim. The other cast and writers have all moved on to promising careers elsewhere.

The session was to be held in Cobb's Comedy Club, located in the North Beach / Russian Hill area (I'm still fuzzy on my SF neighborhoods). It was also out of range of my standard streetcar navigation, so I realized I'd need to either resign myself to an hourlong or so walk, or have my first experience on an SF Muni bus.

Up until now all my transit in SF has been on BART or SF streetcars. Well, or the trolley (a while ago). I didn't have any particular aversion to the bus, it's just that up until now all my destinations have been within a few blocks of the streetcar lines. Well, actually, I guess I did have a slight aversion. It's the kind of received prejudice that annoys me in most contexts, but in my limited experience city busses have been way too slow and inconvenient. I rode the bus to work in KC for a week, and was pretty amazed at how inadequate it was. I would have needed to wait another 2 hours if I ever missed my pickup for the next bus, and what was usually a 10-minute drive turned into a 40-minute meandering path. And while I've never ridden a CTA bus, it's seriously never occurred to me to try, though I will eagerly take the El.

All that said, though, SF has consistently pleased me in its public projects, so for this specific instance I didn't worry at all about the bus. I did some quick checking online and found to my delight that the line I wanted ran every 4-8 minutes, even on Sundays, and I could get from Caltrain up to Cobb's without any transfers.

The day of the show I did the typical Caltrain thing, then spent a few minutes wandering around looking for the bus stop. A dozen or more lines have stops in that intersection, and there were perhaps eight different shelters that each took in several routes. I found the right stop, with the 30 bus conveniently there, and hopped on board. I was delighted to see that its setup was exactly the same as streetcars: same farebox, same transfer process, even the seat layout was similar. I'm a huge fan of consistency, and felt that things were off to a good start.

For the most part the ride went well. There would be busy intersections where pedestrians were outpacing us, but the overall speed was comparable to that of a streetcar (not under Market). I always enjoy watching the city go by as I look out the window; the variety of SF constantly amazes me. This ride included my first-ever trip through Chinatown, which looks wonderful. I'll definitely want to hit it up on a return visit, the bustling people and tempting restaurants greatly attract me.

Oh, and I got to see Apple's new campaign slogan, which was pasted on toilets throughout the city (hard to explain if you haven't seen it). Line 1: "What's an Intel chip doing in a Mac?" Line 2: "More than it ever did in a PC." Funny.

The bus was really crowded from the time it passed Market until it turned onto Columbus. I still feel kind of compelled to give up my seat in these situations, but since I was by the window it would have been a tad awkward, plus the standing people seemed to be expecting to disembark soon. And, in fact, they did. That's one of the wonderful benefits of a city with a good, well-funded, well-run mass transit system; it really does become an integral part of the way citizens move about. I'd love to be able to say, "I want to go five blocks in that direction. Oh look, here comes a bus. My transfer is still good, so here we go!" As opposed to my experience in Midwestern cities, where you need to specifically plan for particular pickups or be completely out of luck.

Columbus Avenue runs NW-SE, and appears to be the heart of an Italian district, which I didn't realize SF had. I could be wrong, of course, but it certainly had plenty of Italian restaurants, and several people on the sidewalk did look a little like aged Mafia dons. Yet another place I'd like to explore more thoroughly.

I knew the cross street for the theater but obviously hadn't been there before, so I was keeping my eyes peeled for one of the landmarks I had jotted down. I saw Lombard street up ahead and disembarked, walking over to the club with ease.

After picking up my ticket from Will Call and standing in line, I was led into the club. It's really a great venue, an intimate environment like Second City in Chicago rather than a theater. I had the advantage of going solo that day, so even though I arrived 30 minutes after the doors opened I still scored a nice seat just a third back from the front. It was set up with little tables and everything. I eventually realized that the prominently posted "2 Drink Minimum" did not apply to afternoon shows, and gladly sipped a Fat Tire for the show's duration.

There was a huge stack of The Onion in the lobby so I grabbed an issue and flipped through it as the time counted down to 2PM. It was while doing this that the only bad thing of the day happened: I read that Stephen Colbert had been in town the previous night. What?! How could I possibly have missed this! I was just sort of stunned for a few minutes, staring at Stephen's smiling visage that was mocking me. The paper wondered why he had chosen to come this weekend instead of waiting for a less crowded comedy weekend or just hopping on the Sketchfest calendar (they'd probably love to have him, but I'm guessing he was doing standup; although his background is Second City so he's certainly capable of sketches). Regardless. I'm kind of stunned that I hadn't even heard this was happening until too late, considering the number of sources I'm in touch with and the way mentioning Colbert instantly gets my attention.

The lights went down and the show began with a collection of clips from throughout the series. It was really clear that people in the audience hadn't just stumbled in but knew and adored the show; they burst into laughter when they saw David sit down at the cafeteria table, even before he takes out his peanut-butter-and-egg-with-dice-and-sponge sandwich. The clips were well-chosen, demonstrating the breadth and scope of the show, though it perhaps over-represented the musical numbers slightly (not that anyone would complain of such a thing).

Then the session got underway. One by one the host (some guy on crutches who's on a TV show I don't watch) invited out the guests, banishing the less famous to the far left and reserving the seats closest to himself for Bob and David. Everyone got some good applause, but the crowd went wild when B&D came out. When they were done the host (I just looked it up, it's Paul Gilmartin) said, "That's gotta feel good." David said, "Yes, we get a dollar for every clap," which touched off another fevered round of applause.

The overall tone of the event was relaxed, with the guests frequently being funny but also being content to just tell a story when it was a good one. Even if one person was being "serious," that left another four people to riff and poke fun. David had a beer with him and swigged regularly throughout the two hours they were up there. Paul was actually a very good host, he would occasionally ask a question but for the most part he was content to sit back, be discreet, and let the masters make the funny.

Paul's very first question was along the lines of, "When I first saw your show, I remember thinking that you guys were fearless. Was this a conscious reaction to the kind of negative reception all comics have to go through doing shows?" Their longer and funnier answer boiled down to "No;" they were just interested in doing stuff they thought was funny, they never deliberately tried to be "fearless."

Most of the time was spent describing the writing process and their relationships behind the scene. One of my favorites was the story of how Bob and David first met: they were mutual friends with Janeane Garofalo, who decided they should meet. She knew they both liked basketball, so she made David carry a basketball and they went over to Bob's house. The front door was open but the screen door was shut, and they could see Bob sitting on the couch, facing away from them, watching TV.
Janeane: "Hi, Bob."
Bob: "Hey."
Janeane: "Hey, this is David Cross." (Nudges David.)
David: "Hi, um... do you want to play basketball?"
Bob: "No."
During this whole time Bob never turned around or got up from the couch, so David and Janeane left. It wasn't until several years later, after they worked together on the Ben Stiller show, that they got together and realized their sensibilities meshed.

The descriptions of the writing room were also intriguing. Bob was a staff writer on Saturday Night Live for several years (he's the one who wrote "Matt Foley, Motivational Speaker") and he tried to ensure that his own writing room was the opposite of SNL. He talked about how in SNL, ideas would be immediately shot down. As a result, people would pitch really horrible ideas, just because they knew their good ones wouldn't be accepted, and it wasted everyone's time. In contrast, the Mr. Show writing room was focused on finding the funny in everything. People would read your scripts, and rather than just say "It isn't funny," they would try to find the part of it that was funny, and brainstorm how to use that idea in another sketch or otherwise mutate the sketch to better get at where the humor was.

Of course, this system didn't hold all the time. Paul F. Thompkins, one of the many great writers/performers on the show, recalled one of his sketches that he pitched to the room. As they were reading through it, he realized that Bob was starting to read his part in a dull, bored monotone. Afterwards everyone else made their comments on it ("I liked that one bit..." "Maybe if we turn the woman into Joan of Arc...", etc.), Bob was quiet for a while, and said "I don't like this sketch. It isn't funny, and it sucks the humor out of everything around it." He paused, then continued: "I guess what I'm trying to say is, this sketch hates me and is trying to kill me." So that one never got made.

Sometimes the writing room would agonize for long periods over totally inconsequential things. One day the New York Times set a reporter to observe their process for writing a show. They think that the resulting article was one of the things that killed the show. As it happens, they spent the ENTIRE DAY arguing about whether a character in a sketch actually WAS Santa Claus, and somebody had kidnapped him to ensure he continued to be Santa; or if he was just some random guy who got kidnapped, and the kidnapper had forced him to PRETEND to be Santa Claus. And it wasn't a polite or amusing argument; they were getting really angry, with tensions running high. And the funny thing is, of course, that it didn't matter at all. Neither way would change the script at all, nobody at home would care one way or the other. And yet they somehow lost a whole day on it.

There was also plenty of chatting about their relationships with HBO executives. Some of this has been alluded too in their DVD commentaries, but here they laid out the situation in a much more narrative form. Essentially, there were two distinct groups of executives: one group in LA, which tended to be young, hip, plugged in to newly emerging trends and universally fans of the show. The second group, who actually signed the checks, tended to live in Connecticut and work in New York, and were older, out of touch, and had never even heard of the show. Both Bob and David had amusing stories in connection with this tragic situation; Bob went to an opening night gala for the new HBO season which was being held in Miami. He was talking with a woman from the corporate office (remember, she's with HBO) who asked, "So! Why are you here?" He kind of went, "Ohhhh." Then, "I'm Bob Odenkirk. I do a show called Mr. Show." "Oh! What network is it on?" "Ohhhh." "It's on your network. HBO." "Ah, I see." "So, what do you do?" "Oh, I'm in marketing." "Ohhhhhh." David's story: he went to a Carlin concert in New York and sat behind a large HBO exec who turned around, stuck out his hand, and said "Hey there. I'm the guy who ruined your career." David said, "Pardon me?" The exec said, "Yeah, I'm the guy who moved you to midnight on Monday night," sounding really friendly, like he was expecting David to go, "Haha! Man, that was a good one!"

So, those stories were kind of depressing, though for what it's worth they totally confirmed the way everyone there felt about the cancellation.

A couple of other things mirrored the DVD commentary. When asked about their least favorite sketches, Bob said it was hands-down The Snooty Waiter (the sketch where the waiter spills someone's food on them and then offers to pay for half of it). Bob said that it was a very vaudevillian sketch, and they would probably get sued by some guys who had been dead for a hundred years for doing it. Apparently it sounded really funny the first time they read through it, but by the time they were performing it everyone realized it wasn't very good. Bob had a brilliant idea that he thinks would have saved the sketch: add a timer in the lower-right corner, ticking down the number of seconds until the sketch ends. "Seconds left until this awful sketch ends: 62" or something like that. He was overruled, because the others thought that someone might like the sketch and they didn't want to make that person feel stupid.

They talked a little about making the Ronnie Dobbs movie, and revealed that they were working on another movie. The new movie is being written to be very much in the same style as the show, with a whole bunch of funny sketches loosely tied together but without a real overarching plot. David said that this was similar to how the original script for "Run Ronnie Run" looked, but in that case New Line convinced them to make it more "movie-like." They're still in the process of writing the new one and haven't begun shopping it around yet, although supposedly Fox is interested. (David: "Oh, yeah. Fox is GREAT to work with.") Right now they're just trying to get the 1-3 million they will need to get the movie made, which is peanuts, but still scares off studios because the execs aren't familiar with the show. Bob said this has always been the case, that great comedy acts can't get movies made, and cited his personal heroes Monty Python, who weren't able to make "The Holy Grail" until George Harrison took a personal interest and invested the money. The overall feeling was that Mr. Show needed a benefactor like that, because the studio system probably wasn't going to fund it.

I'm forgetting plenty of things, and skipping over more, but yeah... good session. I'm not really capturing the humor here, but there were definitely way more bathroom humor jokes and outright lies than informative statements.

With about half an hour left, they set up a mike and started taking questions from the audience. First question: "How would you go about creating a half-man, half-monkey creature?" Bob: "Brian?" Brian: "Go f**k a monkey?"

Everything was very focused on Mr. Show, which was nice; like I said, everyone has gone on to other careers, but it was good to stay on topic. The one variance was when someone asked David, "I was very bummed to hear Arrested Development has been canceled. Some people are saying another network might pick it up; do you think it's possible Showtime or someone else will take it?" David: "No." (Paul ran off the stage as soon as he heard that AD had been canceled.)

Several questioners asked about the ideas behind specific sketches. The Bob Lamotta sketch was inspired by the glut of movies about disabled people; at the time it was written, five of the previous six acting Oscars had gone to men playing individuals who were handicapped, either mentally or physically. And yet, the press would continue to write about how someone was making a "Brave" choice by making the "Difficult Decision" to play someone who was handicapped. In other inspiration notes, the Queen of England sketch grew out of a simpler idea by David, just about some guy throwing a party who individually told each of his guests, "I'm going to tell everyone to leave, but I want YOU to stay." Nobody on the stage could remember how or why they decided to turn the guy into the Queen of England.

One person asked about the linking sketches (arguably the show's trademark), whether they were organic or difficult. They answered that a few were organic, but they often were excruciating; they spent three days one time trying to figure out how to get two particular sketches to connect. David said that, by the fourth season, they had figured out to just give up and do a lame connection (like someone slapping a poster on a wall) instead of spending so much time on it; they could write four sketches in a single day, or spend that day trying to get a good link and possibly not coming up with anything.

The very last person to ask a question was also the only person who came with a prop. But it was a good one: a Crime Stick! He asked about how they came up with it, and they recounted the story (included on the DVD but elaborated here) about a Chicago local show about this guy who talked really funny and talked about how to defend yourself against crime. (Incidentally, this sketch ends in what I personally think is the greatest link of all time: "Now, who wants some ice cream?")

With that they took their leave, to thunderous applause from the audience. People hung around a while but they didn't come back out (I guess it's hard to do an encore to a Q&A session). I made my way back to the street and caught the 30 for my ride back home.

All in all, it was a great outing. I briefly felt kind of dumb for spending a total of 4 hours in transit for a 2 hour show; I think that next time I'll come down earlier in the day and enjoy the city some more. Because I am coming again: two weeks from yesterday, a similar event is happening with Michael Showalter and David Wain, formerly of The State and more recently of Wet Hot American Summer and, most importantly, Stella. I don't enjoy them quite as much as Bob and David, but that's like saying I don't like George Saunders as much as Thomas Pynchon; technically true, but practically meaningless, since they exist on a plane of quality far removed from mere mortals. Oh, and I might also try to make it down for a showing of "Emperor Norton," a play based on the colorful San Francisco resident who has become one of the most prominent saints of Discordianism. Ah, how I've missed the city. I don't think I'll ever be bored as long as I'm within an hour or two of San Francisco.

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