Sunday, September 29, 2013

Hey, everyone! It's Bob and David!

Back in 2002, I made a pilgrimage to see Mr. Show live in a production called "Mr. Show: Hooray for America!" This was several years after the cult sketch show had been canceled by HBO, but in the time since then DVDs had started expanding the series' popularity, and there was increasing excitement online for a renewal of the show, either as a movie or in another form.

Hooray for America! was fantastic, somehow managing to maintain the non-sequitor absurdity of the 30-minute show, while also weaving in a surprisingly coherent plot that kept the 90-ish-minute production cohesive and propulsive. In retrospect, it was shockingly prescient: anticipating the Citizens United verdict by nearly a decade, it depicted a United States where corporations could spend unlimited funds to influence elections, and as a result, the GloboChem company (famous from a variety of appearances in Mr. Show) nominates David Cross for the Presidency and manages to get him elected. This sets off a series of events that end with Earth a largely uninhabitable shell of a planet, while the wealthy and powerful are able to escape into space. It was dark and cynical and hilarious, and at the time I thought it was the last chance I'd ever have to see these talented and funny people together.

Fortunately, that wasn't the case! Many years later, I was able to catch Bob and David in their recent mini-tour supporting their new book, "Hollywood Said No!" It was a looser production than Hooray for America!, but that's a good thing... I enjoyed the messiness and honesty of it. Our show even included some memorable technical glitches, most amusingly when David Cross stepped into the spotlight to deliver his "Linus speech," only to have all the lights killed and the room plunged into utter blackness.

Unlike the earlier show, "An Evening with Bob and David" combined several different elements. They did a couple of "classic sketches" from the show, but as you might expect, they were done in a subversive manner. On the off chance they continue the tour or release a video, I'll refrain from spoiling the jokes, but they did a really funny montage that channeled single lines from famous sketches through a lens of incomprehension, and brought some audience members on stage to act out other sketches (none of which lasted longer than a line or two). I thought this balance was done very well: they knew many of us were there because of our love for Mr. Show, and they kind of honored that, while keeping the overall focus on the show on their new material.

Speaking of which, the new material was quite good, not least because it was new. At least one sketch brought back a favorite character from the show's original run, updating his schtick for the more technologically advanced 21st century. Most of them were completely new, and had that nice combination of satire and timelessnes that marks Mr. Show's best sketches. In the original run of Mr. Show, they would run the sketches live several times before finalizing and shooting them, and I imagine that these sketches were about halfway along in that process... they were all funny, and could probably be tuned a little more to sharpen their endings.

There were quite a few differences that kept this from feeling like a long episode of Mr. Show. Everything was live, so they didn't have any pre-recorded video segments (which had played a big part in the TV show and in Hooray for America!). Also, they didn't bother transitioning between every individual sketch. That was one of the most amazing things about Mr. Show: the insane convoluted logic that would lead an episode from sketch to sketch. There were a couple of those here, but also many times where they would just drop the lights and change the set. (That might sound like a complaint, but isn't meant as one. The show's transitions relied heavily on video segments and editing, neither of which are available in a live stage show. The approach they went with emphasized the live-ness and specialness of this production.)

I was delighted to see that John Ennis was in the show! Only Bob, David, and Brian Posehn were billed, so I had thought this might be an intimate affair with just those three. A few sketches into the program, though, the others popped up. It took me a while to confirm that the other man was actually John - I thought that it was, but he's grown a mustache in the years since I last saw him. Anyways, that was great. Ennis might have been my favorite supporting actor on the show back when it aired, so I was really happy to see him again. They were also joined by Stephanie Courtney, who I didn't recognize, but Google has since informed me was a member of the Hooray for America! tour. So, that's cool!

 In the years since Mr. Show, David and Brian have become primarily known as stand-up comedians, and they (and Bob) got to run short stand-up sets within the program. David's was really interesting. I like him as a comedian... in modern comedy, every stand-up comic maintains an illusion of, "Oh, hey! I just wandered in off the street! Hey, here are some random thoughts that just occurred to me!" In reality, of course, comedians work really hard to craft their routines, and put a lot of effort into making it look like it's effortless. Well, David's standup is just about the only I know of that actually sounds like he's making it up for the first time. He says "Um" and "Uh" a lot, laughs at himself, goes back and corrects himself. In a lesser comedian, that would be a sign of a hack, but in David's case it underlies the realness of his set. In a typical joke from him, you'll need to follow him for a while as he meanders through a thought or an anecdote, not knowing exactly where he's going and not having many opportunities to laugh; but once he hits the point, everything suddenly crystallizes, and you can't help laughing loudly at the wholly-constructed idea.

This show was a bit unusual, as David said himself at the very beginning of his set: rather than run through his jokes, he wanted to tell the story of the worst show he'd ever done in San Francisco. He said that this was his first time ever telling the story, and I believe him, though he had the details down well enough that it seems like he's replayed it in his head many times since then. He described the really bad mental place he was coming from (ex-girlfriend in the audience, feeling ill and depressed), his purposefully offensive jokes (joking about Princess Diana a few weeks after she had died, and some Holocaust-related jokes), the first heckling shout coming from the audience, and his subsequent meltdown and termination. There's another wrinkle that David withheld until the very end, which recast everything that had gone before in a different light, and made the whole thing even funnier. After that he ran through a few shorter bits from his routine, including a terrific moment of self-realization he had when confronting a threat at his remote house in upstate New York.

Brian's standup came a little later, and was as hilarious as you would think. Some of his material was similar to what he'd delivered when I saw him at Cobb's a couple of years ago (which hadn't made it onto The Fartist), but I think he'd tweaked it some, and in any case it was all really funny. Brian has a couple of topics that he enjoys revisiting through the years and keeps getting more material from: comic books, Star Wars, heavy metal music, smoking weed, and so on. Most of this set was based around his physical appearance, and included a great (and simultaneously horrifying) tour of his body through the ages. (Louis CK does some similar stuff, but when it comes to body self-critiques, I think Brian has Louis beat.)

Bob's standup came last, and was close to the end of the show. I'd been re-watching some Mr. Show episodes in the leadup to this live program, and had been struck again by how different everyone's sensibilities were, and how surprisingly well they all melded. In the years since then, their careers have gone on very different paths, and they have further differentiated themselves. David Cross has passionately pursued standup, was one of the first comedians to start criticizing President Bush after the Iraq War run-up began, and has become famous for tangling with other comedians and entertainment icons who he dislikes. Bob is kind of the opposite of all that. He's mostly stayed behind the camera, directing several films, writing a lot of scripts, and acting as a kind of mentor or talent scout to young up-and-coming comedians, discovering groups like Tim & Eric and The Birthday Boys. When he does comedy, he maintains his Midwestern affect, generally coming across as genial and reasonable (which, of course, only makes it funnier when he explodes and starts yelling). Anyways: I don't think of Bob as a stand-up, and was glad I got the chance to see him in that element. Everything about his delivery was different from David or Brian's: he sat down in a chair the whole time instead of walking around the stage; he had a music stand with some notes on it; he complimented his audience (he called us "smart"!); his material was focused on his life as a father, exploring his relationship with his kids and how it changes as they grow older. It was all really solid, and makes me curious if this is something Bob does often and just isn't well known for.

The show ended with a fantastic final "sketch", with Bob browbeating the others into acting out his latest screenplay, using layered dialogue and botched cues and failures-to-hit-marks that all made the final product awful/hilarious. It was a great note to end things on.

Except, it wasn't over! After Brian amused us one last time, Bob and David came back on the stage to greet us and hold a brief Q&A session. It started out on a surprisingly touching note, with David finding a dollar bill that someone had thrown on the stage ("He knew that I was Jewish so this would get my attention"), and reading a message written on it out loud ("'Dear Bob and Dave.' Well, screw that!"), finding out that he was a sergeant in the Iraq and Afghan wars ("Not so funny now, is it?") who had appreciated getting back to base after a firefight and watching DVDs of their show. They brought him on stage and thanked him, which I thought was awesome. Honestly, for a while there I thought it was a bit, but as far as I can tell it was as spontaneous and heartfelt as it had seemed. They hugged him and said "Thanks" ("We were just screwing around back home"), and everyone clapped. Very nice!

Heh... they also called out a guy a few rows back who apparently had fallen asleep several times during the show: "I'm sorry we woke you up there. We were trying to be quiet. I'm just curious: tickets to this show weren't cheap. Why would you pay to come here if you were going to sleep?" Bob gently schooled David: "Well, rent is really expensive in San Francisco, so it's actually cheaper to buy tickets to shows and sleep in the theater than it is to rent an apartment." That got one of the biggest laughs of the night. I did the math later, and Bob is actually right - as expensive as this show was, you could buy 30 tickets a month for much less than a studio apartment.

Questions and answers! A young lady (eventually) asked Bob what it was like emotionally to stop playing Saul Goodman: "How do you handle having such an awful scumbag sleazeball inside your head?" His answer: "It isn't hard. I'm not a very nice person. I just kick a kitten."

One guy mentioned that David had done voice acting in some video games in the early 2000s, and was curious if that was just to get a paycheck, or if he actually enjoyed them. David said that he, and the rest of the Mr. Show cast (other than Bob) were all enthusiastic gamers: they used to play Goldeneye for hours, and when the show was going on, Jay Johnston would host parties at his house with 4 separate rooms each with their own TVs, and they would play 16-person Halo matches until 6am. Anyways, David was drunk and ran into Sam Houser, and told him how much he loved Grand Theft Auto and offered to play any role they would have. Hence, his fantastic appearance in San Andreas (those damn RC planes!), one of my favorite games of all times.

One person asked what it was like getting back together, and if they thought they would do more collaboration in the future. This is a pretty stock question, and they have a predictable answer. Logistically, David lives in New York and Bob lives in Los Angeles, so it's hard to get together. They have collaborated since Mr. Show, including making the pilot "David's Situation", and would like to do more, but the logistics are challenging.

Hm... there might have been one or two more questions, but not many. All too soon, our time was up and everyone said goodbye. (There was another show coming up at 10 that night, and I'm a bit curious if they were able to stick around longer after the latter show.)

So, that was great! Rumors are floating around of a larger reunion tour in 2015 to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Mr. Show, and I would love to see that happen. There was so much incredible talent that came out of that group, and as far as I can tell its alumni are still friendly and would be up for getting together again. Just imagine: Paul F Tompkins, Scott Aukerman, Brian Posehn, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Dino Stamatopoulos, John Ennis, Tom Kenny, Jill Talley, Jay Johnston, BJ Porter, or some combination thereof, sharing a stage again! And they could maybe even pull in regular contributors like Jack Black and Sarah Silverman, who were unknown before Mr. Show started.

Anyways. That's speculation for the future. I wasn't expecting to ever see these people together again, and feel so fortunate that I get to live in a city where this kind of thing happens!