Every reunion is an attempt to recapture the past, but the particular alchemy of sketch comedy makes getting the band back together an especially tricky proposition. The members of Monty Python and The State may have worked together fruitfully on subsequent projects, but they’ve been smart enough not to go all the way back to the well the way The Kids in the Hall did with the lackluster “Death Comes to Town.”
“W/ Bob & David” tries to recapture the magic of “Mr. Show With Bob and David,” the storied sketch show that ran on HBO from 1995 to 1998. Bob Odenkirk and David Cross return for the Netflix revival, consisting of four half-hour episodes that will be available after midnight tonight, as does much of the original recurring cast: Paul F. Tompkins, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Tom Kenny, Jill Talley, Jay Johnston, John Ennis, Brian Posehn, and Karen Kilgariff. (Absent: Jack Black and Sarah Silverman, whose brief “Mr. Show” appearances made strong impressions long before they were famous.) But funny as it is in sports, the elements don’t fit together the way they used to. As a line in the first episode acknowledges, “This is no show, Mister.”
Something’s off, as subtle but distinct as the difference between the revival’s announced title, “With Bob and David,” and its orthographically distinct current version. (HBO owns the “Mr. Show” name, apparently including its nondescript second half, but doesn’t have the rights to stream the original episodes on HBO Go.) If “Mr. Show’s” original run was an all-night party with your funniest friends, “W/ Bob & David” is a grown-up soirée where the guests drift in and out at intervals; it’s good to see everyone again, but every conversation feels too short.
Although “Mr. Show” was primarily a two-person operation, it grew out of a specific, long-since-dissipated comedy scene, which lent the episodes a kind of tonal cohesion. Ideas and random phrases would occur throughout an episode, linking otherwise disparate bits together so that even the weaker ones were lifted up. It’s in the nature of sketch comedy to be scattershot, but “W/ Bob & David” feels like a patchwork as well, as if it were cobbled together on the weekends between its creators’ other commitments. Fans of “Mr. Show” will feel familiar chords being struck in a sketch where Odenkirk’s interrogator takes offense at being labeled the “bad cop,” or in one where Cross’ self-appointed civil-rights crusader tries and fails to get the police to harass him on camera. But a lot of it falls flat, too, and with only four episodes to pick from, there’s not enough to amass a sizable greatest-hits collection.
“W/ Bob & David” doesn’t shame “Mr. Show’s” legacy, but it doesn’t enhance it much either. It’s more of a ramshackle addition whose main purpose is to send viewers back to the originals, which as a group hold up extraordinarily well. (Two of my favorites: “24 Is the Highest Number” and “Thrilling Miracles!” aka “SuperPan!”) Watch “W/ Bob & David” if you need convincing to shell out for “Mr. Show” on DVD or streaming, but don’t let it substitute for the real thing.
Reviews of “W/ Bob & David”
James Poniewozik, New York Times
Without spoiling the brief season, I found the new sketches polished, if unsurprisingly hit and miss. A variation on a “most dangerous game” human-hunting scenario, like some of the pair’s better sketches, starts with familiarity, then barrels through ridiculousness on the way to brilliance. But a segment with Mr. Cross as the director of a film rationalizing slavery — he prefers “helperism” — drags on uncomfortably long. If the new series feels a bit less distinctive, it’s only in the way of so many ultimately vindicated pioneers: By now, it’s inspired many successors operating on many platforms. Still, if sketch comedy now has more tributaries and more ways to stream, it’s no less fun, in “W/ Bob & David,” to paddle back to the source.
Alan Sepinwall, HitFix
Early in the premiere, Cross and Odenkirk emerge from a time machine that they entered right after finishing the last episode of “Mr. Show,” but something’s gone awry that’s caused them to age in real time, despite the trip. It’s a comment on the difficulty of recapturing the magic of an old series years later — which fans of another series featuring Cross and Tambor that had a belated Netflix sequel unfortunately know too well — but one that, like so much of “W/ Bob & David” isn’t satisfied with as the only joke in the scene. The new series is a great advertisement for me to finally catch up on the old one, but it’s damn funny in its own right.
Tirdad Derakhshani, Philadelphia Inquirer
The team is as funny, outrageous, and controversial as ever. A series of interrelated skits has Odenkirk become the world’s first Jewish pontiff, Pope Jonah. He shoots ads for a brand of “kosher goyim delicacies” called Heschel’s that includes turkey bacon, turkey oysters, and an edible Jesus figurine made of, um, turkey.You’re not likely to find better sketch comedy on TV. It’s a shame there are only four episodes.
Daniel Fienberg, Hollywood Reporter
“W/ Bob & David” may have dropped the “Mr. Show” part of the title and added some tyographical quirks, but it’s pretty much the same thing, with only minor shifts in format and almost unnoticeable shifts in tone. The opening credits are, if anything, more Monty Python-esque. The connective tissue between the skits is perhaps a little more flimsier. And only the first episode begins Bob and David directly in front of the audience, directly linking the new show to its legacy by having the stars emerge from a Port-a-Potty Time Machine that transported them from 1998 sadly aged by 17 years. The catch-up will take about five seconds for Mr. Show fans and for viewers who didn’t watch Mr. Show before? Come on. You’ve seen sketch comedy before and the only question is “Is it funny?” because the only thing more excruciating than unfunny sketch comedy is unfunny improv comedy. And the answer is “Mostly funny, yup.”
Brian Tallerico, RogerEbert.com
From the two episodes I’ve seen, “With Bob and David” definitely has a similar sense of humor to “Mr. Show” but a different tone. It feels more like a casual affair, something that Odenkirk and Cross did on a break from things they take more seriously. They are such brilliant writers and comedians that their talents make the result of that “break project” entertaining, but one wonders how this might have turned out with a bit more concerted effort. It’s so loose and fast and strange that some will embrace the show for it its sheer oddity — not to mention its willingness to offend, which could get the pair in a bit of hot take trouble — but it’s a show that I worry will be a little too inconsequential for the legend of Bob and David. Four mostly-funny half-hour episodes are nice, but they’re nothing compared to what “Mr. Show” means to a lot of sketch comedians.
Brian Lowry, Variety
Cross, Odenkirk and the rest of the band (including high-profile guests like Jeffrey Tambor, Keegan-Michael Key and Paget Brewster) might enjoy having an opportunity to flex these muscles, but once one moves past the gang getting back together to put on a show, “W/Bob & David” doesn’t feel like anything to get all-caps about; rather, it’s merely an old-new variation of a show that already exists in a half-dozen varieties on channels like Comedy Central and IFC. While there are, inevitably, some funny moments (and some really bad wigs), there’s also a sense that this was a weekend lark — a celebratory stage reunion somewhere, perhaps — that somehow got conflated into this mini-revival. Whatever the motivation, consider it one of those cases where the old maxim notwithstanding, there just wasn’t much reason for the “Show” to go on.
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