Fifteen years ago, Bob Odenkirk, David Cross, and a close-knit gang of frustrated young comics and struggling actors from Los Angeles' alternative stand-up scene found themselves alone and barely watched on late-night cable TV. HBO's Mr. Show With Bob and David, their violent, byzantine, ultraprofane showcase for absurdist sketches and short films, was America's answer to England's Monty Python's Flying Circus and Canada's SCTV. Here is the exclusive story of how these mavericks slowly defeated the comedy of Hawaiian shirts, airplane food, and Blueberry Head (sorry, Carrot Top), spawned current superstars, and became the new mainstream.
After studying at the Players Workshop of the Second City in Chicago, Bob Odenkirk moved to New York City to join the writing staff of Saturday Night Live in 1987.
BOB ODENKIRK: It was Jon Lovitz, Nora Dunn, Jan Hooks, Phil Hartman, Dennis Miller -- a good cast. Then it transitioned into Chris Farley, Adam Sandler, David Spade, and Chris Rock. Conan O'Brien got hired two or three shows after I did; he and I shared an office. Four years at Saturday Night Live were difficult. I was pretty immature. I was about 25 and kind of an asshole. I didn't sit there thinking, "What's wrong with these people? Why aren't they asking me to perform?" I actually was thinking, "God, I want to perform, but I know I have to leave here and get better at it." I told [SNL creatorexecutive producer] Lorne Michaels, "I gotta go," and he didn't seem too ruffled. I went to L.A. and wrote for [the Chris Elliott sitcom] Get a Life, which was a really funny show.
Meanwhile, Atlanta-born David Cross was gaining a following on the thriving Boston comedy scene but finding it difficult to cross over.
DAVE RATH (manager): I put David on [Fox stand-up series] Comic Strip Live in 1991, but the network didn't want to air it. It was different, weird. He was talking about retarded kids. I got totally reprimanded, trying to integrate that into a more mainstream arena.
DAVID CROSS: I was making enough in Boston to not have a day job, but living very poorly. In the fall of 1992, I was approached about being a midseason writer replacement on The Ben Stiller Show. At first I was hesitant in ways that are embarrassing now: "Man, I don't wanna go to Hollywood and work on some bullshit thing. I'm about purity and I'm an artist."
SARAH SILVERMAN (Mr. Show cast member): We all watched The Ben Stiller Show. It was one of those few comedies that every comedian liked.
Coproduced by Judd Apatow and canceled by Fox after just 12 episodes, The Ben Stiller Show earned a reputation for smart parodies of movies like A Few Good Men and Cape Fear, which tended to overshadow more eccentric sketches featuring characters like Charles Manson (played by Odenkirk) and a sock puppet named Skank (voiced by Andy Dick).
CROSS: I don't think it was an important show. It was very serendipitous. It brought together a lot of disparate people who went on to do important work. Obviously, Ben, Judd Apatow, Janeane Garofalo. We'll skip over Andy Dick for the remainder of life.
JANEANE GAROFALO (The Ben Stiller Show cast member): Ben and I were huge SCTV fans. Ben was interested in that kind of cultural sketch comedy, doing parodies.
DINO STAMATOPOULOS (Mr. Show writer, producer, cast member): It was Ben Stiller's stepping-stone show -- and he did what he did best, which was mimic things. There were a few really amazing parody sketches that got on that show that Bob wrote, but other than that...
It also marked the first time Cross and Odenkirk worked together, though they had met a few months earlier.
CROSS: I was crashing on Janeane's couch, and I was like, "I'm bored. Do you have any friends who play basketball?"
GAROFALO: I knew Bob liked to play basketball on Sundays and was looking for people to play with. So I walked over to Bob's place and stood on his front porch and said, "This is my friend David Cross, and he would like to play basketball." And Bob, in his usual ill-mannered style, didn't even open the door. He just looked at us through the screen and said, "No thank you."
ODENKIRK: What a dick I was! I was so focused on whatever idea I had in my head at the moment that everything else could just go to hell.
CROSS: That was our first meeting, which didn't obviously amount to much.
ODENKIRK: When we met again at The Ben Stiller Show, I guess I gave him shit there, too, but I liked one thing he wrote called "The Legend of T.J. O'Pootertoot." It was a little epic story. Most sketches don't have a lot of story to them. They certainly don't travel anywhere in time. I thought, "Wow, yeah, you can do that, too."Read more Mr. Show on page 2 >>
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PATTON OSWALT (cast member): Mr. Show grew out of these guys who were writing on sketch shows for years, and these are the sketches they wanted to get on the air that never did -- the kind of stuff we wanted to do in comedy clubs and could never quite get to work. So we decided, "Let's go find a different audience."
GAROFALO: I was always bombing in regular comedy clubs, especially on weekends. I'm not a good joke writer -- I wish I was. You tended to go over much better in rooms during the week, when the audience wasn't expecting joke after joke after joke. They were listening.
SILVERMAN: At the stand-up clubs, you honed your jokes and honed your act, but at the alternative comedy clubs, you could try things that would potentially fail miserably, but just going for it was appreciated.
CROSS: Bob and I started doing shows together, just for the fun of it, at this place called the Diamond Club.
TOM KENNY (cast member): It was owned by some rock guys, one of which was Slim Jim Phantom, the Stray Cats drummer.
JILL TALLEY (cast member): I'd worked with Bob off and on at Second City. The Diamond Club became the place where you could try out different things, like the born-again couple who are born again as Satan worshippers.
JACK BLACK (cast member): Comics were bringing a lot of reckless abandon to the stage. There was a lot of boundary-pushing and theatricality mixed in with the traditional stand-up comedy. Bob and David were the lightning rod.
BRIAN POSEHN (writer, cast member): You'd have to walk through some crazy disco to get to the stage. That whole place had a weird vibe. Super-cokey -- and that was in the early '90s when coke was out. Bob and David were doing this thing called the Three Goofballz.
RATH: It was the two of them, but there were three big refrigerator boxes onstage. They did this goofy song about how they were the Three Goofballz, and then David popped out of one box and Bob popped out of another, and then the last box, nothing happened. They were like, "What's going on?" They stopped the show, and they'd had one of the older comedians, Jeremy Kramer, play it like he'd had a heart attack and died in the box.
POSEHN: They had different people who'd be the third Goofball. I did one episode where I played their third partner, and I was not even there. They opened up the box and on video I'm getting high with a bunch of grunge kids.
SCOTT AUKERMAN (writer, cast member): I had never seen comedy like that. Just how much they cursed. And how inventively. I've never seen people who were so unafraid to take the kind of risks they were taking.
MAYNARD JAMES KEENAN (musical collaborator, guest star): There might be 40 people there, 15 of them are performing. Afterwards, you headed to the bar and there'd be a herd of funny.
OSWALT: It was very inspiring to be around people that were funnier than me. It made me want to work harder and be funnier. As a comedian, there's nothing worse than being the funniest guy in the room. You just don't grow.
MARY LYNN RAJSKUB (cast member): I didn't have any hobbies; it was all about doing these shows and then maybe drinking. Those were, like, the only things I did.
CROSS: Bob's manager at the time was the legendary Bernie Brillstein, and so he was very instrumental in guiding the show as well. We were definitely being scouted. HBO, because of our content, became the logical place. And because of Bob's relationship with Bernie and Gary Shandling [Odenkirk played smarmy agent Stevie Grant on The Larry Sanders Show], HBO basically said, "Okay, we'll give you a shot. Here's 40 bucks."
CHRIS ALBRECHT (former HBO chairman and CEO): These guys were individually supertalented. They'd been not exactly in the background but in the service of others, and here was a chance to have them -- without a filter. To me, that was always a recipe for something interesting coming out.
TROY MILLER (director): Chris saw the show live at a nightclub and said, "Can you create the same nightclub environment?"
ALBRECHT: There was an energy that we wanted. It felt in front of the proscenium, whereas a lot of comedy feels behind the proscenium. The whole idea of Mr. Show was that it would almost be an extension of the live performance.
MILLER: We went to this place called Hollywood Moguls, a down-and-dirty club in Central Hollywood, to do our pilot.
JOHN MOFFITT (director): The place was so grubby. We had no place to store the sets, so we kept them out back, and these homeless people would shit on them. We had a hooker come in to use the bathroom.
JOHN ENNIS (cast member): The first audience for our pilot -- nobody had ever been to an alt-comedy show -- had been very poorly vetted and they're staring at us, going, "Really, this is what we gotta watch?"
KEENAN: Did it have potential? I guess it depends on what you mean by potential. I liked what I was seeing. Was it going to be as huge as Roseanne? I think it was an acquired taste, and that was the beauty of it. The guys were like, "We're gonna have fun doing this. Most likely no one's going to get it till it's canceled."
Read the complete feature in the April 2010 issue of SPIN, on newsstands now.