Short-Lived Shows: Mr. Show
The idea for Short-Lived Shows came from an IM conversation Bob and I were having one day about shows which were taken away from us too soon. There's no set rule as to how long a show must be on in order to qualify as a "Short-Lived Show," but I've tried more or less to adhere to my own rule that the show shouldn't have been on more than three years. I think four or years or longer is a pretty good run for any show.
I'm going to stretch my "rule" an extra year for this installment however, because while Mr. Show did enjoy four seasons on HBO from 1995 to 1998, I believe it was snatched from the airwaves just as it was beginning to hit its stride. Besides, the first season was only four episodes long.
David Cross and Bob Odenkirk started Mr. Show not long after writing for an even shorter-lived program, The Ben Stiller Show. Like all good comedy, it defies categorization, which is great when you're watching it, but it makes it almost impossible to write about, but what the hell, I'll try anyway. The show was not simply a disconnected collection of sketches, each with its own distinct beginning and end. Instead, the show worked as a kind of stream of consciousness experiment, seamlessly segueing from one sketch to the next, some of them done live in front of an audience, some of them pre-taped, and some of them mixing both elements together at the same time. The result was some of the most schizophrenic comedy this side of Monty Python. A quintessential Mr. Show moment came in the first season in a sketch involving the Founding Fathers trying to come up with a design for the flag. One of the Founding Fathers is Abraham Lincoln, and not just Lincoln, but Lincoln with a Brooklyn accent. This anachronism is never mentioned, because to do so would completely ruin the gag. If that sounds obvious, consider that if the same sketch were done by SNL, the whole thing would be about nothing BUT the fact that Lincoln shouldn't have been there. Mr. Show always kept things nice and surreal.
Beyond its manic weirdness, the show also worked layer upon layer into its comedy, revealing more and more with each viewing. The show tossed more at its audience in a single half hour than any normal mind could grasp, making it pretty much necessary to tape each episode in order to go back and catch all the stuff you might have missed the first (or twelfth) time you saw it. Mr. Show didn't simply parody the mainstream, instead it went straight for the zeitgeist, creating a funhouse mirror reflection of the world and taking it into some of the oddest, most bizarre corridors imaginable. Perhaps late night on HBO was the only place where such a show could thrive, even for a short time. By the third and fourth seasons the show crammed more comedy into a single half hour than SNL could ever hope to spread over an hour and a half, and it still remains one of the best, and weirdest, sketch shows ever created. Mr. Show didn't just tickle your funny bone, it got inside your head.