Surreal satirists go live to skewer American pop culture
The funny (funny peculiar, as opposed to funny har-har) thing about 'Mr. Show,' HBO's comedy sketch show that ran for 30 episodes until January 1999, is how unfunny it was for so long. Lame gags about militiamen and progressive priests put it down there with 'Mad TV' in terms of knee-jerk satire of obvious targets.
But by the third season, 'Mr. Show' had momentum and began turning out bizarre sketches that were so original they became classics. Local news was satirized not just with cheesy talking airheads but with Tatiana the Weather Hermaphrodite. Another sketch consisted of a documentary about beauty pageants for fetuses, while another charted the rise and fall of an infantile computer geek who becomes a billionaire by inventing the delete key.
Naturally, after four seasons, HBO canceled it.
The two main 'Mr. Show' writer-performers, Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, went on to make a feature film called 'Run Ronnie Run' based on shirtless white-trash felon Ronnie Dobbs, but the distributor dropped it, and the re-cut version is having a hard time getting shown.
Now Cross, Odenkirk and a handful of lesser-known actors are on the road with 'Hooray for America.' On the phone from the back of a cab in Ann Arbor, Mich., Cross sounds hurt at the suggestion that playing tiny stages such as the Crystal Ballroom might be a step down from having a TV show.
'No, God no, not at all. I gotta say I'm not insulted, but I'm surprised at how many people have that idea. I enjoy performing live.'
Fortunately, as an actor, he's got the goods, so the protests are believable.
The conceit behind 'Hooray for America' is a show-within-a-show that the two actors are performing in Branson, Mo. 'It's a variety show that teaches you about America through song and dance,' Cross says. 'A representative from GloboChem, a big, evil multinational, comes up and says, 'You guys are great, we're gonna start a third political party (The Country's Best Party, or TCBP), and run an actor for president,' and he picks me. I get to be president and enact their evil plan.'
Fans will know this is the same fictional GloboChem that once bought San Francisco and turned it into a theme park with three villages, a family-friendly Castro District renamed Bachelorland, Hippieland and Alienland (Chinatown restocked with schwa-faced aliens). GloboChem's plan for America is to build a new planet for the elite, to be run like a gated community.
Early reports say the set is minimalist and the pace of the 90-minute show is fast. And funny.
Three things make the 'Mr. Show' guys' attack on American popular culture original. One, the rampant surrealism. Anyone can mock bad local TV, but creating Tatiana the Weather Hermaphrodite was a mind-bender. Sketch ideas go off on tangents but are woven together into linked sequences. Two, the classically executed bathos, when mockable traits are inflated to near bursting point. For instance, in satirizing early reality TV, Ronnie Dobbs ends up with his own musical. Three, comic timing: Cross and Odenkirk seemingly can improvise anything, deadpan, and not wait around for a laugh like so many lazy sitcom writers.
HBO also gave them room to be blue. They did sketches about NAMBLA (North American Man-Boy Love Association) and the Ku Klux Klan and family-run adult novelty stores.
Cross said they have not done any gags about the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. 'Nothing really funny occurred to us, but it's not like we stayed away from it on purpose. Standups have been talking about it since two weeks after it happened, it just doesn't get on TV.'
He says the pair have no big projects in the works, although they haven't been put off by the 'Run Ronnie Run' mess: They are writing a new sketch movie. Cross has a comedy CD out on Sub Pop on Nov. 5, and he still writes a column for hip Canadian magazine Vice.
The latest Peter Sellers biography shores up the dogma that the best comedians are secretly depressed, but Cross, when asked to assess his own happiness, responds with equanimity.
'It comes and goes,' he says. 'I have had bouts of depression, some severe, some minor. I've certainly got lots of issues. But I don't feel a connection to people who have similar traits or problems. There are plenty of depressed people who are not funny, and there's plenty of comedians who are not depressed.' He adds that he doesn't consciously use the stage to work through his problems.
This is an age when everyone's a satirist, because so much of popular culture already seems like self-parody. The innovation of 'Mr. Show' is in constantly shifting the target of its satire. In one sketch, a do-gooder reads the newspaper funnies over the phone to a blind man. The twist is, the blind man is a busy executive and the do-gooder is incompetent. The blind man was only doing it to help out, but ends up hanging up early.
Asked if there is any blindness in his own family, Cross misses a beat. 'That is the oddest question I've heard in about four years.' He soon recovers. 'Where do we get our blind material? We buy it from a blind guy in the street. It's our way of helping out.'
You can do your bit for America next Thursday.