Vanity Fair interviews Bob Odenkirk and David Cross

If you’re younger than 40 and had access to cable during the mid- to late-90s, you’re probably familiar with the names Bob Odenkirk and David Cross. As the hosts and stars of Mr. Show with Bob and David, which ran on HBO from 1995 to 1998, they became synonymous with absurdist sketch comedy. In a style reminiscent of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Mr. Show was a seemingly random hodgepodge of skits and half-baked ideas, all loosely tied together by a common theme. The show’s comedy was irreverent and sometimes viciously subversive.

Although it had a loyal (if small) cult following, Mr. Show was cancelled after just four seasons. Since then, Bob and David have collaborated on the occasional project—such as the underwhelming straight-to-video 2003 movie Run Ronnie Run—but they mostly went their separate ways. Bob moved behind the camera, directing the films Let’s Go to Prison (2006) and The Brothers Solomon (2007). As for David, he achieved semi-mainstream success, partly for his controversial standup routines (documented in the 2003 tour film Let America Laugh) and partly for his role in another short-lived but beloved cult TV classic, Arrested Development.

It’s taken 10 years, but Bob and David are finally have a new show of their own. They’re returning to HBO this fall with David’s Situation, a sitcom about a standup comic named David Cross (played by—wait for it—David Cross) who leaves Hollywood to live in the suburbs, where he writes for in-flight airline magazines and argues with his roommates, one of whom is a bleeding-heart liberal and the other a fire-breathing conservative.

Co-written with Odenkirk, who also directs, the show is a big departure from the sketch-based madness that made them cult-comedy gods. Still, in a sign that they haven’t completely abandoned their Mr. Show roots, every episode will be interrupted by parodies of commercials. “There could be ads for scissors or a new fictional movie or a public service announcement,” Cross said. “It could be anything.”

I spoke with Bob and David as they were preparing to audition actors for David’s Situation. Although they’re both acutely aware of the pressure to repeat Mr. Show’s success, they seemed calm, relaxed, even downright goofy.

VF Daily: David’s Situation sounds very different from Mr. Show. Are you worried about not living up to the expectations of your longtime fans?

David Cross: Not really. I hope people aren’t expecting Mr. Show 2.0, because they’re going to be disappointed.

Bob Odenkirk: I’m not intimidated by people’s expectations of us anymore. I probably should be, but it just doesn’t matter to me as much as it used to. I feel like this show is really solid, and it’s already a lot stronger than Mr. Show was in its first season. It took us about three seasons to really capture the rhythm and comedy tone of Mr. Show, but David’s Situation already has a strong comedic voice just with the pilot episode.

No chance you’ll get bored writing for the same character again and again and again?

BO: No, not at all. Because that character is based on David. I like to compare it to The Jack Benny Program or The Burns and Allen Show, or any of those classic TV shows where the lead was pretty much playing himself. It’s not realistic—it’s still a comic character—but David is doing a version of himself. He’s David Cross, standup comic, but it’s a fictionalized, heightened version of himself.

Just how much of this show is based on reality?

DC: The first episode is entirely made up. But I’m sure that as we continue to do this, it’ll begin to reflect our experiences. There’ll be episodes devoted to those adorable, cherubic, anecdotal experiences we’ve had in Hollywood. And we both love Hollywood.

Really? I kind of got the opposite impression.

DC: Oh no, we love it. Bob’s closer to it than I am. He’s up on the Hill. I can see it from my window. You know what I love about Hollywood? It’s similar to when you live in, say, Nebraska or the Alps and it’s a particularly clear night and you look up and you can see the Milky Way. You’re not in the Milky Way, but you can still see the Milky Way as if it’s right in front of you. But in Hollywood, it’s much more surreal. You’re living in Hollywood, and you can look up and see the Hollywood sign, which is visible almost anywhere you live in the city, and at that moment, you’re in Hollywood and you’re looking at Hollywood.

BO: And you don’t want to be there.

DC: No, you don’t want to be there. Every fiber of your being is saying, “Move! Get out of here! Move your legs in one direction and don’t stop!” But you’ll never really get away because it’s always in your heart.

David’s Situation, like a lot of your comedic collaborations, takes satiric aim at fame and celebrity. Is that a coincidence or a conscious choice?

BO: Well, Hollywood is a weird town, without a doubt. All the clichés about this place are true, and that’s kind of wild.

DC: But it’s also where we work and live, and our friends are involved in it. If we did a sketch show and we lived in Flint, Michigan, I’m sure that a lot of our observations would be about the dying auto industry. We live and work and breathe in Hollywood. Bob’s wife is a manager, and his son is the star of Cake.

Cake? What’s that?

DC: It’s a reality show.

I’ve never heard of it.

DC: It’s about who can eat the most cake in five years.

Bob, you must be very proud of your son.

BO: Well, he’s not winning.

Do you have any theories on why Mr. Show failed?

BO: That’s not entirely accurate. Mr. Show was, I think, artistically successful. And that’s why it continues to matter to at least a small group of people.

I don’t mean creatively. Why was such a critically-lauded show cancelled by HBO?

BO: Because it didn’t succeed financially. It did not make money. It never made HBO any money and it never made us any money. People come up to me and ask why we don’t just make a Mr. Show sketch movie. They’ll say, “I’m sure it’s funnier than the other movies you’ve made, Bob.” But we can’t do it—nobody is going to put money into a Mr. Show movie. It doesn’t matter how funny it is if it’s a bad financial investment.

DC: I don’t think that’s true. I don’t know what the schematics are at HBO for making money, and I don’t know what they were between ‘95 and ‘98 [when Mr. Show aired] and I don’t know what they are today. But I would be very, very, very surprised to learn that HBO did not make money on Mr. Show. That’s absurd to me.

BO: Oh, it made money. No, no, David, you’re right, Mr. Show has made them money and it continues to make them money. My point is, it hasn’t made enough of a profit. It hasn’t made the kind of money that’s even a blip on the Hollywood radar. And then there are the factors that have absolutely nothing to do with money. I think there’s a certain level of massive fame you need to achieve before you can make inroads into the upper echelons, and that’s not something we’ve ever come close to.

Well, you’ve come close. You have some notoriety.

BO: To a very small minority, yes, we have notoriety. But it’s not the kind of notoriety that matters.

DC: It’s helped at HBO. Ten or 13 years ago, when we first got Mr. Show, we weren’t known entities at all. Just promoting the show was kind of an uphill battle for HBO. But this time, with David’s Situation, people actually know who we are. We’re not like international household names, but when it comes to American comedy, you know who Bob and David are.

BO: I agree, but it still feels like we’re lacking the right kind of fame.

What’s the “right” kind of fame?

BO: There’s a sketch show on the BBC called Little Britain, and if they wanted to come to America and make a feature, they could do it. They could get all the money they wanted, even though their show hasn’t really played in the States at all. They have a certain level of massive fame in the U.K. They even have a deal with HBO. They’re shooting a domestic version of the show called Little America or something, and they’re doing 13 episodes or so. We’re shooting a low-budget pilot for HBO, and this is a place that knows us and loves us. But all the support and belief in us doesn’t mean anything if we don’t have the fame to back it up.

Do you secretly wish for mainstream success, or do you like the credibility of being cult-comedy icons?

DC: Well, I lost a lot of my credibility when I did Scary Movie—which is fine. That’s part of the territory if you want to be a working actor. When I was in my early 20s, being respected by a small audience was really gratifying. But as I get older, and I am getting significantly older, it means less and less and less to me. I remember what I was like at 23. I was an idealist and purist. I almost considered not going to Hollywood to work on The Ben Stiller Show, because I was doing my own comedy theater group in Boston, and it was so pure and perfect, and “fuck TV,” you know? But I was just immature and naïve and stubborn and fucking stupid.

BO: We didn’t make Mr. Show to please a tiny cult fan base. We did it because it was the show we really wanted to do. We did it by making mistakes and not listening to anybody and taking some big chances. Mr. Show never would have happened if we hadn’t followed our instincts and attempted every crazy, bad idea that occurred to us, and never worried about what people would think. I like having this loyal cult audience, but sometimes they have this purified version of who you are and what you should be doing with your career, which exists entirely in their imagination. Anything that contradicts that assumption just makes them angry. That says a lot more about them than it does about me. But sometimes they can keep you in check.

I’m not trying to lure you into biting the hand that feeds you, but why would you go back to HBO after your history with them?

BO: Listen, you can’t blame HBO entirely for what happened to Mr. Show. I can’t psychoanalyze the company. There are a lot of people who work there. All of the lower-level executives at HBO knew about Mr. Show, but zero percent of the upper-level execs had ever heard of it or knew what it was. Because there were some executive who didn’t get it and didn’t like it, we were always fighting an uphill battle to be accepted as a legitimate project. And in the fourth season, when they moved us to Monday at midnight, it was such a demoralizing thing. But our experience with HBO this time has been really great. We’ve got a lot of really positive energy from them, and I think maybe things will be a little different.

Do you think HBO has gotten unfairly bashed for its treatment of Mr. Show?

BO: I do! Whenever people say negative things about HBO because of what happened with Mr. Show, I’ll agree that maybe it ended a season or two too early, but you have to give them credit for making it at all. Nobody else was going to make that show.

That may be true, but you could also argue that it’s just another example of a network undervaluing a classic comedy show. You and David were both involved in a lot of great programs that were yanked off the air prematurely. Mr. Show’s fate seems eerily similar to Arrested Development and The Ben Stiller Show.

BO: No, no, no it isn’t! No it isn’t at all!

You don’t think so?

BO: The Ben Stiller Show was a complete fucking mess. Watch that show. Just watch that show. Please!

A mess in terms of its comedy content or how it was handled behind the scenes?

BO: The content. It was not a cohesive show. The voice of one scene was completely different from the voice of another.

So you think its cancellation was deserved?

BO: Look, I think the show was not completely realized, and we were all very young and we didn’t know what the hell we were doing. None of it held together. I mean, c’mon, what was your favorite moment of Ben hanging out with celebrities between scenes? Was that non-stop hilarity for you? People talk about that show like it was comedy genius, but in my opinion it never even came close. It had some high points and sometimes it could be offbeat, but it was mostly a lot of comedy sludge.

Also, should it have aired on prime time opposite 60 Minutes? If you want to accuse Fox of anything, they should have given us a late-night slot. That’s where it might have worked. What the hell were they thinking, putting this mess up against 60 Minutes? C’mon!

Dave, you were a writer on The Ben Stiller Show. Do you agree?

DC: Well, Bob’s correct that it wasn’t very cohesive at all. I don’t know if I’d describe it as a mess, but it definitely wasn’t our best work. As for why it got cancelled, and why a lot of beloved comedy shows got cancelled, that’s a very different issue. I can’t believe I’m about to say what I’m about to say, but there are some legitimate and valid reasons for why a network would cancel a show. Take something like Arrested Development. I wish it wasn’t the case, but I do have some empathy for the network. Fox is not a charity. As much as I hate the idea that commerce should come ahead of art, it’s true. I wish they could say, “Hey, let’s just take some of that Simpsons money and put it into Arrested Development,” but that would be the dumbest fucking move ever. That’s not how a business operates.

I guess you’re right. A business doesn’t need to be fair.

DC: No, it doesn’t need to be fair at all. It’s not the fucking network’s responsibility to carry dead weight. They’re the ones who pay for this shit. They can pull the plug whenever they want. I’ve never seen Jericho, but I imagine it costs a shitload of money to make. If only 25,000 diehard fans are watching it, well, sorry guys. They gave it a shot, but it didn’t work.

You sound like you’re becoming a company man.

DC: Not at all. But you can’t be surprised when a business acts like a business. Sometimes networks have crazy, random, arbitrary, myopic reasons for yanking a show. And sometimes their reasons are entirely valid. When a network executive is looking at something like The Ben Stiller Show, which didn’t really evolve or change from the first episode to the thirteenth, they have to be thinking, “O.K., are we gonna put all of our resources into this thing and pump it full of money and hope it pays off? Or should we just cut our losses and cancel it and try something else?”

If you had a chance to do it all over again, based on what you’ve learned over the past decade, would Mr. Show be more successful today than it was in the late 90s?

DC: You mean hypothetically?

Yes, hypothetically. If you and Bob were doing Mr. Show for the first time in 2008, how would it be different?

BO: Oh, it’d fall apart. After just the first few episodes, I’d start to get really upset with David. Because this time, I’d fall in love with him, and I’d be upset because he’s clearly not returning my affections and advances.

DC: We have to talk. We have to talk.

BO: If this projected future happens, I promise you, David, I will talk to you about this.

O.K., in the third projected do-over, when you can correct the errors you made in the first actual reality and second projected reality, does Mr. Show make it to a fifth season?

BO: Oh God, yeah. We do four more seasons and David and I finally get married in Hawaii. David doesn’t want to have sex, but I’m O.K. with that.

So the third time was the charm?

BO: I guess it was. Thank you for just giving Mr. Show another chance—in a completely hypothetical, nonexistent way.

 

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