Talking to David Cross and Bob Odenkirk about Mr. Show's legacy and working with Netflix over HBO

Before they became better known as Saul Goodman and Tobias Fünke, Bob Odenkirk and David Cross were heroes of the alt comedy movement. Their mid-'90s sketch show, Mr. Show with Bob and David, ran on HBO for four seasons and has since attained cult classic status. With Bob and David, which debuts this week on Netflix, was borne of a desire to celebrate Mr. Show's 20th anniversary — and it almost ended up back on HBO.

"We actually went with HBO to do it. They just weren’t that interested," Odenkirk tells me over the phone. (An HBO spokesperson provided us a statement regarding Odenkirk's story: "The reunion show for Mr. Show did not fit with our needs at the time but we wish Bob and Dave all the best.") And yet, to hear Odenkirk and Cross talk about it now, you figure it's better this way. "If we were to do it on HBO," adds Cross, "who’s to say they’ll air two, three, or four more times and never be seen again?"

There's precedent to that trepidation. Chances are, if you've seen a Mr. Show sketch in the last decade, you saw it on YouTube — a low-resolution capture uploaded by some random fan. Though Mr. Show is available on DVD or as à la carte downloads via iTunes or Amazon, the seminal sketch show is not available on any streaming services. HBO isn't airing it, Amazon Prime Instant video doesn't have it, and Netflix isn't getting it. The reasons why are murky — HBO believes it doesn't have the streaming rights, while sources tell The Decider that it still owns the "distribution rights" which would block others from streaming.

But despite missing out on streaming, Mr. Show's legacy has endured. For comedy nerds that grew up after Saturday Night Live became the establishment, Mr. Show was a breath of fresh air. It was willing to play around with format ("Pre-taped call-in show"), mine humor around very dark premises ("I'm with rapist"), and didn't shy away from being complicated ("The audition"). In the vein of Monty Python's Flying Circus, by their own admission a major influence, sketches wouldn't end so much as they would bleed in and out from one another. It was also home to a number of future comedy stars at one point or another, including Sarah Silverman, Jack Black, Scott Aukerman, and Paul F. Tompkins.

With Bob and David manages to recapture much of that Mr. Show tone and appeal. A week before its debut, I spoke with Cross and Odenkirk about what's different, about their relationship with Netflix, and about the future of the new show.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Ross Miller: You've said elsewhere that you didn't want this to be considered a continuation of Mr. Show, but there is a distinct connection. How would you describe it?

Bob Odenkirk: I heard one person call it, "Mr. Show with older people."

David Cross: We're never going to get away from Mr. Show comparisons, understandably, but it doesn't have the same structure or rules that Mr. Show had. And again, we are much older and that restricts some of the stuff we can do... We weren't interested in trying to recreate Mr. Show, and I think we accomplished that. It's still Bob and my sensibility, and we had a number of the same writers and cast, so there are gonna be similarities.

Bob: Basically, not calling it Mr. Show was a way to hopefully invite new people in so everyone didn't think it was a celebration of this old thing from years ago. As writers, creators, and artists, we wanted to have a fresh page to work on and not feel like we had to do anything to acknowledge the old show. In the end, we worked with a lot of the same people because they're still friends and in fact they've gotten better with writing and performing... We didn't want to feel tied down to that show. The reason we did this show, by the way, is we were talking about Mr. Show 20th Anniversary Tour, and it occurred to us in the same time it would take to do all that, we could do four [half-hour episodes] if someone would let us.

Mr. Show is a "much more natural fit" on Netflix

Why Netflix? Why not HBO? And why now?

Bob: We actually went with HBO to do it. They just weren't that interested, and Netflix was far more interested, so it's always best to work with people who really want you badly because there's a long road to making these things and then they have to be promoted. You really need to have that — you really need that company who's making the show to be on your side. I think for HBO it was very limited interest. That was fine y'know, they don't have to like everything we do.

David: Don't forget, the people at HBO now are all different than when we were starting. HBO was a very different-feeling channel, y'know? They had different stuff. I think you look at their stuff now, Mr. Show just doesn't fit on it. But it does fit with Netflix's sensibility. It was a much more natural fit.

Bob: In a lot of ways HBO, to their great credit, has become a much more established place, and we really wanted to do something fresh and new. We weren't really sure what, and I gotta say, we've got a really good friendship with [head of content] Ted Sarandaos at Netflix. Ted's been a Mr. Show fan from when we did the show, so you know, that was a reason to go work with Netflix.

[pause]

The real reason? Truly? The material will be seen by people, and people can access it at any time. We had such a hard time making Mr. Show. As you can see it's not available anywhere. You can't get it, and you can't see it except on YouTube, but it's not good quality.

David: What Bob said is a very good point in that the things we did that we worked very hard for will always live on Netflix, will always be accessible, which you can't say for Mr. Show. If we were to do it on HBO, who's to say they'll air two, three, or four more times and never be seen again?

When you made Mr. Show, sketches were consumed more often than not in chunks, be it on stage or in 30-minute TV blocks. But as you said, now it's all over YouTube as individual sketches.

Bob: I think Mr. Show is better in 30-minute blocks. I think that if people had access — and they have in certain places over the years like Comedy Central and IFC briefly — I think if it had a good platform, if HBO had rerun it, I think we'd have more fans, and I think people would really like it. I think they'd like the shows even more. I think they'd have the value as whole shows.

I gotta tell you, 10 years ago, maybe even 15, I remember everyone talking about, "you gotta make your comedy shorter." And I remember when YouTube took off, everything had to be a minute or less, and I think everyone knows now that it's not true. There's no great thing to make short comedy. The great thing is to make funny comedy. Key and Peele is some of the funniest comedy in the last five years for sure, and I don't know how many of their bits are under three minutes. I think most are longer than that. I actually think that whole argument, which was a big deal, [people would say that] "the rule is gonna be that every comedy has be under a minute! Under two minutes!" — I think everyone's realizing that no one cares as long as it's funny.

Will there be more With Bob and David?

David: We certainly hope so and said to each other and to Netflix [that] we want to do more. The difficulty is in our schedules. Bob is extremely busy with Better Call Saul as well as his charity work. I'm sitting here trying to create spices, that's my thing now. Granted, I probably have more flexibility on my end, but it still takes a lot of work...

Bob: David's basically... crippled by his desire to make fresh new spices for cooking with. The bottom line is, you can't get fresh fennel year round, you can't get fresh—

David: That's exactly the kind of closed-minded thinking I'm trying to combat here.

All four episodes of With Bob and David debut on Netflix this Thursday.

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