The first image we get of Bob Odenkirk and David Cross in their new Netflix show W/ Bob and David is of them emerging from a ”real-time travel machine” that looks like a tricked out Porta Potty. It’s their on-the-nose way of saying that a lot has happened in the 17 years since HBO’s Mr. Show with Bob and David went off the air: 9/11, two wars, iPhones, Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah’s couch. In other words, a wealth of material for Odenkirk and Cross to filter through their absurdist blend of Monty Python-esque sketch comedy.
But it’s a couple minutes into the third episode when they really start to find their groove. The setting is “TechCon 15,” and Odenkirk, dressed in a denim shirt, paces the stage while extolling the virtues of new products like the Me Hat (“the world’s first 3D digital hat”), the Digi Spoon (shrug), and Googly Ears that “hear information for you,” all while words like “synergy” and “the future” dance across the screen behind him.
From the back of the room comes David Cross as “Shangy, the digital soothsayer,” sporting Skrillex glasses and an outrageous black wig while singing the word “digital” in a mock Australian accent. It perfectly satirizes the navel-gazing of the tech industry that other sketch shows like SNL, or even HBO’s Silicon Valley, fail to capture. Casual viewers may not know that Shangy is based on a real person: AOL “digital prophet” Shingy, whose glammed-out look and obsession with “brands” made him briefly a subject of fascination and ridicule last year.
While the time machine sketch addressed the passage of time since Mr. Show explicitly, the Shangy sketch illustrated it in a more satisfying way, because they were satirizing an industry that basically didn’t exist the last time around. They're making up for lost time, while continuing to stay true to their commitment to the bizarre that served them well in the '90s.
Despite Odenkirk and Cross’ statements to the contrary, W/ Bob and David is very much a sequel to Mr. Show. It has many of the same actors and writers, the same absurdist attitude, the same ability to end a sketch just when it stops being funny, and the same love for bad wigs and transcendent character names. (Scooter Tyson, Amore Pendragon, and Duke Pylon are some standouts, and that’s just from one sketch.)
Bit of background: Mr. Show and I go way back. In college, it perfectly complemented the type of non-sequitur humor that appealed to my friend group. In an era before YouTube and animated GIFs, we watched it first on pirated VHS and later on DVD. And oh, so many quotable lines! ("Gentlemen! What a collection of assholes." "Damn, his science is just too tight!" "Terra da loo!")
Watching the first four episodes of W/ Bob and David with some of those same college pals, we were taken aback by some of the show’s more subversive bits. I won't spoil any of it, but the duo seems intent on proving they haven't lost their edge with the passage of time. Slavery? Terrorism? Religion? No sacred cow is spared.
There’s a difference between mirthful laughter and shocked laughter. More often than not, I found myself gasping with my hand over my mouth. In one sketch, Cross wears blackface to trick police officers into pepper spraying him, and it works, but only because they find his blackface offensive. But the joke is less about the taboo of blackface and more about subverting the issue of police brutality and smartphone vigilantism. It’s heady stuff, and it doesn’t always make you LOL.
A couple of quibbles: Sometimes the subject of their satire is confusing, which can serve to muddle the effect. Is "Better Roots" a dig at Hollywood liberals, historical revisionists, or both? (Also, it’s weird to make fun of Roots, which aired in 1977, rather than a more recent film like 12 Years a Slave.) Likewise with the ISIS script reviewers sketch — who is being lampooned here? Fearful artists? Muslim extremists? Bob and David cast such a wide net with their ridicule; they could certainly stand to improve their aim.
Also, I don’t think W/ Bob and David made good enough use of its excellent female cast members, especially Mr. Show veterans like Jill Talley and Brett Paesel. Considering they once satirized the lack of female perspective with the "Mr. Show Boy’s Club" sketch — Talley, dressed in a T-shirt that read "Object," served drinks to smoking jacket-wearing Odenkirk and Cross — it’s a noticeable oversight, and hopefully one that can be rectified in future seasons. That is, if the creators are interested in future seasons. They say they would do more, and I hope they do. I don’t think I can wait another 17 years.