Saturday Night Live's stance as the United State's defining sketch comedy show is indisputable, but its long run and ever-shifting cast work against the program as much as they help. But when ex-Ben Stiller Show writers David Cross and Bob Odenkirk took the sketches that weren't allowed on network TV and got a show of their own for HBO, they crafted not only the finest sketch show of its time but possibly the funniest sketch comedy show since Monty Python.
Drawing clearly from that legendary British troupe's style of hyperliterate absurdity, Mr. Show could swing between biting satire, shocking political incorrectness and gleeful silliness in the course of a single sketch. It didn't always work, but their method of eschewing punchlines in favor of loosely strung together non-narratives ensured that you never went more than a sketch or two without laughing. Any list about greatness is of course subjective, but attempting to rank the finest sketches of this brilliant program is next to impossible (case in point: I originally was just going to name 15 sketches and ended up with a top 50 before I realized it was getting out of hand). So here's a painstakingly crafted list of some of my very favorite moments of one of the funniest shows of all time. The numbers are just for show (links added clips of the sketches)
30. Camp Monk Academy (Season 4, Episode 5) (Part 1) (Part 2)
Undoubtedly the greatest strength of Mr. Show was its ability to start a sketch in one direction and end up in some crazy new territory by its end. Things start funnily enough when a slacker heads to Tibet to check up on an old friend, only to find he's the Dalai Lama, but then things spiral until the Buddhist monks square off against the fat kids' camp (who are all white and American for no reason at all), culminating in a rap-off. Who else could mix a parody of Kundun and camp olympiad films like Meatballs and Heavyweights in one sitting? There's even a brief nod to Pretty in Pink at the end.
29. Thrilling Miracles (Season 2, Episode 1)
SNL tends to ride its cast's gift for mimicry and accents in order to inflate sagging quality (at this point they're just using the elections to guarantee four more years on the air), but one of my favorite aspects of Mr. Show was the fact that nobody could pull off a good imitation and, apart from some Southern accents, very few accents were pulled off with any skill. And that's proven in spades as Bob butchers a British accent as an increasingly disturbing infomercial pitch-man shilling "the Super-Pan." Things keep getting stranger and darker until it can't get any more intense, then it ends on a moment of glorious inanity.
28. East vs. West Coast Ventriloquism (Season 3, Episode 3) [sketch starts at 0:35]
The East Cost/West Coast rap feud caused irreparable damange to hip-hop; ignorant detractors continue to dismiss the genre as nothing more than glorification of violence and dangerous, and for a time they got all the evidence they need. But all Bob and David saw in the carnage was some serious schadenfreude, and thus begat this off-the-wall battle between vicious puppets and the bewildered humans who find themselves forced into the fracas. It's all worth it for the roundtable discussion featuring two bemused rappers.
27. The Audition (Season 4, Episode 3)
Anyone who's seen Arrested Development knows that David Cross knows how to make the best fake auditions. Here, he combines auditions with good old "Who's on first?" confusion to thoroughly flummox the casting directors. Can I use this chair?
26. The Fairsley Difference (Season 4, Episode 4)
Mr. Show's fake advertisments could rival SNL's in their convincing brilliance: Mayostard. Cock Ring Warehouse. Siamese Twins. All wonderful, and all quite reluctantly left off the list. But this ad war between an old-time family-run grocery and an undercutting, libelous nationwide chain hilariously captures the sad truth of the effects of chains like Wal-Mart and Kroger on small businesses.
25. The Story of Everest (Season 4, Episode 4)
The Pythonesque influence was stamped all over Mr. Show, but this bit of pure absurdity is one of the purest tributes to the British troupe. When a strapping young lad returns to his home after conquering Everest, he relates his exploits to his overjoyed parents. Then he slips. Then the déja vu creeps in. By the end of it they've crafted the best repeated gag since Sideshow Bob walked through a minefield of upturned rakes.
24. Josh Fenderman (Season 4, Episode 10)
Bob and David barely appear at all in this E! True Hollywood Story/Corey Feldman send-up, but that doesn't stop it from being one of the funniest parodies in the show's history. Fenderman got his start as a lovable kid in a commercial and found himself driven into 80s pop horror by a terrible stage mother. It's a brief but thorough satire of the entertainment industry's effect on its stars, but whenever things get too serious there's a clip of hilarious dancing to lighten the mood. I wish life was like that.
23. I'll Marry Your Stupid Ass (Season 4, Episode 7)
There's nothing more irritating yet hilarious than a drunken argument between two macho doofuses, and Bob and David take it to the extreme. In their best homoerotic-but-not-quite-gay sketch, the two get into a screaming argument in a bar and quickly forget their respective dates in the maelstrom of testerone. Unwillingly to back down and admit defeat, they end up marrying and living a life of tender hatred, death do them part.
22. Three Times One Minus One (Season 2, Episode 2)
A semi-recurring bit, Three Times One Minus One is the be-all, end-all skewering of contemporary R&B as well as a comment on the plagiarism and "softening" of black culture to sell to suburban white America. But you can go ahead and toss all that right out the window, because the greatest fake New Jack swing duo of all time earn their position for a much simpler reason: they prove that wigs and silly costumes are every bit as funny as subversive satire. Few things are as funny as watching David Cross' hairy chest as he sings nonsensical mouth music while Bob (looking about as iconic as any legitimate musician) stands stoically in the background.
21. Toenapper (Season 4, Episode 2)
Oh honestly, just watch this one. It needs no explanation.
20. Indomitable Spirit (Season 3, Episode 4)
Who remembers having to sit through all the "inspirational" guest speakers in school? All of you, of course, because we had to sit through them the entire time we were in school. Every addiction, disease, deformation and injury under the sun got trotted out like a politically correct freak show to tell kids that perseverance (with the usual mention to God) could overcome all. From the opening lines of the presenting teacher, you know that this sketch is going to savage one of the worst aspects of childhood. Indomitable Spirit itself is a band consisting of a guitarist and drummer with no arms, a flautist with only a head, and a woman. It's perfect as is, then a one-armed ex-drummer shows up and the whole thing heads to comedy heaven.
19. Men's Club of Allah/Taint (Season 4, Episode 6)
The brilliant linking of sketches of Mr. Show allowed for long-range satire and madcap nonsense, but these two barely tied-together skits display possibly the most inspired and unpredictable links in the entire run. Starting off as a spoof of Louis Farrakhan, incendiary rhetoric soon morphs into an angry sermon on the importance of rewinding rental tapes. Then the whole thing takes a left turn and becomes a parody of the Adam West Batman. AND THEN the show manages to barely link into something completely different: a spoof of the Larry Flynt biopic that glorifies the area between the scrotum and the anus. All of this in less than ten minutes.
18. Burgundy Loafe (Season 4, Episode 3)
A sketch on the class gap? Did I pop in a British show by mistake? David Cross did a bit in his stand-up about going to a restaurant so fancy and pretentious that they literally served an edible sheet of real gold with their dessert, but he was attacking the borderline obscene selfishness of the wealthy long before. The eponymous six-star restaurant of the sketch is so high society that they don't even lower themselves by including a restroom. Instead, servers place a box under a seat with a hole in the bottom while the customer deposits his "foundation" while he eats. Isn't it nice to see that Bob and David were never so far up their asses that they couldn't turn satire into toilet humor on a dime?
17. Coupon: The Movie (Season 2, Episode 6)
All the hipsters who made up Mr. Show's primary fanbase probably thought this sketch was a vision of the apocalypse. In this frightening world, product placement has become so ingrained into the movie business that, when a movie based entirely on a commercial product tanks, the studios take a case to the Supreme Court and force everyone in America to see the film. Not only does the movie display all the hilarity that the show's shoestring budget inadvertently created, but the sheer dryness of it all makes "Coupon" arguably one of the 5 best sketches of the show, even if I don't love it quite as much.
16. The Bob LaMonta Story (Season 3, Episode 2)
If you're anything like me, seeing the words "Based on a True Story" attached to a movie makes you wince. Bob and David know our pain, and that's why "The Bob LaMonta Story" is so damned good. Not only are the exaggerations of "true story" adaptations played up but the Oscar-baiting exploitation of the mentally challenged gets a nod too. And Bob Odenkirk and Jill Tailey's portrayals of LaMonta's retarded parents aren't half as offensive as, say, I Am Sam.