At the end of W/ Bob & David's second episode, the sketch show's titular stars, Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, are whisked away to the afterlife following Odenkirk's sorta-recitation of the words "Prophet Mohammed." But while the pair assume they'd be greeted by 72 nubile female virgins, they instead encounter 72 male virgins, who greet them with lines like, "Are you guys friends in real life?", "When are you going to work together again?" and "I have two pet llamas named Bob and David … isn't that cool?"
It's the sort of rote questioning Odenkirk and Cross have faced for two decades, ever since they secured their spot in comedy history with HBO's groundbreaking Mr. Show with Bob and David. Although the series garnered dismal ratings for its three-season run – likely due to its terrible time slots – its absurd sensibilities and unusual structure cultivated a frighteningly devoted fan base once it was released on DVD. Ever since, the comedy world has been divided in two: fans of Mr. Show, and people with no taste. And while it's easy to view the new virgins-in-the-afterlife sketch as a commentary on the frustrations Odenkirk and Cross suffered in their post-HBO careers, the pair say it's not a critique of their fan base – just a reminder that they've never really stopped working together.
"We've been doing a lot of touring and live shows together over the years, and people never seemed to know that, hey, we're on tour right now," Odenkirk says over the phone from Los Angeles.
"The presumption is that we don't talk to each other, unless we do a show together – but, yeah, we're really, honestly, truly old friends. We're always bouncing ideas off each other," adds Cross, on the other line.
"People think that when creative groups break up, there's a difficult fight there – 'Oh, they don't get along any more!' But that's not what happened," Odenkirk says. "David wanted to live in New York, excitement for Mr. Show was waning at HBO, so we decided, that's it."
"We're still speaking!" Cross pipes in. "Like, right now."
That solid, legitimately affectionate relationship – it's not hard to imagine, say, Odenkirk and Cross sharing a bicycle built for two, which is why their recent photo shoot for Vanity Fair seemed less artificial than most – is just one of the many reasons Mr. Show is still mentioned in hushed, reverential tones – and why Netflix is reviving it, in a way, via W/ Bob & David. When Mr. Show premiered in 1995, sketch comedy was in a bad way: Saturday Night Live was enduring one of its worst seasons ever and MADtv's debut was an unholy mix of grotesque caricatures and shock-value stunts (which would prove to be the template for the entire series).
Mr. Show, though, was distinct: surreal yet meticulously constructed, cerebral but extremely silly. Taking its cue from Monty Python, each sketch connected to the next until the loop was closed at the end of every episode. Politics and of-the-moment cheap shots were avoided. This was high, lean and pure comedy, with no set-up or punchline wasted. For a generation that just missed SCTV or The Kids in the Hall, it was the perfect antidote to the mainstream comedy rot.
"When we were on the air, it was just us and MADtv and SNL, and then, well, just MADtv and SNL for a few more years, too," Odenkirk says. "Kids was done, Chappelle's Show was a ways off – but now, there has just been a tidal wave of similarly minded shows."
Indeed, Portlandia, Inside Amy Schumer and Key & Peele all wear their Mr. Show influences with pride. Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim even built an entire alt-comedy cottage industry (Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, Check It Out!, On Cinema etc.) on the back of Mr. Show, gaining Odenkirk himself as an executive producer and mentor.
"It's pretty awesome now, really better than it's even been," says Odenkirk of the current comedy landscape – which of course leads you to wonder why the two decided now was the time to get back in the game. After all, it's not as if either is starving for work– Odenkirk's built a solid career as a dramatic actor (Better Call Saul, Nebraska) and Cross is a prolific stand-up comic with another Netflix-resurrected comedy project to his name (Arrested Development).
"We'd talked about doing something to note the 20th anniversary, but we had just come off this other tour, and we were promoting a book of old sketches," says Cross, whose wistfulness and genuine enthusiasm betray no hints of his stand-up act's notorious aggression. "We had such a fun time just getting creative with each other, that it turned into, fuck it, let's just do four entirely new shows."
"And luckily Netflix was into it," Odenkirk adds. "But we didn't want to call it Mr. Show, because we weren't sure some of the original [writers and cast] could be a part of it, so it wasn't a real reunion – it was optional."
Despite its new name, though, W/ Bob & David is everything a Mr. Show fan could hope for. A sketch involving a derelict dry cleaner balloons into a treatise on modern musical theatre, before looping back to the aforementioned virgin-littered heaven. Live bits mix easily with ambitiously filmed sequences and faux commercials. And nearly every cast member involved with the original program – including such now ubiquitous faces as Paul F. Tompkins and Tom "SpongeBob Squarepants" Kenny – return in fine form.
But, because nothing is ever truly perfect – the ironclad rule of comedy if there ever was one – this nostalgia trip to the heyday of alt-comedy lasts a mere four episodes. "We were incredibly lucky to just get everyone in one place for that amount of time," Odenkirk says.
The only question, then, is when Bob and David are going to get back together. Again.
W/ Bob and David starts streaming on Netflix Nov. 13.