It's late April, and David Cross has just taken the stage in front of a small, cheering audience in a modest Echo Park studio. Standing beside him is Bob Odenkirk; he's prepping the crowd for a taping of what the night's host, Paul F. Tompkins, calls with faux-manic enthusiasm, "Sketch comedy! The best kind of comedy!!!" Before they launch into the evening's skits — everything from a parody of reality cooking-show competitions to an increasingly odd twist on "The Most Dangerous Game" — Cross offers a disclaimer: "It's rough around the edges. That's what we do."
On the surface, the set-up looks a lot like what these two men were doing, first in small L.A. clubs and then on HBO, two decades ago with Mr. Show, the hugely influential, under-the-radar sketch show that's become the Velvet Underground of alternative comedy. Since then, Cross and Odenkirk have gone on to direct movies, star in TV shows (Arrested Development, Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul) and write books, teaming up for the occasional one-off event. But their new joint project — W/Bob and David, a four-episode-and-a-special series that Netflix will drop en toto on November 13th — is the closest thing they've done to actually resurrecting the series that helped make them comedy-nerdom icons. Watching the interwoven skits and seeing the duo trade lines with several of the old program's players — Tompkins, John Ennis, Jay Johnston, Tom Kenny, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Brian Posehn — you'd have thought the Nineties never ended.
But fans may also notice a newfound looseness in the sketches and format, indicative of its creators' current station in life, in which they can approach the show almost as a fun side project, as opposed to the make-or-break stakes these hungry young comics faced 20 years ago.
"I think that the differences are probably kind of subtle but structural," Odenkirk, 53, says by phone from Albuquerque, where he's shooting the next season of Better Call Saul. "We don't link the sketches except when we feel like it; we don't have as many rules [as before]. The format is less 'traditional TV' with the stage and theme song and a camera flying in." He laughs. "It's just, we start talking and then ideas start happening."
"I would imagine Bob is going to be doing Saul for years, and I am going to have these other projects" Cross, 51, adds. (He's joined the call from New York, having just finished shooting the latest season of his IFC sitcom The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret in London.) "[W/Bob and David] is a great thing to have in your downtime — to be able to cut loose and create this stuff, which is wildly different than the other stuff that we work on. You think, 'I'm going to work hard on something else — but, 12 months from now, I'll be back in that writers room with all these really funny guys making each other laugh, wearing stupid wigs and [doing] funny voices.' It's an important part of my life, and I'm glad I get to do it again."
Odenkirk and Cross had talked about putting together another sketch show for years, a discussion that was constantly hampered both by their busy schedules and wrangling with their old bosses at HBO. "There was an initial hurdle [where] we had to see what HBO thought" says Cross, "because they pretty much own everything except the names 'Bob' and 'David.' Which they can't — they've tried, but they can't, so we got away with that one."
"You think, 'I'm going to work hard on something else — but, 12 months from now, I'll be back in that writers room with all these guys wearing stupid wigs and [doing] funny voices.'"
Once they were able to move forward and Netflix signed on, the two men had four months of available time to do the show — one of which got swallowed up in negotiations. Consequently, W/Bob & David consists of a quartet of episodes, as well as a behind-the-scenes special — and if that feels like an almost cruelly truncated season, the guys agree with you. "We would have been happy to do six or eight or 10 or whatever" says Cross. "The more you do, it just starts becoming intuitive. Like in any project, you're just getting a feel for it. And right as we were doing that, we had to shut down, unfortunately."
Ask Bob and David how their comedic sensibility has morphed over the last two decades, and both men will say that, aging aside, not much has changed. ("I think my point of view is pretty goddamn close to what it was 20 years ago" Odenkirk says. "Sadly, it hasn't matured much.”) Indeed, there's an undeniably comforting familiarity to these sketches' zigzagging, off-kilter wit, from an obnoxious guy who has no problem declaring women "cunts" — with surprising, wonderfully meta results — to a bizarro scenario where a group of dudes describe their increasingly preposterous New Year's resolutions.
"We had pretty high standards back then" Bob says, "and I think we have the same ones [now]. We do ask ourselves when we get into our angry rants in our comic presentations, 'What is this really about? What is this [sketch] trying to say?'"
Are they concerned where they fit in a comedy landscape now crowded with first-rate sketch shows, many of which cite Mr. Show as their Rosetta stone? Understandably, Bob and David sound blasé, even a bit cocky. "We don't have to make our own mark" says Cross. "I mean, we made our mark — and now we're kind of having fun. It's not meant to be…" — he adopts an overly precious tone — "a celebration of the thing we did. The key point is to do new stuff, not patting ourselves on the back."
Chiming in, Odenkirk adds, "I think that one of the reasons we don't worry about [competing in the current sketch-show world] is that we're never going to look like Inside Amy Schumer, because that show has such a very specific point of view. It's got certain topics that it's very obsessed with — which is wonderfu. We have far less focus than a show like that or [Kroll Show]. I think Key & Peele is maybe the closest thing to what we do, but even they had a very strong area that they were working in and talking about." (Keegan Michael Key even appears in the new show, playing a polite cop that Cross' camcorder-toting activist is goading into harassing him to demonstrate how law-enforcement abuses power.)
Which isn't to say that W/Bob & David steers clear of commentary. It's just that Odenkirk and Cross will go the screwier, shrewder direction, mentioning a side character's brave gender transition as an aside that gets blithely overlooked in the midst of a faux-30 for 30 sports documentary skit celebrating a champion downhill skier. Jokes about deafness and Judaism have a sting but aren't malicious, instead mocking some deeper societal truth about greed or rampant self-interest. And yet, miraculously, W/ Bob & David skewers without congratulating itself — or congratulating the audience for agreeing with Odenkirk and Cross's politics.
"I love The Daily Show" Bob says, "but that's the part that bothered me a lot: 'Aren't we all great that we're all on the same side of this issue?' I like bringing up challenging topics in a comic way and then kind of breaking them down in a very silly way that makes it hard to know what our point of view is on the subject. It makes it a challenge for anybody to be angry about it." Along those lines, he teases a W/ Bob & David episode which will feature a sketch about the fallout of rendering the prophet Mohammad — an oblique reference to the Charlie Hebdo incident from earlier this year. "I felt like we couldn't do these four episodes without referencing some contemporary issues" Odenkirk says. "But I think we did it in a very Bob-and-David way."