Author Interviews

ARUN RATH, HOST:

From NPR West, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Arun Rath. There's an old joke about The Velvet Underground - that only 100 people bought their first album, but every one of them started a band. When it comes to sketch comedy in America, that's how I think of "Mr. Show with Bob and David." When it came on HBO 20 years ago, there was nothing like it: dark, subversive, riotously funny sketches tied together with bizarre and brilliant segues, sort of reminiscent of "Monty Python's Flying Circus."

And while it seemed that nobody was watching it at the time, those of us in the know would pass around videotapes of "Mr. Show" like it was a forbidden treasure. Its influence on American comedy has been on the scale of Monty Python. And some of the regulars on "Mr. Show" have gone on to huge careers - Sarah Silverman and Jack Black, for instance; or Tom Kinney, who you might know as SpongeBob Squarepants.

Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, the creators of "Mr. Show," join me now. They have a new book of old material. It's called "Hollywood Said No," and it's a collection of scripts rejected by Hollywood. I'm thrilled to say: Hey, everybody, it's Bob and David.

BOB ODENKIRK: Hey. How's it going?

DAVID CROSS: Hey.

RATH: So pick up the story from here - and correct me if I'm getting the setup here wrong. "Mr. Show," it's the mid-'90s. It's hailed by critics and comedy fans. Its fourth season, though, it gets buried on Mondays at midnight, and does poorly in the ratings, and HBO cancels it. Is that right so far?

ODENKIRK: Yeah, that's good.

CROSS: That's pretty much it.

ODENKIRK: I mean, we were actually in the midst of shooting our final shows at the time, and all the air went out of the enterprise, as it were. And I remember about a month and a half, two months later - I think I told you this - I was getting gas at a station, and a guy pulls up, he's getting gas, and he goes: Bob Odenkirk. Oh, I'm a huge "Mr. Show" fan. I thought you guys were going to do another season. I mean, like, he had been looking for it...

CROSS: And it had been airing...

ODENKIRK: ...and it had been airing, and he'd completely missed it. So even our fans couldn't find us.

RATH: It was kind of a dark, subversive show for the sort of, you know, happy-go-lucky '90s. I want to give people sort of a sense of it - who may not be familiar with it. So what we're going to do is, we're going to play a little bit of a sketch. It's called "Operation Hell on Earth." David, you're playing the leader of a hate group. It's kind of an unusual hate group, though.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MR. SHOW WITH BOB AND DAVID")

CROSS: (As Ken) This is what America's going to look like after the mandatory relocation is enforced.

A lot of the people one would assume the leader would hate, comprise this group. It's suburban, mix of everybody.

ODENKIRK: Everything - there's a gay guy, a woman, a black guy...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MR. SHOW WITH BOB AND DAVID")

CROSS: (As Ken) New York City will become known as Little Israel.

(AUDIENCE LAUGHTER)

CROSS: CROSS: (As Ken) I figured all the Jews would love that. Is that OK, Ms. Shapiro?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As Ms. Shapiro) That's fine, Ken.

CROSS: (As Ken) OK.

And we're all sort of feeling sorry for the leader of our hate group, and trying to buck him up. You know, basically, we're all, it's almost like the community is deciding, look, he wants a hate group. Let's help him out. Everybody show up. Bring your best attitude.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MR. SHOW WITH BOB AND DAVID")

ODENKIRK: (As Reejit) Will you keep in touch?

CROSS: (As Ken) Of course, I will, Reejit.

RATH: And Bob, you're an Indian.

ODENKIRK: And I play an Indian.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MR. SHOW WITH BOB AND DAVID")

ODENKIRK: (As Reejit) This is Ken's one thing - Operation Hell on Earth - the victory of the white race, you know? Let's make it happen.

CROSS: (As Ken) OK. Thanks, Reejit.

RATH: Bob, I love your Indian accent.

(LAUGHTER)

ODENKIRK: We worked on that for a long time. We went to..

CROSS: Ten minutes.

ODENKIRK: ...we went to Delhi for 10 minutes, to bone up.

CROSS: Yeah.

RATH: And I feel like this is sort of a quintessential sort of "Mr. Show" sketch, of this riotously funny stuff. It's hilarious, you know? But at the same time, you know, it's so dark. And it's about hate.

ODENKIRK: Yeah.

CROSS: It's about friendliness too. It's not just hate. They really feel for this guy, and they want him to succeed. And, you know, they're nice folks.

RATH: So going back to when you found out, not that the show was canceled but that you weren't going to be coming back for another one, was that hard to take? Did you start to think about a new "Mr. Show" project, or a movie, right away?

ODENKIRK: We did do a movie.

CROSS: "Run Ronnie Run," yeah.

ODENKIRK: "Run Ronnie Run"...

CROSS: Sorry.

ODENKIRK: ...which sort of was derived from "Mr. Show." Have you ever seen it?

RATH: I had to work hard to find it.

ODENKIRK: Good. That was a kind of a debacle of its own, so...

RATH: Like, why was that - why was "Run Ronnie Run" a debacle?

CROSS: We assumed it was going to be a collaborative work in which we'd have kind of the same amount of control that we had on our show - what made us successful enough to get to do this movie. And in part, we were rewriting it and rewriting it and rewriting it and making it each step of the way a little bit less "Mr. Show" and more kind of that 90-minute comedy movie that was popular back then.

RATH: When they were coming out with all these movies based around "Saturday Night Live" characters.

CROSS: Exactly, exactly.

ODENKIRK: Once it was done shooting, we were out, completely out - like, totally frozen out.

CROSS: And that's where you really make a movie.

ODENKIRK: Yeah, that's where you make a movie, in editing.

RATH: So this book that you have right now, these are your rejected scripts.

ODENKIRK: "Hollywood Said No!" And it's got two, full-length screenplays in it and three or four sketches as well as a couple little, funny bits that we wrote just for the book. After we did "Run Ronnie Run," we thought, you know what? We screwed up by trying to reach out too far to the industry and write this character-based narrative. Let's just write a sketch movie. That's what we do.

Well, we wrote the "Hooray for America!" first, which was a very "Mr. Show" satirical film, where David is an actor named David Cross, and a corporation decides to run him for president. And he's an actor, so he's completely malleable, and he becomes president.

RATH: Did you actually pitch "Hooray for America!" to studios or did you...

CROSS: Yes. Actually...

RATH: ...just decide like, no, they're not going to...

CROSS: Did we? I think we might have...

ODENKIRK: I think we shared it with people. But we always knew that we needed some special relationship to get a movie made. Neither of us thought, you know, that the basic industry of Hollywood was eager to make a "Mr. Show" movie. We just thought, we'll write a good script and maybe somehow, we'll cross our fingers and we'll meet an angel.

CROSS: A patron of the arts.

ODENKIRK: A patron of the arts. But that never happened, so they didn't get made. And in the case of "Hooray for America!" the story about David running for president - I mean, the satirical side of it, the points we were making are just as relevant today, if not more relevant, than when we wrote it 15 years ago. I mean, with the Citizens United decision, it's basically all as true as it could ever be now.

RATH: You guys really savage the movie business. How did Hollywood executives, when you're pitching them a film in which - which portrays Hollywood executives as really despicable human beings, didn't they take that poorly?

CROSS: None of those guys - trust me, none of those guys see themselves - ever - as that person. That goes with agents - anybody on that side of the carpet in Hollywood will often read something that is, you know, they are part of an amalgamation of that kind of character, and they'll go, that's great. Hey, man. I love your takedown of the typical agent. You know, hey, they make me wear this suit. We've heard that line a couple times. But nobody ever sees themselves. They don't.

And one thing I want to make clear, and we mention this early on in the book - in the preface, I believe - is Bob and I in no way feel like we've been victimized, that it's - that you should feel sorry for us, you know? And we don't feel that way. We don't want to be perceived that way. We just think there's value to the scripts. We still think they're funny. But, you know, it's a business and...

RATH: And you guys are doing well in the business. I mean, you know, David...

CROSS: Yeah. We're doing fine.

RATH: ...with you on "Arrested Development," which has just been huge; and, you know, Bob, of course, like, I'm waiting to see what happens with Saul Goodman.

CROSS: So is he.

(LAUGHTER)

ODENKIRK: Yeah. Listen, we've had great careers. I think we both feel that way.

CROSS: We're not complaining.

ODENKIRK: We've had our downtimes, but we've learned a lot and made a lot of great projects and also, made a living. So that's all you can ask, you know?

RATH: Bob and David, this was a real treat. Thank you so much.

CROSS: No, thank you, man. My pleasure.

ODENKIRK: Thank you.

RATH: Bob Odenkirk and David Cross. Their new book is called "Hollywood Said No! Orphaned Film Scripts, Bastard Scenes, and Abandoned Darlings from the Creators of 'Mr. Show'."

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