The pilot episode of the new Netflix series “W/ Bob & David” starts with its titular actors Bob Odenkirk and David Cross introducing themselves to a ’90s-esque live audience after stepping out of a “real-time travel machine.” The joke is quite literally in the wording, as the actors are revealed to have traveled in “real-time” in a stationary box for 17 years after their initial series and ’90s cult sketch comedy classic “Mr. Show with Bob and David” ended. If only they just pressed a “remove-the-hyphen” button of sorts to make it a “real” time travel machine instead.
Like their previous show, “W/ Bob & David” feels like “Monty Python” meets “Tim and Eric,” with a strange blend of self-reference, wordplay, absurdist humor mixed with the surreal. Take how the show transitions from sketch to sketch. One episode begins with the introduction of both Odenkirk and Cross’ mothers talking about their songs and how that seamlessly weaves into the next part of the show, a parody of feel-good television and based around mothers with successful children.
If you’re wondering if the two stars retained any level of bitingly dark humor, you don’t have to be concerned. One segment, which spoofs a morning talk show, involves a kid who, after almost dying, wrote a book detailing how he initially went to heaven and saw Adolf Hitler in heaven, along with other notoriously evil historical figures. He even quips that he was told by Jesus Christ that everybody went to Heaven, much to the chagrin of his audience.
I had to stop watching this sketch at numerous times because I was laughing so much – when his parents join in on booing him on stage after initially acting supportive. Even more hilarious was a segment afterwards where a doctor says that he plans on making the kid “die again” through voluntary cardiac arrest, getting intermission from the sulking kid’s now visibly indifferent parents. The scene is also arguably self-referential, since part of the joke is that this sketch is juxtaposed with sketches revolving around parenthood.
In the last sketch, it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly is funnier: the idea of a dying kid stupidly writing a book claiming he saw Hitler in heaven or the unforgivingly vitriolic reaction from others. To new viewers: learn quickly that part of Odenkirk and Cross’ genius comes from making audiences uncomfortable, with an ambiguity in who exactly is the butt of their joke. Don’t be guided by the intentionally sarcastic sounding audience laugh track.
For example, one sketch features Cross playing a nerdly vigilante-wannabe constitutional-rights douchebag who desperately tries to get himself arrested by a police officer, played by “Key and Peele” star Keegan-Michael Key. Near the end of the sketch when he gets beaten up and sprayed in the face with mace by a white cop offended by Cross’ wearing of blackface to try to incite police officers into violence, the punchline is less obvious.
Is the sketch’s joke around the reversal of an all-too familiar image of police brutality, where the races of Key and Cross play a part of the joke? Is it Key’s complete apathy when Cross pretends to be drunk? Is it that a half-black man as a police officer still has little power over the actions of his white counterpart in Cross? Are we even supposed to laugh, and if we do, is the joke that our indifference makes us terrible people? The answer is probably all of that and more.
That said, the show sometimes goes a little far. For example, one sketch has a femininely dressed Cross being interviewed for a sports documentary before he suddenly blurts out, “I’m transitioning.” Another hard-to-watch moment seems to be a parody of “Roots,” showing the whipping of a black man in what looks to be a pre-Civil War plantation, only to be randomly apologized to by his remorseful owner.
But you don’t watch “W/ Bob & David” to gain some level of feel-good political justice. You watch it for the writers’ uncompromising willingness to go anywhere in comedy. In the same “Roots” sketch, two white men seemingly threaten and menacingly move towards one of their slaves, only to be revealed that they are actually just want to give a free hug.
The first season has only five episodes, but given how layered their content is and how self-aware they seem to be, I think it’s fair to say their style of humor hasn’t lost one bit of creativity. Welcome back, Bob and David.