'Mr. Show': Bob Odenkirk Goes Behind The Scenes Of The Classic 'Titanica' Sketch
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Mr. Show’s writing room was a comedy all-star team -- Bob Odenkirk and his brother Bill, David Cross, Paul F. Tompkins, Scott “Comedy Bang Bang” Aukerman, Dino “Community” Stamatopoulus, and Brian Posehn, among others. But that doesn’t mean all of their ideas were, you know, funny.
That was OK by Bob, according to his new book, Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama. He wanted to run Mr. Show in exactly the opposite way of other writers’ rooms that he’d worked in (including Saturday Night Live, The Dana Carvey Show, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and The Ben Stiller Show).
Rather than beating up bad ideas, Odenkirk prodded his Mr. Show crew to build up weak concepts. “I would ask, ‘It’s kinda funny—what was the funniest moment in there for you?’ and we could find that funny moment and build it out.”
And for the classic Mr. Show sketch ‘Titanica’? That’s exactly what happened.
“When Brian Posehn wrote a HORRIBLY UNFUNNY six-page scene about a heavy-metal band that visits a kid who tried to commit suicide after hearing their song Try Suicide, it died hard at the read-through table,” Odenkirk remembers. “But then, after we Rumpelstiltskinned it, turned out the single biggest laugh I’ve ever heard from an audience in my life.”
When Posehn brought his script to the writers’ room, the response was “as silent as a bowl of pears in a painting by the “great” Cézanne, only Brian Posehn was no Cézanne,” says Odenkirk.
Posehn just sneered at his fellow writers and to make matters worse, he did it lying down on the job. Apparently his normal spot in the room was stretching out and dominating the room’s only sofa.
“I know I took advantage of the couch in the writers’ room and embarrassingly now would fall asleep during long writers’ meetings,” remembers Posehn, “partly because they were long and also partly because I didn’t care. I was way too comfortable and almost lazy in the room. I leaned into the lazy-stoner, slacker, Gen X, club-comic thing.”
But per Odenkirk’s custom, he didn’t throw Titanica into the trash. Instead, he asked his crew what he called “the stumper of all time”: How could they make Posehn’s idea funny?
The original was a mess, Posehn admits, wishing he still had the first draft so he could know exactly what bits were retained for the final sketch. “I just remember mine was more mean-spirited, ugly, and laugh-free.”
The writers agreed that this exchange between suicidal superfan Adam and the Metallica-esque heavy metal band was funnyish:
ADAM: I tried suicide right after hearing your song ‘Try Suicide’!
BAND MEMBER: Yeah, we know, your parents sued us.
ADAM: Yeah, but you guys won. That’s so awesome!
One upbeat exchange in the midst of horror was the nugget that the writers decided to build on. Then Odenkirk had an idea:
“What if the kid had a puppety body, y’know, so he looks like…a wet cigar?”
Boom. The script was quickly rewritten and the sketch absolutely destroyed at the live show a few weeks later. “It was a total surprise for the audience when I threw the sheet off, revealing the tiny brown limbs waving around in the ‘cool air,’” says Odenkirk. “The arms were operated by David, and a cramped Jay Johnston worked the legs from underneath the bed.”
When Cross’s body was revealed, Odenkirk says there was “a tidal wave of laughter that had an almost physical wallop, far from the nonreaction the original pitch had summoned from a group of tired, lunch-hungry writers when it was proposed a few weeks before.”
The lesson for comedy writers? Don’t give up on a potentially funny idea. And if all else fails, break out the puppets.
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Top image: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons/HBO