Mr. Show

The Kiddies Will Like It: A Selective History of the ‘Mr. Show’ Cast in Music Videos

Eric Ducker

By Eric Ducker

on 09.29.14 in Features
‘It was something different to see the Mr. Show ensemble jumping out of zeppelins or dramatically reciting Yes lyrics on a college quad.’

HBO sketch comedy series Mr. Show (1995-98) may have only had a cult fascination when it was on the air, which is hard to imagine now, considering it was co-created by and starred David Cross and Bob Odenkirk (and featured people like Jack Black and Sarah Silverman). But in 2014, its influence and cast still have an impact. Since the show ended, Cross and Odenkirk have appeared in dozens of films and TV shows, most notably Cross as neurotic psychiatrist and aspiring actor Tobias Funke on Arrested Development and Odenkirk as slimy lawyer Saul Goodman on Breaking Bad. (His spinoff Better Call Saul will debut in 2015.) Other Mr. Show alumni include Mary Lynn Rajskub, Tom Kenny, Scott Aukerman and Paul F. Tompkins (who appears on the audiobook of Odenkirk’s recently released A Load of Hooey along with Cross).

While it wasn’t that popular when it was actually on the air, Mr. Show‘s influence has continued to grow. One constant is its cast members appearing in music videos, since the show aired until now. While alt-comedians handling the jokes for indie bands in music videos is more common now, it wasn’t always this way. In the mid ’90s you might get appearances from stars like Courtney Cox, Juliette Lewis or any of the young faces that Marty Callner threw into Aerosmith’s latest, but it was something different to see the Mr. Show ensemble jumping out of zeppelins or dramatically reciting Yes lyrics on a college quad. And this crew has kept at it for almost two decades, now appearing in videos for artists and directors who grew up on their show. Here is a selective timeline.

The Smashing Pumpkins, “Tonight, Tonight” (1996)

The married directing team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris met Odenkirk and Cross while filming a (still unmade) documentary about Los Angeles alternative comedy in the mid ’90s. They even followed the pair when they pitched Mr. Show to HBO.

Several months after its first season finished, Dayton and Faris landed the job directing “Tonight, Tonight” by the Smashing Pumpkins. It was a tribute to the silent movies of Georges Méliès, so they cast married Mr. Show regulars Tom Kenny (who is also the voice of Spongebob Squarepants) and Jill Talley to star in it because of their classic looks and expressive physicality. Dayton and Faris showcased the two again in the 2001 video for “Sing” by Travis. “You never get performers of that caliber for music videos,” says Dayton. “That was what was so great about Mr. Show, Bob and David handpicked the best people working in underground comedy at that time.”

Faris and Dayton, who went on to make Little Miss Sunshine, drew from the Mr. Show pool again with Mary Lynn Rajskub as the overworked pizza delivery lady in Weezer’s “The Good Life.” Rajskub then appeared in the celeb-heavy Michel Gondry clip for Sheryl Crow’s “A Change Will Do You Good” and made a cameo in Beck’s “New Pollution” before eventually becoming Chloe O’Brian on 24.

Yo La Tengo, “Sugarcube” (1997)

Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley of Yo La Tengo were vacationing out in Los Angeles when they went to see Odenkirk do standup at a Borders in Santa Monica. “It was as informal as that description makes it sound,” says Kaplan. “He referred to how they were being paid in store credit.”

‘While Odenkirk and Cross are currently major dudes in certain circles, having a show on HBO in the mid ’90s wasn’t nearly as prestigious as it is now.’

Kaplan and Hubley introduced themselves to him after the gig, and later when Odenkirk and Cross were in New York doing promo for Mr. Show‘s second season, they came to a Yo La Tengo concert. That’s when the group asked them to be in “Sugarcube.”

In the clip, Yo La Tengo are sent to rock school by the head of their record label (played by Mr. Show cast member John Ennis) so they can learn to stop being “so boring.” The band plotted the video’s concept and story outline, but the specific gags came from Odenkirk, Cross and the video’s director, Phil Morrison. Of all these videos, it feels the most like a Mr. Show sketch.

While Odenkirk and Cross are currently major dudes in certain circles, having a show on HBO in the mid ’90s wasn’t nearly as prestigious as it is now. Still, when asked if getting the guys from Mr. Show to appear in their video was a big deal at the time, Kaplan says, “It was a big deal to us.”

Superchunk, “Watery Hands” (1997)

Superchunk got Cross and his friend Janeane Garofalo to be in the video for “Watery Hands” for basically no money. “It was very generous of them,” says the band’s guitarist Jim Wilbur.

The video is an over-the-top spin on the Cars’ famous blue-screen wonder “You Might Think,” but swaps the original’s harassment for liberal bumper sticker activism and harlequin masks. The concept came from director Phil Morrison, who went on to direct the film Junebug. “Watery Hands” arrived just months after “Sugarcube,” and these were the last videos Morrison did until 2013, when he returned to the same pair with Yo La Tengo’s “I’ll Be Around” and Superchunk’s “Me & You & Jackie Mittoo.”

The conceit for both “Watery Hands” and “Sugarcube” is that indie rock bands just want to do simple performance videos, but they get pressured by outside forces to make something flashier, but that wasn’t really the case in either situation. “We wanted it to standout,” says Wilbur. “At the time there was still the possibility that a video could have an impact, that it could help sell a record.”

Foo Fighters, “Learn to Fly” (1999)

Director Jesse Peretz had less than a week to set up the video for “Learn to Fly.” He’d previously directed the Foo Fighter’s Mentos commercial-jacking video for “Big Me” and Dave Grohl knew he wanted this one to spoof airplane disaster movies.

Peretz got on a flight to Los Angeles and figured he’d flesh out an idea along the way. Before takeoff he saw a New York Times article about a drug-smuggling ring that brought drugs into Miami from South America via airplane catering carts. The piece mentioned an incident when a pilot was accidentally served cocaine in his coffee. By the time he landed, Peretz had the concept of the band playing multiple characters onboard a plane and most of them accidentally getting dosed, forcing the band to take control of the cockpit. Grohl was into it, but he had recently become friends with Jack Black and suggested that the actor’s band Tenacious D play the smugglers.

The same year that “Learn to Fly” came out, Black showed up in the video for Beck’s “Sexx Lawws.” In 2002, Peretz reunited Black and Grohl as hillbillies in a motel room for “Low.” While Peretz left music videos for features and has since moved to television (he’s now a producer on Girls), Black has kept popping up in the medium. He wore a wig in the kitschy “I Want You So Hard (Boy’s Bad News)” from the Eagles of Death Metal in 2006, and in 2012 he still starred in OFF!’s gory exploitation blast, “Wrong.” Just this year he was featured in “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Tacky.”

The Strokes, “Juicebox” (2005)

The Strokes are noted fans of Mr. Show, having Cross do standup during their end of 2001 shows at the Apollo and naming a 2002 tour after Wyckyd Sceptre, the oblivious gay metal band from one of the show’s best sketches.

Director Michael Palmieri came up with the skeevy concept for “Juicebox,” but it was the Strokes’ idea to have Cross play the crude late-night rock jock. “No one knew what he was going to say when they started rolling, they especially didn’t know he was going to go in on the band that hard. “It’s so biting in a really great way,” says Palmieri. “He’s taking the piss out of them when they were waaaay at the top of their game.”

That same year, Cross was in the New Pornographers’ “Use It,” playing a puppeteer of humans. Nardwuar’s there, too.

Red Fang, “Wires” (2011)

Brian Posehn, who appeared on all four season of Mr. Show, is a known metalhead. (He wore a Dimebag Daryl wig in the gnarly Titannica sketch he wrote.) He released two comedy albums on metal label Relapse Records and made cameos as a zombie in Anthrax’s “What Doesn’t Die” and as a hostage in The Damned Thing’s “We’ve Got a Situation Here.”

‘One thing that McConnaughy is clear about: “The diarrhea thing was his line.”’

It was Posehn’s connection to Relapse that helped Red Fang and director Whitey McConnaughy cast him in the video for “Wires.” He was touring through the band’s hometown of Portland, Oregon when they were filming and they grabbed him for a sequence in a gas station convenience store.

Posehn’s part is brief, and McConnaughy kind of got the feeling that the comedian wasn’t so sure that he had made the best decision to be involved. Still, Posehn was game and McConnaughy gave him some rough ideas about what to do, but let the specifics come from the comedian. One thing that McConnaughy is clear about: “The diarrhea thing was his line.”

Nick Lowe, “Stoplight Roses” (2012)

Paul F. Tompkins made his music video debut in 2010 with Ted Leo and the Pharmacist’s “Bottle in Cork,” playing a big-talking Broadway producer who gets the band to go full Green Day. But it’s Tompkins’ performance in Nick Lowe’s “Stoplight Roses” that may be the best actual acting any Mr. Show cast member has done in a music video. In the simple and melancholy piece, Tompkins wanders alone through Chicago after a rough night until he arrives at the shores of Lake Michigan where he watches a fireworks show from a grounded rowboat.

Though Tompkins enjoyed doing such a moody piece, he doesn’t expect to get another opportunity like this again. “While a lot of people said a lot of nice things to me after that video, I don’t fool myself that I’m as good as a lot of the people who are out there making a living as dramatic actors,” he says. “To try to get competitive in that field would be like starting a whole new career.”

Gap Dream, “Shine Your Light” (2013)

Mr. Show utility player John Ennis has recently shown up in a string of strange indie rock music videos. He appeared briefly in Father John Misty’s psychotic “This is Sally Hatchet,” shared lip syncing duties in Babes’ “Isn’t it Love,” teamed with fellow Mr. Show alumnus Jay Johnston as a pair of cops for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.’s “If You Didn’t See Me (Then You Weren’t On the Dancefloor),” and played the lead in a cosmic noir for Gap Dream’s “Shine Your Light.”

What makes Ennis so great in all these videos is that he fully commits, no matter what situation he’s thrown into. “He was pretty down for whatever,” says “Shine Your Light” director Jonny Look. “He jumped into a bunch of garbage a couple times. That was pretty cool of him.”