Jokes are jokes. It's the presentation that makes them special.
Take Mr. Show: The twisting together of static television and live dynamic stage comedy is what made it so great. Now, in Portland, Mr. Show co-creator Bob Odenkirk is once again preparing to fuck around with form.
He'll touch down Friday morning, March 16, and go straight to the Brody Theater. There, for the first time, he will shake hands with his cast for the weekend.
They'll have met via Skype to read lines, but Odenkirk knows little or nothing about those who'll be performing his sketches. Brody Theater owner Tom Johnson, an old friend of Odenkirk's, assembled the ensemble.
After proper introductions they'll get right to business, spending all afternoon working out the scenes. They'll break for dinner, then return to the theater and open the first of the weekend's four shows.
"I've never used pick-up actors in new cities," Odenkirk says. "But I am not afraid of it at all, and in fact, I'm only excited by the idea."
And for all the show's explorative nature, it is also a reunion. Odenkirk and Johnson go way back. "We used to do stand-up together back in Chicago like 20 years ago," Odenkirk explains. Back then each was developing a comedic voice that had yet to find its home. The world of "alternative comedy"—one that Odenkirk would eventually help pioneer—was still years away.
"It would be us and very typical club comedians," Odenkirk says of the scene at the time. "Jokes about airplane food. Jerry Seinfeld rip-offs." The two played before audiences not particularly amenable to challenging or innovative stand-ups.
"Tom would still do well," Odenkirk says. "I was surprised at how well he would do with a regular audience—whereas I would not do well."
Together the two toured around the Chicago area and collaborated on a short film. In 1987, Odenkirk left to write for Saturday Night Live. In the ensuing years, Johnson became disillusioned with the lifestyle of the touring comedian. He quit, and the two lost contact.
Johnson, who in the interim had found his way back to comedy through improv and sketch, broke 20-some years of silence. Last year, when the Brody Theater was approaching its 15th anniversary, Johnson reached out to Odenkirk, who was unavailable until now.
Each of the weekend's four performances will feature stand-up sets from Odenkirk and Johnson, sketches written by Odenkirk, and a few comedic monologues.
"I'm going to do some pieces, like a comic presentation," Odenkirk says. "I'm going to do Martin Luther King's worst speech ever. Stuff like that."
The cast for the sketches will be Odenkirk and Johnson, as well as Kerry Leek, Brian MacMillan, Brian Kameoka, Ian Karmel, Marilyn Divine, Mike Karras, and Scott Engdahl.
For Odenkirk, the format is a confluence of his myriad interests, from writing to directing to acting to sketch to stand-up. The opportunity to meet and work with young comics is a fringe benefit for Odenkirk, who'll also do a separate Q&A session.
"It does make me happy to teach," Odenkirk says. "I get excited by people with genuine, great energy for what we're doing. And when people are starting out, when they're not making any money... they tend to have the very best reasons for talking about and thinking about comedy, and I relate to their energy. I understand where they're coming from, and it's meaningful to me and a joy."