Laughing Matters — Mr. Show, “Lie Detector”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

A few days ago, a picture share don social media prompted several proud comedy nerds online while away an afternoon citing sketches from Mr. Show, the beloved HBO-aired sketch series presided over by David Cross and Bob Odenkirk a couple decades back. The photo in question was posted by actress and author Amber Tamblyn and showed Cross, her husband, meeting Carol Burnett at an event, the former understandably enthusing over the latter’s hit nineteen-seventies series. More surprisingly, Tamblyn reported that Burnett was similarly laudatory about Mr. Show, enthusing about its brilliance.

New York Times writer Dave Itzkoff, who clearly devotes a fair amount of his personal and professional brain power to thinking about comedy, quickly invited speculation about which Mr. Show sketch might be Burnett’s favorite. The responses were a flood of inspired guesses, the whole procession serving as a sampler of one of the best comedy programs to ever traverse cable lines. Of all those named, my vote for likeliest to earn Burnett’s highest admiration is the season three standout “Lie Detector.”

Like a quintessential sketch from The Carol Burnett Show, in the non-spoof division anyway, “Lie Detector” is sharply written with deft, economical character details. It takes a simple premise and works every angle of it, taking artful swerves along the way into little diversions that are almost micro-sketches in themselves. The level of craft is impeccable in every respect, including Swiss watch timing in the comedic performances. Like Burnett says, it’s brilliant.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

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