Mr. Show – “Van Hammersly”

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American History. Science.  Mathematics. Taught by the wrong educator, these can be dry subjects. But, what if you could learn about these subjects in an exciting, entertaining format from a world-wide billiards champion using nothing more than a pool table, balls, and cues?

That would be genius!  Or, if not genius, than downright, gut-busting, absurd.

Van HammerslySuch was the premise of the 1996 “Van Hammersly” sketch from Season 2, Episode 4, of the Emmy-nominated HBO comedy series Mr. Show, starring and hosted by Bob Odenkirk and David Cross.

Across the 30 episodes that aired between November 1995 and December 1998, Mr. Show lampooned everything from traditionalism to capitalism to organized religion with hilarious sketches that earned the show the 3rd greatest sketch comedy TV show of all time, according to Rolling Stone.[1]

Today, most people associate Mr. Odenkirk with the dubious, silver-tongued lawyer Saul Goodman from Breaking Bad and its spin-off Better Call Saul.  But, long before assuming the role of the smooth-talking attorney, Mr. Odenkirk portrayed a plethora of memorable characters on Mr. Show, including Van Hammersly, a cheeseball billiards champ hawking a line of educational video cassettes that are equivalent to earning your GED.  You can watch the full “Van Hammersly” sketch here.

The 150-second faux infomercial is must-see TV.  “Van Hammersly” begins with an introduction his first videocassette, “I Oughta Be in Pictures,” which “showcases his incredible talent and passion for the golden age of film.”  Featuring billiards balls named after Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart (“Judy, Judy, Judy”)[2] and the Three Stooges, Van Hammersly engages with, and then pockets, the balls as they interact at a 1952 Hollywood Awards show.

In the second video, we’re “off to the races as Van recounts the running of the 1974 Kentucky Derby the only way he knows how – with a pool table!”  Shooting each ball (horse) into a pocket, Van Hammersley details the race, rattling off with gusto a series of fictional equines:  Mr. Fasthorse, Papa’s Delicate Condition, Kystallnacht, Batman: The Horse, Nice ‘N’ Sticky, Stinkfinger, If Mandy Patinkin Was a Horse, and (“bringing up the rear”), Ol’ Felcher.[3]

Van HammerslyOther videos in Van’s series detail the history of mass transportation; science; mathematics; American history (“And that’s when Lincoln said [sinking the ball] don’t dis my homies.”); Renaissance painting, oceanography, corn futures, belly dancing; December 7th, 1941; billiards, rock lyrics, and many, many more!

Whether because of the memorable nut-job one-liners, the signature physical gestures, or the ludicrous concept, “Van Hammersly” often ranks among the most popular of the 157 Mr. Show sketches.[4]

And yet, ironically, the concept of teaching academic subjects through billiards is neither fictitious nor far-fetched.  Many probably remember watching in elementary school the 27-minute educational vignette Donald in Mathmagic Land that explains math angles to Donald Duck through a game of three-cushion billiards.  In a similar vein (though very poorly executed), the Australian Commonwealth Unit commissioned a series of educational “message films” in 1972. One such short film was “The Billiard Room” which lamely tried to teach the adult learning process through a game of snooker.

More recently, the National Film Board of Canada aired the “Let’s Play Long Billiards” episode of their Discover Science television series in which they explain the effects of colliding forces through a massive game of billiards. And in January 2015, the Science Channel’s wonderful series Outrageous Acts of Science featured billiards trick shot artist Florian “Venom” Kohler in an episode of “Fact or Faked” which asked real scientists to explain the science behind his improbable shots.

Maybe “Van Hammersly” is not so preposterous after all.  Anyone up for a billiards lesson on Zombies in Popular Media? Patternmaking for Dog Garments? Queer Musicology? Science from Superheroes?[5]

[1]        “40 Greatest Sketch-Comedy TV Shows of All Time,” Rolling Stone, March 27, 2015.

[2]    The best part is while the origin of the “Judy, Judy, Judy” line is murky, it is always attributed to Cary Grant, not Humphrey Bogart. http://www.carygrant.net/articles/judy.htm

[3]       Still don’t get the pun?  Look it up. #NSFW.

[4]      http://www.vulture.com/2015/11/every-mr-show-sketch-ranked.html

[5]       Yes, these really are the names of courses currently taught on college campuses. (http://socawlege.com/the-15-most-ridiculous-college-courses-you-wont-believe-are-being-taught/)

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