(Sharon Alagna)

Bob Odenkirk's advice to young people: "Get out of comedy, because it's about to collapse"

The actor, comedian and writer on his debut book, "Better Call Saul" and the weird things that make him laugh


Prachi Gupta
October 11, 2014 3:01AM (UTC)

Thanks to his appearance in critically acclaimed hits like “Breaking Bad,” “Fargo” and AMC’s upcoming “Better Call Saul,” Bob Odenkirk has become a recognizable face. But long before he hit the mainstream, Odenkirk quietly influenced an entire generation of comedy through his writing on “SNL,” by creating his '90s sketch show "Mr Show" with David Cross and by bringing comedy groups like The Birthday Boys and Tim and Eric to television. And now he is publishing his first book, a collection of absurdist essays, cartoons, sketches and other “funny things” that he’s compiled over the years called “A Load of Hooey.”

“A Load of Hooey” is a breezy read at 139 pages (with a gorgeous hardback cover, it’s worth noting), and each piece is only a few pages long -- if that. For a taste: There are “unabridged” inspirational quotes from famous people (Winston Churchill: “If you’re going through hell, keep going. But please stop screaming, it’s not good for morale”), a purposely bad sketch that imagines a dinner party at Hitler’s house when he’s losing the war, a collection of satirical reviews and overly earnest political speeches.

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It’s the perfect sort of book to read in installments, when you have a few minutes to spare or need to take a break -- but don’t you dare think about reading it while on the toilet (anticipating this, an introduction by “Parks and Recreation” writer Megan Amram warns you that this would be rather improper).

The Emmy Award-winning writer recently talked to Salon about his book and his upcoming television drama, and even imparted some unlikely advice for aspiring writers.

Your first piece begins with an introduction by Miss Sally Pemberton,  which really sets the tone. I was surprised to learn that it was written by Megan Amram. How did that come about?

Yeah, I like her work a lot, and it was a chance to work with her. I just like her tweets so much. She’s one of the funniest joke writers around. So I wanted to meet her and luckily, with the kind of credits I have, I can usually call people like that and just say let’s get together. So we had dinner and I told her about my book and I asked her if she’d write and read. She’s on the Audiobook and reads the intro and the "Dinner Party."

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There were some pieces, like "An Angel of the Lord," that I could see as a flash sketch, or "Happy Endings," which is a cartoon, also as a sketch. How do you decide what format works best for a comedy piece?

We did "Happy Endings" on tour last year -- me and David Cross -- and we did that sketch and it was really fun and it worked really well.

How do I decide what... I basically think the book came about because I don’t good make decisions and I didn’t make any decisions. It’s a bunch of pieces that I had sitting on my desk because I was collecting them for a book one day down the road. My friend Mike Sacks, an editor in New York, had them and he gave them to Dave Eggers unbeknowst to me. I know Dave Eggers and I like McSweeney’s and I wanted to publish the book on McSweeney’s, but I was just going to keep collecting for another five years. Mike, without my knowledge, gave it to Dave and Dave said, “Come on, let’s put it out, it's great!”

There’s a book of Steve Martin’s called “Cruel Shoes” and Woody Allen’s “Without Feathers,” if I’m not mistaken, especially Woody Allen's, that had some little playlets in it -- riffs on plays and stuff. And then there’s this book I like, a collection of Peter Cook's work called “Tragically I Was an Only Twin." That really is just by someone else and his brother did it. It has autobiographical sketches in it and other various things -- literally transcriptions of comic bits that he improvised on the radio and stuff.

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I enjoyed picking it up and looking at any page and reading it, so I thought that you could make a book where there doesn't have to be a unified concept outside of cracking it open and reading one piece and getting a laugh. It doesn't really matter what form it's in.

As a reader, I felt like most of the work aimed to poke fun at people who take themselves very seriously, or whom society takes very seriously, and illustrate their very human flaws.

Well, I think you're right. It's just not done consciously. It's not my indictment of humanity. I mean, I'm not trying to make fun of Martin Luther King, Jr. He's a great man. I think it's funny to imagine that he had a bad day. What does that do? What's the point of imagining that? Well, I guess the point is that he's a human being and let's not forget that and maybe that's a good thing to remember once in a while.

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But the same goes for everyone in there. If you're Lazarus and Jesus raises you from the dead, don't you walk around going "Well wait a second, is he going to do it again? How many times is he going to do it? What do you mean ‘He's not going to do it?'" Maybe it's just humanizing archetypes and great men or infamous men, like Hitler.

Do you make yourself laugh when you’re writing from the point of view of these wacky characters?

Sure, sometimes. I think you're sort of telling yourself, you're doing it in your head. You're performing it. For sure, yeah.

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I think I feel more confident with performance than with writing, so you know, I think I'm out on a limb here as far as my talents go. Because I just don't think I'm a great writer as far as style and stuff. But I did rewrite! So maybe I covered for myself a little. You know, you can cover for yourself with comedy sketch writing because no one's going to read the actual words. It's going to be performed and as long as it has some energy to it, it's going to move along. With writing writing, like the kind in the book -- or when something is presented that way -- people will read it and maybe even re-read it. I don't know if I hold up that well with that scrutiny. So I did a lot of rewriting because I had to clean these pieces up a lot and make them work.

At the same time, I indulged myself. For example, "Her Laughter," which no one seems to like -- I love. It's just this guy praising this woman too much, but then pointing out that her one flaw is her laughter -- but it's a horrifying flaw. Like her laughter just made people collapse. I read this book -- I can't even remember the name of it, but this guy's writing about his wife who died and it was just so overwritten. It was so over the top.

How did these pieces come about?

I did think that it could be compiled and that it could be fun for people. But these kinds of pieces I wrote between my real job, which I guess is acting now, but for a long time it was writing comedy and writing TV pilots and sketches and movies.

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The book reminded me of one of my favorite humor collections, Jack Handey's "What I'd Say to the Martians."

Oh yeah, yeah. Jack is a friend of mine. I never even thought about Jack's book! For sure -- please do put me in the same vein as Jack Handey. He's one of the great comedy writers of our time. And a great guy, too.

Did any public figures inform these characters?

Well, "A Hazy Christmas Memory" is a riff on Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory," which in my case, the guy's very dumb and he can't remember very well, and he keeps reiterating and changing what he remembered the first time and he also, he's surrounded by a bunch of clods instead of a bunch of finely tuned sensibilities.

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In the case of "The Politician's Promise," it's a riff on people who have that blanket statement of "I don't want to elect anybody who's been to Washington." Here's a guy who has been elected who literally doesn't know anything about Washington or how it works and he's very proud of that, celebrating it like he's an idiot. Their voices are specific ones, like Truman Capote, or they're general ones that you hear on the radio or in public, riffing about how much people talk about how much they don't want an experienced politician, which I think is as ridiculous as anything. There's nothing great about that, so I'm making fun of that point of view that we see in the public sphere right now.

I often wonder: At what point are we going to trip over from people trying to hide the drugs they've taken, the mistakes they've made, to people going, "OK, I'm going to tell you everything right now" and really just making us listen to everything. Because people really really want to hear that stuff until they start hearing it, and then there's a feeling like, "Yeah, that's okay, no I know." You know what I mean? When a politician really admits that what he's done is wrong, there will be a point when it comes, in the details, where it'll be like, "Yeah, well we really didn't want to hear everything; just wanted to hear the first bit and we wanted to judge you on it."

But the fact is, people have all kinds of skeletons in their closets. I mean, we can't expect politicians or public figures to be saints. They're people, and if they've had any kind of life, and any kind of experience, they've done things sketchy and wrong. So it's funny to write a politician's speech who is telling you more than you want to know.

I don't sit down and think about "how will I find comedy today." I just think about things that make me laugh... or, sometimes, things that make you angry are a really great place to find comedy. Stuff that bothers you and you feel like, there's something here, there's some hypocrisy or something that just needs to be ridiculed about this.

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What are some of the things that really make you angry right now?

Well, I think the world is a complex place, and we have a desperate desire to make it simple. And I think that in pursuing that desire we become really clumsy, and people do and say a lot of dumb things. It's wanting it to be simple, but it's not going to be simple. It's a complicated world and whenever you oversimplify it, you make mistakes. It's wishful thinking. So in general, that's how I think about what's kind of ridiculous about life right now, which is trying to simplify this world. It's not easy, and we have to try to deal with the complexities.

That's true, and there is also a strong desire for people to point that out.

I think in a lot of ways, this is a book for my fans. People who already know "Mr. Show," "Tim and Eric," things I wrote on or helped with, or created in the case of "Mr. Show." It's just for the people who know that. I don't know if I'm going to expand my audience with this, and I don't really care if I do.

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You do have a mainstream audience with your AMC shows, though.

I don't think that the AMC show has anything to do with this. I don't think the people who watch that will even understand that. They'll be like, "Why did that actor write about these things? What does he know? Why would he do that?"

I hope it doesn't upset anyone, but I feel like I'm entitled to be myself even though I'm playing a part on a TV show. But I also feel like -- I try to be very clear. I don't pitch the book to fans of "Better Call Saul." It has nothing to do with "Better Call Saul."

Do you feel like people try pigeonhole or typecast you?

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I don't think I've been pigeonholed at all; that's why I've been allowed to do these things. I think one of the things I'm lucky with is I've flown under the radar and nothing I've done has been that popular. And so as a result, I'm very lucky and then I think I get to keep these different audiences and do a different thing for them.

I think massive success is the thing that keeps people from getting to do different things, because once people know you in one way, they would like you to keep being that thing, whatever it is. And so I feel like I've been lucky in that I've had only a modicum of success, and I'm perfectly happy to keep to that.

I hope that that show, "Better Call Saul," does wonderfully for Sony and AMC, and for the audience, and that they get a lot of entertainment from it. But I don't think that it will ever be perceived as a Bob Odenkirk project. It was written by Vince Gilligan, and everyone knows that the writers from "Breaking Bad" have created that world and are deserving of the attention for it. And I'm an actor in it. So if they want to appreciate my acting, I hope it happens, but I don't think that I'm going to be labeled as the person who is behind that show, and therefore the voice of that show.

But I also try to be clear about it with people. Like fans of "Better Call Saul" say, "You wrote a book?" And I go, "Well, maybe I did. Maybe not. It's not important." You know what I mean? They don't need to know. It's like talking to your grandma, you know? It's like, that's OK, it's not for you, you don't need to know about that.

You're known in the comedy world for being a mentor and opening doors for people. But I can imagine that for every great student, there have been a dozen really awkward interactions with people who don't have the talent or the work ethic or whatever else. Do you have any stories of someone tracking you down and it just being terribly awkward?

People don't track me down. I don't think I'm that easy to track down. I don't have a bunch of people trying to get my attention and come and stand in front of me and do auditions or something.

The people that I've mentored or helped, like Tim and Eric, or the Birthday Boys or Andre Hyland -- they're just people whose work I happen to see because I still go to comedy clubs and still watch crazy stuff because I like it, and then I call them up and say, "What are you doing?" and you know, give them advice, and if they want to take it, they can, they don't have to. So I don't really have a bunch of rejected students walking around. There's no place to get ahold of me. I'm not a professor at some college or something.

Speaking of talent, who are you paying attention to right now?

Key and Peele are really funny. They don't need any advice from me, obviously. But they really marry up good ideas and point of view with performance. I think a lot of times with sketch comedy, you get one or the other. You get a really funny performer taking not really great ideas, or you get great ideas, well-written, but the performance is maybe not that spirited or wonderful. These guys, they have it all going on. I think they're top-notch.

Tim and Eric still make me laugh every single time I see anything they do, and also they kind of are mind-blowing. I think they're two of the funniest, smartest people working.

I did an album of me doing stand-up with this kid named Brandon Wardell. It's me and him. That'll come out in like three, four weeks. I think Brandon Wardell's funny. I think he's got a ways to go, but he's got a great voice, he's really likable, and he's gonna do some really great comedy in the years to come.

What would your advice be if you were a teacher giving a spiel about how to teach comedy writing?

I would say, get out of comedy, because it's about to collapse.

Really?

I honestly think that in particular sketch comedy is having a heyday, which of course is wonderful. But also will end. So, what I would say to anybody is: What is the next thing that happens after sketch comedy has its heyday? And I don't really know what that is, but it could be dramatic pieces, or it could be a different kind of... you see John Mulaney is trying to revive the smart-guy humor in an audience multi-camera sitcom. He got savaged in his reviews, but I think maybe people [could] go in that direction.

I do think that after sketch comes story. After you've done sketch for a while, you start to look at story, or what stories people tell. So I'd say start looking at stories you can tell and thinking and learning about story-telling. I think the sketch comedy thing is really great, and I'm thrilled that it's having a heyday, but I also think that will end, and when it ends, everybody moves on to the next thing.

I don't know what that is, but this time where we're at right now reminds me a lot of the late '80s with stand-up comedy, when there was a stand-up comedy boom in a city like Chicago, where I was living, went from having two stand-up comedy clubs to having six. And there was literally a stand-up night in every town. So on a Tuesday night, in Cicero, there'd be a stand-up show. And then it all went to pieces because it's all too much. It's more than anyone needs. So I love that sketch comedy is having a heyday, if it wants to last for another 20 years, that's fine with me, because that's what I do. But I honestly would tell anyone young to start looking at stories and learning story, because I think that's the next step after people go, "OK, I've had enough of that improvisation, I've had enough of those short comedy bits. Tell me a story, tell me a more complex story, something that lasts and maybe has a little more meaning to it." Don't ever look at what's happening now; look at what's coming next.

I've never heard advice like that for an aspiring writer.

I think we'll see what it's gonna be, but you can see on the Internet, I mean, 10 years ago, people were like, everything's gotta be two minutes or under two minutes long, and now people go to the Internet and watch movies, and they don't even blink at longer pieces, and they watch them, and the Internet is figuring out a way to monetize those pieces, with those commercials that come every 10 minutes or so. So I think people are going to go down that road, but it's very hard to predict what is going to happen.

I mean, look at "Breaking Bad." When it started, it was not a hit. And I don't know how well it did. I heard that it almost got canceled after the first season and again after the second season. So then people got into streaming viewing, which didn't exist when "Breaking Bad" started. No one talked about streaming viewing; it didn't happen, it wasn't a thing you could do physically if you wanted. And the show really payed off in streaming viewing, and it became massive. So the ways people get their entertainment can change, and then that can change what it is they're watching.

Whatever the next thing is, I'm hoping we'll see some Bob Odenkirk work in that.

Well, I can't help myself. There's something broken inside me. So I write sketch comedy, and I write these little comic pieces, and I will continue to do that because of the fault in my brain, whatever's gone wrong up there.

But you as a young person can probably make more of a choice of how you're going to construct a career, and I would just say be careful. If everyone's doing something, see what they're not doing and go towards that.

I have to do the obligatory "Better Call Saul" questions, though I know this is more about the book.

Listen, I'm honestly not allowed to say much about that show. So, you can ask a question, and if I can answer I will, and if I can't, then I won't. That's OK. I'll do what I can.

One of my favorite things about "Breaking Bad" was that it was Heisenberg's origin story, meaning that we see the moment that he transforms, crosses over in a very permanent, unchangeable way. I've read that "Better Call Saul" is going to be dark, and to me it reads that it's going to be Saul Goodman's origin story.

Yes.

I'm wondering if you can tell me a little bit about what the younger Saul is like and how he's different from the Saul we know in "Breaking Bad."

I can't tell you specifics, because I would get excommunicated from the Catholic Church, as well as every other church where people watch "Breaking Bad."

He's going to surprise you. I think when people see Saul from the "Breaking Bad" show, they are seeing the public face of that character, the things he wants to present to the public because he thinks it will get him business, and he had created that persona. So who is the real guy who did that? And I think I would just put it this way. A lot of times people see cynical behavior or a cynical attitude and they think the person is a cynic; in this case maybe Saul Goodman is a cynical guy about the law and stuff. A lot of cynics, I would argue, or people who are called cynics, are truly idealists who just had their feelings hurt. And so I think there's some philosophy there that maybe carries over in to how Saul became the character that we met on "Breaking Bad." So that's as specific as I'll get. It's pretty philosophical or whatever, but I would say that... that's all I can say. He's a very different guy from what you think. I'll put it that way. And yet it all makes sense, I think, because the writing is so good, and the writers have really challenged themselves and have come up great from it.

My last question to you is random, but it's something I love asking people. If you could think of a thought or a concept or a feeling that should have a word, but to your knowledge doesn't, can you create or define one for me? Something that you think should have a word.

A thing that should have a word? I have one!

Oh wow! That was fast.

I have a word! I have a new word that we want everyone to use. It's totally utilitarian. You ready?

Yeah!

It's an indoor tent. You know those tents you make for your kids with chairs and blankets? It's an indoor tent, and it's called a zilot. And it's an indoor tent. So whenever you make a tent for your kids or your grandkids or your friends' kids out of chairs and blankets, say, "Let's make a zilot," or, "Careful, you're going to ruin the integrity of the zilot if you keep shaking that chair."

It sounds like you've been thinking about this word for a while.

The reason is because when my kids were little, we made those tents, we loved making them, kids love that. And one of the kids called it a zilot by accident, and we thought, "That is a great name. That is an actual word; boy, that sounds like a word." So we started calling that a zilot. And I think that should become a word. I would like to see that happen.


Prachi Gupta

Prachi Gupta is an Assistant News Editor for Salon, focusing on pop culture. Follow her on Twitter at @prachigu or email her at pgupta@salon.com.

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