"Yes, people know me as Saul Goodman": Bob Odenkirk and David Cross talk reunion, "Breaking Bad," "Mr. Show"

The duo behind the brilliant "Mr. Show" are back — older, more successful, and as brilliant and clever as ever

Published November 14, 2015 12:00AM (EST)

  (AP/Charles Sykes)
(AP/Charles Sykes)

On Nov. 3, 1995, a quirky new sketch comedy series premiered on HBO called "Mr. Show with Bob and David." Helmed by two guys named Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, who most viewers had never heard of, it brimmed with gleefully silly and unabashedly absurdist fare, ran for four critically lauded but poorly rated seasons and attracted a devoted cult following. “I used to go to 'Mr. Show' tapings, and it was clear that this was our Monty Python,” director Judd Apatow told Vanity Fair. “It felt like the most fertile comedic space I had ever seen. Every show would blow your mind.”

On Friday, Nov. 13, two decades (and 10 days) after their career-launching brainchild debuted, many of "Mr. Show’s" original stars and writers — including, of course, Odenkirk and Cross — reconvene for a four-episode Netflix series titled "W/Bob & David." Will minds be blown this time around, too? Perhaps. Needless to note, the bar is very high.

“We intentionally wanted a different name, and we wanted the freedom to do anything here,” Odenkirk, the star of AMC’s "Better Call Saul," said in a recent conversation. And, indeed, "W/Bob & David" is quite a comedic pastiche, featuring bits about everything from a lame-brained filmmaker and hard-nosed-but-strangely-sensitive detectives to a sticky-fingered dry cleaner and an increasingly annoying motorist (Cross, in one of the series’ highlights) who tries and repeatedly fails to get arrested so he can catch his anticipated mistreatment on video for the purposes of teaching others about their civil rights.

Here’s more of what Odenkirk and Cross (who recently wrapped season 3 of his IFC series "The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret") had to say about their latest venture and related topics.

Did "W/Bob & David" have its genesis before you guys reconvened to do your book and tour in 2013, or was that the spark?

Odenkirk: That was the spark. We did that tour [with comic and original "Mr. Show" writer/cast member Brian Posehn] and we had a lot of fun and we did sketches and standup. And that was the impetus for, “Let’s do something for the 20-year 'Mr. Show' [anniversary],” and we were going to do a live tour. But we realized as we talked about it how hard a live tour is. It takes weeks of writing and prep and rehearsal and you have to get all the travel arrangements [made] and any city you go to, there’s all kinds of prep you have to do. And I’ve had people after a tour go, “Hey, when are you guys gonna work together again?” I’m like, “I just got off the road. I was in your city.” And you realize just how hard it is to get to even your fans. After that tour, David and I were talking about a "Mr. Show" reunion tour, and then I’m thinking about how hard it is to do any kind of tour and also about how much I don’t really care to celebrate the fans we used to have or the thing we did 20 years ago. I’m still wanting to write sketches about now. So that was the thinking that led to, “Just do a new show.”

Cross: We did the tour and had yet another reminder of how much fun it was to work with each other and come up with material. Then it occurred to me that the 20th anniversary of "Mr. Show" was coming up and we should use it as an excuse to get together and do a tour of brand-new stuff, and then at the end of that tour do maybe an hour live special on HBO. And very quickly in that process, we were coming up with all this stuff. Bob doesn’t really like to be away from his family for very long, and I don’t think he would have wanted to do it as extensively as it might have needed to be done. But he was also the spark for this idea that if we spent the same amount of time and energy schedule-wise, we could do our own TV show and more people will see it.

You’re both in your 50s now. From a comedic standpoint, have you found that getting older is more limiting or liberating?

Odenkirk: I think how you answer this says a lot about your character. Both answers are valid.  For me, then, my instinct says it’s more limiting. Comedy can be destructive, and still very, very funny. But if I can do something that is fun to watch and critical of the world but not wantonly destructive, I pursue those [kinds of] ideas more now. The world needs less destruction. And destruction is kind of “easy,” too.

Cross: In practical physical terms, it’s limiting. When you’re 20 you can put a ton of old-age prosthetics on and be an old guy, but when you’re 70 you can’t play a 20-year-old. It hasn’t really affected my standup at all, but as far as sketch comedy it’s definitely limiting for the reasons I just said. But as writers and producers, you go find younger talent that can do it, so in that way it’s liberating.

Once you achieve a certain degree of solo success, collaboration doesn’t always come as easily as it might have early on when you were young and didn’t have the ego. Was there any of that in getting the band back together, or did you all click right away?

Odenkirk:I gotta tell you, man, we clicked right away. And maybe it’s our personal experience, but I think there’s a whole lot less ego involved now than when you’re young and you’re trying to make your bones and you’re holding onto every idea you pitch and saying, “That’s mine! Don’t change it!” [But] I think it can go either way. You stick people in a room together and [they] get told no or get [their] idea turned a different direction, in a lot of cases they’re going to be like, “Well, fuck this. I don’t need this. I have my own show.” But weirdly, with this group of people — partly, maybe, because it is a short-term endeavor — there’s a feeling of, That’s OK. That’s what this is. I will have my own show again and I don’t need that ego stroking to come from this project. I’m here to have fun with this group. And what we found was that these people who have more experience now were just more willing to have their ideas critiqued and altered and improved and discarded, even.

Cross: When we had an initial meeting over at Bob’s place, we were still talking about whether we were going to do it at HBO or Netflix or Amazon. We wanted to do it, but it was not by any means a done deal. And we just thought, Hey, let’s get the guys together. We hadn’t all been in the same room in 16 years, and it was instantaneous, it was effortless. We’re all still friendly with each other and work on various projects [together], but it was the first time we got together as writers in that group. I had not laughed that hard in years, and I remember telling Bob in the car when we were leaving, “Holy fuck! That was amazing!” And any hesitation, any kind of reluctance or nagging feeling of “will this work?” was instantly dispelled.

Comedic sensibility has a lot to do with personal experience. In what ways have you both changed personally, and how have those changes affected the comedy you’re doing now as opposed to what you were doing 20 years ago?

Odenkirk: It’s pretty amazing how close we are [in sensibility] when we work together now. I’ve always been a little concerned when we’re doing testy subject matter that we’re thinking about who we’re criticizing, actually, and who’s the butt of the joke or being ridiculed. I think I’ve gotten a little more sensitive about that than I was, and I was always aware of that and talked about it and questioned it. Because we like doing things that are surprising and a little challenging.

Cross: That might be better answered by someone who’s outside of my interior monologue, which is constant [laughs]. But to me, there is no real change. I’m still bothered by the same things I was bothered by before. I still gravitate toward the same kind of topics. I was never particularly concerned with a female-centric voice or an ethnic-centric voice. I don’t give a shit about Jewish humor or women’s humor or black humor. It’s not like I went backpacking in India and came out with this completely different take on people. I didn’t drop acid in Joshua Tree and come back and go, “We shouldn’t make fun of bla-bla-bla.” There’s none of that. I haven’t experienced that kind of thing. I’m probably a little more emotionally grounded and settled, and I’m married and I have a satisfying career and I’ve been really blessed to be able to do all these things. And that’s probably different in that 20 years ago I was proving myself and I felt the need to prove myself.

At this point you both have better dramatic chops than you did in the ’90s. How has being a better dramatic actor made you a better comedic one?

Odenkirk: I’m more aware of what can be done with subtlety and camera choices. I may have real confidence replacing sheer bluster. But I was always aware that my presence would probably work better in a dramatically based scenario. I’m just not as much fun to watch as David is. But if you surround me with darkness, suddenly, I am “somewhat fun.”

Cross: I’m not sure it does, really. I would say the comedy has always been there and been nurtured over the last 20-plus years of performing, whereas [on] the dramatic side, there are less opportunities, so that is kind of new. I think it was always within us. Certainly Bob. I think Bob showed flashes of that on a number of occasions on "Mr. Show." And I never bought into that kind of bullshit trope of, “Wow, I’m surprised Robin Williams was able to do that dramatic role.” Being comedic is a skill, because there is a fine line where the context is important. And being dramatic is just being honest and real in that moment. And we’re all real people with moments of intense honesty and pathos and humanity. We all experience that, whether you’re comedic or not.

What sort of material would you never do now that you might have embraced in your more callow and callous "Mr. Show" days?

Odenkirk: Hmmm. Not much is off the table.  Still angry about George W’s presidency, so that’s still up for ridicule. We always used to talk about who was the butt of a joke we were making, and we always tried to make clear who we thought that butt belonged to. The only difference with time is I don’t think I need to pursue any joke/sketch I think of. If I don’t have it in focus, I can just set it aside until it comes to me. I’d say it’s easier to let things go.

Cross: I don’t think there is any subject matter. I’ve always tried to have a rule that you shouldn’t make fun of innocent people who can’t defend themselves. I find that a little unseemly and distasteful. But nothing’s really sacred to me.

In the first "Mr. Show" episode, you joked that viewers had told HBO they wanted to see a sketch show “hosted by two people we’ve never seen before.” These days you’re both well known. What’s at stake now that wasn’t back then, and to what degree do you feel the pressure of high expectations?

Odenkirk: I have a little bit of [what’s] either a defect or a talent to compartmentalize expectations. And I think if you don’t, you really can get in a spot in showbiz and creative endeavors. You really need to be able to go, Look, that’s what we did yesterday. Yes, people know me as Saul Goodman. Probably a certain number of people are going to tune into this show and go, “What’s Saul Goodman gonna do in the show?” and then immediately be disappointed and be like, “I don’t even see the actor in here. Which one is he? Oh, that guy? No, that’s not him.” But I can’t live my life pursuing those people and trying to make them happy. I feel like "Mr. Show" was a very pure and strong and well-executed vision, but it can’t stop you from trying again.

Cross: I would say there’s nothing at stake, and when we did "Mr. Show" we had everything at stake. If we were to fail with that, then that would be a tough thing to get over because nobody knew who we were, we hadn’t established ourselves yet. I didn’t have any real anxiety about doing ["W/Bob & David"]. There’s always that little nagging thing that comes in the back of your head that you can quickly push away, but it still enters. Like, Oh, man, what if we don’t have our shit together? What if it’s no good? What if people don’t like us? What if people don’t share our sensibilities anymore? But we’ve done a number of things together. Every time we toured, we’d sell out places. And wherever we go, Bob and I, we have our little dedicated, nurturing fan base that loves what we’ve done since "Mr. Show" as well as "Mr. Show."

Plus, I have full confidence in our ability to discern what works and what doesn’t work. If it’s making us laugh, then we think it’s funny. And I could not have more trust in and respect for Bob. If he thinks one of my pieces is really funny, then I know it’s really funny. And vice versa. So I felt like we’d meet the expectations. And I know that people will look at it and judge it through this lens, which you can’t help but do, and I totally get that, but "Mr. Show" had four years to gestate and find its voice and have a production crew in place. I’d say that’s the one big difference, is this one was — unfortunately, because of our schedules — really kind of crammed into a finite amount of time. That’s the sole reason we only did four [episodes], is we just didn’t have time to do any more properly. There will definitely be more. We all want to do more.

By Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas is a longtime arts and entertainment staff writer for the Chicago Sun-Times and author of the critically acclaimed oral history The Second City Unscripted: Revolution and Revelation at the World-Famous Comedy Theater.

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