AUSTIN, TX: One of the best things about SXSW’s “Conversation with…” panels, at least from the viewpoint of a curious festivalgoer (and, as long as we’re being frank, an entertainment journalist looking for good quotes), is the match-ups the festival organizers make, forgoing the customary stuttering, star-struck journalist (again, no judgment) and instead pairing up the subject with one of their contemporaries. It’s a nice way of turning what could be an awkward interview into a relaxed conversation, and of getting past the usual pat answers of the biographical talk – at least, that was the vibe at Sunday’s “Conversation with Bob Odenkirk,” which was conducted by fellow comic actor and writer Fred Armisen. Early on, we learned they shared more than a common profession – Odenkirk had given Armisen one of his early breaks, casting him in a post-Mr. Show sketch pilot for Fox called Next, which sadly wasn’t picked up. And that’s not all we learned over their leisurely, hour-long chat.
Better Call Saul’s creators didn’t know what the show was going to be.
When talking about the importance of taking risks, Odenkirk disclosed that Saul creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould were just as baffled by the concept for the Breaking Bad spin-off as the rest of us. “Boy, they didn’t know what they were gonna write,” Odenkirk laughed. “They were talking about a half-hour comedy. And then they talked about a one-hour procedural where every week Saul has a different client, and every week he settles their case out of court, he never goes to court. He’s a lawyer who’s never in court, because he pulls strings and manipulates the world for his clients’ gain. Which is a really cool idea, right? And then in the end, went this direction of this origin story of the character.
“One of the compliments you get from some projects and certainly from Better Call Saul is, ‘Ya know, it was really cool because I was watching and I didn’t know what to expect… I kept watching because I didn’t know where it was going!” And I’m like, “Well, yeah, we didn’t know either!”
He hasn’t gotten used to being a celebrity.
Playing Saul Goodman has granted him a level of public recognizability that didn’t really come from his earlier work (outside the comedy community), and the actor says it’s still a little weird. “This thing is this much bigger phenomenon, much bigger than me – I’m just a part of it. And I don’t identify myself with it quite as much as that comedy stuff that I generated from my bedroom. But it’s weird, also, to be part of something so big. Literally, I was walking around earlier, and a woman grabbed my arm. This is the weird part, you really become an object. You’re an object from TV that is out in the world. And I’m alone walking to get lunch, and I walk by her, and she goes, ‘SAUL!‘ And grabs my arm. And I go ‘What? Yes, okay.’ That’s what I always say: ‘Yes, I play that character on TV.’”
He’s learned something about the projects that end up working.
Armisen noted that Odenkirk has been on a bit of a winning streak lately, involved in projects (like Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, and Fargo) of very high quality, a sixth sense for good stuff that Odenkirk shot down immediately: “I’m in lotsa bad stuff. I could fuckin’ fill five hours with that.” But he has begun to see some common threads that are, at the very least, indicators of scripts that could turn out great. “One of the things I’ve started to see in really good writing is that everybody, even secondary characters, has an arc, a journey,” he noted. “But also if characters have some self-awareness, it’s a big statement about the depth to which they’ve been written. Because it’s true in life. Ya know, if somebody got Donald Trump in a room and said, ‘You’re an egotistical asshole,’ there’s a chance he’d go, ‘I know.’ Because he does! He’s been told hundreds of times, and he knows it’s kind of true.
“And people do have that self-awareness. So when that’s written into the character, as it was in Fargo and certainly all over Saul, that’s what you should look for. If you just see a glimmer of the character knowing their own limitation, that’s a big statement.
He wants to do more work with David Cross.
In 2015, he reunited with his Mr. Show co-creator/co-star David Cross for a limited Netflix series, titled With Bob and David, he snorted, “for legal reasons.” Netflix revivals tend to fall into a hype-hype-HYPE-disappointment-disappearance cycle, but With Bob and David is a legitimately funny show that immediately recaptures the essence of its predecessor, and Odenkirk said he’s down to do more, once it’s logistically feasible. “We would do more episodes of that show,” he explained, “but David’s doing a show in England, great idea that he had that he wrote into a series called Bliss. And also, David Cross and Amber Tamblyn had their first baby, about three weeks ago.”
The customary smattering of applause followed this news, to which Armisen grinned, “So David, if you’re sitting here, congratulations.”
Point is, Odenkirk continued, “he’s gonna be preoccupied for… about seven years. But we’re gonna do some others as soon as we can, so hopefully that can happen again.”
He didn’t have a great time at SNL.
Discussing topical and political comedy, Odenkirk made the bold statement that Saturday Night Live “is maybe better than it’s ever been,” which prompted some thoughts on his own time as a writer on the show. “Ya know, I just think it it was a bad mix of –“
“You did great! What are you talking about?” Armisen immediately interjected.
“Did I?” Odenkirk asked, sincerely, not doing some sort of bullshit modesty move. “I don’t think so.”
“Yeah, you were there a long time, I would consider that a great time, and you were a part of those great casts, right?”
“Yeah, I wasn’t that helpful, tough,” Odenkirk replied. While he owned up to writing Chris Farley’s beloved “Motivational Speaker” sketch, he insisted, “I just wasn’t that effective there and it was really unpleasant for me, Fred. It was was really personally difficult. Because I just wasn’t in a tough enough state, emotionally, to handle the stress of that job. It’s a hard fuckin’ job, you know what it’s like — it’s like a steamroller, and there’s all these people, and some of them have tons of experience, and you’re new, and you don’t know your way in, and you want to be effective… So it was hard on me and I don’t know how helpful I was. But in the end I learned a lot that I used on Mr. Show.”
He has a simple rule about the projects he does.
With Saul, he says, “I didn’t really take everything into account until the billboards went up. I mean, I’m willing to risk anything, because what’re you gonna do to me? I feel like, I’m Bob Odenkirk and I can go write some funny stuff that’ll make me happy tomorrow. I’d probably go into the doghouse for a couple of years, but I’d just write a bunch of funny stuff and try to make myself happy that way and I’d do fine. So I’m for trying something interesting and different all the time.”
He’s just getting away from the comedy writer work ethic — but it’s not easy.
Before Saul, Armisen recalled, when he would see Odenkirk and catch up, “You were always working on something – pitching something, writing something…”
“That’s because I was always failing,” Odenkirk replied.
“I don’t see it that way!” Armisen said. “I really admire your work ethic. Is that part of you still churning and happening?”
“I spend a lot more time at the dog park now,” Odenkirk admitted. “I actually do less, a little bit less. Look, that came from being a comedy writer and just generating material every day. That was your job, and it was a job I desperately wanted and loved getting… So getting there, and then getting Saturday Night Live and the shows that came after, I still feel that way. I still go, c’mon, you should be writing some comedy right now.”
There’s a simple thing comedy writers can do to get better.
Any time you have a session like this with a Q&A, you’ll get a question about the advice the subject would give to a struggling young writer/director/podcaster/coder/whatever who’s just starting out, and then you get the boilerplate answer of just getting out there and doing good work and making connections. And Odenkirk’s reply to that question was along those lines, but with a twist of specificity. “I did this little workshop thing,” he said, “where people brought in these sketches that they wrote, and one thing that you don’t get to do when you’re a young writer is have a writer’s room. A lot of what we do gets better in a writer’s room! There’s five other writers there and they’re all going, What if you tried this, or My favorite part was that, y’know? And your sketch gets exponentially better in no time, because these other voices are helping.
“And the mistake people make in this business is they go off in a corner and write as though they were novelists or poets. And what we do is an interactive thing – you have to be putting it up, you have to be presenting it all the time. Whenever I meet someone who’s like ‘I’ve got seven screenplays,’ you know they hide in a corner and shit out this stuff. You should be showing yourself. You should be reading it aloud in front of five other people who write screenplays. If you write comedy at all, you should go to an alternative night, and fucking read your jokes off a piece of paper. It’s okay. But it should be interactive. I’d form little writer’s room, because that is a great way to get perspective on your work, and make it much better fast.”