An Interview with Bob Odenkirk

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Bob Odenkirk’s most ardent fans know him as one-half of the groundbreaking HBO sketch series Mr. Show. Casual television viewers have seen him on shows like How I Met Your Mother and Breaking Bad. His name is synonymous with alternative comedy ventures ranging from Tim and Eric to the sketch group The Birthday Boys. Earlier this month, he and fellow Mr. Show creator David Cross published a book collecting things you wouldn’t know him for: unproduced screenplays and sketches they wrote. These scripts are funny, outlandish, and unlike anything you’ll find in a movie theater. Perhaps that was the problem. Fifteen years after the inception of the show that launched his career, I called Bob Odenkirk to discuss the nature of Hollywood and rejection, the importance of character commitment, and how he thinks of funny names.

— Zack Ruskin 

THE BELIEVER: This a crazy time for you. Breaking Bad is ending, your book with David just came out, the two of you are touring and I hear you have another book coming out in the spring.

BOB ODENKIRK: I’m doing that one with McSweeney’s. It’s coming out in April. As excited as I am about this tour, and as happy as I am with this really crazy novelty book David and I just put out, A Load of Hooey is going to be pure Odenkirk.

BLVR: Is it going to be like David Cross’s book [I Drink for a Reason]? Less comedy memoir and more essays, comedy bits, and tangential rants?

BO: I wouldn’t reference David’s book. It came together in a completely different way. Nobody asked me – I didn’t make a contract to write a book. I write all the time, and this is a collection of things I’ve written over the last eight years. Some of the pieces in my book were in The New Yorker and other magazines. It’s a collection, but it also has a lot of original pieces that haven’t appeared anywhere. You might compare mine more to Woody Allen’s Without Feathers or this collection of Peter Cook’s writing that I love, Tragically I Was an Only Twin. But really it was me writing and writing and writing and finally putting it all together. You’ll see what it is.

BLVR: You’ve also just published Hollywood Said No!, the book co-written with David Cross that collects rejected screenplays written by the two of you. What made now the right time to release these scripts?

BO: There’s no reason they had to be released at this moment. They’re good and dead, which is to say they’re never going to get made as movies, although that was true eight years ago too. We never thought of releasing them as a book. We just put them on a shelf after we knew they weren’t getting made and went on about our business. David was recently approached by a publisher to see if he had another book, or if the two of us wanted to write a book, and I think he was the one who was looking at the screenplays and thought they were really funny. He called me and said, “what if we package these?” and I went and read them and I thought they had a lot of laughs in them. I thought they had a value just as something to read if you’re a fan, to hear our voices in them. A lot of screenplays don’t read very well; you need to have them interpreted by the actors and the director in order to really get what can be great about them, their main value. But with these scripts, if you know me and David and you know our work, you can picture these things and you can hear us saying these words.

BLVR: Absolutely. With the script for Bob and David Make a Movie, it’s almost like you’re reading a triple-sized episode of Mr. Show.

BO: I think it has an added value that most screenplays wouldn’t have, an entertainment value. You know us, you know our voices. You can tell why it’s funny, and it makes you laugh. So there wasn’t really a timing component to it, it was just a novel thought from David Cross and his fertile brain.

BLVR: He’s had some good ones. 

BO: He’s had a lot of good ones. He’s got a great brain. It never quits, despite all of his abuse.

BLVR: With the Bob and David Make a Movie script, it felt like the movie was a home for all the sketches you two had thought of after Mr. Show had ended. 

BO:  I think more it came from this: we wrote this somewhat narrative, shit movie Hooray for America, which was heavy-duty satire, two things that nobody expected or wants. They weren’t that into a Bob and David movie, and nobody ever wants to make satire. So then we thought: why don’t we just do what we’ve done? Potentially, if we were going to find somebody to finance those scripts, they’d probably  be a fan of ours who’s got millions of dollars. We were thinking along the lines of the Monty Python model, where George Harrison just financed their movies because he was a fan, not because a studio wanted to make them. And if a fan did finance us, they’d want to see us do what we do, which is sketches. So we wrote a sketch movie without trying so hard to write a narrative that used us. We were just being our screen personas, doing sketches, which was something people were familiar with. That’s why we went and wrote that movie. 

BLVR:  Both of the scripts in Hollywood Said No! feature your screen personas – that is, characters named Bob and David –  but not the one movie you did get to shoot, Run Ronnie Run. 

BO: With Run Ronnie Run, it was a painful attempt to  create something that merged sketch comedy with something that would be perceived as commercial. It was a real shoe-horning. Way too much effort was made to squeeze ourselves into something we thought was commercial which then turned out to not be remotely commercial. You can get into a real bind when you do a certain thing and you do it well and you’re trying to mutate it into some form that you see as very different from what you do. You should just try and work off what you’ve already done and try to maintain a core value of the material you’ve done well. We got up our own asses.

BLVR: It’s hard to read the screenplays in Hollywood Said No! without imagining the rest of the Mr. Show crew playing all of the auxiliary roles.

BO: We actually got the whole crew together for the audiobook.

BLVR: That’s incredible! One of the things that made Mr. Show so brilliant was the cast’s commitment to their characters. Do you feel like your success on shows like Breaking Bad and How I Met Your Mother can be traced back to the character work you did on Mr. Show?

BO: Absolutely. I feel like you’ve got it exactly right. It’s about an ability to commit to the reality of the character and believe in the things that are their reality—to immerse yourself in that person and their circumstances. It’s what we did on Mr. Show, and I think it has a value in almost everything you do as a performer. It’s all, at the core of it, the same thing.

BLVR: There are a lot of characters on both of those shows, but the extent to which you flesh out your characters, given the relatively minimal amount of screen time they receive, speaks to how deeply you guys take on roles. 

BO: Thank you for saying that. It’s a really nice compliment. I agree with you, but it’s also important to remember that every year, in feature films and television, some comedian will do a performance where everyone goes “look, they’re playing it straight and they’re great.” It’s because a lot of comedy is about crazy commitment. When you take that over and move it to a dramatic place, suddenly everyone’s surprised.

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BLVR: Your book’s introduction mentions that there were a lot of crappy comedies in theaters when you guys were trying to get the scripts in Hollywood Said No! green lit. Do you feel the genre has gotten stronger in the last decade?

BO: Yes. There have been some very good comedies – Anchorman, Judd’s films, Zoolander –some really great sketch-level presentations that have been done and succeeded. That’s neat to see. The movies in our book are never going to get made. If we were to make a movie, I would do some version of our sketch movie, but with all new sketches. 

BLVR: You and David have created some of the most impossibly funny names for your characters. How do you come up with a name like Trill Hullsby?

BO: Oh my God. Dude, I love the stupid names we come up with. Aren’t they great? 

BLVR: They make me laugh as hard as the jokes do.

BO: Somebody should just do a list of the names from Mr. Show. Famous Mortimer. We should do that. David’s really good at coming up with them. I’m pretty good at it, but what I’m really good at is recognizing a great stupid fake name. It should be funny, but it shouldn’t be only funny. It should have this strange complication in it that makes it more real. Like when real peoples’ names are funny, they’re dumb but they have believability to them.

BLVR: What’s the worst note you ever got from a Hollywood executive?

BO: There aren’t any that stick in my head. I’ve gotten a lot of bad notes, but I think there’s kind of a qualitative difference in the bad notes I’ve gotten, which often times were brainstorming notes that you can’t really hold against a writer or an executive, and the classic bad ones. The best bad note I ever heard about was in Phil Rosenthal’s [executive creator of Everybody Loves Raymond] book. After the first season of Raymond, some executive said that he should consider doing the show without the parents. That’s the worst one I’ve ever heard.

Zack Ruskin has written for The Believer, The Rumpus, and The Millions. By night he serves as a staff writer for the music website Consequence of Sound, and by day he’s the Marketing Coordinator for Book Passage bookstore in San Francisco. Follow him @frozentooth or read more at www.zackruskin.com.  

Illustration by Lucas Adams