Talking to Bob Odenkirk About ‘Hollywood Said No!’, ‘The Birthday Boys’, and Working with David Cross on a New Showtime Pilot

It’s a big year for Bob Odenkirk.

In addition to Breaking Bad ending its run with its highly-anticipated remaining episodes airing over the next few weeks, Odenkirk also has a new book with his Mr. Show cohort David Cross and a new TV series with sketch group The Birthday Boys. The book, a collection of unproduced screenplays and sketches he and Cross co-wrote (with contributions from Brian Posehn), is called Hollywood Said No!, and it just came out today. Plus, there’s an audiobook version of Hollywood Said No! (also out today) that features the reunited Mr. Show cast acting out the orphaned Bob and David screenplays. On top of all that, Odenkirk, Cross, and Posehn are going on a six-city standup/sketch tour to promote the book, starting this week.

His new show is The Birthday Boys, an IFC sketch show created by and starring the LA-based comedy group of the same name. Odenkirk is writing, directing, acting, and producing the series, which premieres October 18th, alongside The Birthday Boys, and it’s the first sketch show he’s produced since Mr. Show ended its run in 1998.

I recently had the chance to talk to Bob Odenkirk about how Hollywood Said No! came together, making a show with The Birthday Boys, plans for the upcoming 20th anniversary of Mr. Show, and the Showtime pilot David Cross wrote that he wants him to star in.

When did you and David first talk about releasing these scripts as a book?

Before we wrote them. [Laughs] We decided no one’s ever gonna make whatever movies we write, so someday, they can be books, read on the toilet to encourage a nice BM.

We just talked about it when David called me and said, “They wanna know if we wanna write a book together.” Then, he had the idea, what if we show people these screenplays that we wrote? So he went and read them, and I went and read them, and we both agreed there was a lot of laughs and more than we remembered and that they weren’t entirely irrelevant. In fact, I think Hooray for America! is more relevant than ever. So we cleaned them up a little bit. Not too much. Obviously, you know, we’re still referencing Corey Feldman and…

Jamie Kennedy.

…Jamie Kennedy and all that. We didn’t want to change them too much. We didn’t want to pretend that we made them current. We just let them be what they were and tried to make them a little more readable because most movie scripts are not really fun to read. It’s more of a work thing, but in this case, we felt like our fans especially would hear our voice as they read it — would hear the voice of the show and the voice that we developed together and would enjoy it, would get a laugh out of it.

How far into the development process did each script make it? Did you guys have a studio interested in either one of those?

Yeah, we did. We had an independent producer trying to make the sketch movie [Bob and David Make a Movie]. And the other movie [Hooray for America!], one of the studios was interested in in a pretty serious way for a short while. That’s really all I remember from it. I’m not sure we made the smartest effort to get them made. We didn’t know as much about the movie business at the time. Having said that, both David and I thought the chances of getting them made was very slim. They were just what we wanted to write and wanted to get made.

You mentioned in an interview recently that there was a chance one of these script would be made via claymation. Is that still in the works?

Oh, the claymation pitch? That was me. I read it and said, “Hooray for America! would be so much fun to see in claymation because of the office building that turns into a rocket and the planet.” I think it would be charming too in a way that David and my comedy is never charming. Just to actually see it that way. To see he and I as little claymation guys would be loads of fun, but it didn’t happen. It’s all right. It was just a lark. My whole career is a lark. One lark after another. A flock of larks.

That’s not true.

It’s probably more true than it is not true. Larks are good birds, god damn it!

Yeah, there’s nothing wrong with a lark.

There’s nothing wrong with a lark! That’s not a slam against larks.

So you got the whole Mr. Show gang together for the audiobook version, right?

We sure did, man. And I’ll tell you, Splitsider is all comedy fans and the book is great fun and I hope you’ll get it [and] I hope you’ll read it and enjoy it, but if you want to really, really re-experience the Mr. Show magic, get the audiobook. In the audiobook, we have the whole cast together: Paul Tompkins, Jay Johnston, Jerry Minor, Scott Aukerman. Even Scott Adsit is in there. We changed the order of the screenplays because Hooray for America! is just so much fun to hear and it’s the first one in the audiobook. I just can’t wait for fans to get the audiobook. That’s gonna be really fun for them, I think.

What was it like putting the whole gang back together for that?

It’s great. They’re wonderful people. We love them all. We’d love to work together with them again. We’re talking about doing a tour in two years, a Mr. Show celebration anniversary show because it will have been 20 years then since we started the show. We love each other, and they all like each other and like working together. It’s a great group.

Do you guys have any other plans for the 20th anniversary besides the tour?

That’s it right now. We’re talking about a big reunion tour. That’s the only thing.

What do you and David have planned for the book tour coming up?

Well, it’s gonna be sketches. Many that I wrote over the last few years that were just sitting around, some that David and I wrote a few years ago, and two that we wrote just for the tour that are really fun and will take you back — and forward into the present. And then, we’re gonna do standup, as well. David, me, and Brian Posehn are all gonna do fifteen minutes of standup.

Would you and David ever want to work on another TV show together?

Absolutely. He wrote a show that he wants me to… he’s got a pilot that he’s writing right now.

Is that the show for Showtime about the travel writer?

Yeah, yeah.

Can you talk any more about that, or are you not allowed to talk about it yet?

I don’t know anything about it. You’d have to ask him about it. He said he wanted me to consider being the lead in it, which is an honor, but I don’t really know anything else about it.

So what was the first movie screenplay that you ever wrote?

It was called Tucson, and it was for Dana Carvey. It was a character that he never did but that he did for me. He wanted me to write a movie about it. It was written for Paramount. It was about an Irish guy in the Wild West who has a fantasy of what cowboys are like. He comes to the Wild West and he tries to be a gunslinger, but he’s hapless and as sweet as Carvey is. It was a fun little movie to write, and it never went anywhere.

Did you write that solo, or was that with Robert Smigel?

I wrote that solo, and then, Robert and I wrote a Superfans movie, but that didn’t get too far. We wrote a rough draft of it only. I want to say it was 160 pages long. It was every single joke that we could think of, stuck in some order. Then, somehow the script — even though it was only a rough draft — the script leaked out. No one should have seen that script. It only was meant to just be our first pass at writing it. I think they were so disinterested in it based on the sloppy rough draft [that] it never went any further. We actually did do a version of it live. We did a live reading of it at the Just For Laughs festival about four years ago. It was a benefit for autism research, and we did really well. We did a great show that Robert put together, and it had storyboards you could look at on the screen, and Mike Ditka played Mike Ditka, and it was a lot of fun. Sometimes, these things can sit on the shelf for years and still turn out to yield some entertainment value.

How’d you first get involved working with The Birthday Boys?

My wife organizes this charity show every New Year’s called The Not Inappropriate Show. She’s a manager, and she sees a lot of sketch comedy as part of her job. [For the show], she puts together sketches that you can have your kids see. They’re not written for kids. There’s a lot of Groundlings sketches; there’s sketches from UCB sketch groups; there’s sketches from Second City people. Your kids can see it; they don’t have adult subject matter or language. So every New Year’s, we do this event and raise money for 826LA, which is McSweeney’s charity that encourages reading and writing. The Birthday Boys, if you know them, you know they’re not real racy. They just don’t write about controversial things or adult things. They’re just very silly and smart and they’re very likable guys. They just naturally wrote sketches that fit in that show, so every year, they’ve been in that benefit show on New Year’s.

That’s where I saw them, and I got to know them from doing that show. I really liked them, and I really thought they had that quality that you need to create a sketch show, which is a shared sensibility among the writers. You know, there are a lot of sketch groups in America and there’s a lot of good ones and there’s a lot of great sketch actors too, but most sketch groups don’t really share a head, if you will, or a brain — like Monty Python or David and I on Mr. Show — where even though every sketch is different and every episode is different, you still know it came from the same brain. You become familiar with the reference level, the absurdity level, the broadness; the mix that they put out. Similar to Tim & Eric too. They’re not the same in regards to the mixture, but you know a Tim & Eric scene when you see it, even though it’s completely different from the one that came before it. And I feel like The Birthday Boys have that quality that you need to make a series.  You might need to watch one or two episodes to really get into the vibe, but once you’re in it, you know it. It’s like a person that you know, a funny person that you’re watching, only it’s seven people. And in the case of The Birthday Boys show, it’s eight because I’m in it too.

What do you think causes The Birthday Boys or you and David or Tim & Eric to have that group mind? Do you think that’s something that’s natural or is it something that each group had to work towards?

I don’t think it’s something you make happen. It is something magical and unexplainable and not even really to be examined very closely. It’s like a good marriage. It just is, and you’re lucky to have it and it’s rare and it’s organic. You can work to maintain, but you can’t really create it out of whole cloth. It just has to be there.

So you’re acting with The Birthday Boys in every episode of the show, right?

Yeah, I am in every episode of the show. I write it with them and I direct alongside the guys and I produce it and I’m in it, and yet, I do think it’s their show. I feel obviously very involved, and I’m really happy with it. I really love it, and I can’t wait to share it with people. I think Mr. Show fans are gonna love it. There’s a lot of kids in sketch comedy. A lot of people are familiar with it now that weren’t familiar with it when Mr. Show was on. There weren’t nearly as many fans of sketch comedy, and I think they’re gonna love what these guys are doing.

It seems like you’re involved with new talent often before they get big. For example, you worked with Tim & Eric and Fred Armisen early on in their careers. Do you make an effort to keep your finger on the pulse of the comedy scene?

I don’t make an effort. I don’t make an effort at all; it just happens. I’ve thought about it a little. I think it’s just because I like doing alternative things myself, so that’s where I find myself. I like seeing people experiment a little on stage, so that’s where I find myself performing and interacting is in those clubs and in those spaces, so you naturally run into people and they tend to be younger and they tend to be doing something unique. I don’t make an effort; I’m not a manager; I’m not a person who goes, “I’ve got to find out what the young people are doing.” I don’t really give a shit what is hip right now.

You just like working with good people?

Yeah, I like working with people who excite me in the brain, you know?

Yeah, definitely. Since the book is about unproduced scripts, do you have any other favorite projects that never got made or pilots that never aired?

Yeah, I’ve got a lot of stuff. [Laughs] I’ve made a bunch of pilots. I thought that Next! was great, the thing I made for Fox. Some of that is on YouTube, actually. That was the one that Fred Armisen was in. I thought that was a really funny show.

I love Life on Mars, but I blame myself for not pulling that off as well as I could have. That was a show I did for HBO. And then, I really like Derek and Simon, which I did for HBO. Really, I wish that had gotten a chance. You can see some of that on YouTube as well. Those are two others.

I think that Eric Hoffman and I wrote a great script called Incompetent Dads that I wish had gotten a chance to be made. It was for NBC.

What was that one about?

It was about incompetent dads. [Laughs] There’s four dads, and they’re sort of trying to console each other and keep each other from committing suicide. The role of the father in our modern American society is a little indeterminate and, frankly, a little emasculating, so it’s hard to be a modern dad. It’s just hard to be a good dad. That’s the more important thing.

It’s gotta be kinda cool, with this book, to get some of these scripts out to your fans when they would otherwise never see the light of day.

It is cool. It’s a great thing. You’re right. They’re just sitting on our shelves, and you’ve got all these fans going, “When are you [and David] gonna work together again? Do you guys hate each other?” No. We really like working together. We work together; you just don’t know about it, so here’s a chance to share some of that with them. And like I said, the book on tape is the best thing ever for fans because it’s got the whole cast back together. The audiobook is primo. You gotta get that if you’re a fan of Mr. Show.

Are you tired of being asked about the Saul Goodman Breaking Bad spinoff?

Well, answering a question is not that strenuous a job, so I don’t know if I’m that tired of it. I certainly wish I could tell people something more revealing or interesting than “I have no idea,” but I really have no idea. You have to understand that, when people have ideas for projects in Hollywood, it can be very hard to express the level of reality that there is around them. For instance, someone can say, “I have an idea for a movie” and really, all it is is something they’re brainstorming and kicking around. And also, they could also say to you, “I have an idea for a movie” and it could be a screenplay that’s almost written already.

Obviously, there’s a lot of people who like the character and would be excited about what that show would be. Vince [Gilligan] actually does have an idea about this show and the tone of the show and what would be worthwhile about it and stuff, but how real is it? I don’t know. It’s just really hard to say. It’s hard to give a satisfactory answer. That’s the hardest thing for that question. There’s nothing you can say that will make people feel at peace. ‘Cause really, it’s both totally realistic and completely just BS right now. We’ll see what happens. I’m glad people like the character, and I’m just extremely lucky to have been involved in that great, great TV production.

Talking to Bob Odenkirk About ‘Hollywood Said No!’, […]