Bob Odenkirk and the Integrity of Ideas

In the recent broadcast of Saturday Night Live’s 40th Anniversary, there’s a moment where the camera catches Joe Piscopo from behind as he performs his Sinatra impression and the audience at home can see the audience in studio. The focus of this shot turns out to be a tuxedo’d Bob Odenkirk, who is simply unable to conceal his distaste for what’s happening. He’s looking up at the ceiling, gritting his teeth, raising his eyebrows to no one in particular. Now I would never use the analogy of a war veteran watching someone play Call of Duty, but it was not completely unlike the face Stephen Hawking would make while watching your science fair presentation. Actually…well…you get what I mean.

Anyone who likes comedy enough to be reading Splitsider undoubtedly has a sense of Bob Odenkirk’s almost pathologically high standards. And to be fair, Piscopo has never really been trying to do the same thing Odenkirk does – he’s more Atlantic City than Second City. But after you read and listen to a certain amount of interviews with Odenkirk, a certain narrative definitely emerges. At every stage of his career, he’s been driven by this conviction that Good Ideas are the most important thing and should be in the forefront at all times.

Bob Odenkirk for all intents and purposes started doing comedy at Second City, where he wrote the “Matt Farley, Motivational Speaker” sketch. He’s said that that sketch is his favorite thing he’s ever done in comedy, that it was so inspired that it came out fully formed, exactly how it aired in that first SNL sketch. And of course, you might think he would want that part for himself – a guy struggling to maintain control of a situation who yells a lot? Certainly not not in the Odenkirk wheelhouse. But no, he had to admit that Chris Farley would do the idea more justice. Looking back, I guess we’d all admit Farley did it better, but I know I would’ve had a hard time giving away that part.

Odenkirk’s next big project was Mr. Show, which was in a huge way a reaction to his experience at SNL. Whereas SNL was famously this manic assembly line where tons of ideas are fed in and  a few are stamped into 2-5 minute sketches in time to be performed that week, Mr. Show would be a more deliberate process that would really vet every pitch to see if there’s anything there, and then take the funniest and most interesting ideas and put them on TV. Naomi Odenkirk’s Mr. Show: What Happened? talks about how Bob and David Cross assembled a writing staff of people whose writing they were really excited about and then trusted that if they pitched an idea, there was something funny in there. For example, when Brian Posehn pitched the “Titannica” sketch there was kind of nothing particularly funny about it. But after continuing to work on it, someone came up with the idea for the “wet cigar body” and that ended up being one of their most classic sketches.

What Happened also talks a lot about how Bob & David specifically told writers to go off and make scripts as long or short as they felt the idea deserved. And of course this translates to a final product that is just densely packed with concepts and jokes that are given exactly the right weight so they work but don’t seem forced. Especially in season 1, a large idea could kind of inform a whole episode – like the idea that organized religion is corrupt – or just be silly and have a second of airtime to link two sketches – like the two brothers’ apple butter company or the incubation pants. Any of those three ideas could be stretched or condensed to fit into a 3 minute sketch, but they’d be compromised and not that good anymore.

And even more obviously, another very important element of Mr. Show is the lack of caring about sets or costumes. Again, the whole point was that the ideas were the stars. This is very well documented. Bob Odenkirk loves Monty Python, he wanted to use shitty wigs and it didn’t matter if the walls shook, etc.

This doesn’t sound like that crazy of a thing to do, but as Odenkirk points out in many interviews, his chapter of Paul Provenza’s Satiristas, sketch comedy and TV are very much more at odds that you might initially think. The whole point of TV (at least in 2010, when that book came out) is to kind of calm people, give them ideas they’re familiar with, that reinforce things they already think. Whereas sketch comedy is about really testing ideas and challenging social mores. TV is for old people who are falling asleep and sketch comedy is for young people whose brains are “orgasming with ideas.” So it really was kind of a huge feat to make Mr. Show, but he just had to do it.

After Mr. Show, Odenkirk pursued directing features and made Let’s Go To Prison and The Brothers Solomon, two largely forgettable movies. In his episode of the WTF podcast, Odenkirk even struggles to say anything good about them except that “the crew did a lot of good honest work” or something. That interview gives you the sense that he took on these projects because he saw something in the writers’ scripts and felt some responsibility to foster that creative vision to the screen without it being compromised by the usual process of filmmaking. He was bound by this writer’s ethic to honor the initial idea and squeeze some out of it like he did with Posehn’s Titannica sketch. Well, it didn’t really work out in these cases. (I liked The Brothers Solomon though.)

Odenkirk’s next big project, of course, was Tim & Eric. They famously sent him a DVD of their short films and he started fostering their creative vision. In a 2007 interview on Jesse Thorn’s The Sound of Young America radio show, he explicitly mentions that once you get to his point of success in comedy/entertainment you have a certain duty to help the people behind you if you think they’re doing stuff that’s exciting and good. He wasn’t saying “fuck you, I have my own career to look out for,” he was continuing to actively seek out the best, freshest, most surprising ideas and trying to make them happen. Of course, Tim & Eric turned out to be a huge thing, and for a while there, the name “Bob Odenkirk” was mostly known at the third name under “Executive Producer” in the Tom Goes to the Mayor and Awesome Show credits.

And even though he’s been pretty successful since then in his own right, he’s continued to seek out and foster cool work with the Birthday Boys sketch show, helping promote Adam Resnick’s memoir Will Not Attend and making the joint standup album Amateur Hour with Brandon Wardell kind of for no other reason than he just needs to see good ideas get made.

So it’s 2008 and Tim & Eric were well on their way, and you can imagine Odenkirk is looking for his next thing. He gets a phone call to audition for this show called Breaking Bad. In that same WTF interview, he talks about being hesitant because he’d never really acted before and even at Mr. Show he was kind of focused on everything, not acting in particular at all. Before even auditioning for Breaking Bad he called a friend to see what it was all about and to see if it was indeed one of those few Good TV Shows worth getting excited about. He talks about then taking it very seriously, not taking his phone into the audition, being very deferential to Vince Gilligan, etc. Even when shooting the show, he didn’t want to know about the other things going on, as it could take away from his commitment to Saul Goodman. In this case acting and memorizing huge speeches (“even at Mr. Show we wouldn’t give ourselves huge two-page speeches”) was the way he could best do his part to get these cool ideas to the screen.

Which brings us to Better Call Saul. Bob Odenkirk is like an A-list celebrity now, but still can’t help but talk in interviews about how he doesn’t even watch playback on set and still hasn’t seen much of the show – it might fuck up his performance, and that would really fuck up the whole thing, now wouldn’t it? This level of TV is much different than sketch comedy, the ideas are much larger and more serious and the stakes are much higher. But they’re trying to pull it off, and he’s certainly doing his part. Because it’s not his initial creative vision, but he’s somebody’ else’s Matt Foley now.

Update: An earlier version of this article stated that Bob Odenkirk originally played Matt Foley at Second City, which was incorrect. Chris Farley played the role at both Second City and SNL.

Bob Odenkirk and the Integrity of Ideas