When I hop on the phone with actor and comedy legend Bob Odenkirk earlier this month, he's calling in from his home in Los Angeles, where he's lived since 1991 after moving from New York City following his four-year stint working as a writer on Saturday Night Live. "It was more like the suburbs than New York. It felt more like the life I lived growing up in Naperville—driveways, spending a lot of time in your car, a suffocating calmness," he says with a laugh when remembering how he felt when first moving out West. "LA's gotten more active since then, though. There's more going on, the buildings have gotten taller—there's more happening here than when I first moved here, and I've enjoyed the kind of work you can generate when you live here."
And ever since the heyday of his and David Cross's utterly brilliant HBO sketch showcase Mr. Show With Bob and David, Odenkirk's enjoyed a variety of work—from directing films such as the criminally underappreciated absurdist comedy The Brothers Solomon to, most notably, his performance as Saul Goodman/Jimmy McGill on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. It's for the latter show, which just ended its third season earlier this summer, that Odenkirk's been nominated for an Emmy for the third consecutive time in as many years in the Outstanding Lead Actor—Drama category, and with good reason: His performance—a pitch-perfect mixture of deviousness, down-on-your-luck sympathy, and hopeless hopefulness—shines as the crown jewel of one of TV's most fascinating shows right now.
What's next for Odenkirk: He recently filmed an episode for the forthcoming season of Comedy Central's Drunk History, in which he takes part in recounting the astonishing true story of W.C. Minor, a Civil War veteran committed to a criminal asylum, who played a substantial role in assembling the Oxford English Dictionary. He's also working on a "showbiz memoir" that details, in his words, "my journey through comedy. I happen to love these things, and I just hope I write an entertaining one."
I spoke to Odenkirk about the importance of family, the surprising legacy of Mr. Show, political correctness in comedy, and—of course—Donald Trump:
VICE: A lot of people in comedy come from the Midwest, and Illinois specifically. What is it about being from Illinois that makes people funny?
Bob Odenkirk: It's that cutting-things-down-to-size attitude on life—not having a big head, keeping your eyes down, keeping people human-size around you. If you're conquering New York, you can feel like a real big shot—Trump and Scaramucci are great examples. [Laughs] People in the Midwest just don't carry themselves like that. They have a natural, down-to-earth quality, and it helps them be funny. In comedy, you're often taking the piss out of things. You get good at that when you're living in the Midwest.
Between New York City, Los Angeles, and the Midwest, you've lived in a lot of America—and thematically, Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul are very American shows.
In America, we can reinvent ourselves—we're encouraged to. Jimmy's trying to reinvent himself from a con man to a respected lawyer. He feels entitled to do that, and a lot of the characters in his world feel he's entitled to do that as well. But his brother doesn't believe he should be allowed to reinvent himself, and he refuses to allow him to have the respect that he's desperately trying to earn. So in that way, it's a very American story.
I did often wonder how relatable of a story it was when we started Better Call Saul. It's such a unique character with a unique journey. But the universal drive of trying to earn respect from the people you love and not being able to do that is a common struggle for a lot of people. Do you get to reinvent yourself in America, or do we just believe you do?
The notion of reinventing yourself mirrors the trajectory of your own career, in that you've given performances in recent years that your core audience hadn't previously expected from you.
I think the only question you'd have to ask regarding that is: Is that because I'm wonderfully gifted, or because I was never in the right place as a performer in the first place? I think the answer is the latter. I'm better in the dramatic world as a presence than I was in comedy—and I love comedy. I love writing comedy and being a part of it, but as a visual, physical presence in a story, I probably am more impactful in drama. It's not really a tribute to my dexterity and wide-ranging talent so much as it is a person finally getting to where they should've been from the start.
I think you could also argue that having a sense of timing in comedy is essential to understanding how to conduct yourself as a dramatic actor.
There's timing in drama. You have to have a sense of rhythm. But the real thing that lends yourself to drama as opposed to comedy is a sense from the audience of whether there's more to it than you can see. In comedy, it's more fun to watch a person that you know quickly, can smile at, and enjoy. Whereas a person who has a more complicated energy might be better in a drama, where you want people to ask, "What is that person really saying?" That's my bullshit theory.
Family plays a large role, thematically, in Better Call Saul. You were one of seven siblings in your family.
Seven Odenkirk kids, all funny people. My brother Steve lives in Tuscon, and he's in banking. My younger brother Bill is a writer and director on The Simpsons.
Were there any family rivalries that you've drawn from for your performance as Jimmy?
I like Jimmy McGill a lot—I feel for him, and his desire—but I don't think he mirrors my own journey, emotionally. I can't name anybody in my world who's like Chuck to Jimmy—whose approval I need or want. Maybe that's just something I tell myself, but I can't feel it.
My mom is very Catholic, and she's never been able to watch the comedy I spend most of my life doing. It's too crude, and it's got sharp elbows when it comes to religion and conservative points of view. It doesn't bother me all that much, though. She tried to watch Saturday Night Live when I got a job writing there—I didn't even know she tried to do it, but she called me after my third show and said, "I tried to watch the show you're working on. I'm really sorry, but I just can't watch that." I was like, "Who told you to watch it? It's not for you."
People went into Better Call Saul expecting Jimmy to be the villain, but it's more complicated than that. How have you approached parsing the differences between Jimmy and Breaking Bad 's Saul?
The job of figuring out how Jimmy becomes Saul—what they share and the ways they're very different—I leave in the lap of Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould. Jimmy pulled these scams when he was young, which we showed right from the start. I got to be Saul, but I also got to do these quieter scenes.
Everybody's different at work than when they're with their friends, when they're alone, and when they're with their significant other. In Breaking Bad, we never saw Saul outside of his office. There was no clash to be this different person, because we all do that to an extent. I know I'm very different in a group of comedy writers than I am with my wife at home.
What TV do you enjoy currently?
Baskets is my favorite show. Catastrophe is a very close second. The Last Man on Earth I love, and Antiques Roadshow always gets my attention. I don't know what TV show Donald Trump is hosting currently, but it's a great show. I don't know what the name of it is—The United States of America? It's a funny, crazy, sad, crazy, unpredictable program.
I'm dreading the series finale.
Oh, the finale's gonna be a barnburner.
A lot of the sketches in Mr. Show seem to carry added relevance today. The "Worthington's Law" skit is basically Donald Trump. Is the show's prescience eerie to you?
Yes! I don't like when reality is a joke—when it plays out like a by-the-numbers satirical comedy scene written by a bunch of goofballs. Reality should be more complex than that—it shouldn't be so obvious. It should be more textured. But it isn't! The "Fairsley's Foods" skit was what happened in the last election. FOX News was Fairsley's Foods, just throwing up these accusations that you have to respond to, and by responding them you make them legitimate. But you have to respond to them, so you're just screwed.
The weirdest thing isn't that Trump follows Worthington's Law—it's that so much of America would completely agree and live by the logic of "if you make more money, then you're smarter." They believe that's true. I don't know if they know that Jesus didn't make a lot of money in his life, but supposedly they think he's pretty smart. It doesn't make any sense.
Over the past 18 months, comedy has taken an almost overly relevant turn when it comes to addressing current events.
I think you're right. That's the one way that SNL has become a savior of comedy. The last season was the best it's ever been as far as the writing goes. It was pointed, but—except for the Sean Spicer stuff, which was tons of fun—it wasn't about, "This is what happened this day or this week." It had this deeper perception of what had happened in the news and society. Mr. Show wasn't topical because we weren't on for months after we shot the episodes, so we had to do stuff that would still be relevant after the fact. It was a good thing, though. If we want to make fun of political ads, you have to turn it into the "Fairsley's Foods" skit so we could make our point. It made it more universal and resonated for a longer period of time.
The ways Mr. Show became meta were fun, but they were also shortcuts to get one last laugh out of something and get out of a sketch. Sometimes I think it's a bit of a gimmick. My favorite things from Mr. Show were the classic stuff—stuff that felt like it could've done in vaudeville: "The Story of Everest," "Hunger Strike," "The Lie Detector," "The Audition," "Shampoo." They aren't meta at all—they're just great, simple, solid comedy premises executed in a simple and traditional way. Those are the hardest things to come up with, and the things I'm proudest of.
You were an early mentor to Tim & Eric. Do you see yourself in them?
I do. They're extremely unique, and they were fully formed when I met them—and they've gotten better at everything that they do. I've never seen anybody making bits out of their college years with such a unique and strong point of view. It's different from what I do—they have an abstract quality that not many people could pull off.
David Lynch is amazing at creating abstract moments with absurdity and otherworldliness that people connect to emotionally. He creates these dreams that millions of people can relate to, which is a weird concept. Tim & Eric are able to do the same thing. It's an inner artistic voice that you have to be born with, and they have it. I love everything that they do. It's all beyond me, but it all makes me laugh.
One thing that your work compares with Tim & Eric's is what could be perceived as a shared cynicism when it comes to American life. Do you define yourself as cynical?
Most people who are described as cynical are truly not. They're idealists, and the cynical points of view that they espouse are literally their idealistic mentalities reacting to a world that is disappointing them every single day. Real cynicism is a person who holds dark, selfish views but doesn't feel any emotion about them.
I'm probably still an idealist—a hopeful person. And it's weird to say that, because I feel like there's no hope at all. [Laughs] More than ever, I feel like human beings have a genetic malfunction that will doom them. And I'm just a goddamn actor, so what right do I have to that? But the older I get, the more I feel there's no way around it. We have to destroy ourselves. It's built in. But I'm gonna keep trying to make everything OK—to make things better for everyone. I'm gonna keep hoping.
When revisited today, some of your work in the 90s seems like it stands to offend people more than it did when it first came out. What do you think about comedians' attitudes and approaches to what younger generations have taken offense to?
Here's the way it's changed—and it's so fascinating and wonderful: Our point of view is no longer automatically underground. Mr. Show was a cult show, and the people who were listening to what we were saying was a very small group of people who knew they were a small group of people. They didn't presume to represent a wider, more shared sensibility for a second. Everything we were doing was seen to be a commentary on the more accepted social norms.
Before, when we were doing comedy, we were High Times magazine—playing to our base. They were the only ones who heard us and the only ones who understood what we said, because they understood it was a joke if we said something that was overtly nasty, crude, stupid, or retrograde. It's not completely obvious anymore, though, especially to really young people who are living in a world where the alt-right are feeding news stories into the world and offering their commentary. Commentary has become news, and nobody can tell the difference.
We now live in a world where those points of view, and all the shadings in between, are all out there to be heard and seen. People are fighting for these things! You have to share what you think while being sensitive to the fact that you're not playing against these understood and accepted social norms. They just don't exist anymore.
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