It would be easy to forgive Bob Odenkirk if he carried a knowing smirk around with him these days or if he indulged an urge to yell, “I told ya so!” while walking the many red carpets he’s been strolling lately. Odenkirk, now 51 years old, is finally enjoying the sort of mainstream success and generational reverence that seemed impossible during the 25 years he spent building up the resume of an alt-comedy iconoclast. But instead of feeling vindicated, the actor/writer/director insists that he’s mostly just confused.
“Every day, all day, for the last few months, I’ve thought, What is going on? I thought you guys hated me. Why do you suddenly all act like I’m good?” Odenkirk said with a laugh in a conversation with BuzzFeed earlier this week. “I’m not kidding!”
That he’s racking up the critical acclaim for his work in dramas, like Breaking Bad and Alexander Payne’s new film Nebraska, makes it all the more unbelievable for a guy best known for writing classic Saturday Night Live sketches (including Adam Sandler’s “Lunch Lady Land” and Chris Farley’s “Matt Foley Motivational Speaker”), helping to launch Late Night With Conan O’Brien, co-creating Mr. Show, and writing enough rejected comedy scripts to fill a book called Hollywood Said No!.
“As an actor, you do your job on every project, and you don’t do it a different way from project to project,” he said. “You don’t go, Well, I’m not gonna try on this one and I am gonna try on that one. You kinda try on every one of them. So to get so much compliments on one, you kind of want to say, ‘Well, I didn’t do it any differently than I did every other thing I’ve done.’”
The popular and critical love for Odenkirk’s Breaking Bad character, seedy lawyer Saul Goodman, began several years ago but reached a crescendo in the AMC series’ final act this fall. Then, it was announced that a spinoff, Better Call Saul, featuring Odenkirk’s character, was greenlit in September, just as the raved-about Nebraska, in which he plays the local newscaster son of a delusional old alcoholic played by Bruce Dern, began its journey on the film festival circuit. Nebraska’s leading actor, Will Forte, plays Dern’s quietly miserable younger son, and like Odenkirk, he’s a bizarro comedy veteran who has begun to turn heads with more dramatic roles. The fact that these funnymen are excelling in the skin of muted, semi-downtrodden nobodies may seem incongruous, but there is a method to the madness.
“Comedians play the commitment with the character and that’s what they learn, to believe what your character believes in, which in comedy, is oftentimes something really ludicrous,” Odenkirk explained. “So if you can commit to that, well, you can certainly commit to a person who wants to be the anchorman in a local town. That’s not as farfetched to believe in.”
Of course, it’s not that easy, especially for stand-up comedians and live improv artists, he reasoned.
“I think sometimes comedy actors maybe have a hard time modulating their performance, and there’s a natural desire to get a laugh,” Odenkirk said. “That can develop especially when comedy performers perform in front of a live audience for years, they just get used to getting that laugh, and they know what gets them that laugh, and they can’t help their instinct of trying to get it. And that can make it hard for them to modulate their performance.”
Obviously, Odenkirk has had no such problem, and his dramatic renaissance is only going to expand. He was cast in the TV series adaptation of the Coen Bros. Fargo on FX, and then, of course, there’s Better Call Saul.
Creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have yet to fully hash out the details of what the spinoff will be — the actor has heard it could end up as a prequel, shining light on Saul Goodman’s pre-Walter White days, or even a prequel-sequel, jumping around in time — but Odenkirk assures both Breaking Bad fans and skeptics that it will not attempt to be a simple facsimile of the Emmy-winning drama from which it spawned.
“It’s a really interesting world. It’s a different take. It’s a completely different vibe than Breaking Bad, with that character at the core of it,” he said. “I think they’re gonna surprise everyone with something fresh.”
The strange twist about Odenkirk’s suddenly thriving dramatic acting career is that he has an entirely different standing in the alt-comedy world that he helped create. He is in the unique position of being a leading man in serious, awards-fetching fare, as well as a sort of comedy godfather, overseeing a new generation of talent that was weaned on Mr. Show and other cult classics.
Currently, he is serving as an executive producer, writer, director, and regular performer on IFC’s sketch comedy series The Birthday Boys, which features an LA-based sketch group of the same name. Odenkirk has become their active mentor, working in the semi-posh trenches of the writer’s room and stage. Watching the series, which is in its first season, the influence of Mr. Show is readily apparent, with its absurdist-yet-biting social satire and interlocking sketches.
If he has one piece of advice for his charges — and other comedy aspirants — it would be: Make sketches shorter.
“That’s such a stupid thing, but it’s kind of true,” he said. And hey, he helped invent that sub-format, which makes him — along with his 133 episodes of writing for SNL during its second golden era, with stars like Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, and Mike Myers — as qualified as anyone to judge the rebuilding season currently happening on the long-standing NBC series.
“I’ve become a lot less harsh about that show over the years as I’ve seen it progress, and I’ve also grown to respect Lorne Michaels’ abilities and his taste,” Odenkirk said. “I’ve had the opportunity to go back to the studio because my wife is a manager and she manages some of the people that have been on the show, and you start to realize, Oh my god. They have to do this every week for 21 weeks a year, and it’s so hard, and it just wears you down.
“It’s like a sporting match and [Michaels] is like the coach of a team and you just don’t field World Series winners every single game,” he continued. “You’ve got to have some play in there, and you’ve got to just give these people a chance.”
Odenkirk’s respect for certain players in mainstream show business might have something to do with the way people have reconsidered him recently.
“I’ve always gotten a lot of respect from my peers and that means the most to me and that means the world to me, maybe it means more to me than it should, even. But I think that the popular success of Breaking Bad, and the esteem that people hold it in, that’s like a new level of appreciation that people give to me,” he said. “And I’m still adjusting to it. I’m not sure quite what to do with it, but I can never accept a compliment on that show without being so fully aware of what a team effort it was.”