The Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul star says his Irish heritage shaped his sense of humour, and how his heart attack last year has made him less consumed with work
Bob Odenkirk was filming the final season of his hit TV show Better Call Saul when one particular scene required him to reach deep, and recall the most traumatic moment of his life.
“It’s a moment when the character [Saul] feels really lost and abandoned. And there was a memory which just came to me inadvertently and it made me so emotional.
"It was a time when I was about nine years old and my brother Steve was 10 – and my dad woke us up at 2am and brought us downstairs to tell us he was leaving. And that he would send money to pay the bills.
“I just remember, in that moment, feeling very, very alone. And being very unsure of what I could say or do that would make things okay. I was a kid, what could I do?
"I was just so sad and lonely.”
That moment had a huge impact on both him and his older brother, and sent them in opposite directions – each of which made sense in their own ways.
The brother became a financial whizz, a high-flying banker who now lives in Tucson, Arizona. And Bob became a comedian, whose entire career and persona seemed predicated on a mocking resentment of authority figures.
“There was pain and hurt there, all mixed together, and it definitely informed my work,” he tells me. “A general lack of respect for authority is definitely a part of my makeup. I think part of any good comedy has that.
"You do hear people say most comedians are damaged people – but I think most people are damaged people. Some of them get to be funny because of it.”
Odenkirk is certainly one of the funny ones – and in his savagely funny new memoir, Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama, the 3:1 ratio is telling.
While he may have achieved late-career household name status as a character actor (since breakthrough show Breaking Bad finished, he’s been directed by Steven Spielberg in The Post and has co-starred opposite Meryl Streep twice), it was comedy that brought him there.
Saul’s wisecracking huckster shtick provided light relief in the otherwise bleak world of Breaking Bad, and no other actor could have played him.
Before his career renaissance, Odenkirk was a cult figure in sketch comedy. Most of the book is taken up with his toils in the comedy trenches during the 1980s and 1990s and his disappointments with the institutions he worked for – Chicago’s famous Second City theatre group and Saturday Night Live – and with himself.
“Writing the book, I was really struck at all the years and all the failed attempts at trying to do something new and cool in that tiny world of sketch comedy. I felt a little sorry for myself, like there’s something wrong with this guy. He can’t stop and he’s so driven. It seems a little off, like something must be wrong with me.”
His obsession with sketches began during his upbringing. He was one of seven kids, growing up in a small town in Illinois.
There was perhaps a clue to his heritage in the moment when Saul meets Walter White in Breaking Bad: “Faith and begorrah!” Saul exclaims to a taciturn Walt. “A fellow potato eater! My real name’s McGill. The Jew thing I just do for the homeboys.”
Odenkirk is a Dutch name, but his grandmothers on both sides of the family were born in Ireland. There’s a tinge of Saul’s hasty rebranding in the memory that one of them grew up in “bally-something” in Cork – but he quite sincerely says this background fed into his sense of humour.
“The Irish bring a kind of looney perspective to life, and then just mix that in with some old-fashioned funny shit.”
At the dinner table he’d perform little sketches for his grandmothers and mother, Barbara, who “was never more entertained than when she was listening to her kids”.
There was also an undertow of tension in the house. His father, Walter, was a big drinker and frequently absent. He eventually walked out on the family. When he passed away, a number of years later, Odenkirk recalled it as “a shrugging affair”.
“I think it’s pretty obvious that my dad was somebody I didn’t think much of. And I thought even less of him as time went by. And so I think the part of me that my comedy comes from is the angry and troublemaking part.”
As a teen in the 1970s he loathed the “niceness” of mainstream American comedy (in the book he memorably describes the niceness as “a mask... a cheap plastic Halloween mask of John Denver’s bland face barely secured over the horrified, rotting, post-Vietnam culture”) but his lifelong obsession with Monty Python began.
“These smart Brits were whispering to us in our sad living rooms on Sunday nights right before another dark week began. [They were saying] yes, you’re right, it’s all a big dumb lie, and you don’t have to respect these people, you can laugh at them.”
In his early teens he bought a tape recorder and he and his brother would record little sketches. Then when he was 14, a family friend brought him to Chicago to see a show at Second City – and he was intoxicated by the smell of “old wigs and rancid beer”.
He wrote sketches at college and had a radio show, but after a chance meeting with Del Close, the cult comedy guru, in a Chicago bookshop, Odenkirk left university to try to make it as a comic.
There was no obvious route to fame, he says, “you just had to write something funny every day and see what happened” – but in his mid-20s, he got an interview with Lorne Michaels, co-creator/producer of Saturday Night Live. Odenkirk told Michaels that the show was “soft, weak, unsatisfying” and “in a death spiral” – but he was hired anyway. He says his approach was driven by “social awkwardness”.
SNL turned out to be even worse than he suspected. He felt disappointed by the show’s “pro-style corporate comedy vibe” and was disillusioned by the lack of “cocaine troughs and bunk beds for late-night writing sessions”.
The material, which had to be topical, was “a scattershot grab bag of brain farts” and when his own sketches didn’t make the cut, he would go home and “watch from my apartment, sneering through the tears.” During this period he would frequently fly from New York to Shannon, and tour around the country.
“Coming to Ireland was just – vibe-wise – the opposite of New York. I just needed a break from that pressure. The intensity of that city really wears people down.”
Feeling burnt out, he eventually resigned from SNL, and – after turning down a chance to write for The Simpsons, which had just launched – he moved to LA and became part of an alternative comedy scene, which included Janeane Garofalo, whom he dated for a short time, and Kathy Griffin.
He also created Mr Show, a sketch series which he and best friend/co-writer David Cross would introduce as antic versions of themselves before moving into sketches. It had a small committed audience on HBO during the mid 1990s but was never syndicated in Europe.
After it ended, his career seemed to stall and he missed out on the lead in the US version of The Office (which went to Steve Carell).
“I did have a certain degree of success. Even in my struggling years, I had shows that sold and I won a couple of Emmys [for SNL; he was nominated several more times for Mr Show]. But I was still struggling, because I wasn’t doing what I wanted. What I believed I could pull off.
"So I was always a little unsatisfied, and so that was a bad mix there.”
He met and married his wife Naomi during one of his LA comedy shows and they have two kids together. She is his manager. He told the Wall Street Journal that the mixture of business and personal life was “hard” for a time, but “we figured it out”.
It was Mr Show which led him to Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan’s slow-burning series about a high school chemistry teacher who begins manufacturing crystal meth to pay for his cancer treatments.
Gilligan had been a fan of the former series, and prevailed on Odenkirk – who had never watched Breaking Bad – to take the part of Saul Goodman, the sketchy lawyer who helps the series’ antiheroes launder their money and navigate the criminal underworld.
Breaking Bad took a huge toll on him. He writes that it “beat me up and left me by the side of the road, gasping for breath, but I gave it everything I had.” It was also widely acclaimed as one of the best television series of all time and Odenkirk stole every scene he appeared in.
Early on in its decade-long run, a crew member wondered aloud if he could get a job on the spinoff – and Gilligan duly wrote Better Call Saul, conjuring up a multilayered backstory of how Jimmy McGill became the cynical, laconic Saul Goodman.
Odenkirk related to the “striving” nature of the character, who craves respectability and the approval of his older brother (a wonderfully disapproving Michael McKean).
“[Saul] is far more interested in gaining acceptance from people in his world. It’s not that I don’t care what my loved ones think of me. I do care, but I think I’m just not driven by worrying about it.
"You have to do things for your own reasons, and you can’t be waiting around for everyone to tell you that they love you.”
He has just finished filming the final series, in which he says “the worlds of Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad come closer together than ever before”. It will air later this year on Netflix.
In July of last year, while they were still shooting, he had a heart attack on set. He’d known he had heart problems, but two different doctors had given him two different opinions – and he went with the more optimistic assessment.
He’s recovered fully now, but says that he “still thinks back on [the heart attack] every day”.
He says it makes him want to be better at “just being genuinely present in the moment and taking people in when you’re with them, and exuding good vibes and a good feeling towards the people who are near you. And your loved ones.
"I think I’ve given myself over to work 90pc of my life as an adult. And I think I want to change that ratio.”
Part of that is planning some time off – he’s got a trip to Ireland planned for July – but a career break doesn’t seem likely.
“I do think that people often at my age start to think about making big changes in who they are and how they’re going to live the rest of their lives. And I often think it’s actually always much harder to do than you want it to be.”
There’s a sense that his late career success ambushed him to an extent. He writes that “something dies with success… the freedom to flail.”
Still, he’s continued to take sharp left turns, including last year’s Nobody in which he reinvented himself again, as an unlikely action star. “It was important to do something that might’ve been a big mistake,” he says. “I have a side of me that romanticises failure.”
In fact, the movie was a success, generating critical acclaim and healthy box office takings, but if doing his own stunts provided a rush of adrenaline, it still didn’t compare to the thrill of catching comedic lightning in a bottle.
“If you’re burning to do one thing, to show something specific to the world, you’re going to be consumed by that. It’s hard sometimes to find that other drive that might carry you on forward.
"I mean, we have a lot of wonderful clothing lines designed by rappers, but those clothes will never compare to the work they did.”
Even now comedy remains the most meaningful art form for him. He still pops up in sketch shows, like last year’s I Think You Should Leave, with Tim Robinson, and has co-written a Python-esque podcast series called Summer in Argyle with his 23-year-old son, Nate.
But more than anything, humour is a way for him of making sense of the world.
“Listen to me,” he says, as our conversation comes to an end, “I will tell you from experience: the best response to the pain of the human condition is not religion. It’s not politics.
"Don’t be fooled, those things will solve nothing. The best response is comedy. Being a clown and making fun of yourself and the whole pointless endeavour you’re involved in is the only way to cope.”
‘Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama: A Memoir’ by Bob Odenkirk, is published by Hodder Studio, €16.99, and out now
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Her huge gay fan base helped to propel her to one of the all-time great showbiz careers and with her Emmy, Grammy and Tony, she is just one award short of the EGOT (she was nominated for Oscars twice, in 1980 for The Rose, and 1992 for For the Boys). She also had the biggest selling single of 1990 with ‘The Wind Beneath My Wings’.
Emma Thompson has turned in some great comedic performances over the years (most memorably in 1992’s Peter’s Friends) but few people know that she actually started out as a stand-up comedian. In the early 1980s she was part of an ITV sketch show which also included her fellow Cambridge alumni, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie.
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