Twenty-five years ago, Bob Odenkirk, then an unknown improv comedian in Chicago, landed a job as a writer for “Saturday Night Live.” That lead to a series of writing and acting roles on other notable (but not especially creatively-named) series like “The Dennis Miller Show,” “The Ben Stiller Show,” and “The Larry Sanders Show,” before starring in and creating (with David Cross) the massively influential sketch series “Mr. Show with Bob and David.”
More recently, he’s been seen on the non-comedy “Breaking Bad” as oily lawyer Saul Goodman – a character who will be the basis of a forthcoming spin-off series.
This week, Odenkirk debuts a new sketch comedy series on IFC, “The Birthday Boys” — a partnership with the young sketch comedy troupe of the same name.
Rico Gagliano: How did you decide to work with this particular comedy troupe for your new show?
Bob Odenkirk: Well, there’s a lot of funny sketch groups. But These guys had something that is harder to make happen: kind of a shared sensibility. You can see a lot of sketch troupes where the pieces can be good, but they’re not working together — the comedy of one piece doesn’t help the comedy of the next. That quality that I think Monty Python had, and David and I have; where we help each other’s ideas, and all the ideas belong in the same pot.
Rico Gagliano: I did actually detect a theme through a lot of the sketches in the first few episodes. And if I had to put my finger on it, it’s kind of “making fun of people who are a little too excited.”
There’s this one sequence, for instance, where these two guys are going on a road trip to “find America,” and they just end up going to the same chain restaurants over and over again.
Bob Odenkirk: That’s interesting, yeah. There’s a ‘disappointment humor’ that they do where they take this energy — this hyper situation that you’ve become familiar with oftentimes — and they build up that energy and then… they just destroy it and crap all over it.
Rico Gagliano: Now that I’ve pointed that out to you, what does that mean? What does that say about America?
Bob Odenkirk: Well, it’s hard to talk about comedy and analyze the hell out of it….
Y’know, if I thought that they were just destroying things — tropes and such? — if all they were doing was destroying things, it would be, I think, no fun. But they’re inventing things.
I mean, take for instance those guys that go on the road trip. They’re gonna go find America, and then they keep going back to the same chain restaurant in every city that they go to — they don’t even look at, like, the Washington Monument, they just go right to that same chain restaurant — but they are so happy! And somehow it becomes not a negative, it’s a celebration of mediocrity.
Rico Gagliano: It’s true — there’s a lightness to this show.
Bob Odenkirk: It’s “Mr. Show,” but not as angry. “Mr. Show” had so much anger in it. I mean, David and I have a chip on our shoulder! The two of us. Not the same chip, we each have our own chip. So…
Rico Gagliano: Well, where did that come from, and why isn’t it there now?
Bob Odenkirk: Because our fathers were [expletive]. Simple!
Rico Gagliano: Family radio translation: your dads didn’t treat you well. I’m sorry.
Bob Odenkirk: Don’t be too sorry — it made a lot of great comedy happen in the world. My dad was funny, by the way.
Rico Gagliano: But, so what changed? You’re working with this troupe now — is this a sign of you becoming mellower in your dotage?
Bob Odenkirk: Well, I’m not against adding a little bit of silliness into the world.
I mean, I like to grind my axe with David — and we still do it, we just did a tour, and we’re gonna do something in two years, and it’ll be full of angry “old man” energy…
But I do think that there’s a crossover between what I’ve done and what [The Birthday Boys] guys do, for sure; I think you can see it. “Mr. Show” is very silly. And we also like to take the energy of pop culture, the energy of movies, and then mess with it and disassemble it, and turn it into… people being stupid.
Rico Gagliano: Let’s briefly turn to Saul Goodman. Because it’s very nice that there’s a spin-off series in the works, ’cause that means I can ask you about [“Breaking Bad”] even though the show is over.
First, did you have any inkling that this character was gonna last more than season two?
Bob Odenkirk: Absolutely no inkling. Not only that, I was told he would last three or four episodes. In fact, when they brought him back for a second season, I thought “Well okay, he’s going to be a substantial enough character that when he dies, it’ll be an impact on the show.”
So I went into the writer’s room and I said, “When you kill Saul…” — not if — “…let’s do something crazy. Y’know: take my head off. I’ll go get a mask made or a rubber head made. I would be happy to do whatever stunt or horrible thing that you want to put me through, I’m there for it.”
Rico Gagliano: And They’re like, “Sorry man, you’re gonna live.”
Bob Odenkirk: They just… listened.
Rico Gagliano: He is the most corrupt character, maybe ever, but we love him. I have my theories as to why —
Bob Odenkirk: Well, I’d love to hear your theory. I have mine, I guess, but part of me is like, “I don’t want to know. I’m just glad you like him.” I think he’s fun to listen to…
Rico Gagliano: Yeah — I think the reason why is because he knows exactly who he is. He doesn’t try not to be a corrupt guy. And he’s kind of nice, within his corrupt parameters, in a bizarre way.
Bob Odenkirk: I think you’re exactly right. And he’s good at what he does — people often point that out.
But I think your point is a good one. I think there’s a certain kind of person who can ride the line of ethical behavior, but because they’re having a good time, and they’re treating it as a game… some part of you thinks that there are limits for them. Like, they wouldn’t kill anyone. I mean, Saul wouldn’t kill anyone. But he certainly would plant the thought.
Rico Gagliano: Yeah, he would help them be killed, and we’d still like him. We’re crazy — that’s what it comes down to.
Bob Odenkirk: You’re crazy. That’s why you like Saul: because you’re nuts.
Rico Gagliano: All right, we have two questions we ask everyone on this show. The first question is if we were to meet you at a dinner party what question would you least like to be ask?
Bob Odenkirk: [sighs] “When does The Birthday Boys’ show premiere?” Friday, October 18th at 10:30, 9:30 central.
Rico Gagliano: You just hate telling people that.
Bob Odenkirk: Yeah — just everyone asks!!
No — I get asked about the Saul Goodman spinoff. And there’s not much I can say about it because I’m not writing it! Vince Gilligan is writing it, and Peter Gould.
Rico Gagliano: And they’re not telling you anything about it? I don’t believe you.
Bob Odenkirk: Well, they’ve told me a little, but not much. But part of that is my own plan.
I mean, I remember sitting at the desk doing Saul Goodman — the first scene — and I was… my brain was naturally going “How much time do we have to shoot this scene? Do we need to get the lighting in here? What lens is that?” And then I was like, “Oh, you don’t have to worry about any of that.” And… oh my God, it was such a great feeling! I was like, “Right, so I’m just gonna do this, and you tell me. I’m not gonna worry if we’re going over time.” That’s been my whole career: I’m the writer, and in it, and directing, and producing. And I think it hurt my ability to play these characters.
Rico Gagliano: My second question is the reverse of that: tell us something that we don’t know. That could be about you or —
Bob Odenkirk: Oh! Well, the Birthday Boys’ show premieres on Friday, October 18th at 10:30, 9:30 central.
Rico Gagliano: Wow!
Bob Odenkirk: No — something about me that you don’t already know…
Rico Gagliano: It could also be about the world at large, trivia for a dinner party.
Bob Odenkirk: Okay, I don’t know if this qualifies, but my favorite TV show of all time is called “The Royle Family.” It’s the funniest, best comedy ever written.
It’s a British show, and it’s a family in Manchester, and mostly they watch TV for the whole show, and it’s wonderful because… first of all, put the subtitles on so you can really understand what people are saying. Secondly, it’s very slow, but as you watch, you get to know the people and their dynamic, and it’s so true of a family: People forced to be together due to relations, but also leaning on each other and all being enablers of each other and each others’ weaknesses. And it’s just hilarious, kinda sweet, and kinda horrible. It is the greatest thing ever.
Rico Gagliano: As a comedian do you ever watch that sort of thing and… is there jealousy or just awe?
Bob Odenkirk: When I see really really good stuff, it always inspires me. Like before “Mr Show” seasons would start, I would watch “Monty Python.” You would think that would intimidate me — it did the opposite. It made go, “Right — that’s all I need to do. Is be great.”