Years ago, I saw the actor George Wendt in a restaurant in Evanston. It was long after Cheers had ended, but he looked the same. Of course someone hollered “Norm!” and Wendt, who seemed like a good guy, smiled and nodded as if he weren’t exhausted from getting Norm’ed a hundred goddamn times a day for the past 30 years.
Bob Odenkirk, on the verge of fame as Saul Goodman, the slippery ray-of-sunshine attorney launched on AMC’s otherwise bleak Breaking Bad (RIP), has been getting Saul’ed for a few years now. “Better call Saul!” strangers shout on the street, echoing his character’s slogan, which also happens to be the name of the highly anticipated Breaking Bad spinoff, a prequel premiering on February 8. “If people want to yell that at me, go ahead,” says Odenkirk. “I don’t perceive myself that way, so it’s just going to fly past my head and land nowhere. What a crazy kind of lottery to win, to go into rooms with strangers and they smile at you.”
If Odenkirk doesn’t seemed fazed by the Norm effect, maybe it’s because he already had a cult following by the time Breaking Bad came along—for Mr. Show with Bob and David, The Ben Stiller Show, The Dennis Miller Show, and The Larry Sanders Show. But he never really got famous for any of them. When he popped up on, say, Curb Your Enthusiasm or Entourage, you smiled. You laughed. Then you forgot he was ever on it.
That’s the kind of fuzzy celebrity status Odenkirk has enjoyed for more than two decades. To some, he’s a razor-sharp writer, an unpredictable actor, a prolific producer and director, an alternative comedy visionary before alternative comedy went mainstream, and, according to Wired magazine, the man to whom the Internet “owes its sense of humor.” To others, he’s just that guy on that show.
“It’s the perfect kind of fame,” says Odenkirk. “Most people don’t know who I am, and I live my life. But the people who do, love me.”
Friend 1: You’re interviewing Bob Odenkirk? He’s the only person on earth I’d ever get tongue-tied in front of. The man is a legend! No, a god.
Friend 2: Bob Odenkirk? Is he our new state representative?
Bob Odenkirk’s trajectory makes no sense. Here we have an average-looking 52-year-old man with thinning hair, a raspy voice, and questionable social skills. His projects generally don’t gain an audience until after they’ve been canceled, and he’s spent his life obsessing over comedy when his skills were probably more suited to drama. Yet he still managed to hit it big, at middle age, in the unsexiest way possible: He never stopped working. “There’s no arc to my career,” Odenkirk says. “Nothing I did was that successful until Breaking Bad. But I’ve done a lot of things that were kind of influential, and that’s the best possible thing.”
It starts with this: Odenkirk loves words. Reading them, writing them, twisting them inside out to suit his purposes and express his theories, of which there are many. The man’s got an endless stock of stories, and when you hear them, you understand why he’s a good actor: He’s always observing. A conversation with Odenkirk can be exhausting and brilliant and hysterical.
Over lunch at Simone’s, a quirky bar in Pilsen, the dialogue swings wildly from subject to subject. The Super Bowl: “It’s like a Christmas tree you can’t even see anymore because it’s got so much shit on it.” Falling asleep while driving: “I nodded off one time onstage, doing standup. I’m not sure anyone noticed.” Comedy: “I love talking about comedy. But about a minute into it, you start to get into theory and it starts to look loony and pompous—like, Did he eat a fucking space cake and then start jabbering?” After lunch, Odenkirk sees a man selling socks near an on-ramp to the Kennedy and charges into a tale about his favorite pair, which he bought from a guy on the subway for $2: “They lasted forever.”
Odenkirk grew up in Naperville, the second of seven kids in a German-Irish Catholic family, and from an early age, he loved comedy, especially Monty Python. He wrote skits, songs, and commercial parodies for his own amusement, including an ad for something called Tasty Paste, which he shot in the basement with his younger brother, Bill, now a writer for The Simpsons. Looming over everything was his absent father, a chronic alcoholic who left when Bob was 12. He died of bone cancer in 1986. “My dad was a dick,” says Odenkirk. “He was really smart, and he could’ve done great, but he was just a jackass dick.”
Though Odenkirk hated school, he was a good student. Classmates at Naperville North High School remember him as quick-witted and driven, but awkward. “Behind his back, we called him Bobnoxious, ” says Steve Meisner, one of his oldest friends. “He was brash and, I think it’s fair to say, missed social cues. Bob was not an easy guy to hang out with. Neither was I. We both had crazy alcoholic fathers, but Bob barely imbibed. He’d watch the rest of us and be our clown.”
On one occasion, a teenage Odenkirk showed up at a local courthouse in a suit and handed out business cards as if he were an ambulance-chasing attorney. On another, he put a plastic chicken on the roof of his Dodge and drove around bellowing out the window: “Chicken on a stick! Chicken on a stick!” Naperville wasn’t sure how to respond.
Odenkirk devoured Twain, Vonnegut, and Woody Allen in the back of the Barnes & Noble where he worked, and he stole a copy of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, which fueled his desire to get his life started. “I remember driving to my job at the mall and thinking, I wanna just put the pedal to the metal and keep going,” he recalls.
After graduating from high school at 16, he enrolled at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, then bounced from Marquette University to Southern Illinois University, where he and his pals performed purposely weird sketches on their weekly radio show, The Prime Time Special. For one, Odenkirk pretended to be a fire-and-brimstone preacher from the Church of Bob and set up near the student union to spoof the evangelical pastors who would come on campus. An ongoing theme was that Jesus smelled. “Some kids argued with us,” says Odenkirk. “A few said they would pray for us.”
Three credits short of a broadcasting degree (he would later finish up at Columbia College Chicago), Odenkirk couldn’t wait any longer. In 1983, he moved to Chicago and threw himself into the comedy scene. Thanks to an amorphous onstage persona, Odenkirk’s standup routine didn’t make much of an impression. Was he the angry white man? The hyperliterate absurdist? Something else? “I had a hard time figuring out what my voice was,” says Odenkirk. “I love standup comedy but couldn’t do it very well. I still can’t.”
But he blossomed in writing and performing sketch comedy, which made him feel unshackled, able to try anything that popped into his head. Case in point: “A Bald Man’s Braids,” a bit he and his old SIU buddy Tim Thomas did for The Duck Logic Comedy Cavalcade, a Chicago radio show, about a guy who uses hair tonic on his ear hair so he can wrap it around his head to mimic a full head of hair.
Odenkirk honed his craft at the Second City feeder school Players Workshop alongside Chris Farley, Tim Meadows, Jill Talley, and Robert Smigel. Every day, he sat at his desk in a Wrigleyville apartment and forced himself to write. When Smigel left Chicago to join Saturday Night Live’s writing staff, Odenkirk became obsessed with following him, constantly sending Smigel jokes in hopes of breaking in. While serving burgers at Ed Debevic’s in River North one night, Odenkirk glanced up at the TV and saw Dennis Miller telling a joke on SNL that Odenkirk had written (“The statute of limitations on respecting Bob Hope for his earlier work ran out this week”). Odenkirk was thrilled. “This was a moment of acceptance, a small one,” he says. He wanted more.
Not long after, he called his friend Steve Meisner and told him, in his restless stream-of-consciousness way, that he was busting his ass trying to make it in comedy and nothing was happening and he had just gone into a store but couldn’t afford a new pair of $12 jeans and when he came out he saw a squirrel on the sidewalk and just wanted to strangle that squirrel. Meisner commiserated and went to bed feeling bad for his friend. But when he got home from work the next day, Meisner found a note from his father: “Bob Odenkirk called last night. He said he got a job at Saturday Night Live and is leaving for New York today.”
Friend 3: Odenkirk has either written or appeared in just about every funny thing that’s happened in the last 25 years.
Friend 4: Never heard of him. . . . Shit. I just Googled him. I would have guessed he was, like, a moose hunter from Minnesota.
Fiercely intelligent but still socially stunted, Odenkirk had a hard time fitting in on Saturday Night Live. He found kindred spirits in fellow writers Smigel, Conan O’Brien, and Greg Daniels, but he struggled to get along with some of the others and to get his sketches aired. Al Franken once threw a football at Odenkirk’s head in the writers’ room. (“He was throwing it to me, I suppose, but I wasn’t looking at him. And we weren’t in the middle of a game, either.”) Even when the team won an Emmy in 1989, Odenkirk felt like an outsider. “I wasn’t the most pleasant person to work with,” he says. “I was pretty cynical about people and had a huge chip on my shoulder.”
In 1991, Odenkirk and Smigel struck gold with “Bill Swerski’s Superfans,” better known as “Da Bears,” a running sketch conceived by Smigel that lampooned Chicago’s kielbasa-downing, beer-slurping, Ditka-loving football fans of the day. Soon after that came a skit about a desperate motivational speaker who was 35 years old, thrice divorced, and living in a van down by the river, which Odenkirk had written specifically for Chris Farley while doing a return stint in Chicago at Second City. “Matt Foley” turned out to be so popular that Rolling Stone named it the greatest skit in SNL history.
Odenkirk wanted to perform but never asked SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels to put him on the air. “I was still pretty green,” he explains. So he gave away many of his best creations, including Grumpy Old Man, which cast member Dana Carvey gleefully made his own.
After four years of frustration, Odenkirk left New York for Los Angeles to pursue a performing career. In 1993, he surfaced on The Ben Stiller Show, Fox’s influential but short-lived sketch series, where he fell in with future stars such as Stiller, Judd Apatow, and Janeane Garofalo (whom Odenkirk dated for a time). Another writing Emmy followed, but by that point the show had already been canceled.
When movie parts came, they leaned toward footnotes like Concert Nerd in Wayne’s World 2 and Bookstore Man in The Truth About Cats and Dogs. Juicier TV roles followed, such as Stevie Grant, the hilariously smarmy agent on The Larry Sanders Show.
The turning point came in 1995, when Odenkirk and comedian David Cross, whom he’d met on Stiller, premiered Mr. Show with Bob and David on HBO. The unpredictable sketch show, which launched Sarah Silverman and Jack Black, gleefully poked holes in hypocrisy, often linking scenes with the same brew of broad and dry humor as Monty Python’s, but filtered through a scathing American lens. “To truly enjoy Bob and David, you had to see the humor in Satanism, teenage suicide, cock rings, hermaphrodites, after-school specials about mentally-challenged parents, and the Ku Klux Klan,” observed Vanity Fair.
Despite abysmal ratings and ever-changing time slots, Mr. Show lasted four seasons and garnered four Emmy nominations. If you don’t remember it, perhaps it’s because you weren’t awake at midnight on Mondays. But the show’s anarchic spirit influenced a YouTube generation of comics and remains among Odenkirk’s proudest accomplishments. “I don’t know if Mr. Show inspired people to go into comedy,” he says, “but we got to express ourselves very purely, which is rare on TV.” Adds Cross: “Bob’s always had a very specific and real spin to what is funny, and Mr. Show was a chance for him to input his ideas of how to make the best kind of comedy. He’s almost like a professor of comedy.”
Behind the scenes, though, Odenkirk’s blunt manner irritated many of his colleagues on the show. “He was not really aware that he was being insensitive to people,” says Cross. “The idea of diplomacy never even occurred to him.”
The decade that followed was a good one for Odenkirk personally. He married Naomi Yomtov, a whip-smart Hollywood manager, and they had two kids (a boy and a girl, now 16 and 14), which chipped away at the rough edges of his personality. “It’s a lazy way to put it, but getting married really mellowed him out,” Cross says. “I don’t know if he was able to distribute his energy differently, or he was just having sex on a regular basis, but he wasn’t as uptight. He’s got this partner now who tells him to chill out. And he’s about as hands-on as any parent I’ve known. He’s doing the exact opposite of what his father did.”
It was not Odenkirk’s most fulfilling phase creatively, however. While directing a pair of movies starring Will Arnett, Let’s Go to Prison and The Brothers Solomon, Odenkirk tried a more collaborative approach with his cast and crew. “After Mr. Show, I felt like my reputation was ‘He’s good at what he does, but he’s kind of a dick,’ ” Odenkirk says. “And I didn’t want to be a dick. But I didn’t do my job, which was to understand why each scene mattered and then deliver on that.” Both films bombed, sending Odenkirk to what he calls “director’s jail.”
He never stopped writing, though. So many rejected screenplays and TV pilot scripts stacked up over the years that in 2013 he and Cross published Hollywood Said No!, a book of their discarded projects.
Tweet 1 (@gnarborg): I spend at least like 6 minutes a day wondering what The Office would be like if Bob Odenkirk were cast instead of Steve Carell.
Tweet 2 (@n_mckague): I spend at least 6 minutes a day wondering who Bob Odenkirk is.
One day in 2009, Odenkirk got a call from his agent. AMC wanted him for a small role in Breaking Bad, its drama about a milquetoast chemistry teacher turned ruthless meth kingpin. The character would appear in a few episodes in season 2. Odenkirk had never seen Breaking Bad, which had been critically praised in its first season but was not yet the cultural phenomenon it would become. Nor had he done much dramatic acting (though he did appear in a Prop Thtr production of Israel Horovitz’s Line). After friends assured him Breaking Bad was one of the smartest shows on TV, he took the part of Saul Goodman.
When he arrived on the set in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he was certain they would turn him away. Oops, we meant a different Bob Odenkirk. But his peculiar skills were ideally suited to Saul Goodman. “I came to know Bob as a performer from Mr. Show,” says Vince Gilligan, Breaking Bad’s creator. “I remember in the ’90s watching Bob and David Cross and loving every minute of it.” A decade later, he realized Odenkirk would be perfect as Saul, the riotously shady criminal defense attorney with a loud mouth and louder suits who stood in stark contrast to the brooding intensity of Breaking Bad’s leads.
Odenkirk, who once watched costar Aaron Paul take five minutes to work his mind into a state of fear and anxiety for a scene, threw himself into his own character. He devised the Saul Goodman hairdo—a remarkable hybrid of comb-over and mullet that could only be achieved by attaching as many as five different components to his head—and searched for crumbs of self-awareness in the script. While lines such as “You two wanna go stick your wangs in a hornet’s nest, it’s a free country—but how come I always gotta get sloppy seconds?” may sound like they came directly from Odenkirk’s mind, he never improvised a word. Still, he managed to shape what could have been simply comic relief into a full-fleshed persona every bit as real and empathy inducing as any other character on Breaking Bad. On a show that boasted some of the best writing and acting in the history of the medium, Bob Odenkirk stole nearly every scene in which he appeared.
“A lot of sketch comedians and standup comics feel embarrassed to take acting seriously,” he says. “But I remember being onstage at Second City with Chris Farley, thinking, I probably belong in a more dramatic scenario. I have a confusing energy, which is good for drama where you’re not sure of the person’s motives.”
Every time he received a new Breaking Bad script, Odenkirk assumed his character would be killed off. Instead, the writers had fallen in love with Saul. “He started out on the show really to solve story problems,” says Peter Gould, the producer who created the character and penned many of Saul’s best lines. “But the more we wrote for the character and the more we saw Bob performing him, the more we enjoyed it. We started feeling sad when we wouldn’t have Saul in an episode.”
Saul Goodman survived four seasons, all the way through the series finale in 2013—and beyond. Gilligan and Gould could not let go of the character, and they began writing a spinoff series, also set in Albuquerque but before the action in Breaking Bad begins. “Vince and Peter clearly could have done anything they wanted after Breaking Bad,” says Odenkirk. “This was purely motivated by their desire to challenge themselves and figure out this character: Who did he start as? And how did he become that thing that we got to know?”
AMC has signed on for at least two seasons, and Odenkirk’s dramatic work in the first 10 episodes has been so strong that Gilligan found himself tearing up in the editing room during a few scenes. “We knew he was one of the funniest men alive,” says Gilligan, “but it wasn’t until we started shooting Better Call Saul that I realized the depth of drama and emotion he could truly put into this character. He only scratched the surface of that ability on Breaking Bad.”
Better Call Saul will be shaded with dark tones, similar to Breaking Bad. But the show will go its own way, which has die-hard fans alternately foaming at the mouth and nervous that it will tarnish Breaking Bad’s lofty legacy. “I didn’t feel the pressure shooting it,” Odenkirk says. “Only now that we’re done and they’re cutting it together am I starting to become aware of the fact that it’s really about this one character. And they’re going to show it to everyone.”
David Cross: He was not immature. It’s actually to the contrary. You get the sense that when Bob was born, he was already 40 years old. He’s very button-down.
Steve Meisner: When we were 16, we made a comedy audiotape making fun of Mr. Rogers. Lots of toilet humor, puppets having sex with each other, eating shit, whatever.
“Do you have The Night of the Gun by David Carr in paperback?” Odenkirk asks the woman behind the counter at Powell’s Books on South Halsted Street. He’s in town doing a show at Second City’s UP Comedy Club to promote A Load of Hooey, his new book of comic essays. Nope, just hardcover, says the smiling employee, who may or may not recognize him. “Nah, forget it,” says Odenkirk, who’s considering adapting Carr’s addiction memoir as a screenplay. “I don’t wanna lug that thing around.”
A few minutes later, he approaches the counter again. “Do you have Wait Till Next Year by Doris Kearns Goodwin?” Again, no.
Every few minutes, Odenkirk returns to the counter to ask about another book, none of which the shop has in paperback. The employee can barely stifle her laughter. On the surface, it’s more frustrating than funny, but every time he strides back to the counter, ever hopeful but with a weird and vaguely dangerous edge, it gets a little more ridiculous: an ordinary task turned quixotic farce.
Instead of expressing even the mildest irritation, Odenkirk steps out to get an iced tea from Peet’s down the block. While walking, he gets Saul’ed a couple of times. Another passerby just mumbles, “Hey, Bob,” as though addressing his mailman. “Hey, buddy,” Odenkirk replies, as if this were all perfectly normal. “I never felt like a Chicago guy when I lived here,” he tells me. “But whenever I come back, I’m like, Yeah, this is my place.”
His onstage demeanor that night at Second City is much the same. He’s charming and cheerful as he reads selections from his book, performs skits, plugs Amateur Hour—his new standup album with 22-year-old comedian Brandon Wardell—and talks about his recent dramatic turns in FX’s Fargo and the Alexander Payne film Nebraska. During the Q&A, Odenkirk casually tells the crowd that he and Cross are writing a Mr. Show 20th anniversary reunion special. (The project has since been shelved; the duo is now writing and pitching a short-run TV comedy series.) When someone asks what’s next, he raises his eyebrows. “I’m gonna take a fucking break,” he says. “I’m gonna walk the dog, take the kids to school.”
After the show, Odenkirk crosses Wells Street with a crew of comedians and hangers-on to grab a table at Corcoran’s Grill & Pub. Next to the baby-faced Wardell, who wore a hoodie and backpack during his set at Second City, Odenkirk looks almost grandfatherly. As his career in drama ascends, he has simultaneously assumed the role of an elder statesman of comedy. He’s nurtured new talent, including millennial heroes Tim and Eric, hidden-camera specialist Andre Hyland, and the Birthday Boys, a Los Angeles–based absurdist sketch troupe. “Whenever we talk, he’ll just casually drop knowledge that changes my life,” says Wardell. “When I was nervous about leaving my first manager, I said I felt like I was breaking up with a girlfriend. He said, ‘You’re breaking up with a girlfriend that’s a supermodel with 15 boyfriends that gets 10 percent from all her boyfriends.’ ”
While everyone else drinks, Odenkirk orders a burger. When it arrives, he removes the bun before digging in.
“Jeez, Bob,” someone teases. “You’ve been in L.A. too long.”
“You don’t understand,” he moans. “If I eat this bun, I’ll be up all night.”
At one point, Odenkirk disappears to the bar’s vestibule to call his wife. Two 30ish men walk in; one of them does a double take. Bob Odenkirk! He lingers while his friend enters the bar, as if watching this middle-aged, bun-averse fellow talk to his wife on the phone were more entertaining than getting a drink with his buddy. And when Odenkirk finally nods and grins at the guy, who promptly rushes off to tell his pal, it just might be.