My dad, Wally Odenkirk, could get mad at a rag that he was using to dry the car. If he dragged it across the hood and it slopped against his pants and left a wet mark, he could burst into a rage.
“Goddammit! What the HELL?!” He would curse the sky, the rag, and its unruly wetness. The universe would stare back, not giving an inch. It was funny if you weren’t too close to the unjustified intensity of his emotional outburst. I inherited this “thermonuclear emotional latitude.” I can go from 0 (calm, grinning, friendly) to 80 (sputtering, red-faced, dynamite) in zero-point-zero seconds. This can be useful in acting. In real life, it can be unnerving. It’s amazing to me how often it’s unintentional and doesn’t reflect my actual state of mind but is some kind of fun-house-mirror exaggeration of my actual feeling. And I suppose it’s about as fun as a fun-house mirror to see this distorted rage spring forth unexpected, as in not very fun at all.
Wally Odenkirk was also, surprisingly, when he wanted to be, intentionally funny. Making wisecracks — derisive, blunt, contemptuous ones — or just being cruelly sarcastic to someone’s face. One time he pulled over to get directions from a stranger, and the guy gave a confusing grunt in return, and my dad said, “Well, thanks, pal, you’re a real help! Glad I pulled over!” I was about 9, and the way he said this, out loud and with a big smile, it just killed me. His point of view, that Midwestern hard-nut attitude, was to cut everything and everyone down to size, and it’s actually a very good POV for a comedy writer.
My father made business forms for a living. Read that sentence again … yes, you are asleep now and you will do my bidding. He told barroom jokes and liked to watch Hee Haw and The Benny Hill Show (the British Hee Haw — he basically loved Hee Haw in any language). This is humor that hits you over the head, and it hurt my head.
Generally speaking, my dad was rough and too intense, and those were his good qualities. He was never around, and when he was, there was tension in the air. The older I got, the more thankful I was that he was gone most of the time. When my parents finally separated for good, when I was 15, I was delighted. My heart leapt and rays of light shone from my eyes. I could exhale. I would see my dad only a few scant times until I got a call, when I was 22, telling me that he was dying. His life was nothing but tragedy, and fairly small-potatoes tragedy, a life barely lived. Saying goodbye to him was a shrugging affair.
Hear Bob Odenkirk read this story.
My mother was and is very dedicated to Catholicism and its tenets. If I had a nickel for every time someone told me “Your mother is a saint” when I was a kid, I’d have lots of stupid nickels. Saints are great on prayer cards; in person, though, they are hard to know what to do with. Perhaps some of the scandals within “The” Church rocked her boat a bit, but let’s hide that back under a thick blanket of distraction, shall we? The Church was her rock, she was our rock, and, boy, we needed a rock. She was steady. The buck stopped with her, and I’ll just say it, because it’ll make her happy: Thank GOD for that. My mom is also very funny, but she doesn’t know it. She was always a big fan of not thinking too highly of yourself, or anyone else for that matter. This is a base component for good comedy thinking and writing — a lack of respect for the world and one’s place in it. Thanks, Mom.
The Odenkirks. Seven kids! Can you believe it?! What’s with those Catholics, huh? We were considered a clan by the neighbors. And it’s true that we hung together tightly. We kids got closer as things got more tenuous and wobbly. There was a gloomy, existential uncertainty that hung forever in the background — accompanied by a crackling sense of imminent doom. It was a sense based on info collected directly from the horse’s mouth.
“Boys” — my dad had taken me and my older brother, Steve, aside — “we’re about to run out of money.” We were standing in our new bedroom in our new house in a suburb that was being built around us, with new bunk beds and desks just offscreen. Heck, it almost seemed like the beginnings of some kind of … hope. Yet here was Wally telling us everything was about to come to a dark, scary end, and soon! We’d be “out in the street” was the phrase bandied about during these semiannual morale boosters. I was 5, so I didn’t have a lot of good counsel for him. Steve was 6 — maybe he had some ideas about the job market and financial planning. (Steve ended up being a banker, and I ended up going into comedy to make fun of the people in charge — so I think that moment, and the many other moments just like it, impacted both of us.) I remember staring into the silence and metaphorically shitting my pants.
These little doom-laden rambles from the Cap’n were striking, frightening, and irregular enough to have maximum impact. Once, when I was around 9, this troubled tippler got my brother and me up at 2 a.m. and told us he would be leaving soon and would mail us money with which to pay the bills. I recall wondering, How would I write checks? At the time I hadn’t yet mastered cursive writing.
I’ve always been a reader, and at some point I just started thinking of my dad as a character in a book — Dickens, I suppose. Like he wasn’t really real, and all the things he was doing or not doing — draining money from bank accounts, losing his business, getting into car accidents, disappearing for long stretches — it was all happening to some imaginary screwup and I was safely hearing about it, all made up for my listening pleasure. I would overhear the latest tattle of pathetic behavior and just append it to the sorry tale I was “reading.” That worked well for me. This kind of healthy disassociation from reality may even be considered a skill for a future actor.
Meanwhile, I was confused a lot by life, and especially by important aspects of growing up, sex being No. 1. I spent a lot of time in the Boy Scouts looking for male role models and found a few. I lucked out when one of the offenders in that organization skipped over me, but I know friends who later told me some rough stuff they’d been through. Other bad things happened. Catholicism did not help, not even a little, in navigating the pea-soup fog of adolescence.
Can I be done with “the darkness” now? I think we’ve all had enough of this kind of sad tale, and I share mine here just to say what you are already thinking: They’re nothing special, my psychological crevasses. I enjoyed a deeply unspecial suburban upbringing.
Two things made life good in our house. First, my brothers and sisters, every one with a good sense of humor and kindness toward one another. We relied on each other, and we laughed together, a lot. They were my first audience, at the dinner table when Dad wasn’t home (most nights). My brother Bill, smarter and funnier than me, would eventually join in, and this was my first “open mic night.” Good thing my parents had seven kids — we had the primary requirement for a theatrical enterprise: asses in seats. I was the headliner. Mostly I would stand up and act out some idiocy from the day, make fun of people I’d met, or just be a clown.
Interestingly, teachers encouraged and indulged my constant farting around. In fifth grade, the science teacher let me read the newspaper in class and even allowed me to teach one lesson. I offered a silly riff on the lesson plan, got my laughs, and got back in my seat. In middle school, three amazing teachers conspired to let me put on comedy sketches for my projects. I did a piece on the African nation of Ghana, one on Abraham Lincoln, another on the Great Chicago Fire — all well rehearsed, with scripts, a classmate named Jerry Hinck, crude sets, and costumes … and I got As and applause for all of it. They even sent me to perform these pieces around the school in other classrooms. Do you think this left an impression on me? It fucking did. Big-time. This was my first big break. Teachers change lives, so thank you, teachers!
And then …
In middle school an angel was sent from England above to save me. An angel named Monty Python. You know what, let’s get far away from religion and put it like this: Monty Python was the hip-hop that saved my life.