The biting sarcasm of David Cross might seem like the legacy of HBO's Mr. Show. But the normal-seeming guy who's just a little off, created and perfected by Bob Odenkirk, was an equally important comedy development.
Before headlining the Brody Theater this Saturday, Odenkirk talked to Willamette Week about his past on television and the legacy of Walter White.
WW: What's your connection to the Brody Theater?
Bob Odenkirk: Tom Johnson, who runs the Brody Theater, is a comedy friend of mine from the Chicago days. We got along really well, and I really liked his comedy. I'd always wondered where he went, and our mutual friend said he runs a theater in Portland. He's an improv teacher, and he goes to Europe and teaches, and he does shows. He's way into it.
Why come to Portland for this show?
Because of the internet, it's very hard to do anything out of the way. If you have some material that's new and you just want to get up there and give it a shot, let it fail, just kind of experiment and not feel tons of pressure from being video-taped and put on YouTube. When you're in L.A., you certainly feel that pressure. Portland is such a perfect city, the audience is hip, there's a lot of them, they know my stuff. I have a friend who runs a theater, it's a small theater that's kind of experimental. It's kind of everything I could want in a place to go, plus it's not L.A., which is wonderful for a lot of reasons. L.A.'s great, the sun is great, but the sun's going to be here when I get home.
There's all these things that attract me (to Portland), but No. 1 is the Brody, and the experimental vibe of it. I've always liked having that in my life. Here in L.A., we have the UCB theater, which in its way is similar in that they don't really discriminate. Like Second City has no standup and a lot of rules about its improv, which is great, I love Second City, but they're very strict about what they're trying to pursue. The Groundlings are very silly, and they are a very tight-knit group so you can't just use their stage. But UCB, the Brody, these are places that try things. They'll have a standup, they'll have standups mixed with improv; that's what I've always loved, trying to get to do all these forms.
Are the local actors on this show people you've worked with before?
I don't know if it will be people who I worked with in my last show there, which was two years ago. I leave it to Tom to cast it; he can just cast it from all the people who take classes there and do shows there.
W/ Bob & David had a lot of buzz behind it. What was the reaction when it came out?
It was kind of wildly positive. People were very happy that we were doing more work together, and then very happy that it was good work that held up with the stuff we did 16 years ago. I had a lot of people say, "Holy crap, it's like you guys didn't stop, it's like you just kept making shows." As far as the voice of it goes, and the sharpness of it goes, and everything about it, the sensibility of it the integrity of it. I totally know what they mean, and I think they're right, and I'm amazed as anyone, but it's also true that the third and fourth episodes are the best. We got better the more we were doing it. We got tighter, the ideas came faster, and richer exploration of the ideas came later, and it would have been nice if we had done six or 12, but that was all the time we had.
Are you guys going to do more?
We want to, we have the same problem we always do, which is [David] has other jobs and I have other jobs. Mostly it's been David who has the other jobs, not me, but in the last two years, I've suddenly had a fairly full schedule. It's just getting that window to match up. It's not just we sit back and wait to have nothing to do, we both want to do it, we've told Netflix we want it, and they want it too, so I think it will happen.
Knowing Mr. Show was such an important comedy artifact, did you go into the new show with the intention of creating something different?
There were more similarities than I expected. I really expected it to be different in a more substantial, elemental way, which is one of the reasons I wanted to call it something else, not Mr. Show even when we could have legally done that. I certainly didn't think we'd get that cast together, and I didn't think we'd get those writers together. Scott Aukerman's got full-time work, Paul Tompkins pretty much has full-time work. I figured we're not going to have the same writers, we're not going to have the same cast, David and I have done really cool interesting stuff since then that's kind of different but still in comedy, so why tie yourself down? We're older guys, it's going to be similar, that's why I like [the title] W/ Bob & David, because it suggests that it's similar, but it was a whole lot more similar than I expected it to be. We ended on a piece that was kind of long, we've done a few things like it, but that was substantially different, and I think we might do more stuff in that vein if we come back. Again, we don't feel like we have to do Mr. Show, because it's not called Mr. Show, so even if we come back, it will be even more exploration. But it was not as much of an experimental thing as I thought it would be. We were doing the things we love, feeling good about it, not feeling like we were being cheap or using these tropes that we established. It felt like we were just still doing stuff that made us laugh really hard in the coolest way we could do it. That's what was great about Mr. Show, take a funny idea, and make it in the best way to serve the idea and make the most out of it.
I remember hearing that you guys were very unhappy with Run Ronnie Run. Can you explain a little bit about what happened with that movie, because I know a lot of people who still think it is very funny?
Movies are a lot of moving parts that have to come together to make a great movie. It's why movies come out with great directors, great writers, great actors and such—because all that shit has to come together. In the case of Run Ronnie Run, I think what you're appreciating about it, and I do too, is that it's a really funny script in a lot of ways. There are super-funny lines in it. I once saw a website, where somebody said, "Come up with your funniest lines from Run Ronnie Run," and there were like 60 lines, and they were all funny in their own way, and I thought, "Holy shit, how many movies have that many really funny dialogue lines." But that alone won't save a movie. The biggest thing that was wrong with it was that the director, Troy Miller, who was a good friend of ours and really made Mr. Show happen in a production way, he was like a partner in it with me and David, really wanted to own [Run Ronnie Run] creatively. It's an understandable thing. It's what people aspire to. It's just that in that case, I don't think that script and our performances and that idea were strong enough to be reimagined by even a talented director. It's like making a Monty Python movie and kicking the Monty Python guys out when you're cutting it. It's not that funny unless you do it the way they do it. It's just sort of not good enough on its own to be reimagined by somebody. It needs to be completely cared for by the people who have that comic voice. Because [Miller's] desire was to really make the movie and own it as a creative entity, and we weren't a part of it, it's kind of off-balance in every direction. I've only seen it one or two times when we were making it, I have not seen it since then, but I know what it's like. The emphasis is wrong everywhere. It went awry. But I get that there's parts of it to appreciate, especially if you're a Mr. Show fan, you can sort of see the intention of it all.
It would be great to see a cut of that movie that you guys actually like.
We could have made that cut. It wasn't that far off-base as far as how we made it compared to how we made Mr. Show. The way to do it would be, you'd have to let me in the editing room. Let's say there's a sequence that's shot really beautifully with the camera, kind of capturing things that the director thinks are involving, and I go, "Yeah but that shit doesn't matter." And that's what happened all the time on Mr. Show. It was frustrating and infuriating for directors, but in the end I was right because we were making a comedy show, not The Godfather. It would be interesting to see a cut of that movie if we could go in there and cut the shit out of it. What we would do is just take sequences that are long and kind of slow and elegiac and turn them into comedy madness, which is what they should have been all along. And in defense of the director, the script was bunch of comedy moments and bits, but it was a delicate thing, it was not a great piece of writing.
How do you feel about having to carrying on the legacy of Breaking Bad?
I try not to think about that. I really do. Maybe it's compartmentalization. I think Breaking Bad was its own show, and I think Better Call Saul is pretty distinctive. It's a slower show, it's a more internal show. The character's instincts are incredibly good and empathetic. Jimmy McGill is a good guy in a lot of ways; Walter White always had a kind of nasty edge to him, an angry edge. I see it as a pretty different show, and the fans have been kind about saying that same thing. When we went to make this, nobody thought we're going to beat Breaking Bad and be a better, more important show. You really kind of can't be a more important show than Breaking Bad was, not just because of its creative excellence, which is undeniable, but also because it was the perfect show for streaming, and it came along just when people discovered and had the technology to stream. It was like this unbelievable marriage of material and technology. It was crazy how perfectly simpatico that was. I don't know if any TV show ever in my lifetime will have some kind of perfect marriage to a change in technology that happens at the exact same time. There's aspects of Breaking Bad that no one can equal or beat, and we're included in that group called no one. And we always knew that. Our goal is to make a good show with integrity, and hopefully make a unique show, and in the case of Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, who created [Better Call Saul], I think to make something distinctive, and I think they're doing that.
How was Breaking Bad able to take comedic talents like you, Bryan Cranston, and a guy like Bill Burr, and turn them into perfect elements for a show with basically no humor in it?
All the credit goes to Vince Gilligan on that one. He gave me that part without an audition, same is true for Bill Burr. Obviously going with Cranston was an incredible choice on his part. Vince says comedy people in general can surprise you by being good at drama, but drama people rarely can do comedy. I personally think that's true. I don't want to get chased and beaten by a bunch of dramatic actors, but the fact is, comedians specialize in commitment to craziness. Modulating is the key. You've got to be able to modulate everything. A lot of comedy can be broad and it's fine and it's fun and it's what it's meant to be, but in drama you've really got to, what is it called, take the temperature of the room, and fit in that world.
Fellow Saturday Night Live alum Adam McKay just won an Oscar. What does that mean having a comedy guy break through in an arena that's never really favored comedy?
It means don't be afraid to make an honest effort in any direction as long as it's not coming from "I hope I win awards with this." You can smell that shit a mile away, and it's gross. But Adam used a lot of his skills from comedy, from the very energetic directing style that he has and the very performance-oriented style that he has as a comedy director to make The Big Short, which has a great emphasis on performance, a lot of focus on those guys. It's hardly a Fincher movie, which is like robotic, dialed-in, delicate little performances. [The Big Short] is people taking big swings and, I'm sure, entertaining the shit out of each other while doing it. Yet the material is important and smart, and he wrote a great screenplay—you could follow it and it was fun. My transition into Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul should be a statement in the same direction of like just take on material that involves you and can challenge you, but use your skills that you've developed and apply them in another area with an honest effort and people might be open to it.
Does McKay's Oscar help open the door for somebody like you, a comedy writer and director with an interest in also creating more serious work?
I don't think the door is closed for me. One of the things that I have in my favor is that my comedy was never that successful. When you have a big financial success in one area, that's what really shuts the doors in all the other areas. The industry has such a desire to make money, and have you do that thing that you do that makes big money. But I've never made anybody big money, so as a result, I'm lucky and I'm not sequestered in some corner. In the minds of the business, I'm just an interesting artist, and that's all I want to be, and that's good enough for me. It means I still have to beg and plead and get turned down a lot, but it's still a better position than being a massive success with a small tight wheelhouse that everyone wants you to work in.
SEE IT: Bob Odenkirk is at the Brody Theater, 16 NW Broadway, 224-2227. 7:30 pm Saturday, March 26. Sold out.