Of course there are several author photos in Bob Odenkirk’s new book. Collectively, they’re a nod to the abundance of Odenkirks spread across the cultural spectrum. There’s the dramatic actor whose recent roles in The Spectacular Now and Alexander Payne’s Nebraska are exercises in subtle restraint. Then there’s the comedic supreme being who created, appeared in, shepherded, or influenced a veritable pantheon of hilarious hit shows over the years (Odenkirk’s character, Saul Goodman, of Breaking Bad and its forthcoming spinoff, plays somewhere in between).
Author photos are meant to implant in readers’ brains a snapshot of the sensibility behind the book. The image in the back of A Load Of Hooey, Odenkirk’s shapeshifting collection of short humor pieces, is a tasteful example of the typical specimen. The bonus author photo in the front, however, is the more revealing one. In it, the author is wearing oblong eyeglasses and a jaunty scarf while holding a pipe and a wineglass in either hand, with a cat perched upon his lap. Already, it’s a laser-drill puncture in the inflated self-image of pompous authors, but then there’s the caption: Bob Odenkirk is stuck under a cat holding someone’s wine and a stinky old pipe. It’s a representative gag for someone with a flare for visual and verbal humor that comments on whatever form contains it.
Whether writing for Saturday Night Live, co-creating a sketch series nearly as revered with Mr. Show, or playing roles in everything from The Larry Sanders Show to Seinfeld and Arrested Development–not to mention discovering Tim and Eric–Bob Odenkirk has left a slyly cerebral stamp on nearly everything funny that’s happened in the past quarter-century. As A Load of Hooey rolls out in stores, Odenkirk spoke with Co.Create about the power of clumsiness, the texture of performance, and just about every way he’s learned to make people laugh across media and genre.
Highbrow humor has its virtues, but it can always be trumped by a really silly idea executed thoughtfully.
“One day I just had this image of how funny it would be to see Abraham Lincoln roaming the woods like Sasquatch,” Odenkirk recalls. “So I made it. I literally called two friends who shoot and edit, and then I called a friend who looks a little like Abe Lincoln and we went and shot that. It’s 17 seconds long. Then later, I thought there should also be a guy who’s hunting for Lincoln and claims that Lincoln’s alive, so we used the footage for that. An idea really can be as stupid as, ‘What about instead of Sasquatch, it’s Lincoln, and what does that mean and why would that make sense?’ You just build out from this really funny core image that has some resonance. That’s the key, it’s not just craziness but that it has some resonance too.
We’re going to do this Mr. Show special in May, so I’m putting things together now. I’m reading articles about Edward Snowden, because I know I’ve got to say something about him. It’s the issue of our time. I’ve got one idea that is kinda dumb, but sometimes the dumbest ideas are really wonderful and they make you laugh. I think when I examine these ideas, it can very quickly start to sound like I’m trying to deconstruct the world and explain a point of view on the world with this sketch. And while that may be true, it’s only an outcome, not the impetus for what I’m doing. I’m always just trying to be funny and surprising.”
If you recognize how people talk and the meaning of how they talk, you might find another way to get laughs beyond what they’re talking about.
“I wrote a piece called ‘Martin Luther King’s Worst Speech Ever,'” Odenkirk says. “He’s obviously one of the great speakers in American history, but what if he gets tripped up and he’s speaking in this grand metaphorical manner, then what do you have? The way people speak and the way they communicate can be the subject. It’s not just the obvious ridiculing of, or sarcastic commentary on, interactions, but the way these people present themselves. Examining patterns of speech can be a way to avoid taking sides, obviously, because you’re not really saying anything. But it can be even more meaningful than making fun of things in the world, to just point out the way that information is being shared with you.”
Writing A Load of Hooey let Odenkirk experiment with several different kinds of voice, including his preferred mode to work in–a cruder version of his natural voice.
“I’m not a very refined person,” he says. “I’m from Naperville, Illinois, and I went to public schools and I went to state colleges. As much as I’ve read, I’m just kind of a clod when it comes to writing. One of the things I learned at Mr. Show, once I was away from the Harvard gang at SNL, was the attraction and the impact and the fun of writing and speaking in a clumsier idiom. Jay Johnston and Paul F. Tompkins to me were two writers on Mr. Show whose writing made me smile because they never shied away from making up words and just speaking very directly and sort of defiantly straightforward and clumsy. There’s real power in that, in just kind of owning your clumsiness as you try to express yourself.”
A little bit of self-knowledge helps transforms a comic creation into something beyond just a joke-delivery system.
“A lot of times characters in sketches are not at all self-aware,” Odenkirk says, “but I think real people are. Almost anybody who you think is a doofus or a clown kind of knows that they are, and even knows specifically why and how–they just can’t help themselves. It helps to make a character more dimensional if they have a real sense of themselves, and then you color them with other emotions. There were a lot of times in Mr. Show where there was kind of a tinge of sadness or a beat that was just kind of pathetic. And I always thought that made the characters a little deeper, more human.”
Chris Farley’s signature role on Saturday Night Live was motivational counselor Matt Foley, who famously lived in a van down by the river. Odenkirk co-created the character with Farley when the two performed at Second City in Chicago together, and he uses it to illustrate the importance of heightening and modulation.
“When you’re doing a live show, you tend to broaden the characters,” he says. “You just don’t play very subtle. You can’t do the quieter or more curious kind of performance thing. If a character is pure silliness, though, you can go really far. You play it big and broad and loud. And it’s not like you’re compromising some depth or humanity to it. It’s meant to be just a pure, comic construct. But then when you’re trying to have it sustain for any length of time or you’re trying to mix in some deeper emotions or the character’s going to go on a journey, you need to modulate it and be careful how crazy you make it. Because you can also go too far.
I’ve said this before, but when Chris Farley would do the motivational speaker after I left Saturday Night Live, he would often start the sketch with breaking the table or breaking the wall. And that really bothered me because I always tried to explain to Chris, ‘You gotta end on that. You don’t start the character the furthest out it can be.’ One of the problems with live performers is they just want to get that big laugh, so they start with the character at the 10th degree instead of ramping up.”
There is no miracle cure to writer’s block, so Odenkirk offers a more practical solution.
“When you’re stuck writing something, stop working on it and go do something else,” he says. “Don’t work on nothing, just go work on something else and then go take care of your kids. And if the thing has forward momentum and it has it’s own energy to it, which is the only kind of great funny thing there is, if it’s a piece that kind of builds its own energy around it and sort of has a desire to live outside of you and your desire to make it live, then while you’re washing the dishes or picking up the kids or maybe it’ll even be a year later, the solutions will come to you.”
Having spent time at SNL, Odenkirk figured out the ingredients that would enrich the performances on his own series when he and David Cross created Mr. Show.
“At Saturday Night Live I was frustrated by how little time they had for rehearsal and prep,” he says. “Ultimately, the performance was often a person in a costume reading from a cue card loudly in front of you. And there’s no texture in that and you can’t play subtle jokes. But they have no time at SNL–the show is written on Monday and Tuesday and it’s not chosen until Wednesday afternoon, late, and everyone’s tired already. And then they have to build the sets and try to rehearse quickly. At Mr. Show, when we picked our material, we knew what we had. We knew it was a show’s worth, and we committed to it and then we refined it. We rehearsed it and we knew it and played it and we talked about the performance of it. There were no cue cards on Mr. Show–we knew our lines and we’d rehearsed it a lot and talked about it a lot.”
In the same way playing basketball with your friend who has a wicked jumpshot might improve your own jumpshot, collaborating with creative people more talented than yourself in some way can only strengthen your own talents.
“Try to get yourself in a room with one or two people who are better than you,” Odenkirk says. “They don’t have to be across-the-board better than you, maybe they’re better at story or character than you. But just sitting next to people you can learn from and watching the solutions come to them–there’s some weird osmosis that happens when you’re in the room and you find the answer together. You just kind of see what level they are thinking on, and start to feel where to put your brain. I think the solutions to what to write and how to find the tone are kind of mystical. You either have an instinct for it or you don’t. But you can hone your instincts by being around other people solving those problems, and you can certainly also hone it by just sweating and solving those problems yourself.”
Knowing the kinds of things that you just might not be suited for is as important as figuring out the kinds of things you do best.
“I’m not really sure I can write a screenplay that’s very good,” Odenkirk says. “I’ve written quite a few, and I think maybe people whose brains develop the template for screenplays and those questions that are asked and answered in a two-hour movie, that might be a different shape of brain than mine. And that’s okay! You gotta make your peace with it. If you keep running into the problem and keep not being able to solve it to your own satisfaction, I would say, ‘Good for you for having standards and not just liking every piece of shit you write.’ I certainly wouldn’t say that to a 25-year-old, but when you get to be 35 and 40, if you’re still hitting a brick wall, maybe your contribution can come in a different way.”