welcome home, asshole
“WELCOME HOME BOB!” The whiteboard message scrawled in a Second City conference room was for Bob Odenkirk, mainstage revue class of 1990, now best known as the titular criminal criminal lawyer in AMC’s Breaking Bad spinoff, Better Call Saul. The scribbled sentiment is the polar opposite of what met Odenkirk when he showed up for main-stage rehearsals in 1990.
“They fucking hated me. Really. I mean they really hated me,” recalls Odenkirk, who worked the main-stage gig while on summer hiatus from writing for Saturday Night Live. “I mean, they really hated me.”
It was a tense homecoming for the Berwyn-born, Naperville-raised author of some of SNL‘s most memorable sketches (“Da Bears,” “Motivational Speaker”) and the co-creator (with David Cross) of the HBO cult classic Mr. Show With Bob and David (other early cast members included Jack Black and Sarah Silverman).
Speaking to a standing-room-only group of more than 100 rapt Second City students in mid-January, Odenkirk explains why the hostility was so strong in 1990 that Second City matriarch and longtime producer Joyce Sloane had to step in on his behalf.
“Truth is, we all started at the same time,” Odenkirk says, rattling off a roster of Second City icons who came up in the 1980s and early 1990s: David Pasquesi, Mick Napier, Chris Farley, Tim Meadows. “You know how when you have a bunch of people from the same generation doing the same thing there’s rivalry? Well, I never thought of those guys as my competition. I saw my competition as Eddie Murphy and Steve Martin. I knew I might not beat them. Ever. But that’s what I wanted. Something big.”
Odenkirk got his wish when he landed a spot on Saturday Night Live in 1987. He quit his waiter gig at Ed Debevic’s, stopped taking comedy classes at the Players Workshop, where so many Second City comics trained, and walked away from the grueling hustle of performing whenever and wherever possible in hopes of getting noticed.
“I was the one who was like, ‘OK, fuck you guys, I’m going to go do this other thing,’ and I left,” he says. “Then when I came back [in 1990] to do the mainstage, there’s these people who had been there for years trying to move up, and I was like, ‘I’m back, get out of my way.’ They were mad. They put in their fucking time and I didn’t. I was cast from outside the system.”
The animosity was intense enough for Sloane to call a meeting. “She told everybody that Second City is not the post office,” Odenkirk says. “You don’t just put in your time and automatically move up. There is no guarantee.” The revue—Flag Smoking Permitted in the Lobby—also featured Farley and Meadows. Odenkirk recently sat down with some of his former castmates. “For my memoir—which, yes, I’m writing a memoir. They were like ‘yeah, we hated you.’ But we’re friends now.”
exile from nowheresville
Odenkirk’s loyalty to Second City and Chicago’s comedy scene is unimpeachable. He returns regularly to do master classes with students at the Second City Training Center. During his most recent weekend visit, he also worked with comics at the iO, hit up shows at the Annoyance, and fielded a lengthy Q and A at Second City. During a freewheeling interview before the Q and A, Odenkirk offers two primary messages for young comics: First, to do improv well, you have to study acting. Second, show business is not some impossibly distant planet populated by multigazillionaires who are way better looking than you are.
“When I was growing up in Naperville—” Odenkirk is cut short by a woo-hooing student in the back row. Odenkirk had previously, repeatedly, called Naperville “Nowheresville.” Apparently his stance has softened.
“Yeah, well, whatever you want to feel about Naperville is OK. Naperville’s great. I love Naperville.” He sighs. “But I’m an older white man.”
He gets back to the point.
“Growing up, show business seemed so far away. Second City seemed far away. It freaked me out. It was all so intimidating. The whole business is so scary and distant and such a mystery. I’d like to make it a little less mysterious for you guys.”
Odenkirk’s own demystification process started when he was three credits shy of graduation from Southern Illinois University. In an interview before the student session, he explains his impetus for dropping out: A chance meeting that turned into a two-hour interview with Del Close, the legendary coach of a constellation of Second City stars, John Belushi, Amy Poehler, George Wendt, Harold Ramis, Dan Aykroyd, Tina Fey, and Stephen Colbert among them.
“When I was at SIU, I would sit in an empty classroom and write comedy for 90 minutes for this late-night radio show I did,” Odenkirk remembers. “I don’t remember any of the classes I actually took, but I remember writing sketches for the radio. And I remember thinking maybe I could be a professional.”
So he drove from SIU’s Carbondale campus to Second City in hopes of talking to some actual comedy professionals. He cold-called Sloane and asked her for an interview. She agreed. Then he went to Barbara’s Bookstore, then located in Old Town. “I’m standing by the counter waiting and I hear the cashier saying something like, ‘Sorry, Del, that’s not in yet.'” Del was Del Close. As on stage and film, Odenkirk’s bookstore timing was impeccable.
“I was like ‘Del? Are you Del Close? Can I interview you?’ He told me he had had just quit Second City and he wanted to talk about it. So I sat with him for two hours while he’s smoking this joint—he wanted to share, but I didn’t smoke pot at the time—rambling into my tape recorder. Anyway, that meeting inspired me. And I was getting antsy by that point. So yeah, I left with three credits to go.
“It wasn’t just what he said, although the words were hilarious and great,” Odenkirk continues. “It was the way he talked about comedy. It made me think ‘This is a job, you can make a living at it.’ The excitement he had—he’d just quit his job and he was so excited about what would happen next. I didn’t know anyone over 25 who had that kind of excitement. Everybody I could think of was beat to shit by that age, golfing and getting drunk and thinking about the past.”
(In case you’re worried, Odenkirk did end up making up those last three credits at Columbia College a few years later and got his degree in 1984.)
laughs are kind of your enemy
Close helped Odenkirk determine one of his career’s guiding principles: that the line between improv and acting is porous. Odenkirk scowls when Napier, who is moderating the student session, explains that the Annoyance stopped offering acting classes because students weren’t interested in taking them.
“So many times I see improvisers on stage and I feel like I’m looking at a comedy writers’ room where everyone is standing up,” Odenkirk says. “I’m not seeing any physicalization. I’m not watching a story. I’m not watching characters. I’m watching people get ahold of a riff and beat the shit out of it. It’s like a cleverness contest, onstage.”
The trap is the addictive nature of laughter. “I get it. Laughs are addictive. They are the sweetest honey maple syrup. But you need to fucking create a scene and characters and be funny. That night that was so great when you got a lot of laughs? Complete waste of time. You got no better as an actor. You fed off your worst instincts. And you aren’t growing. You’re just hanging out with your friends making them laugh three times a week.”
Beware, Odenkirk adds, of measuring your success by the barometer of the Second City main-stage revues. “You get this main-stage shows and they get X laughs per minute. There’s a mechanical quality to some of the revues I’ve seen because the run is so long. That damn thing has to be put up over and over and over again for the better part of a year. It has to reward the audience the same amount in month seven as it did the first week when it was still exciting for you as a performer.” (The Reader accused Odenkirk of exhibiting his own mechanical qualities in a 1990 review of Flag Smoking in the Lobby: “He has to limit himself, to become a cog in the reliable comic machinery,” groused critic Lawrence Bommer.)
Odenkirk stresses to his students that improv isn’t even actually rooted in comedy. It was largely born in the 1960s when the Royal Court Theatre in London hired the playwright Keith Johnstone to create a process that would help dramatic writers “get their fucking play together.” Johnstone hit on improv games to help stuck playwrights.
“It wasn’t created for comics or even comedy writers,” Odenkirk says to the students. “It started from ‘how can [playwrights] think deeply about their story and move that story along when . . . ‘ That tells you a lot about what it was meant to be used for. Creating character. Story. Being in the moment.”
In addition to studying acting, Odenkirk advises young comics to leave town, early and often.
“The longer you wait to go see what’s out there in LA or New York, the bigger and scarier they become. That’s a trap. Just go. Sleep on a couch. A cheap hotel room. Whatever. Go to the little theaters in North Hollywood. Get familiar with the surroundings. Hell, walk around the lot at Paramount. Go look at the CAA building. Figure out where you’d sign up for classes. And always be thinking of your next move.
“So often people hit around 31 or 32 years old and they were on the Second City mainstage or they almost got on the Second City mainstage and then they’re like, well, this is over now. They have no next step planned. Believe me, that’s not a good thing to hit.”
of comedy and chaos
In some ways, comedy has gotten more challenging since Odenkirk started. For one thing, he says, there was no Internet following you around recording your misfires back in ye olden days.
“Kids don’t have the freedom we did,” Odenkirk says before his meeting with the students. “This whole thing of holding people accountable for things they said many years ago is in flux. I think the younger generation will come to different terms on that than they are right now. They’ll have to. If they don’t, everybody is going to be disqualified from life at some point.
“If you’re doing comedy, you’re going to end up doing things that can be misinterpreted at the least, that will insult and possibly demean someone. John Cleese said something to the effect that comedy is about poking society. It’s about poking and prodding and provoking and touching on hot-button issues to release tension and offer perspective. At a certain point, you can’t have comedy if you can’t be harsh and rude.
“If you start picking it apart and lose perspective on when and where it’s taking place, we’re going to lose all comedy. All the good stuff, anyway. Eric Idle said comedy is a place where you can smuggle anger and brutal honesty inside of a laugh. I love that definition.”
Politicians aren’t what they used to be either, he adds.
“You could make fun of Obama but you didn’t feel like the world might blow up because of it. This guy [Donald Trump]? He’s really playing with TNT. I think the consequences are so dire that it’s less fun to joke about him. It’s actually really hard to figure out how to approach this.
“To make a joke, to satirize someone, you need a shared understanding with the audience that the person you’re joking about has a certain amount of dignity. We could make fun of Obama’s professorial mannerisms, for instance. But you knew the real guy wasn’t exactly the same guy you were playing. Now we don’t have that all the time. We have chaos. Trump’s an agent for chaos. That’s one reason people voted for him, right? They were all like, yeah—let’s throw this crazy into the mix and see what happens. Well. We’re getting to see what happens.”
Odenkirk still writes and does the occasional comedy performance, but Better Call Saul has become the main event. The fifth season drops in August. No matter what transpires—he claims he hasn’t even seen the scripts yet—he believes his background in improv will be invaluable.
“You might look at the show and go, ‘Where’s the improv? It’s all scripted.’ It’s there. All the things Del talked to me about are still so important. It’s about being present. It’s about arriving at a line or a thought in a fresh way that makes you feel like you don’t know what might happen next. It’s about experiencing the character’s life in an immediate and surprising way. That’s all improv.
“That’s what all those improv games we play as students are about,” he continues. “They are all meant to disarm your thinking mind from trying to contour what you say next. You want to feel like ‘I’m here right now with this reality and I don’t know what comes next. But I’m going to follow my needs my character’s wants That’s all I have to work off of.'”
The popularity of Better Call Saul requires regular mental adjustments.
“I’m standing waiting for a Lyft and some guy drives by yelling ‘Saul! I love your work!’ It always takes me kind of a microsecond. I get this tiny hiccup—like ‘Saul? Who’s Saul?’ And them I remember. Oh yeah. That guy.” v
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Second City had stopped offering acting classes. Second City still offers the classes; it is the Annoyance that does not.