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Bob Odenkirk
Photograph: Sharon Alagna

Bob Odenkirk on Chicago’s amazing audiences and Italian beef

We spoke with the star of ‘Better Call Saul’ about starting his career in Chicago and portraying a character from Cicero, IL.

Zach Long
Written by
Zach Long
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Before he helped set a template for contemporary sketch comedy with the HBO series Mr. Show with Bob and David and was cast as slimy lawyer Saul Goodman in the hit series Breaking Bad (and its subsequent spin-off, Better Call Saul), Bob Odenkirk was just a kid from Naperville, IL who got a taste of Chicago's thriving comedy scene when he attended a show at the Second City as a teenager. That formative experience—and a chance meeting with improv guru Del Close—are expanded upon in the opening chapters of Odenkirk's new memoir, Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama, which looks back on his career as a writer, comedian and unlikely action movie star.

This week, Odenkirk returns to Chicago in support of his book, chatting with fellow Saturday Night Live alum Tim Meadows at the Music Box Theatre on Wednesday, March 2 during an event presented by the Chicago Humanities Festival. Ahead of his appearance, we had a quick chat with Odenkirk about his memories of Chicago and his cravings for Al's #1 Italian Beef.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

In your mind, why was Chicago the best place to begin your career?

I was very lucky to have grown up in Naperville near Chicago, and as a result have a neighbor bring me to Second City—and that was pretty much all the reason you need to start your career in Chicago, if you love comedy and sketch comedy. But the truth is, Chicago was and is a great city to start your career because it has a thriving theater scene, and people actually go to theaters in Chicago. Of course the pandemic has probably upended this, but there's a sense of fun to going out and seeing a live show there. Young people, including my nephews and my son, do shows in Chicago all the time. It's still a great place for small theaters where you can do experimental things, like the CIC, which is back up and running, or the Annoyance, which Mick [Napier] does such a great job with. You can discover your voice and you don't get the personal critique of yourself, where you're judging yourself against the monstrosity of a career in show business, instead of focusing on 'What's the show I want to do that excites me.' I did stand-up. I did sketch, which I loved. I did improv, which I only sorta loved. I even did a play called Line at the Prop Thtr, it was their first show ever.

What is it about Chicago that makes it such a great place for comedians an entertainers to get started?

I both blame and celebrate the audience. I talk about this in my book; there's an old rule that it's never the audience's fault, your show is either good or bad. But it's not true—I think finding the right audience is part of finding your way. And the audiences in Chicago are open to new things, they are generally upbeat and positive. I guess I wouldn't necessarily connect that to a comedy club where people are drunk, and the audience and the performers are in a contest. But in general, you just have access to a pretty goddamn great audience in Chicago. And that means so much, that can define everything about what you're able to do and able to discover. I'm a big believer in finding the audience so that you can discover yourself. But you need those audiences to listen, you need them to want you to win, and those audiences are in Chicago.

But in general, you just have access to a pretty goddamn great audience in Chicago.

There's been a Midwestern sensibility to many of the characters you've played, but it became overt in Better Call Saul. Did learning that Jimmy McGill (a.k.a. Saul Goodman) was from Cicero, IL change your understanding of the character?

Yes, I'm going to tell you right now, that came from me growing up in Chicago. Now, I wouldn't have chosen Cicero because I don't know if there's much of an Irish population in that area. That's because Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan did not grow up in Chicago, so they chose Cicero. I mean, I'm perfectly fine with Cicero and I've been there many times— in the book I talk about the Stay Out All Night disco near Cicero, which Jeff Garlin, Lew Schneider and I played. I like Cicero, nothing against it, but I would have put Jimmy McGill on the South Side in more of an Irish-based neighborhood.

You're best known for acting and writing, but you've also helped produce shows like Tom Goes to the Mayor and The Birthday Boys throughout your career. Why is working with young comedians important to you?

I am just naturally excited by new voices that tickle me. I get very excited and I just want to tell everyone about it—that's one reason my Twitter feed will have book recommendations and stuff, which is not particularly something I think people would look to me for, but I can't help myself. I just saw this movie, The Worst Person in the World, and oh my god it's my favorite movie of last year. I've watching it twice and I want to run up to everybody on the street, grab them by the shoulders and tell them you've got to watch this movie right now, it's so good. It's the way I felt when I saw Tim [Heidecker] and Eric [Wareheim's] stuff, it's how I felt when I saw the Birthday Boys. The other part of it is that, for me, some things took a longer time than they needed to. It would have helped to have somebody tell me, somebody who'd been there already tell me what to expect from show biz, an agent, a manager. I like the idea of helping somebody get a shortcut. Now, not everybody takes your advice or wants to hear what you have to say, but in the case of Tim and Eric, they really listened. And any note I ever gave them, they made it their own. They didn't just do what I said verbatim; they took the core purpose of my note and turned it into a Tim and Eric version of the idea. They're a very special talent and certainly one I could say that, whether I helped them or not, they would have gone far. They're fucking great.

One last questions. Whenever you come back to Chicago, what's the one thing you have to eat while you're here?

Al's #1 Italian Beef for sure. That goes back to my Second City days, probably further back than that. An Al's Italian beef... I love it so much. Okay, now I want to eat one.

See Bob Odenkirk in conversation with Tim Meadows at the Music Box Theatre on Wednesday, March 2 at 7pm, presented by the Chicago Humanities Festival.

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