There’s a good chance the name Bob Odenkirk doesn’t ring a bell, but you know him, dammit. Chris Farley’s best Saturday Night Live character, Matt Foley, and his van down by the river? Yeah, Bob wrote that. What about Mr. Show, the cult sketch series your alternative-comedy–loving roomie blathers on about? Bob created it. And those Adult Swim weirdos Tim and Eric? Bob discovered them. Since the late ’80s, the Midwestern-bred writer, actor and director has been behind some of the most inspired, envelope-pushing and bonkers comedy to date. And recently, he’s morphed into something of a character actor, displaying subtle, dramatic chops on TV (Fargo) and in indie films (Nebraska, The Spectacular Now). And then, of course, there’s Saul Goodman, the slimy and ever-amusing lawyer of a meth kingpin that Odenkirk portrayed on Breaking Bad. Now, Bob can add leading man to his résumé. Odenkirk hooked up again with Bad mastermind Vince Gilligan for the new AMC series Better Call Saul, which traces how a well-meaning guy from Illinois named Jimmy McGill became the New Mexico attorney we know, love and loathe. Just don’t call the show a prequel.
Were you surprised Saul didn’t die in Breaking Bad? I was surprised every time I read the script. He did seem like a perfect character to kill. You can’t kill Jesse, and you can’t kill Walt. But you do have to occasionally kill an important character just to keep the stakes high for everyone. So I was looking for that. Bryan Cranston said Saul was like a cockroach and he was gonna crawl out at the end.
Saul has so many great lines in that show. Do you have any favorites? What is the one about the Beatles? Oh, yeah, the one where I say, “Paul, Ringo. Ringo, Paul. Congratulations, you’re the cute one now.” I mean, it’s kind of mean to Ringo Starr.
Well, Ringo sometimes deserves some ribbing. Have you seen his paintings? Wait a second. Are they bad?
Yeah. Really bad. [Looks them up on the Internet] Oh, come on, man! Goddamn it. Totally insane. It’s like an old woman who lives in a trailer made those paintings. Not good. I think, you know, he probably looked at Keith Haring’s work and thought, Oh, my stuff’s kind of like that.
In Better Call Saul, we learn that your character is actually named Jimmy McGill and is from Cicero, just outside of Chicago. You’re from around there. Was his hometown your idea? I did tell [showrunners] Vince [Gilligan] and Peter [Gould], I think this guy’s from Chicago. I mean, it makes sense. If you love Chicago and you’ve read Mike Royko’s book Boss, you know what went on there and what still goes on there, which is a lot of backroom dealing—the perfect place for that character to be from.
Did you witness any shady dealings firsthand? There was this stand-up gig on Sunday nights in Cicero where you could make like 40 bucks. It was at a disco. I think it was called Up All Night, and it was clearly a Mafia laundering place. There’d be like 20 people there. It even started at 1am…on a Sunday night. There was no audience. You would get up on the dance floor, which was empty, and tell jokes, and then these guys would barely look at you over their shoulder. These guys who were muscle guys, for people who need muscle. It was sketchy.
Sounds pretty sleazy. You seem to find a lot of humor in complete sleazeballs. Oh, sleazeballs are a ton of fun. They’re here to make us laugh. And to take our money. It’s a lot of fun to see a character who is duplicitous and trying to put one over on people. And the thing that I’m amazed at and thankful for is people actually like Saul Goodman. That really surprised me. I think in Better Call Saul we dig into a place where he is justifiably likable. As for why people liked him on Breaking Bad, you’ll have to go ask.
What sort of hand did you have in creating Saul? The only thing I contributed out of inspiration was the hair. When Vince called me, I was like, He’s got a comb-over and a mullet.
What’s the difference between Jimmy McGill and Saul Goodman? Jimmy’s the deeper version of the character. We’re now seeing other sides to him, an emotional side with his family. We’re seeing a lot of things that drive him on a deeper level. Vince and Peter have done a smart thing by not doing what anybody off the top of their heads could just predict.
Do you have plans to bring back Mr. Show? I saw a picture tweeted of you and a bunch of the other stars together. Do I have plans? I’m sitting here writing a sketch with David Cross. We are trying to do it for some outlet—we don’t know who yet. A four-part half-hour comedy series. Four half hours. It won’t be called Mr. Show. It will certainly borrow a lot from Mr. Show and use a lot of the people who wrote and created Mr. Show, but I don’t really feel like doing a reunion celebration.
Are you a fan of those in general? They lose steam after about one minute. I mean, I think David and I are not old-men enough to just sit around dreaming of the past through our cataract-filled eyes. I guess you could say, Why not call it Mr. Show? And I would say because weirdly I think that would exclude a certain amount of people from enjoying it. It would feel like, Am I supposed to be watching it for what it is? Or am I supposed to be watching it in relation to something I never watched? It’s just sketch comedy, and we’d like to do more. So the fact that we’re doing it the year of the 20th anniversary of the first year is just coincidental, really.
Now that you’re the star of a spin-off, could you pitch another one to us? Well, M*A*S*H already had AfterM*A*S*H.
I haven’t seen that. You gotta look it up, man. Terrible. Did not work at all. But I would like to see The Hank Show, spun off Larry Sanders. Wouldn’t that be great? Hank, after The Larry Sanders Show ended, doing a morning show or something. He would be on like a local version of Good Morning America. And it’s just very rinky-dink. It would have to be in a city big enough to have one but not that big. Maybe L.A. They’re kind of funny with that stuff here. Or Milwaukee.
Do you resent people calling Better Call Saul a spin-off? No, spin-off is the proper term. I think it shouldn’t be called a prequel. You know, like in Star Wars, the shit that goes down then matters for the next Star Wars and builds the universe for the next Star Wars…who’s evil, who’s good or whatever. I don’t even know what happens in Star Wars. It’s stars that are at war, I think. I’ve never seen it. But I’m pretty sure that’s what it’s about.