Breaking Bad's Sleazy Lawyer, Comedian Bob Odenkirk
Comedian Bob Odenkirk has gone from writing on Saturday Night Live in the '80s to playing a sleazy lawyer on Breaking Bad. Josh Gajewski talks to him about comedy and "mutant" dogs.
Bob Odenkirk says it’s sometimes difficult for him to focus on just one thing, which might help to explain how in one minute he’s talking intellectually about comedy, and then in the next he’s asking that this interview be halted for a moment because, well, that dog over there is just too funny.
“My god, that is one hilarious animal, some kind of mutant,” Odenkirk marvels. The small oddity of a dog—a smashed-in face, a high screech of a bark—is leashed up and barking incessantly at the window of a coffee shop, presumably for its owner, who’d just stepped inside. “I should really take a video of that for my daughter. Do you mind? She will flip out.”
“I don’t want to look like I’m playing the banjo at Shakey’s.”
This is what Odenkirk does; he bottles laughs, however he can. Lately he’s best known for doing so as crooked lawyer Saul Goodman on AMC’s critically acclaimed Breaking Bad. Right now, though, he’s just a dad saving a giggle for his 9-year-old, dropping to his knees on the sidewalk in front of the barking dog, his camera phone recording. “ What are you doing?” Odenkirk asks in his best puppy-dog voice (you know the one). “ Oh, you’re a tough guy. Funny guy. Tough guy…”
Eventually he returns, apologizes, resumes. Comedy? “I like a certain amount of silliness mixed in with my honesty,” which further explains the dog video, for one, but also the man’s body of work. For 25 years, he’s made a living making people laugh through so many means: writer, actor, producer, director, standup comedian. Notable stops include a four-year stint as a writer for Saturday Night Live in the late '80s, where he created Chris Farley’s infamous “Matt Foley, Motivational Speaker” sketches; a gig on the short-lived sketch-comedy series, The Ben Stiller Show; and then his first meaty acting role in the form of sleazy agent Stevie Grant on the cult HBO satire, The Larry Sanders Show.
But it was Mr. Show With Bob and David, an HBO sketch-comedy series he created with David Cross in 1995, that seemed to corral the bulk of his current fans, at least until Breaking Bad came along. He’d met Cross in the writers’ room of Ben Stiller, and together they helped create what many in the business still consider to be one of the seminal sketch shows in TV history, even if it lasted just four seasons.
Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan was one of Mr. Show’s devout followers. When one of his writers, Peter Gould, created a character that would act as a sleazy legal adviser to the show’s meth-making protagonist, both men returned after a day of brainstorming with the same actor in mind: Odenkirk. He would be like Michael Corleone’s Tom Hagen, Gilligan says, “only a little more low-rent.”
“Low-rent” as in he works out of a strip mall and gets business through cheesy TV ads. “Low-rent” as in his name isn’t even Saul Goodman but Saul McGill; he changed it “for the homeboys,” his criminal clientele often preferring its lawyers to be Jewish. “I’ll admit he comes across like a circus clown,” Bryan Cranston’s Walter White says about him at one point in this Sunday’s episode, “but he actually knows what he’s doing.”
Seemingly unencumbered by any sort of moral compass, Saul also spouts off some of the show’s funniest lines, like “Let’s just say I know a guy … who knows a guy… who knows another guy,” or “Look, let’s start with some tough love, all right? Ready for this? Here goes. You two suck at peddling meth. Period.”
The result is a sleaze of a character we somehow adore. At the Breaking Bad premiere screening at Los Angeles’ Paley Festival earlier this year, it was Saul Goodman who garnered the loudest ovation when his character appeared on screen.
“I personally love Saul, have great affection for him as a character, because he knows exactly who he is,” Gilligan says. “He understands where he fits into the universe. He doesn’t have that neurotic need to feel good about himself.”
“Saul is an opportunist but he’s relaxed,” Cranston echoes. “He just has a, ‘Hey, let’s see where the chips may fall’ attitude, and that, in juxtaposition with Walt and Jesse, who are always on the edge of sanity and despair, that just plays so nicely.”
Odenkirk built the foundation of the character by doing two things: First, he gave him a not-so-attractive hairpiece. “Kind of a business mullet, and it’s a comb-over too,” explains Odenkirk, who, by the way, might be one of the only actors in Hollywood comfortable enough to admit that he’s had a little hair-replacement surgery; nothing impressive, he says of his mane, but he wants to maintain the sort of thin-up-top look rather than go completely bald. “It fits me and my voice.”
As for that voice, the second thing Odenkirk gave Saul, who frequently has huge blocks of dialogue, was the cadence of legendary movie producer Robert Evans. “He has that sing-song quality to his voice, a melody to it,” Odenkirk says.
He adds: “I never focused on acting until Saul Goodman. And I’ve done a lot of performing, even theater. But I never stopped and just looked at the script and took it apart and thought about the guy and noted the rhythms of it and just didn’t worry about what anyone else was doing.
“And Bryan Cranston, his performance is so thorough and intense and complete, I don’t want to look like I’m playing the banjo at Shakey’s.”
The second oldest of seven children, Odenkirk has spent his adult life trying not to resemble the banjo player at Shakey’s. He was raised in the Chicago suburbs by a funny father with an unfunny job—making business forms for hospitals and companies. At the dinner table, Bob and his brother Bill would do impersonations to entertain everyone, but as they got older the mood in the house darkened.
Bob’s father, a drinker, left the family when Bob was 15. He only returned to say goodbye some six years later; he’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer. “Even when he was dying, all he talked about was money,” Odenkirk says. “The sad thing is, he was such a funny guy, making wisecracks all the time, but the notion of comedy [as a profession] was so far away.”
Nonetheless, Odenkirk chased it. Even if it wasn’t always pretty. He openly admits that the SNL experience was rough, saying, “I was 25 and pretty immature and I was fairly intimidated.” And while he also loved standup, “I’ve always not been very good at it.”
Oh, and “I’ve gotten my butt kicked in features as a director,” he says, referring to the critically panned comedies Let’s Go to Prison and The Brothers Solomon.
From here on, he says, his pursuits will be things more in line with his own voice. That’s why he’s now shopping a film he wrote, and why he’s about to shoot a comedy for FX that’s based on a series of characters he created and portrayed for numerous Internet sketches, many of them on funnyordie.com.
“Sometimes I like to tell jokes, sometimes I like to tell stories, sometimes I like to do characters,” he says, though Breaking Bad has shown him the reward in focusing on just one thing at a time, in this case just the acting. “And, you know, maybe Breaking Bad will be a breakthrough for me, for more people to see me and hopefully like me.”
At this stage in his career, he adds, “I’m probably going to do less, but make sure it counts for more.”
And after enough chitchat to warrant three rounds of quarters for the parking meter, Odenkirk has to go. “I just love talking about comedy,” he says, but he’s more eager to hear about the show his 11-year-old son did in class today. And to show his daughter that video of the dog, hopefully to uncork yet one more laugh.
Josh Gajewski is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in such publications as the Los Angeles Times and USA Weekend magazine, among others. His writing can also be found at jgink.com.