This year’s SXSW Conference in Austin, Texas, brought attendees a funny and insightful conversation with Bob Odenkirk, hosted by Fred Armisen (Portlandia, Saturday Night Live). Odenkirk, Emmy Award winning comedy writer, actor, producer, and author, currently stars in the Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul. What made this conversation special was Odenkirk’s and Armisen’s long history of helping and working with each other.
Odenkirk recalled, “The first place I saw Fred was doing interviews here at SXSW. It was a VHS tape.”
Armisen said that he and Odenkirk had a similar view of the world. “One time we went to a movie theater to see Lord of the Rings. I was not relating to it at all,” Armisen said. “Then Bob turned to me and said, ‘What’s going on? You want to get out of here?’ And we left. Then I knew we though alike.”
That was not the end of Hobbit encounters for Odenkirk.
Odenkirk said, “I was working with Martin Freeman doing Fargo and we went out to lunch. He was going to leave kind of a small tip and I told him, ‘You’ve got to tip bigger than that. Everybody knows who you are.’ He was skeptical so I told him that if he didn’t everyone would say, ‘A Hobbit came in here and ripped me off.”
Moving on from Hobbits, Armisen asked Odenkirk how he knows what projects will be winners.
“I’ve been in bad projects,” Odenkirk said. “Sometimes they look good going in, but you never know how it will turn out.”
He recalled how Better Call Saul series creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, who also worked on Breaking Bad, debated over the structure of the show. Odenkirk explained, “When Vince and Peter wrote the first episode of Better Call Saul they talked about a half-hour comedy. Then they talked about a one-hour procedural where Saul never goes to court, he always settles his clients cases out of court. In the end, they settled on the origin story.”
Odenkirk said that it was a huge risk. “It was really cool, but I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know where it was going. I didn’t take everything into account till the billboards went up. You have to take risks to be interesting and different, but when you show it to the audience, you think ‘Is this going to make the audience happy,’ or maybe they will say, How dare you come out of Breaking Bad with anything.’
“But you’ve got to keep trying stuff. Breaking Bad ended before people were done with it. It could have gone for three more years. So, people were happy to see Saul again.”
Armisen asked how much Odenkirk was involved in the show.
Odenkirk said, “I’ve become more involved now in the third season. Before I was concentrating on my character. But drama is not what I do – plot progression and so forth. With comedy, it’s let’s get to something funny. With drama, I have to trust these guys. Have to trust Vince and Peter.”
Armisen recalled how Odenkirk was always coming up with new ideas and was always pitching them. “Is that still there?” he asked.
Odenkirk turned thoughtful. “I spend a lot more time at the dog park now,” he said. “I do less. That was part of being a comedy writer. Churning out material every day. I was always thinking, ‘C’mon you should be writing some comedy right now.”
Armisen and Odenkirk shared videos of some of their favorite sketches with SXSW attendees, including a sketch from Mr. Show involving the conquest of Mount Everest.
Armisen asked if that was a difficult show to do.
Odenkirk said that there were so many layers of production and it all had to be written. It was not spontaneous. “We always tried to get some sketches that would just last forever,” he said.
Armisen asked him about his stint as a writer for Saturday Night Live.
Odenkirk was proud to have developed the motivational speaker character for Chris Farley. Otherwise, his memories were not as good. “I just wasn’t that effective there,” he recalled. “I wasn’t in the emotional state to handle that job. There are all these people with tons of experience. It was hard on me and I don’t know how helpful I was. I learned a lot from the great comedy writers there, and that helped me with Mr. Show.”
On Acting and Writing
After sharing a few more videos, Armisen opened it up for questions from the audience.
Odenkirk was asked about his favorite role.
“I don’t think much can beat Saul and Jimmy McGill,” he said. “There’s so much depth. Second would be Bill Oswalt in Fargo. That character had a sweet innocence, but with a self-awareness about him. In good writing, even secondary characters have an arc, but all characters should have some self-awareness. That’s what you should look for — a moment of a character knowing his own limitations.”
A writer from the audience asked Odenkirk about his writing process.
“I’ve gotten better at not trying to beat writers block,” Odenkirk observed. “I used to just plant my butt in the chair for two hours every morning. Not so much anymore. I take notes. I mull things over as I go through my day, so I don’t have to just stare at the page.”
A professor from the audience who said he sometimes gets to teach comedy, asked who he should point kids to for examples.
Odenkirk cited the classic comedy team of Bob and Ray, Rick Moranis and Catherine O’Hara. “But a lot of what we do,” he continued, ”gets better in a writers room. Young writers should learn to work in a room. It’s a mistake to go off into a corner like a novelist or a poet. For scripts, you should be showing it to people who will be giving you honest feedback. You should be reading it aloud in front of five other people who write screenplays.”
Armisen finished the questioning by asking Odenkirk how he “stayed funny.”
Odenkirk said, “First, I think you are funnier than I am. And I don’t stay funny, so I don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s kind of dangerous for me to think that I’m funny. You have to keep trying for it.”
Armisen and Odenkirk, who I think are both funny, ended their session with a clip form season three of Better Call Saul, which premieres April 10.
Photos by author