SF Sketchfest: Comedy Workhorse Bob Odenkirk on Matt Foley, the Birthday Boys, and Breaking Bad
He is the co-creator of the influential mid-1990s sketch comedy program Mr. Show, currently plays greasy attorney Saul Goodman ("You don't need a criminal lawyer; you need a criminal lawyer.") on the blockbuster series Breaking Bad, and he has mentored Tim and Eric, the Birthday Boys, and others. And this weekend, comedic jack-of-all-trades Bob Odenkirk will be at SF Sketchfest for three performances. He is a regular at the festival and took a few moments out of his nonstop schedule -- which includes live performances, film work, writing, and Breaking Bad -- to chat with us by phone.
Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman on Breaking Bad
What were your earliest experiences in comedy -- before you were ever paid to do it?
I wrote when I was a kid -- I wrote sketches for school projects. They were comedy sketches. I got good grades and everybody seemed to like them. And I loved Monty Python's Flying Circus. It was my favorite TV show. I watched it and thought about it a lot. I liked the Credibility Gap, too -- that was a group in Los Angeles that included Michael McKean and Harry Shearer. And early Saturday Night Live. As far as a big break goes, moving to Chicago and taking classes at Second City and meeting Robert Smigel -- and then we roomed together. Robert got hired at Saturday Night Live, and a year and a half later, I was hired there as well.
As a writer, what kind of material or characters inspire you?
I'm all over the map, which has probably been one of my problems [laughs]. But it's one of the reasons I love sketch comedy -- because I can alternate between broader and subtler comedy, and between very interior silliness and exterior broadness. There's probably always something that makes characters tick. I wrote the Matt Foley stuff at SNL -- that was the "van down by the river" guy. Of course Chris [Farley] could have done it without the character -- he could have just done the moves and it would have been funny. But the fact that there was a human being described there, who obviously had a terrible self-image and this gung-ho energy, and was using his terrible self-image to power his philosophy -- even the broadest characters I've written have a motivation. On Mr. Show, we sometimes had silly notions but they weren't really about anything -- so we'd think about what might be the point of it.
What's your relationship with SF Sketchfest? You are on the bill just about every year.
It's a totally unofficial relationship, but every year I do some form of sketch show -- somehow. It happens without intent, really, but it's what I love to do. So what has happened is Sketchfest representatives come see whatever sketch show I'm doing, somewhere in LA, and then they usually ask me to do it at the festival. I love Sketchfest and I love San Francisco -- I truly do. I'm always eager to be a part of it.
This year, I'm doing a show with The Birthday Boys, which is a sketch group here in L.A. who have had some success. I really like them and their comedy. I directed their last show a few months ago. And now we're doing it at Sketchfest -- it's called The Seven-Man Sweater. Anyone who loves Mr. Show is going to love it. I've replaced David Cross with seven other guys -- it only took seven. And we're actually moving toward getting a TV show with it. We did the show in L.A. and it did well. And after we do it in San Francisco, we're going to pitch to networks. Ben Stiller's Red Hour company is producing it.
Are you shooting the fifth season of Breaking Bad yet?
No -- shooting starts in May, I believe. I usually go and visit the writers' room -- I have not done that yet, but I will soon. So I know nothing. I don't even know if Saul Goodman returns. I'd like to believe he will. But we will see. I never know anything about that show in advance; in fact as the season goes, they black out the scripts, so I literally don't know what is happening in the show, even while I'm doing it.
Are any of Saul's lines ad-libbed?
No. I do what they write, and I do it pretty exactly. You were asking about variety earlier, and honestly I've never had a role that I have approached as formally as I approach Saul Goodman. I learn those lines verbatim and I rehearse a lot. I get really ready for that part. I am purely an actor on that set. It's a challenge and a hoot and a relief all at the same.
Bob Odenkirk appears three times this weekend at SF Sketchfest. Tonight (Friday), he participates in Theme Park Improv (Marines' Memorial Theatre, 10:30); admission is $35. On Saturday he's in Seven-Man Sweater with the Birthday Boys (The Eureka Theatre, 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m.); admission is $20.