'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Bob Odenkirk ('Better Call Saul')

THR Bob Odenkirk - H 2015
Austin Hargrave

THR Bob Odenkirk - H 2015

"I really thought, 'No matter how good we'd do, we could be damned,'" says Bob Odenkirk of his initial reaction to Vince Gilligan's suggestion that they team up on a Breaking Bad spinoff series, Better Call Saul. As we sit down at The Hollywood Reporter to record an episode of 'Awards Chatter,' two seasons of the AMC show — and two Emmy nominations for best drama series and best actor in a drama series — later, it is abundantly clear that his concerns have been alleviated.

(Click above to listen to this episode now or click here to access all of our episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Steven SpielbergAmy Schumer, Louis C.K., Lady GagaWill SmithKristen Stewart, Harvey WeinsteinBrie LarsonJ.J. AbramsKate Winslet, Samuel L. JacksonJane Fonda and Michael Moore.)

Odenkirk, 53, has had a most unusual life. For his first 45 years, he was a Zelig of the comedy world. Then, almost on the flip of a dime, he became one of the top dramatic actors in the business. "It is truly a mystery," he says with a laugh, as we begin to try to make sense of it all.

Growing up 30 miles outside of Chicago, comedy was always on his mind. He began writing sketches at 10, discovered Second City at 12 ("a huge moment") and then, while at college, began doing bits on the radio and separately interviewing local legends like Joyce Sloane ("the mother of Second City") and then Del Close (its director). Eventually, he dropped out of college and moved to Chicago to pursue a career in sketch and improv.

His first work came as a writer. He was part of writing teams that won Emmys for Saturday Night Live (where he worked closely with Robert Smigel, Conan O'Brien and Greg Daniels and was, he acknowledges, "a huge pain in the ass ... I would have fired me") and The Ben Stiller Show. He also contributed to Get a Life (a gig he took despite concurrent interest in his services from The Simpsons), The Dennis Miller Show and his old friend's then-new show Late Night with Conan O'Brien. But he wasn't content. "I always knew I wanted to perform," he says. "I knew that I either had to become a performer — get good enough — or I had to fail at that and make my peace with it."

Acting gigs came sporadically and from a wide variety of places. While still employed by SNL, he began performing with the main stage company at Second City. (There, he and Chris Farley came up with the "motivational speaker" sketch that Farley made famous at SNL.) Subsequently, he made appearances on The Ben Stiller Show, Seinfeld and Roseanne. But his first prominent part — the job on which "I really think I learned the most," he says — was on The Larry Sanders Show. He popped up on it from 1993 through 1998, thanks to the late Garry Shandling's confidence in him.

But Odenkirk's biggest and best vehicle, until his Gilligan collaborations, was one he and David Cross created for themselves: Mr. Show with Bob and David, a groundbreaking sketch comedy program that they co-wrote and in which they co-starred. It ran on HBO for 30 episodes over four seasons (1995-1998), introducing a ton of young comics and finding a cult following before its cancelation. (Odenkirk suspects it would have survived longer had Comedy Central existed at the time.)

Oddly, it was Mr. Show that brought him to Gilligan's attention and led the Breaking Bad creator to tap him, during the show's second season, for the role of Saul Goodman (aka Jimmy McGill), an ambulance-chasing lawyer with a murky past. "It was supposed to be three or four episodes and that was it, and I actually couldn't do four, so that could have doomed me right there," Odenkirk recalls with a laugh. "That fourth episode that they wanted me for? I had already signed up to do How I Met Your Mother, so I could only do three." (It all worked out: Gilligan wanted to keep Odenkirk around, so he created the character of Mike — and hired Jonathan Banks to play him — for that fourth episode.)

Odenkirk, who would remain with Breaking Bad through the end of its fifth and final season, acknowledges that it proved to be "the show of that moment ... the show of that sort of TV era, really." He elaborates, "It was the first show that came along when people discovered streaming and discovered binge-watching, and it was the perfect show for binge-watching and streaming." So, when it came to an end, he was shocked to learn that Gilligan and Peter Gould wanted their work with him to not end. Instead, they wanted to create a separate show about Goodman's backstory and make Odenkirk, for the first time, the sole lead of a series — a series that, like Breaking Bad, was to include elements of comedy, but ultimately was a drama.

When the plans for Better Call Saul became public, there was no shortage of skeptics — myself among them. But the newer show has actually been widely and warmly embraced. Why? "They didn't lean on Breaking Bad," Odenkirk asserts. "They didn't keep poking you and going, 'Remember Breaking Bad? Remember?! Remember?!' They just went ahead with a fresh character and a fresh set of circumstances. And while there are Breaking Bad characters that come through Better Call Saul's world [including Banks' Mike] because it's all set in Albuquerque in a certain time period, they aren't leaning on that and they're not constantly waving it in front of your face." And, to Odenkirk's delight, there has been no shortage of Saul-related stories to explore. "He was putting up a front [on Breaking Bad] so we don't really know who he is at all," he says. "So now we get to invent this whole world of who he might be."