For more information, visit McSweeneys.net
Bob Odenkirk is a legend in the comedy-writing world, winning Emmys and acclaim for his work on Saturday Night Live, Mr. Show with Bob and David, and many other seminal TV shows. This book, his first, is a spleen-bruisingly funny omnibus that ranges from absurdist monologues (“Martin Luther King, Jr’s Worst Speech Ever”) to intentionally bad theater (“Hitler Dinner Party: A Play”); from avant-garde fiction (“Obituary for the Creator of Madlibs”) to free-verse poetry that's funnier and more powerful than the work of Calvin Trillin, Jewel, and Robert Louis Stevenson combined.
Odenkirk's debut resembles nothing so much as a hilarious new sketch comedy show that’s exclusively available as a streaming video for your mind. As Odenkirk himself writes in “The Second Coming of Jesus and Lazarus,” it is a book “to be read aloud to yourself in the voice of Bob Newhart.”
About the Author
Bob Odenkirk has won two Emmy Awards for comedy writing, for Saturday Night Live and The Ben Stiller Show . He co-created and starred in Mr. Show with Bob and David , which ran on HBO and has been called “the American Monty Python,” which is perhaps a bit of an overstatement in his opinion. Bob has written short comic pieces for the New Yorker and had a regular page in Vice magazine - and there's not much overlap between those two publications, is there?
Bob has directed three feature films: Melvin Goes To Dinner, Let’s Go To Prison , and The Brothers Solomon , all of which underwhelmed, admittedly, but Melvin is worth watching, for sure.
Bob has had many other memorable roles on TV, most notably The Larry Sanders Show , Curb Your Enthusiasm , How I Met Your Mother (CBS), and The Office (NBC). He is most proud of his appearances in James Ponsoldt's The Spectacular Now and Alexander Payne’s Nebraska .
He is currently Executive Producing, writing, and co-starring in The Birthday Boys , a sketch comedy show for IFC to premiere in October, 2013.
Table of Contents
Portrait of an Artist
A Vision of the Future
Audio Tour of the Louvre
“Putting It Out There”
North Korea on 25 Dollars a Day
RAT PACK MINUTES
Hitler Dinner Party: A Play
PROUD GAY GRAMPA
WHAT I’M LOOKING FOR IN ANOTHER MAN
UNASSUMING OSCAR NOMINEE
The Phil Spector I Knew
MLK’s WORST SPEECH EVER
Free Speech for All!
“DIdn't Work For Me”
A HAZY CHRISTMAS MEMORY
12 Poems about Baseball
paul mccartney transcript
I Found A Jackson Pollock
A Man of Many Limitations
OBITUARY FOR THE CREATOR OF MAD LIBS
Shakespeare in the Park
THE SECOND MEETING OF JESUS AND LAZARUS
LA River Anthology
So You Want To Get a Tattoo!
Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Bob Odenkirk
Quick: who's the most influential comedian of the last twenty- five years? Free association might have landed you upon Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, Chris Rock, or Jerry Seinfeld: worthy options all. Yet it is the impact of Bob Odenkirk and his masterfully funny writing for vehicles like Saturday Night Live, The Ben Stiller Show, Late Night with Conan O'Brien, and Mr. Show with Bob and David - - which permeates so many of today's most acclaimed works of parody, slapstick, and satire. His style on television, film, and in his first book of humor writing, A Load of Hooey is a deft blend of silliness and ridicule, mirth and rage: salt augmenting sweetness. Volatile yet affable, both onstage and as a writer Odenkirk has over a rich career been an innovator who is hilarious not because he makes the world more absurd but because he expertly captures how absurd it already is.
Coming up through Chicago in the Second City improvisation workshops of Del Close and television writing rooms on both coasts led to Odenkirk's work as a film director (Melvin Goes to Dinner, Let's Go to Prison) and the television guru behind The Birthday Boys and Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job! In recent years, he's emerged as an accomplished actor of range and depth: as brother to Will Forte and son to Bruce Dern in Alexander Payne's Nebraska, high-strung bank manager Arthur Dobbs in CBS's How I Met Your Mother, and most notably as skillfully unscrupulous attorney Saul Goodman in AMC's Breaking Bad. Next year, at age fifty-one, Odenkirk becomes the star of his own series, reprising the role of Goodman in the Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul. In what could have been just another TV caricature of corrupt lawyers, Odenkirk has found warmth, comedy, and empathy in Goodman's scheming, two-faced character.
In between shooting Saul's first episodes, Odenkirk sat down via email to discuss his upbringing, how writing a funny book differs from performing, and why honesty is comedy's most important ingredient. What follows is a transcript of our conversation. Nick Curley
The Barnes & Noble Review: Who are the funniest writers? You've said that two inspirations for A Load of Hooey were Woody Allen's Without Feathers and Peter Cook's Tragically I Was an Only Twin. What is it about Allen and Cook that make them funny not just as performers, but also on the page?
Bob Odenkirk: I think with Peter Cook and Woody Allen, you have two guys whose brains are wired for comedy in such an effortless way, it's hard to find this quality anywhere else. Peter Cook especially was able to seemingly riff around and produce unique, surprising, silly concepts and twists, and genuinely funny ones.
BNR: Who else makes you laugh in prose or verse? As you did work to adapt Arthur Nersesian's The Fuck-Up to film, I would guess he might be one example.
BO: There are other greats from the past like S. J. Perelman who I have to give respect to, but his style has been mimicked so much, and there's a craftsmanship there especially to his imitators, that makes this kind of writing more effortful and less simply funny to me. One of the funniest books I've ever read is Swing Hammer Swing! by Jeff Torrington it's bleak, maybe gets a little cute at times, but it's also very dark and yet, somehow, sings. The Fuck- Up is also filled with a kind of wonderfully sweet, sad humor. Huckleberry Finn must be mentioned.
BNR: You've noted in the past that entertainment, while loved by you and your siblings, was not a priority for your parents. You've described your father as an alcoholic. Your mother was very religious, and you've said that you'd guess she only went to see a movie in a theater about three times in her life. With that said, I'm wondering: what made your parents and other older folks in your family laugh?
BO: My dad loved Hee Haw and Benny Hill. But please, go easy on him, he was a product of his times, and his brain was swimming in Carling Black Label. I gotta say I kinda liked parts of Benny Hill too . . . and still admit it made me want to punch the TV for most of its airing. Hee Haw was not good. For anyone. Not even the people who made money off of it. It hurt everyone it touched. My father was a funny guy, quick with some snarky comments, and I do think I got some humor from him. But he never stumbled across the greats of his own time; Bob and Ray being the prime example. My mother is very religious and yet very funny. She makes humorous comments all day long, and she laughs a lot. Just never about Jesus or his ilk.
BNR: By the same token, in your own home today: what makes your wife and kids laugh?
BO: Tim and Eric videos. Almost all of them. I play old Credibility Gap CDs for my kids, and show them great stuff from YouTube. The other night I showed my son a clip of Bill Murray as Nick the Lounge Singer singing the Star Wars theme . . . one of the greatest things ever. We also watch clips of Mr. Show on YouTube . . . since it's not available on HBO GO . . . go figure. I think the two touchstones of comedy film for us as a family are Planes, Trains, and Automobiles and Zelig. Lastly, the New Yorker cartoons are a constant source of humor shared by the family.
BNR: You were one of seven children under your parents' roof. Where did you fall in the pecking order, and what effect did having that many siblings have on you, as both a person and a comedian?
BO: I was the second oldest. My brother Bill, one down from me, is also supremely funny he's been a writer and now director at The Simpsons for over a decade, and we used to put on a show every night at the dinner table for our siblings. This was the beginning of everything for me, really. I didn't consider the notion of showbiz for a career until I'd been at college for three years, doing comedy radio and video shows the whole time.
BNR: I was intrigued to hear you say that you were writing sketches as early as the sixth grade.
BO: Yes, I began writing sketches in sixth grade for my great teacher Mr. Ciardullo. We were allowed to write short plays for our class projects, and I wrote a few that year, rehearsed them, and performed them for the classes. They had lots of jokey stuff in them, but also information.
BNR: I've also heard you say on a few occasions that you've watched comedy with your daughter and told her that 'comedy is about honesty,' which to me seems like a pretty poignant and worthwhile lesson. To that end, what is the honesty that you're striving for in A Load of Hooey? What truths are you trying to tell?
BO: Yes, I did tell my daughter that, and I do believe that. I think in the most clumsy, overly simplistic manner, comedy simply declares humanity to be ridiculous and cuts everything down to human size. In that way, comedy is also, often, destructive. But it's a healthy kind of destruction as it usually undercuts pomp and circumstance and hubris and hypocrisy. When I write something like 'Martin Luther King Jr's Worst Speech Ever', it's funny to imagine this great man and orator having a really rough day, and yet there's a truth there he was a person, he had bad days, and one of his speeches is probably the worst one he ever made. It would be funny to know which one, in actuality, but the stumbling speech I wrote for him is probably a lot funnier.
BNR: As a child in your own right, where did you discover the comedy that influenced you? Friends, family, a handsome drifter living in the woods? Who turned you onto it, and what are your early memories of Monty Python, Steve Martin, Woody Allen, and others you've cited as inspirations?
BO: Those are my main inspirations, along with the Credibility Gap and Bob and Ray. I would also point to a great piece Michael O'Donaghue wrote for the National Lampoon entitled 'The Churchill Wit,' and all the Derek and Clive recordings. And some Kurt Vonnegut and some Mark Twain.
BNR: What are your recollections of your college radio show, The Prime Time Special? How was that a formative experience in figuring out what you wanted to be doing, in terms of sketch writing and playing characters?
BO: I had a great time doing that show. We had a lot of time to fill, four hours a week (we also played music so it wasn't all comedy), and it was one of those college stations that can only be heard in the dorms, so no one was listening! That is exactly how you want to begin your career doing a ton, with a notion that there is an audience, but not actually having an audience! Great opportunities to learn, practice, and have no one notice. Tim Thomas was my main sidekick and co-writer. A very funny guy whose brain was on fire and who could follow any concept or idea anywhere you took it. I like and need that kind of quickness of mind to work alongside. Like Mr. Show, we would have themes or sub-themes (whatever that is), and approach them for just about any angle it was kind of kitchen sink . . . great for sketch comedy.
BNR: So many of the pieces in A Load of Hooey satirize egotists and narcissists, specifically those who purport to be experts spouting off knowledge that reads as delusional, self-important, or otherwise suspect. You're considered kind of an expert at playing the pompous fool: those characters were a wonderful staple of Mr. Show, Let's Do This!, and other projects since. There's even some of that bluster in Saul Goodman. What is it about narcissists that make them fun for you to write and portray?
BO: Well, come on . . . they have, in their emphatic certainty, forgotten that they are human and, therefore, probably wrong about their point of view and theory. Maybe narcissists are an easy target . . . but it's good to come at them from an off-side angle, and hopefully surprise the reader.
BNR: Of A Load of Hooey, you told The Believer, 'Nobody asked me I didn't make a contract to write a book. I write all the time, and this is a collection of things I've written over the last eight years.' Where and when do you write? Are you someone who's ritualistic about it? Do you have a routine to the time/place/methods, or is writing something you do anywhere and everywhere?
BO: I have been acting my pants off in this first season of Better Call Saul, so I haven't been writing anything lately. Before that, though, I would just write what came to me when it came to me. From about age twenty-two till age forty I made more of a conscious daily effort to sit my ass down at the desk and pump something, anything, out. But some years ago I started to find that I was just spinning my wheels and that I could rely on myself to write when an idea was exciting enough to me . . . and so I have been doing that. BNR: Do you laugh at your own writing, either when first putting it to page or afterward?
BO: Sometimes, sure. But also, I cringe a lot. Don't tell anybody, but I'm a middling writer. But I have good ideas!
BNR: I'm particularly impressed by the historical 'Unabridged Quotations' throughout the book: are you someone who accumulates quotes, or looks to literature for inspiration? The quotes have this interesting quality of being both admiring and well curated, while also implying that these revered men and women were human beings of the same pettiness, doubt, and frailty as all of us.
BO: Sweet. My point is made. I do not accumulate quotes. I want to point out the obvious here and say that this idea is a bit of a gimmick. Right? Any good comedy writers could append classic quotes with ludicrous rambles, and it would be 'funny.' But I thought of it first! Haha! And hopefully, I was selective with the ones I altered and chose fun stuff.
BNR: My favorite story in the book may have been 'Her Laughter,' which is this escalating narrative of a man describing through some really incredible mixed metaphors the wretched sound of an ex-girlfriend's horrible laughter. That type of exasperation seems another one of your specialties you've for instance been credited with having the best 'Goddammit!' in Hollywood. Was there a moment in which you realized that agitation was funny, and that you were curiously skillful at it?
BO: I love this piece, and I'm glad you pointed it out. It came from reading a book this guy wrote celebrating his wife who had died, tragically, and his writing was so annoyingly fruity and he attributed to her such overstated wonderfulness, it deserved to be ranked on. As far as agitation . . . when people are trying to hold on to something idyllic that they are trying to overpraise, it's very funny to me when the crumby human earthbound qualities agitate and unsettle their idyll.
BNR: What was the writing room of Mr. Show like? Some of the people in that room yourself, David Cross, your brother Bill, Paul F. Tompkins, Scott Aukerman, Jay Johnston, Brian Posehn, Dino Stamatopoulis, and so many others who wrote that show are today considered among the best comedians going. What are your memories of that room as a place to come to work, and of those people writing collectively as a team?
BO: Great, just great memories of that amazing, hilarious writing staff. Laughs all day, then a little of me yelling. But mostly, laughs. You can envy me that experience.
BNR: Is there something you'd like to write in the future that you haven't tried your hand at, be it a certain genre, medium, or just a certain story you haven't yet gotten to tell?
BO: I haven't tried being very honest. I think I need to try it. Or, at least, 'more' honest, and direct. I give Louis CK tons of credit for his rutal honesty, and his ability to spin comedy from it.
October 7, 2014