Multi-hyphenate Bob Odenkirk has had a long career, transitioning seamlessly from writer (Saturday Night Live) to actor (Mr. Show, How I Met Your Mother) and director (Let’s Go To Prison, The Brothers Solomon). And with everything he does, Odenkirk is a powder keg, bringing comedic unpredictability even to darker roles like sleazy, calculating lawyer Saul Goodman on Breaking Bad. His latest project for Adult Swim, Let’s Do This!, combines all three of his disciplines. What began as a pilot turned into a one-off web video about an overzealous film director (Odenkirk) working in the fringes of low-budget hell. The plan for now is to let the nine-minute short sit on the Adult Swim website, but as Odenkirk explains, there’s a chance it could expand into something more. Once Let’s Do This! launched, The A.V. Club chatted with Odenkirk about its chances for a series, why he reads reviews of his work, and what he avoids about Hollywood.
The A.V. Club: Why is there only one episode of Let’s Do This!?
Bob Odenkirk: It was a pilot I made for Adult Swim, and they weren’t sure about it. It has too much story for them. And I thought, “Whatever, I have a lot to do.” Then I watched it two or three months later and thought it was really funny and good. It’s pretty sure of itself for a pilot, and I asked Mike [Lazzo, head of Adult Swim] to run it, and he put it on the Internet. I don’t know what I’m going to do—I like this character, and I want to play him again. I think people like it. I’m glad it’s running.
AVC: What is it you like about the character?
BO: Some characters, you know the voice of. I like his swagger and sexism. I know it’s not apparent in the show, but when I do him, he’s got a Robert Evans to him. That certainty that he speaks with, the pontification, there’s nobody like that in the modern world. Life just beats that out of most people. So it’s so funny to hear it in anyone. And if you tie that swagger into super-low-budget, small-time effort, it just makes it even funnier.
AVC: It’s a bit like Saul Goodman from Breaking Bad in the early days, before he turned to darker things.
BO: Yeah, he’s sure of himself. But I think he’s justifiably sure of himself. He knows what he’s doing. He might be playing in a small pond, but my sense is that Saul does know judges and what strings to pull. He actually gets people out of things. Whereas in the case of Cal Mackenzie-Goldberg, there’s a willful blindness to the fact that he’s not making earth-shattering, big-budget productions, he’s making little movies for the African market.
AVC: How did the initial pitch come about?
BO: I just wanted to play the character. I gave him a family around him, like a lot of TV shows have. He’s got an ex-wife that’s coming around that Natasha Leggero plays. This new son and a bunch of losers who are writing and producing. How did it come about? I love American Movie, and Best Worst Movie. I just love small-time people making movies and dreaming big. It obviously can be pathetic, and sweet and sad. Whenever I see that portrayed, I always think it’s really not that different from what the pros do. We’re all doing the same thing, some are just doing it on a bigger scale. As crazy as some of those small-time dreamers might seem, it’s all a continuum. What’s that movie that just came out last week? John Martin?
AVC: John Carter.
BO: God, I keep calling it John Martin. What is that but somebody’s crazy, very successful, very capable, very intelligent director and incredibly capable team of people with loads of experience putting it all to work, and being very serious to do a great, great job, and it’s as loony as any Harry Potter, and maybe less entertaining.
AVC: Have you been involved with the sorts of projects you’re talking about?
BO: I did a movie called Operation: Endgame, and it was a company that produces a lot of horror films and been very successful with them, but they were stepping out of their genre, and it was a total lark to be part of this secret-agency movie. And I just did it to be a part of that crazy endeavor.
AVC: It sounds like you’re fascinated with the weird corners of Hollywood.
BO: I don’t dwell on Hollywood all day. I didn’t as a kid dream of having a career in Hollywood, didn’t think about it at all. I just liked comedy, and sketch comedy in particular. But as you get closer to it, there are things that inspire some affection in you. And the human endeavor of trying to climb this hill, like small production companies do—these are people with very little money, scotch-taping together a movie and trying to compete on a world stage. I have empathy for them.
AVC: In an earlier A.V. Club interview, you mentioned how cool it would be if American TV aired the pilots they didn’t pick up, to give them a second chance at becoming series. How much of that is in your mind with Let’s Do This!?
BO: It wasn’t, initially. I thought it was good enough that it was worth looking at. But now that’s it’s played, and people like it, and they’re asking, “Why don’t we make a show out of it?” I’m thinking, “What would that show be?” We approached it from a couple different angles. There’s the fake trailer, which is a lot of fun and could have relevance on Adult Swim. There’s the story, which was Adult Swim’s least favorite thing. Like Arrested Development, trying to get some story with the family. And then the middle part, on set. That was just improvised. We had two hours and just ripped it out. Adult Swim is a loose place, and the rules are not in place over there. So for me, what’s next is, I’m going to look at it and see if I can get [Adult Swim] to want us to do that.
AVC: How do you avoid the Hollywood BS?
BO: It’s very hard. You have to make an effort to come to an understanding with the industry on each project: how much you’re willing to do. I just had a meeting with an investor on a film I wrote, and she wanted to be in the movie. And I mean, that’s kind of crazy on the face of it, but then she gave me notes, and they were really good notes. She was very smart, and really liked the movie. And I thought, “I’ll at least meet her.” I’m telling you, I’ve gotten many, many notes over the years, and these were perceptive, respectful, just great. And then after the meeting, I was like, “Well, no. I’m not going to force the character in,” and just wished her luck. Maybe when I was younger I would’ve tried harder to make her happy and make my movie. I think I’m better at judging when I’m putting too much of my time and effort into the sides of the business that I don’t like and love. I can talk about budget and talk to investors and stuff, but you have to call it every time. The whole issue of compromising your vision and working with an industry can be very hard. I just play it by ear.
AVC: Is there a particular experience that jumps to mind where you had to compromise?
BO: Oh many, many, many, many times. Every movie I directed has been all kinds of compromise. I’m not complaining. It’s hard to know what to do right… The only thing that I didn’t compromise on was Mr. Show. Not only not asked, I was told by Chris Albrecht [from HBO] to do something really unique.
AVC: That doesn’t seem to happen often.
BO: It happens about once a year. 30 Rock—once or twice a year. It’s a little bit of luck. And oftentimes it takes a ballsy executive who may be ballsy for crazy reasons. If you look at the story of Seinfeld the show, it was developed by the late-night people, so it didn’t go through the usual channel of people who take apart sitcoms. You look at 30 Rock. These are strong, personal visions. And they eke their way through in a non-traditional manner. And I think an executive like Mike Lazzo is rare. Mike genuinely tells the people that work on Adult Swim shows to do unique stuff or he doesn’t want it. When he says he’ll leave you alone, he means it. So that’s rare.
BO: I think they made a choice to do something that adhered closely to their vision, or didn’t reach out or compromise to the mainstream audience, or people’s conventions of what a movie is. They just set out to make the movie their way, and they didn’t care. It’s a strong choice. I applaud them for it. I look at Run Ronnie Run! Dave [Cross] and I had a very sketch-heavy movie with our team of writers at Mr. Show, and over a year and a half, we just kept trying to make it fit a mainstream bill with a main character, and a journey, and someone he loves. And we pulled back and back on our initial vision. In the end, we made something that made no one happy. With Tim & Eric, they’ll at least make something they’re happy with.
AVC: You have a reputation for helping young comics in their early stages. What do you look for in new talent?
BO: I don’t go looking at all. They just find me. It just happens. I make no effort in trying to find someone. I’m not running a talent agency. I think what happens is, a lot of stuff I do is fringy. I end up hanging out in places where young people and new talent are being seen. And I think I’m more excited by new talent and new voices, unlike my friends, who don’t see it right away as I do, or they don’t care. Whereas I get energized by it, by meeting Tim & Eric, and this group The Birthday Boys. I don’t really make an effort. I write, and act, and I’m a dad. My days are pretty full.
AVC: What do you take from an experience like How I Met Your Mother, for example, which isn’t fringy at all?
BO: I like the work. Acting in particular is a fun job when you have a good script. I don’t know about acting when you don’t have a great script. I’m gonna say that’s not a great job, it’s kind of a dumb job. But when you have a good part in a good script, it’s the best job, in a way. Well, directing is probably the best job, but acting is really, really great. It’s like a fun vacation that you get paid for. When you envy actors, only envy them for their good roles. Keep in mind they have to do a lot of roles to make a living, and not all of them are good. When they’re doing a stupid role in a bad production, it’s kind of a dumb thing to do when you’re an adult. When you’re doing a great role that’s well-written, it’s an enviable job.
AVC: Now that you’re doing a lot of acting, do you have to suppress your roots as a writer?
BO: There’s a little difference. When you’re acting in stuff that you didn’t write—first of all, I’m in some amazing stuff. Breaking Bad is as great as it gets drama-wise, and HIMYM is a great comedy. In acting, you’re only responsible for your part. When you’re directing, the load is on your shoulders, so you have to feel a strong connection to the material. It’s a higher bar to get over. With acting, if a friend asked me to be in a movie or TV show, there’s a lot of things on my résumé I did without reading them or knowing what they were. I just said I’d do that because a friend wrote it, directed, produced, acted in it. Some cases… The thing with Operation: Endgame, “Yeah, I’ll be in your spy movie! I don’t care how silly it is. I get to pretend to be that? Who wouldn’t do that?” So I’ll do it for a friend, for a young talent that needs a name, who I know and have a personal relationship. With directing, I’m sticking to my guns, not that a lot of people are begging me to direct. I have a couple scripts I wrote, and I’m trying to get money for them, and I’m writing more scripts. And I will direct, but I’m not going to do it the way I did it before, with other people’s scripts and not as much control as I need.
AVC: You mentioned that directing is the best job. Why do you say that?
BO: You get to use all your talents. You get to use everything you learned in this business. You talk to actors, if you do it right—and I haven’t always done it right—you should be shaping the material all the time. And the other thing is, you get all the blame when you direct and it doesn’t work. You get slammed. So that’s another reason to know what you’re making, why you’re making it, and make it the way you want. The worst thing is to read bad reviews and go, “Yeah, I agree.”
AVC: Why do you read reviews, then?
BO: I dunno. I’m curious what other people think. I pretty much read reviews and comments only looking for the negative. Literally, when I read positive comments, it’s like a zero. I think the issue is if you agree with it or not. For instance, something like Mr. Show, people can hate it, and they do. There are people that say it was never funny, not funny for a second, “I don’t get it, it’s stupid.” And that doesn’t bother me at all. It’s when you make something you know is weak, and you know why it’s weak, and you read reviews that say it’s weak, and you’re like, “Gah, I know!” Those hurt because you agree with them. If you love the project and do it well—I’m very proud of Let’s Do This! If we were to go to series, we’d get better, like any pilot. But as far as being a pilot and having good jokes and characters, it’s got everything. It’s okay if people don’t like it, but I’m on solid ground. That’s how you want to feel about things. That how I want to feel about things I make in my life.
AVC: Was there a sort of “come to Jesus” moment where you realized that in your career?
BO: It took me a long time. It’s kind of a personal issue, and it is for everyone with what they’re doing with their time, and who they are. And one of the things I thought, especially after Mr. Show—I had a reputation as a bit of a tyrant and demanding that I was right, and only moved forward with things I felt sure of, and not letting other people decide if something was right, worked, or was the right way to go. So I made a real conscious effort to reach out and let other people join in on the decision-making on projects, and be more of a team player. And I don’t think that works when you’re supposed to be in charge. It’s a good philosophy to have when you’re an actor or on a crew. It’s not a good philosophy to have if you’re a director or creator of the show. That’s where you’re supposed to be a tyrant. You can do it without being a dick. Your job is to bring your sensibility to the screen, and not abandon that sensibility to the group. That’s the lesson I learned there.
I think I have turned a corner. Took some big hits, but I did it. It’s a simple lesson. You have to take responsibility for the voice of what you do when you’re in the position of director. You can be a dictator without being a dick.