Bob Odenkirk has never lacked an unmistakable comedic voice, but he'll admit that he's struggled to find the right place for it since he and David Cross finished with the sketch comedy of Mr. Show. It's been a treat whenever Odenkirk has popped up at all over the past nine years; he's taken small parts in TV shows and movies, directed several films that didn't satisfy him or his audience, and successfully mentored Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, the creators of Tom Goes To The Mayor and the new Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! Odenkirk recently told The A.V. Club why he thinks he's ready to rally with projects like Derek & Simon, a new series debuting May 16 on superdeluxe.com, and The Brothers Solomon, a film due for a fall release.
The A.V. Club: You said Derek & Simon is the thing you've enjoyed the most since Mr. Show. Why?
Bob Odenkirk: I think I know it really well. I'm writing it with them. There's a confidence to it. It's kind of new and fresh, and it's very silly and fun. It's what I want to be doing. I've made a couple movies, and they're very hard and long, long processes, and I didn't write any of them. It's very hard to get through that stuff sometimes. As much as you're doing your best, you're just wondering what you're doing. But with this, I know what I'm doing. I know that it's funny, it's making me laugh, I'm proud of it. I think the guys are great.
AVC: Since you've got such a writing background, it seems like it'd be pretty hard to get used to directing something you didn't write.
BO: Well, when I worked at Saturday Night Live and on Mr. Show, I worked with a lot of material that other people wrote, and I helped people develop pieces that they wrote, so I've looked at directing films that I didn't write in a similar way. "Look, I think I get your idea here, is this what you're going for? Well, I'll try to do that. I think I know how to do that." The problem is that when you're talking about sketches, it doesn't take so long to do, and it isn't so much pressure, and whether you fall short or not, you finish up and hope the writers are happy. That's how I feel about it. With a feature, to find yourself working as hard as you work and going under the stress you go through, and then going, "I didn't even write that, I'm only trying to help this be good. It's not necessarily something I would have done."
Obviously, if I had my way, I would've spent the last few years of my life doing a Mr. Show sketch movie, and doing my adaptation of The Fuck Up, or my movie [Kanan Rhodes: Unkillable Servant Of Justice] that I wrote with Scott [Aukerman] and BJ [Porter] and all that stuff. But to make my way into the feature-directing world, I have to make it any way I can. The first film I made was called Melvin Goes To Dinner, and it was a small movie that I co-financed that Mike Blieden had written, and I had a really good idea of how to shoot it, and had a great experience doing that. Still, again, nothing measures up to Mr. Show, even though I'm very proud of that and think I did a great job.
But in a lot of ways, I felt like I took someone else's vision and helped them to make it happen in a really strong way. And then I made two films that other people financed that they were auditioning people to direct, and I got those jobs: Let's Go To Prison and The Brothers Solomon, which comes out in September. I've gotten a lot out of those. To me, they're like film school—learning about running a set, learning about everything, and learning about the most important thing, which is dealing with the studios and the producers and the money people, and making a project go, and what makes something go for the business end of it, so that you can get to make the movies that you write.
AVC: So you're still learning to control the process.
BO: Yeah, absolutely. When it comes to features, if I have to do one to just make a living, I'll do it, but if I don't, I'm gonna try to do TV until I can find a movie that I think is extremely good. Either written by someone else or written by me, where I just really believe in it as much as I believed in Mr. Show or anything. I've done my service now. I've done my learning.
AVC: Why do you think it's been hard for you to find an experience as satisfying as Mr. Show?
BO: It took me a long time to learn how to do sketch comedy, too. [Laughs.] I think I'm a slow learner. You should've seen the first sketches I wrote in Chicago, and the first sketches I wrote at Saturday Night Live. I've actually done with movies something I did when I was at Saturday Night Live. A few weeks into working at Saturday Night Live, I took out a sheet of paper and I wrote down, and I don't remember the list, but I wrote down, "use the women, something that was in the news, use the host, one set"—a list of things that, if you do them, you have a good chance of getting something on the show. And that, of course, killed creativity for about two years. [Laughs.] You start going, "Well, that doesn't do this, well, that won't fit that." But in the course of staying there a long time, your brain gets re-wired so that you start to just naturally mutate your instincts and your ideas into things that fit into that world.
By the end, I was a more effective writer, and I was getting things on, and I'd learned a lot, and it wasn't this tortuous process of "How do I twist my sensibilities to fit this venue?" And I think the same thing is happening with movies. It's just like going, "Oh, right. There comes a point where they have to make a poster and they have to have this kind of idea to do it, and they have to know…" There's just so many levels of things you've got to think about fulfilling to get a movie made.
I learn things in a backward way. I learn all those limitations, and slowly my brain soaks them up, and if things go right, you just, in an organic way, translate your ideas into those templates. That's the way I perceive the process happening. It's not without precedent. I love that people give me so much credit for Mr. Show. I did Mr. Show when I was 31. I'd [already] done The Ben Stiller Show and Saturday Night Live and shitloads of sketches back to when I was 18. I never thought about the real mechanics of features until about 10 years ago. I love sketch comedy so much that it's all I wanted to do.
AVC: You worked with several of the same people on Let's Go To Prison and The Brothers Solomon. Did that help with this learning process?
BO: No, I just like those guys. I think they're all good actors, I think they were all fantastic in Let's Go To Prison, and I think they're really great in Brothers Solomon. The Let's Go To Prison experience taught me about a certain level of comfort with the comedy of the movie and what it's about. You have to have that, and you can't stretch yourself that far, that you're doing something that you wouldn't come up with on your own, even if you can sort of say, "Well, I get how other people might like this." There's got to be some level of connection to the very basic point of view of the material. I basically got lost in the thicket there.
Brothers Solomon is something that I think is a lot sweeter and funnier and closer to the kind of humor I've done. Will Forte wrote it. It's absurdist and it's very lighthearted and silly. But again, it's something someone else did, and I just hopefully helped make it come to life. I know that Will Forte's happy with it. I know Tom [Lennon] and Ben [Garant] are real happy with Let's Go To Prison. I guess I made two people happy—two people I think are very important, the writers.
AVC: Does that make it easier for you to deal with the fact that a lot of people didn't like that movie?
BO: If I was an unequivocal fan of the movie, that would make dealing with the criticism a lot easier. The fact that I think it has crucial problems makes it much, much harder. It's one thing to go, "Look, I love it, you don't love it, I'm sorry you don't love it. I can't help you, 'cause I think it's great." I read criticisms all the time. For some reason, I went on amazon.com and I read the reviewers' remarks on Tom Goes To The Mayor, which is a show I just love, and of course, out of 10, there's two are like, "This is just a piece of shit. There's nothing funny about it at all." It's very easy for me to read that, and it doesn't shake me up at all. It hurts a lot more to think, "Yeah, you're right." I can't even say I didn't see it coming. I had stomach problems working on that picture. But there is an element of, you go out on a limb with all these projects.
I was pretty sure of myself with Mr. Show. Somebody asked me, "Did you think you'd get laughs with that stuff? How sure were you?" And I remember us being utterly certain that these sketches were hilarious and that we'd get these laughs. I guess I've had to re-learn to trust my gut and believe in myself in this new venue. And also, there's another crucial test that that movie did not pass. It's an old Mr. Show test. We would ask ourselves, if we did material that was crude or kind of grotesque, "What is this about? Who's the victim of this joke?" There was stuff that made me feel a little uncertain, a little queasy—like the retarded parents. We talked about, "Well, we don't want the big target in this to be retarded people." We made it about a true thing, which is that, I think, six of the past seven Best Actor Oscars had gone to people who portrayed people with mental or physical handicaps. We made it about something else that was worthy of pointing out.
Not that people aren't enjoying watching retarded parents, 'cause that's funny as shit. But it's also funny in a bigger context, and you can feel like, "I didn't just go, 'Hey, look at me, I'm being retarded.'" [On Let's Go To Prison], we didn't ask the question, "What is the big target of this satire?" We really didn't have a target, so it did break down to just being, in a lot of ways, kind of darkness to no end. When people go to the movies, they want to laugh and smile and be happy, and one thing I feel great about with The Brothers Solomon is it's an extremely likeable film. The characters are really upbeat. They're impossibly upbeat.
AVC: What drew you to Web video for Derek & Simon?
BO: Just the artistic freedom. Those guys basically let us do whatever we want. Super Deluxe is really cool. It's very short-form, so that we can go out and shoot a couple of them at a crack, and I can fit it in between my efforts at these bigger projects, screenplays and films, which take a lot longer to develop. You can just go knock some of these out. [Super Deluxe] came to us and said, "Would you do some of these for our channel?" I didn't actually go out looking. I really think Super Deluxe is handling this very well. They came on months ago with no promotion. They just let their channel exist and let these comedians and writers make their material without a lot of interference and without a lot of fanfare and without a lot of pointing at them saying, "Look, watch this now!" They let them grow a little, let us find our way in an organic, natural way, and I think that's the way to go. I think Derek & Simon is in some ways a little more refined than some of the other stuff that's on the channel, but it's great that there's a platform for young comedians and directors and writers to work their ideas out.
AVC: How'd you start working with Derek Waters and Simon Helberg?
BO: Derek is represented by my wife, who's a personal manager. Simon was a fan of mine who shared the same agent, and she asked if he could meet me back when I was doing Mr. Show, and he came in and we talked. Years later, my wife said, "Derek and Simon are friends, these two guys are very funny together, you should meet them." We sat and talked about a show they could do together, and we were actually talking about some high-concept TV shows, and I said, "You guys are so much fun to talk to. You're so funny together. Let's just have it be you and girls." They had so many great stories about stupid, bad, embarrassing moments with women. That's really all there is to it. Guys and girls and embarrassment.
AVC: So how off-the-cuff is the process?
BO: Most of the episodes are written out, some of them are just sketched out. I talk them through it, and we refine lines, we do multiple takes, and we do writing meetings. We put effort into it, but it looks very off-the-cuff. That's just how it's performed.
AVC: Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim worked more closely with you on Tom Goes To The Mayor than on Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!
BO: Yeah, definitely. I was really involved in Tom Goes To The Mayor. We did a lot more talk before [Tim And Eric] came on about what was the show, and how to construct it. I did the most work on the pilot episode, where they showed me the script and talked about what it needed, and they really did pursue all those things that I suggested. Beyond those big choices in creating the show, I've really just been stopping in and saying what I like and helping with cuts and fun stuff. But now, they really have it down, so they're just doing it on their own.
AVC: Does it surprise you that shows like that are attracting prestigious guest stars and a slightly wider audience?
BO: That's a strange thing, but I know all these people from a million places. I know John C. Reilly from Mr. Show, and then he was on Tenacious D, which I produced. There was one where I think Tim and Eric finally did cold-call people. It is a surprising and funny occurrence. Tim and Eric and I were saying how they went and saw John at the set he's on right now, and he can't wait to do Steve Brule again. Then you see the other side of that, which is all these celebrities did it because they love a chance to just be crazy. Tom Goes To The Mayor wasn't a hard production. You just walked in and went in the room and read your stuff and posed a few times, and it took a total of 40 minutes to do your guest spot, which is very rare and not how most things are done. I don't think there's a great proliferation of shows like that, so I don't see that things are too different overall.
I think the biggest change is the Internet and Funny Or Die and Super Deluxe, because Super Deluxe is not found video and it's not one-offs. It's not kids in their dorms eating as much baloney as they can, and saying, "Watch me change T-shirts 100 times." It's people making shows, and it's not just regular people, it's people in the comedy scene in L.A., and most are interesting people with funny, interesting points of view. That's the big new step, to me.
AVC: Are you going to do anything with your Super Deluxe space apart from Derek & Simon?
BO: I'm gonna do some Comedy By The Numbers pieces—that's a book that McSweeney's is putting out that a Mr. Show writer [Eric Hoffman] co-wrote. There's a sketch group in England that I really like called Straitjacket that very few people have seen that I'd like to try to get on. And David Cross and I took a sketch from our Mr. Show sketch movie, and we're gonna try to produce that for Super Deluxe. It's called "Fagit And Morello," and it's about a comedy team like Martin and Lewis.