Bob Odenkirk on Being an Amateur Standup and the Inevitable Decline of Improv
Bob Odenkirk may be busier than ever, starring in the upcoming Breaking Bad spinoff Better Call Saul, but that doesn’t mean he’s put comedy on the back burner. If anything, he’s amped up his comedic output as of late. Odenkirk released his first book A Load of Hooey last month, he’s producing and writing for the IFC sketch show The Birthday Boys (currently in its second season), he just got back from a book reading/live comedy tour, and his debut standup album, Amateur Hour, comes out today. Recorded this summer at LA’s Nerdist Theater and released by A Special Thing Records, Amateur Hour consists of a standup performance by Odenkirk, as well as a set from his opening act Brandon Wardell and a handful of tracks of Odenkirk as his character Lev Gravier, a vaudeville era talent manager dispensing his advice on comedy.
I recently chatted with Odenkirk over the phone about how Amateur Hour came together, how he got his first-ever comedy job as a Saturday Night Live writer, and a potential Mr. Show 20th anniversary reunion special on HBO next year.
When did you start putting Amateur Hour together, and what was the process like?
Okay, wow. Do you got a pen?
Is it filled with ink?
Is it absolutely filled? Do you have extra pens?
I’m actually recording audio.
Oh, good. Do you have two recorders in case you run out of digital space?
No, I only have one.
Well, you might regret only having one recorder as I tell you the story of how Amateur Hour came together. Are you ready to hear it now?
Yeah, I’m ready. Sorry about the recorder. I didn’t know.
Well, it’s your own problem that you’re gonna face very soon. All right, here comes the story. For the last three years, my wife has been badgering me to record myself doing standup so that one day the kids that I have will be able to hear what I sounded like when I stood in front of an audience and told jokes. Because I do standup so irregularly, I never have felt like I was raring to go, like I had my set up to speed. And then, I did actually have a good run of shows because I did that tour with David [Cross] and Brian [Posehn], and I kind of got things going to where I should have recorded myself but I didn’t. And then I signed on for Better Call Saul, and just as we were about to start shooting and I was gonna go leave town to go live in Albuquerque for five months, it occurred to me, ‘You know what? I’m not gonna do standup for at least six months. I’ve gotta kill these jokes dead. Why don’t I record myself?’
So a week a half before I left town, I called Matt Belknap from A Special Thing, and I said, “If I do a set next Thursday, can you record it and maybe put it out as an album if I can live with it? If it’s not terrible?” And he said, “Yes, we can do that,” and I said, “Can you get me the youngest standup you know who’s any good, who you think is interesting, who can open for me and maybe be on the album?” He said, “I know a guy who’d be great. He’s really young, and he’s really good and fun.” That’s how it happened. One week later, with no preparation — I hadn’t done standup in weeks, and you can tell. [Laughs] I’m not bragging about that. I’m saying that’s why it is what it is. One week later, we went up in front of a crowd at Meltdown, and we recorded this piece. With very little alteration, that is what the album is.
What made you request the youngest standup Matt knew?
For years, I thought if I do an album, I’m gonna call it A Tight Zero. Because most comics are going for a tight 20 [minutes of material]. I thought because I throw out almost everything I do, I’ve been pursuing a tight zero for years. And then it occurred to me, ‘You know what? I’ve done standup for 30 years, but I’ve always been an amateur and I remain one.’ I’ve never done it enough to get really strong at it. I still like doing it. I still use it as a utilitarian thing for me. I thought if I tie myself to a young guy who’s just starting out, I can present myself in the proper way because I’m an amateur. I have friends like David Cross, I know Louis C.K., Chris Rock; these guys are pros. And I’ll never be on their level, and I made my peace with that. Still, I think there’s something to be said for recording yourself and letting people hear it. I feel good. And I have that extra bit on the album, don’t forget.
The Lev Gravier bit. Where’d that character come from?
Did you ever see that Stone Roses documentary, Made of Stone? It starts with this quote from Alfred Hitchcock. It’s him speaking. He’s such a great character voice, and I thought I would love to do that voice and do a guy advising you about comedy but from the early 1900s. I’ve wanted to do an old agent from vaudeville times talking about show business because things were so crazy different. This was my opportunity to improvise and riff in that voice, and I love what came out.
Was all the material on the album culled from the last few years?
Yeah. It’s mostly jokes because when you’re doing standup a couple times a week, you can really develop your bits more. But if you’re doing it every couple months, that’s when you just kinda revert to just telling jokes that you have lying around. One thing about jokes though is you want to grind through them and move on to other jokes. I’m glad to put these out, and I hope that people get a laugh, and I now need to go write more stuff, which I will do. For a second album in 30 years.
When was the first time you did standup and what was your first set like?
That would have been at Who’s On First Comedy Club in Elmhurst, Illinois, on a Sunday open mic night. I was 20, still hadn’t finished college. I probably did some jokes and attempted to talk about my theories of life and then did some characters, and that’s always what I’ve done, mix those three things. Everything between just telling conceptual jokes to bitching to just doing character voices and making fun of somebody that you saw or some type of person, which is closer to sketch, which is what I really do.
What are the reasons you gravitated more towards sketch than standup?
I knew right away when I started doing standup that I was doing it during what is labeled “the standup boom.” I could actually make money. They needed so many standups that if you could be an opener, you could make 20 bucks for opening a show on a Tuesday night. You could make some money, go around town as a beginner standup. This was a time when Chicago went from having two clubs to having six or eight clubs. I’ve never been able to refine my voice enough, and that’s what standups are. They get a really refined, somewhat exaggerated version of their own comic outlook, and they’re just really adept at that voice. And God bless ‘em. I can’t do it.
It’s not a conscious choice. I’m not a good standup. [Laughs] I’m just never gonna compete in that arena. I love Woody Allen’s standup, I love Louis C.K.’s standup, I love Chris Rock’s standup. I think Chris is as good as it gets. I love Paul Tompkins’s standup. But I’m just not gonna be able to do that, ever. I guess I could feel bad about that, but there are so many things that I can do and that I get to do. I’m not gonna choose to feel bad about it. I’m just gonna be honest about it.
Sketch comedy attracted me more strongly from when I was a kid. Monty Python was my beacon and still is. A group called The Credibility Gap, I loved them as a kid, and Bob and Ray. For me, it’s always been sketch comedy that just made me laugh the most. There’s more variety going on in sketch comedy. Neither is better than the other. When you’re good at it, it’s great. But I think there are more ideas going on in sketch. There are more characters. It’s probably sillier across the board. Standups can get really intense, and it can have a lot of anger in it and a lot of personal point of view that can be pretty strong. Sketch tends to be sillier, I think. It’s not a conscious decision to like one over the other. I can’t analyze it.
When did you first decide you wanted to pursue comedy as a career?
As a career, I was probably 19 or 20 when I decided that. But I started sitting down and writing comedy when I was about 11. I would write short parodies, commercials, some pieces for my sixth and seventh grade classes that were like sketches essentially. I continued to write all through high school and all through college. It was only because I grew up in Naperville, Illinois, in a family that had no connection at all to show business that I couldn’t imagine being in show business. When I was 19 or so, I started doing a weekly comedy show on my college radio station at Southern Illinois University, WIDB, called The Primetime Special with my friend Ken Thomas. It was not very primetime, nor was it a special. It was sketch comedy, and we generated that every week. It was only after doing that for a few months that it occurred to me, ‘Maybe this is what a real, professional comedy writer does.’ I started from nothing and each week I’d write something new. Then it was a long, very slow process before I started to think I could make a career out of this.
What was your first television writing job?
Saturday Night Live.
How’d you wind up getting hired over there?
I was in Chicago doing sketch comedy. Robert Smigel came and saw a show I was in. Robert had a sketch show running called “All You Can Eat and the Temple of Doom.” It was sketches. He had written almost all of the sketches. It was a hit show. It ran for like a year and a half. We knew each other through the sketch circles, the students and the people who were writing sketches at the time. He liked my show and told me he liked my performance and what I’d written. We started hanging out together, and we started planning a show to write together.
Then, he got hired at Saturday Night Live. He left, and I continued to write sketches and work in radio and live performance in Chicago. I would send him my sketches, and he would pass them around at Saturday Night Live. Then, he would call me, and I would either shoot the shit with him or talk about his ideas for the week. And then I came and visited Saturday Night Live twice during that year, watched how it worked. The next year, I got called in for an interview. I got hired because I was working with Robert and also, like I said, I continued to write, of course. He shared my work with people like George Meyer and Jim Downey and other people that worked there. A couple of the people there knew my work, and they thought I was worth trusting.
I know you wrote or co-wrote SNL sketches like “Matt Foley” and “Superfans,” but what were some other SNL sketches you wrote that people may not know are yours?
“Grumpy Old Man.” “British Toothpaste.” There’s a lot of sketches I helped with, but I didn’t write them alone. I would say mostly other than that, there would be sketches that I helped with. I don’t want to take any credit for other people’s stuff even if I did help out a lot or whatever. It doesn’t feel right.
Do you have a favorite sketch that you helped with?
Yeah. Two sketches. Both Smigel’s ideas. I don’t want to take credit for it, but I did help and I did enjoy helping and I’m proud to be a part of it. “The McLaughlin Group” and “The Drill Sergeant” with Phil Hartman. Please put in bold letters that they’re Robert Smigel’s ideas because as fun as they were to riff on for me and as good as the jokes were that I was able to contribute, without the core joke that Robert came up with, you’ve got nothing.
The cluster of writers you were in at SNL wound up being very influential in the world of comedy. Did you realize at the time that it was a rare combination of people?
Yes and no. We liked each other. Certainly, me and Conan and Robert and Greg Daniels liked each other, and we all respected Jack Handey and Jim Downey. I think Al Franken is a great sketch writer. I think The Turners were people that I probably didn’t love their stuff [at SNL], but over the years, I’ve grown to see how good they are. They were really, really top notch sketch writers and comedy writers. At the time, it just felt like what was fun was the clique of me and Conan and Smigel and Greg Daniels. Later, it was the fun of working with Adam Sandler and Chris Farley and Spade and Rock. Those guys were fun to be around and to work with. Those were the things that made me happy, but I don’t think we felt like “We’re the super team” or anything.
It just seems like it was an unusual combination of people who wound up being very successful in some drastically different parts of the comedy world afterwards.
Yeah. Well, I think that’s kind of always the way of it. Isn’t it? No, I guess that was a pretty tight group.
I wanted to talk a little bit about your book A Load of Hooey. When you have an idea for something, how do you know when it’s going to be a written piece or a sketch?
Well, I snuck some sketches in there. One of my favorite comedy books is Tragically I Was an Only Twin. It’s a collection of Peter Cook’s writings. It contains everything from pieces he wrote to transcriptions of him riffing on shows, and it includes sketches that he wrote. That’s sort of my go-to book on set. I bring it to every set I’m on. You can always crack it open and get a laugh out of it. It just occurred to me that you can put a book together with sketches and literary comedy and whatever you want, whatever makes you happy in the moment. So, this is a bit of a kitchen sink. But when I write, I just write the piece and see how it comes out or what it looks like it wants to be.
The one thing I can do in a book that I couldn’t do in any other place is there’s a piece in there that I don’t think people love but I love it. It’s called “Her Laughter,” and it’s a description of this woman who this guy’s in love with, and he’s just raving about how wonderful she is but then the worst thing about her is her laughter. It’s just fucking horrible. That’s a piece that only works as a person writing. Reading it aloud is okay, but it’s making fun of a certain manner of talking about people and overblown poetic writing.
It seems like collections of short comedic pieces like the Peter Cook one you mentioned or ones by Steve Martin and Woody Allen were more popular decades ago. Why do you think that is?
I don’t think they were that popular. I think it’s always been a niche, and it will continue to be. By the way, the book’s doing pretty well, so I’m totally happy with the size of that niche. You guys, young people, do that all the time. You perceive the tenures of the great period of comedy whatever, but the fact is, those Woody Allen books — you’d have to check, but I don’t think they were massive. You would have bought them, and I would have bought them, but… you know what I mean? If anything, it’s been more the last ten years with comic writers writing biographies and stuff where this has taken off a bit.
You did an interview with Salon recently where you said you see comedy moving away from sketch and towards longer-form stuff. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Well, now hold on a second. That interview — let’s characterize that properly because I think a lot of people in comedy have read that interview and had some observations about it. I just want to make sure you understand what I’m saying. What I’ve seen and everybody’s seen is an explosion in improvisation. I mean a fucking nuclear explosion. Second City in Chicago, the training centers at UCB in New York and here in LA, and it occurs to me that this thing is so huge — I mean, it’s beyond huge. I’m totally guessing off my instinct here. There’s no science involved, but anything that gets that big is just going through a phase.
I don’t know what’s next or what it will transform into. Hopefully not a giant robot that destroys the earth. I think maybe, maybe the next place for people to put all their creative energies into is something that’s more substantive like storytelling. Improvisation is a lot of fun, but a lot of the joy of improvisation is purely in the moment, is purely for the performers and the audience in the moment of discovery and the moment of execution. Beyond that, its impact diminishes swiftly.
I feel like that headline that Salon put it under: “Bob Says Get Out of Comedy.” I don’t think that’s the case. I just think this improvisational explosion has just got to become something else. And I’m not sure what it is and I think that maybe it’s storytelling because you would just think that an audience that’s seen a lot of improv would go, “That was fun. What do you have that would stick with me a little longer?” A lot of the reaction you get from an improv show is all about that discovery moment. That’s only good for that second that it exists. It’s lot of fun, but I just imagine everybody going, “What else can we do?”
In that Salon interview, were you referring to improv and sketch? Or just purely to improv?
I think improv, really. I like thinking about comedy and I like talking about comedy, but it came off really weird that I’m pontificating about the state of comedy because I’m just one guy doing my thing and I don’t claim to have any great awareness over the state of anything. So that’s a little strange to feel like I made some grand pronouncement because I don’t feel like I should. But also, I stand by the core of what I was saying. You know, come on. The new UCB [LA Training Center] has 14 classrooms. Do you think in five years, they’ll have 50? Or do you think it will become something else? I’m not saying they won’t need those classrooms. It’s just the chance that they’ll be filled with people just learning improv and doing improv; I think that it will mutate. And what will it mutate into? Maybe people writing screenplays? Who knows what? I just feel like it’s got to. It’s a beast, and it’s got to go through changes.
Beyond more focus on telling longer stories, do you have other things you’d like to see more of in comedy going forward?
I can’t wait for Chris Rock’s next standup special. I’d like to see Louie continue to do shows forever. I love Girls. Girls is one of my favorite shows. I’d like to see a Mr. Show reunion next year at HBO.
Is that in the works?
We’re talking about it. I’d like to see that happen. I’d like to do more work with David Cross because we work great together. I always want to see what Ricky Gervais is making because he’s funny as hell. Paul F. Tompkins, more of him. More Jay Johnston if somebody can figure out what to do with him. Who else? Those Key and Peele fellows are funny. I like those guys. There’s a lot of good stuff happening. I hope that sketch comedy on TV, which is also having a heyday, carries on. I hope that doesn’t implode or transform. I would like there to always be six sketch shows on TV. I think that we should be able to support that. The old days when it was just Saturday Night Live was a little too limited for me. I like Saturday Night Live, but I like Amy Schumer and I like Key and Peele and I love The Birthday Boys. I hope that that aspect of this time period isn’t a fad. I don’t think it needs to be. I think there’s audience enough for multiple sketch shows.