It’s hard to precisely pin down or define a Bob Odenkirk performance. Most know him best as one of the comic visionaries of HBO’s Mr. Show with Bob and David (HBO, 1995-1998) or as Saul Goodman/Jimmy McGill in Breaking Bad (AMC, 2008-2013) and its spin-off, Better Call Saul (AMC, 2015-). Mr. Show brought the underground fringe comedy scene just above ground, attracting a niche viewership to the premium channel. In contrast to the wacky school play vibe (and budget) of Mr. Show, Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul are prime artifacts of the Golden Age of Prestige Programming, populated by quality dramas that critics call “cinematic,” “literary,” and “ooh fancy.”
That Odenkirk is the heart of these shows is not only a testament to his range, but also to his unique star persona that is both Midwestern Nice (polite but with an edge) and Midwestern Happy as well (smiling to mask the misery). Whether he is playing a smarmy sad-sack on I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson (Netflix, 2019-) or an infuriatingly small-minded cop on the first season of Fargo (FX, 2014-), Odenkirk thrives when he is rupturing the conventional boundaries of genre in our post-network, post-television, “I guess it’s all just content now?” age. His dramatic performances cannot help but reveal the absurdity of human suffering, while his comedies unearth the very human pain that gives humor its power.
This makes the name of Odenkirk’s book, Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama: A Memoir (Penguin Random House, March 2022), all the more appropriate. On its surface, the book traces Odenkirk’s start in the alternative comedy scene, through his work on Mr. Show, The Ben Stiller Show (MTV, 1992), and as a writer on various sitcoms and comedy projects, up to the present, in which Odenkirk has, in many ways, conjured up an equally impressive career in dramatic film and television. But this title also articulates the arc of an on-screen Odenkirk turn (funny until it is devastating)—except when it’s more like Drama Drama Drama Comedy. Cut to: the sly, oddball twinkle in Odenkirk’s eye as he plays Father March-as-Bronson Alcott in the 2019 Little Women.
And in accordance with the comedy “rule of threes,” Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama is three books in one. It is, at once, the story of Odenkirk’s life, a vision into his comedy nerd brain, and an anti-self help book for professional success, the latter being the only kind of manual a self-proclaimed cynic like Odenkirk could write. “Here’s what I can admit to right out of the gate, and it’s tragic,” he writes at the start. “I tried just as hard at the stuff that didn’t work as I did at the stuff that worked.”
Of these three modes, the biographical component is handled with the lightest touch. A native of Naperville, Illinois, Odenkirk was one of seven kids raised, mostly, by a single mother. His father, who left the family when Odenkirk was still young, was an explosive and mean-spirited man, exhibiting a mercurial humor that underpins many of his characters but that Odenkirk himself avoided in life, stepping into the role of happily married man and doting father. (His wife, Naomi Yomtov, is also his manager and a comedy power broker in her own right.) In telling his life story, Odenkirk draws up a series of colorful characters, social butterfly (and ex-girlfriend) Janeane Garofalo, pothead improv legend Del Close, and foul-mouthed super-agent Bernie Brillstein being a few of the highlights.
But, ultimately, Odenkirk’s professional trajectory—coming up in Chicago, hating his time as a writer on Saturday Night Live while maintaining a profile in the fringe comedy scene, moving between passion projects and paychecks in Los Angeles—is not the volume’s strongest hook. His hustle and drive, conducted along the well-trod Chicago-NY-LA pipeline, makes his story not so different from that of his friends and compatriots, only some of whom went to Harvard (Conan O’Brien yes, David Cross no).
Odenkirk’s memoir is at its most unique and compelling when he geeks out on his first love, comedy. His philosophy of hard work and harder laughs marks him as a tenured professor of absurdist gags, with graduate mentees including Tim Heidecker, Eric Wareheim, and all of The Birthday Boys. His point of view is uncompromising: Odenkirk snidely describes “observational comedy [as being] performed by nice young men in polo shirts wearing a jacket with the sleeves pushed up,” explaining, elsewhere, that “fringe comedy lives on the fringes for a reason, and it’s where I would aim for, never the middle.” And while he may joke about his real-life “Daddy issues,” these play out, quite earnestly, in his admiration for his comedic godfathers. “Monty Python was the hip-hop that saved my life,” he crows, further listing Steve Martin, Albert Brooks, Beyond the Fringe, and The Credibility Gap as primary influences for developing his own voice. Of the sketch group The Kids in the Hall, Odenkirk raves that “they were able to bring Canadian niceness to the brain-warping comic mayhem. How much maple syrup do I have to drink to become that nonthreatening? There isn’t enough in the world.” Theirs is the notable exception to Odenkirk’s general rule: “To me, the best comedy has an anger in it, and I still don’t like comedy that lacks a touch of that anger.”
The Gospel According to Odenkirk emphasizes collegiality, collaboration, and what he calls a “shared sensibility.” For a television show to work, “a lot of brains… need to line up”; without this synchronization, programs like The Ben Stiller Show and The Dana Carvey Show floundered, and due to this magical chemistry, Mr. Show endured. While he writes of his newfound dramatic roles with a great deal of humility, his opinions on comedy writing and performance are confidently issued: everyone involved must be united in a common purpose, or the project will fail. And it might fail anyway! Throughout, Odenkirk thinks deeply not just about when comedy works, but how and why.
Odenkirk is clearly working through his legacy in this memoir, acknowledging how he is white, male comedian who has mostly worked with those benefiting from the same set of privileges and whose work has, on occasion, punched down. If his apologies feel shoehorned in at moments, credit is due to the author for never calling his coming-up “ a different time.” (As Jeff Garlin and Jay Johnston feature prominently in his story, the issue of who Odenkirk isn’t and how he doesn’t want to be seen makes for unintentional subtext.)
Odenkirk’s recollection of writing Mr. Show, though, makes for an inspiring anecdote, a reckoning with his past that feels authentic and not awkward. As he recalls: “Instead of beating ideas up, especially weak ones, this gang would build them up—especially weak ones… I would ask, ‘It’s kinda funny—what was the funniest moment in there for you?’… Our writing process, ‘make it work,’ transformed many a half-assed notion into hard laughs.” It is in this spirit of generous, professional reciprocity that Odenkirk looks back at his own career while offering a vision of the industry that is inclusive not just in name, but in shared sensibility as well.
Annie Berke is the Film editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books and a freelance writer with credits in The Washington Post, Literary Hub, and Ms.. Her book, Their Own Best Creations: Women Writers in Postwar Television, came out in January 2022 from the University of California Press. Follow her at @sayanniething.