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BOOK REVIEW: Bob Odenkirk’s ‘Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama’

Bob Odenkirk, author of Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama
(Image credit: Random House)

Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama, a memoir from Bob Odenkirk, star of Better Call Saul, is published March 1 by Random House. As its title suggests, the book details Odenkirk growing up in the comedy scene, including writing for Saturday Night Live and starring in HBO sketch program Mr. Show, before shifting to drama on Breaking Bad

Odenkirk grew up in suburban Illinois, one of seven children. His father had a mean streak and his mother was quite funny. “She was always a big fan of not thinking too highly of yourself, or anyone else for that matter,” he wrote. “This is a base component for good comedy thinking and writing–a lack of respect for the world and one’s place in it. Thanks, Mom.”

Young Odenkirk, raised on Monty Python, kicked around with various sketch comedy troupes in Chicago, including Second City, and became pals with Robert Smigel. He followed Smigel to New York to write for Saturday Night Live in 1987, when he was in his mid 20s. Odenkirk praises Smigel’s comedic chops. “When I sat in a room with him, even over the phone when I was still living in Chicago, pitching lines, Robert showed me by example how to find the best part of a comedy idea and make the most of it,” Odenkirk said. 

He shares about working alongside Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Al Franken, Victoria Jackson, Ben Stiller and other SNL cast members. 

Toward the end of his four-year run, Odenkirk split time between SNL in New York and Second City in Chicago, where he worked with a young comic named Chris Farley. “Chris was on a mission every night: to crack up the other performers, everyone onstage, and the audience would follow,” said Odenkirk. 

Odenkirk said his time on SNL was frustrating and stressful, but still taught him tons. “I had quietly, excruciatingly learned the components of a good sketch and developed a sense of structure that gave me confidence and led to all my best sketch work still to come,” he said. “Lorne [Michaels] had subsidized my education in sketch writing, and now he would see NONE of the benefits. Poor fella. I took my diploma and ran.”

Moving to Los Angeles, Odenkirk worked on short-lived Chris Elliott comedy Get a Life, then was in the cast of the also short-lived Ben Stiller Show, along with Stiller, Andy Dick and Janeane Garofalo, with Judd Apatow producing. He soon met David Cross, and the two hatched Mr. Show on HBO. “Python through an American lens, a bit more rough and direct,” is how Odenkirk describes the series, which ran from 1995 to 1998. 

Next in the book is a chapter called “Development Heck,” during which Odenkirk details the many, many projects, film and TV, that failed to take flight. 

Around page 200, he starts on Breaking Bad. He notes how the AMC show, beloved as it is today, did not really take off until it began streaming on Netflix around season three. ”I had heard of Breaking Bad, and I vaguely recalled the image on the billboards–a guy in his underwear in the desert?” Odenkirk wrote. 

In the makeup trailer to prep for Saul Goodman, Odenkirk asked star Bryan Cranston a dopey question about the Walter White character. 

“You’ve never seen this show, have you?” Cranston asked. 

Shooting his first scene as the sleazy lawyer, the cast and crew got a sense that Odenkirk’s character might stick around for a bit. 

“Can I get a job on the spinoff?” one crew member yelled out. 

The career comic actor shifted to drama, albeit drama with some good laughs, as Better Call Saul took off. 

Better Call Saul would have been intimidating to take on if I’d thought about it for too long,” said Odenkirk, “so I didn’t. I just got down to work, line by line, scene by scene. Surrender was the only way forward. That first season was something I barely survived at times. It beat me up and left me by the side of the road, gasping for breath, but I gave it everything I had–and I was surprised how much of me it took.”

Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama is an entertaining read, full of glimpses inside Hollywood, and peeks at a few series that upended popular culture, told by a lively, funny–and dramatic–narrator. ■ 

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.