A Celebration of Bob Odenkirk
(Bob, Please Don’t Take This as an Invitation to get Worse!)
Last week a lot of people (myself definitely among them) got really scared when Bob Odenkirk, best known as Jimmy McGill, better known as Saul Goodman, collapsed on the set of Better Call Saul. Later on it was revealed he had a small heart attack and was recovering nicely.
Now, I’m sure many of us were scared for selfish reasons (and I’ll admit, that was partly my fear) but honestly, most of were upset because Bob Odenkirk is a genuinely great actor/writer who is always entertaining, self-effacing and who genuinely seemed to be finally having his moment. This is astonishing because a) he’s nearly sixty, and b) he’s been working for in TV for a very long time. So because I think we need to remind ourselves just how great he is, I’m going to pay tribute.
Let’s start with the fact that Odenkirk primarily considered himself, until recently a writer. That is putting mildly. His career stretches nearly thirty five years. He wrote for Saturday Night Life from 1987 to 1995. He wrote for Conan O’Brien the first two years he was on NBC. He was one of the writers on the failed Dana Carvey series, which when you consider the talent on it, you understand why the documentary was called Too Big to Fail.
But perhaps his most astonishing work in his early was the first real gig he had as a performer as well on Fox’s The Ben Stiller Show. The series featured as its four leads Odenkirk, Stiller, Janeane Garofolo and Andy Dick. Having seen it in reruns on Comedy Central, I’m amazed that it got on the air at all, and that the network heads cancelled it after just twelve episodes. It’s not that it wasn’t ready for prime time (it assuredly wasn’t) it’s that it really went into celebrity parodies that not even SNL was ready to take on, and still won’t on.
Yet even that pales in comparison with Mr. Show with Bob and Dave. It’s really impossible to even summarize the sketch comedy that was going on this HBO late night series. It is as close to an American Monty Python as we probably ever got (the sketches flowed together with even subtler links then they did) and there were no real recurring characters in the entire run of the show. Odenkirk and David Cross were magnificent throughout, but there was a lot of other talent. This is where Sarah Silverman and Jack Black cut their teeth (Tenacious D was founded her, another show than Odenkirk would write for.) Paul F. Tompkins, a criminally underrated rated performer got his start her. Mary Lynn Raskjub, a full decade before she was become known to fans as Chloe, began working here. And Tom Kenny, one of the greatest voiceover artists in history started out here before he lived in a pineapple under the sea.
The performance of Odenkirk’s on Mr. Show I remember the best was his playing God, or at least God doing the recording for his autobiography. Odenkirk played God as if he were a rock star looking back on the good times, just as profane as some of them but very modest all the same (he dedicates it to his son, who he says makes him prouder every day.) If there’s an afterlife, I really hope that this is the God I meet. If Odenkirk’s portrayal was anything like the real thing, we might actually be okay.
Odenkirk had done brilliant work in comedy for a very long time. He’d done brilliant comic stints in The Larry Sanders Show and How I Met Your Mother. But I don’t think anybody really thought he would be capable of what he has done in his work for Vince Gilligan. Gilligan has always had a knack for finding good performer and getting superb dramatic work out of it (Bryan Cranston has become such a towering presence we almost forget his most famous work was for Seinfeld and Malcolm in the Middle before Gilligan cast him, and he saw a similar genius when he would cast Michael McKean, another comedy star in the role of Saul’s brother in Better Call Saul.) And especially in the first few episodes as Saul Goodman, it’s easy to assume that Odenkirk was just going to be there as comic relief to a fairly dark series. It certainly seemed that way well into the third season. But a strange thing happened: the longer Breaking Bad went on, and the darker the territory became for Walter and Jesse, the more it seemed that Saul, who had started out seemed to be the guide, was increasingly in over his head. By the final seasons, he was practically the voice of reason, desperately wanting to get out of the mess he’d been mired in. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the moment when Saul, having been duped into poisoning a child says to Walter: “We’re done.” And Walter, now full on Heisenberg, stands over him and says: “We’re done when I say we’re done.” You see the desperation in Odenkirk’s eyes as he realizes he’s gotten out from under the thumb of one monster to another one, one that’s he’s help build. For the rest of the series, he tried to be the voice of reason and Walter refused to listen. Even in their final meeting in the penultimate episode, when both their lives have been destroyed, he’s still trying to get Walter out from under this, and even on his deathbed, Walter won’t listen. You wonder how many lives might’ve been spared had Walter just listened to his council.
But even after his exceptional work, I had by doubts about doing a prequel about the life of Saul Goodman before he met Walter White. Part of it was the fact that Odenkirk was now in his fifties and I didn’t believe he could credibly play a younger Saul. More to the point, despite all the inkling of depths what could we possibly learn from a character as shallow as Saul could be at times? I think it took me until the opening minutes of Mijo, the second episode of Saul to be convinced. Jimmy has just found himself, along with two colleagues, kidnapped and stuck in the desert. He has the grave misfortune to have run into Tuco Salamanca, the most hot-headed of this deadly clan that was Walter’s first big bad. (At the time, it seemed this was just going to be an Easter egg fans, but none of us had any idea just how deep Gilligan and co were put the Salamanca’s at the center of Better Call Saul.) Jimmy fakes being a fed and tries to feed Tuco’s ego for awhile, but soon he realizes just how dangerous a situation he’s truly in. In order to save his life and the two men he’s brought into his, he ‘negotiates’ there getting away by agreeing to having his associates legs broken. After they do, one of them mutters. “You’re the worst lawyer ever.” Jimmy doesn’t hesitate: “I’m the best lawyer ever.”
Every aspect of Better Call Saul is exceptional, but it wouldn’t work without the tragedy of Jimmy at the center of it. Jimmy/Saul is everything that Walter White wasn’t: he was essentially a good person who became a bad person. And unlike Walter, who never thought he was supported by his family, Jimmy’s brother Chuck never believed in him. And I truly believe their last conversation before Chuck’s tragic death, may have been as much a turning factor in Jimmy really ‘becoming’ Saul Goodman. The bad person was always there, but Chuck just told him to embrace it. In a sense, he’s doing the only thing he’s good at. Odenkirk is a master at showing that, and not even I would have believed that when we first met Saul.
It’s understandable why so many love Bob Odenkirk. He’s always there. So here’s my personal get-well message:
Bob, you need to get well. You’re having your moment. I realize it was a little weird for you to have an action movie this year, but hell you’ve become one of my favorite actors. Hell, you worked with Spielberg and stole the show from Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. Don’t tell me you’re just a writer any more.
Plus, if something should happen to you, we’ll never find out how the show ends. I mean, sure, we already know what happens to Saul Goodman, but we need to know what happens to Jimmy. Those black-and-white sequences opening every season have been leading to something and I really want to know what happens in them. (Yes, I know how selfish this sounds, but come on; a lot of your fans have probably been whispering it to you. You would too, in their spot.)
That said, milk it a little. The Emmys have been really unfair to you and Better Call Saul for the last five years. They didn’t even nominate you last year and you did some of your best work. (Hell, you drank your own urine! That should count for something!) They might be willing to honor you for the last season, but why not play on those cold-hearted voters heartstrings? Stumble a little getting out of the hospital. Weave when on your set. Hell, when they make you present at the next award show, do the full Redd Foxx! Hold your chest. “Heisenberg! This is the big one. I’m coming to you, Walter!” It’s what you do! Hell, it’s what Jimmy would do.
Get well, and don’t stress yourself to get back to work for the last season. Stay fit. As Jimmy would put it: “S all good, man.”