After suffering a heart attack on the set of the hit TV show “Better Call Saul” in July, Bob Odenkirk surfaced on Twitter with an uncharacteristically gooey remark: “I feel the love and it means so much,” he wrote.
And he got them, in a series of now-classic sketches. If the oily, shallow, but somehow charming bus-stop-ad lawyer Saul Goodman is your sole exposure to Odenkirk, his Angry Young Man phase is worth hunting down. You might start with some classics from “Mr. Show”: “Lie Detector,” in which Odenkirk’s character is hooked up to a polygraph and confesses to an absurdly escalating series of transgressions. Or “Mafia Mathematicians,” in which he plays a mob capo shouting down goons debating whether 24 is the highest possible number. Or “Blow Up the Moon,” in which he plays a patriotic country singer in a lampoon of lunkheaded American populism. That last one lands even better now than it did in 1997.
Though Odenkirk, 59, has had plenty of successes, “Comedy” is largely a study in the sad-clown paradox, a story about moody tenacity in the face of either fear of failure or failure itself. Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, Odenkirk was enchanted by the city’s robust comedy scene, which in the ’70s and ’80s was masterminded by improv coach and impresario Del Close. Odenkirk was caught off guard by Close’s consumption of all manner of intoxicants, but he loved comedy’s culture. Kinda sorta: Odenkirk had little patience for the didja-ever-notice stand-up scene, and he characterizes his mid-80s stint as a “Saturday Night Live” writer as a kind of agony. “As a writer I was a waste of bagels!” he writes. “I was trying too hard, but the more I failed, the more I tried.”
So “Comedy” isn’t exactly intended to be ha-ha funny, though it sometimes is. More often, it seems that Odenkirk wants to fire off some warning flares to comics who might want to follow in his footsteps. Sometimes that involves making object lessons out of tragic cases like his SNL colleague Chris Farley, whose rapid decline Odenkirk observed firsthand. He recalls seeing Farley at the height of his fame but near death, partying in a limo and beyond help. “Should I have grabbed him by the lapels and shouted, “You’re throwing it away, man! … I considered it. But I also knew that he’d heard all of it, so many times … I watched the limo pull away and a few weeks later we all had a funeral,” he writes. “What a dumb story.”
But mostly, his frustrations involve the more mundane limbo of what he calls “development heck.” “Mr. Show” wrapped up in 1998, and Odenkirk didn’t land the role of Saul Goodman till 2009. That means he spent more than a decade wandering the Hollywood wilderness, and “Comedy” suggests that he labored every second to navigate his way out. He directed movies that didn’t take off. He made pilot after pilot that wasn’t picked up. He auditioned for the role of Michael Scott on “The Office,” eventually losing out to Steve Carell. There, and everywhere else, he’s stubborn and self-deprecating in defeat. “I had so many projects to drive into the dirt,” he writes. “One trick for surviving Hollywood’s beatdown is to keep making new things despite every ‘no.’ ”
Perhaps inevitably, “Comedy” gets less interesting as Odenkirk becomes an actor who hears yes more often. His hunger and fear of failure are still palpable: He embraces advice he got from “Breaking Bad” lead Bryan Cranston, who told him that he simply needed to commit, put the effort in: “Work all the time.” But the latter pages of the book are made of blander stuff. Working with Steven Spielberg on “The Post” was great, having a cameo in “Little Women” was great, playing an unlikely action hero in “Nobody” was great.
Underneath that placid surface, some sad-clown stuff lurks, despite Odenkirk’s efforts to compartmentalize it. In an early chapter, “My Funny, Angry Dad,” he sketches a portrait of his father as a hard-drinking, often-absent, suburban bore. “A tale as old as time. Daddy issues. The end,” he writes. Except not: The dad stuff keeps popping up in the memoir like a jump scare. Odenkirk imagined Saul Goodman as “a hollow man, like my dad and his pals.” One failed pilot was about “a dad making observations about Middle American midlife livin.’ ” Another was about a “crabby, alcoholic, and estranged father (my dad).” “Nobody” is a revenge story in which he plays a “good dad” with a vengeful streak.
At the end of the dad chapter, he sighs, “Can I be done with ‘the darkness’ now?” You tell us, Bob.
Of course, a deep dive into daddy issues isn’t what readers want out of a comedian’s memoir. The sad-clown paradox demands you tamp down the sad part, even when your job is to talk about your inner life. Late in the book, as Odenkirk describes landing more serious-acting gigs, he philosophizes about how actors work. Some are consciously “using their own particular version of Method acting,” he notes, while others “just have disastrous internal lives that they let leak onto the screen, turning their inner turmoil and frailty into sweet dollarinos. I’m a little of both.” It would be nice to hear more about that turmoil, and how he successfully channeled it. Happily, he’s around to tell it, should he ever want to.
Mark Athitakis is a critic in Phoenix and author of “The New Midwest.”
Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama
By Bob Odenkirk
Random House. 304 pp. $28
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