Bob Odenkirk on Better Call Saul and surviving a heart attack: ‘I have to keep going. Life is great’

Having escaped an ‘existential lightning bolt’, you might expect the comic actor to be slowing down. You’d be wrong
For at least a couple of weeks after it happened, Bob Odenkirk couldn’t remember he’d had a heart attack. He would wake up, feeling pretty good, and think about heading to work. “And everyone would say: ‘Calm down, you had a heart attack,’” he recalls. There is an absurdity to this daily revelation of bad news that I think Odenkirk – a connoisseur of the absurd – might enjoy.

“Here, let me show you this,” he says. “This is something my daughter made for me because every day was the same thing of not remembering.” He gets out his phone and finds a picture he took of a whiteboard with a timeline of the events of that week or so in July last year – collapsing on the set of his TV drama Better Call Saul, hospital, his family arriving – so that Odenkirk would know what had happened. He holds it up to the screen. On day one, she has written “die” (the quote marks are hers).

Was it a shock to read that every day? “Yeah it was. This might sound gross, but the thought I had was … ” Odenkirk pauses a lot as he speaks, and laughs pretty much all the time. “Some people make their way through an experience like that and think: ‘I have to change my life, I have to stop whatever.’ And my thought was: ‘I have to keep going. This is great.’”

The heart attack came shortly after Odenkirk finished his memoir, tracing his career from alternative comedy to high-end drama, so at least he could say the timing was good. It was not a total surprise: he had seen two cardiologists in 2018 and been told he had the beginnings of coronary heart disease. One told him to start medication straight away; the other – who did more extensive tests – said he didn’t need it. Odenkirk listened to the second. “I’ve got nothing against medicine, I’m fully vaccinated. He’d done a more thorough job of testing.” He was lucky, he says: it happened on set, not in his trailer, so people were around when he collapsed. The on-set medic gave him CPR, and she had a defibrillator in her car, then he was in hospital for a week.

The fact that he can’t remember anything of the day, or the first couple of weeks of his recovery, means, he says smiling, “I missed out on that existential lightning bolt. On the other hand, there’s a lingering … ” He pauses and laughs. “Is there such a thing as a lingering lightning bolt? We’ll invent that term.” Has it changed the way he looks at his life? “I think I’m still thinking about it,” he says.

A short while later, he says “certain deaths affect you, and so my own death didn’t affect me as much as the recent passing of Bob Saget [the comedian and Full House star who died last month].” He didn’t know Saget well, he says, but “he was one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. Friendly, interested in everyone around him, supportive.” When the comedian Bill Hicks died in 1994 – Odenkirk didn’t really know him either, but they moved in the same circles – it shook him.

“That made me think I’ve got to chase what I want more determinedly, because you don’t get to just linger for ever. And Saget passing made me think I could do a lot of work in being a more present and considerate person.” He smiles. “Artistically – if you want to call me an artist, and fuck you if you call me an artist – I’ve been very rewarded, and no one could ask for more. So maybe I need to shift my focus to just be a better person around other people.”

Odenkirk arrives on our Zoom call without a publicist minder (rare), and is funny (obviously), as well as friendly and generous with his time and space. He takes his laptop out to the terrace of his house in Albuquerque so he can show me the mountains and volcanoes in the distance. He pulls things off the corkboard behind his table, mostly filled with family photos, to show me including an “article” about his heart attack in the Framley Examiner, a parody British local newspaper, sent to him by its writers, whom he befriended.

When he moved some of his stuff to this house and was unpacking boxes of old photographs taken throughout his early comedy career, his assistant was amazed. He thought perhaps he should set down his stories of the birth of alternative comedy in LA, performing at Chicago’s influential comedy theatre Second City, being a writer on Saturday Night Live, and his own sketch work in the cult Mr Show with Bob and David (made with his longtime collaborator David Cross). “Mr Show is the core of the book, and I needed to talk about it before everyone completely forgot that it existed,” he says.

Odenkirk’s mainstream fame may come from his role as the shady lawyer Saul Goodman in the hit drama Breaking Bad, and then in its spin-off prequel Better Call Saul – Odenkirk is about to finish shooting the final scenes – but his book is unapologetically for comedy geeks. It is the reason he named it Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama, he says – so as not to disappoint those who might pick it up hoping for insights into a thespian career.

Odenkirk could talk comedy for hours; when we discuss why he has such anglophile tastes, he painstakingly explores why it works. (It’s the “straight line”, he explains; the specifically English idea of decorum, which is easy to distort for laughs, “whereas we don’t have that. We’re Americans.”) On the subject of a new cautiousness around comedy writers, fearful of being cancelled, he has what he calls his “wedding table theory” – that, just as you may find yourself seated at a table at an acquaintance’s wedding with a range of people who might not be open to your work, the internet has made everything available to everyone. “These things are meant to be seen in a context, at a place. But the context is gone, or it’s so easily erased or shifted. And it’s a real problem.”

What is striking in his book is how determined Odenkirk seemed, how unwilling to compromise on his vision for his work. In his early career, he comes across as exacting and demanding and he admits he was difficult to work with. While the careers of his friends and those in his comedy orbit – including Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Judd Apatow – blew up, Odenkirk never seemed driven by fame or ratings or money (at one point, he almost went bankrupt). All he wanted to do was create comedy that he thought was great. The fact that not many people saw it was disappointing to him, but not disastrous.

It is, of course, easy to say this from the safety of his current position: it worked out. Approaching 60, Odenkirk has a prestige TV career, a new direction as an unlikely but excellent action movie star (his film Nobody was a hit last year), and is about to start another comedy show, a mockumentary titled Guru Nation, with Cross. Mr Show is being discovered by new audiences online, and Odenkirk is a cult hero to younger performers. He also has a happy family life (his wife, Naomi, is his manager and sometime producer, and they have two grownup children); not even the small matter of a heart attack can dampen his spirits.

Better Call Saul left me by the side of the road, gasping for breath, but I gave it everything I had
Odenkirk, one of seven children, grew up in a small town in Illinois with a ready-made audience. He and his brother Bill (now a comedy writer) would get up from the dinner table and perform. His mother, Barbara, a devout Catholic and “strict in so many ways, would absolutely indulge this”, he says. “She was never more entertained than by kids and their behaviours, and she would encourage it.” What did he get from it? “The warmth, the laughs.” Their house, he says, had “a tension running through it because my father was struggling with existence”.

His father, Walter, drank too much, would disappear regularly, and then eventually walked out on the family. His death, when Odenkirk was in his early 20s, was, he writes, “a shrugging affair”. “I don’t know what his story was,” he says. “I don’t feel like I’ve ever met anyone like him, but he was a pretty disconnected guy.” The things Walter would do – get into car accidents, lose the family’s money, disappear – were frightening, but Odenkirk didn’t become withdrawn, he became angry. He pauses, thinking about it. “One time I got to confront my father physically. It was a great feeling. And that’s kind of sad, and horrible.”

There is a current of anger in Odenkirk’s work, not only in the bite of his comedy (an apoplectic Odenkirk is a glorious thing) but in his drama roles, too: Nobody was inspired by his own experience of intruders breaking into his family home, and became a place to process that anger. His experience of having Walter as a father gave him, he thinks, “trouble with authority, and a desire to look at problems and shout about them, and make fun of them”. Comedy arrived in his childhood – Odenkirk discovered Monty Python, still his greatest comedy love – and it was an escape. “There was a kick in it, there was something I connected with. They were silly as hell but that in itself, that degree of silliness, is a big ‘fuck you’ to the status quo of thinking and behaviour.”

Odenkirk saved up and bought a tape recorder, and he and his brother would write and record sketches. When he was 14, a friend’s family took him to Chicago to see a show at Second City, providing the revelation that comedy could be a career. He wrote sketches at university and had a radio show, but after a chance meeting with Del Close, the influential but chaotic comedy guru, in a Chicago bookshop, Odenkirk left university to try to make it as a comic. By his mid-20s, he had joined the Saturday Night Live writing team. It was there he met Ben Stiller; later, he would go on to write on The Ben Stiller Show. Stiller remembers Odenkirk as “the grownup in the room when it came to sketch writing. I think when we’re that age we always have a weird confidence in ourselves, that only experience can drain you of, but I felt like he already had perfected the form and was interested in pushing it, too. He’s incredibly smart and he combines that with a love of really ridiculous ideas. He really likes being almost absurd but it is always set up in a construct that lets you know it’s funny – not just absurd for it’s own sake.”

Saturday Night Live was a huge break, and Odenkirk stayed for three years but he wasn’t happy; while many young writers would stick it out, he resigned from this dream job with a vague plan to move to LA. There, he rooted himself in its blossoming alternative comedy scene.These spores of comedy would be coming to life and spreading all around you, it was a great thing.” “There was this energy that just was starting,” he says. “

Mr Show, which ran on HBO from 1995 to 1998, was (almost) everything Odenkirk wanted, and found a passionate – but small – audience, its final season buried in a midnight slot on Mondays. “I wish it was more successful,” he says, “but it’s perfectly fine, we got to do it, that’s what mattered.” He does have some regrets, particularly about the complete absence of female writers, “especially because we had such great women around us”. These included Jill Talley and Sarah Silverman. “It was such a boys’ club,” he says. “Immature men.” He says none of the women ever submitted a sketch, “which all the guys did. That just shows you that people need to have a trailblazer. They need to believe that it’s possible.” It wasn’t like he wasn’t aware of how male-dominated it was. “We did an episode called the Mr Show Boys’ Club, and we made fun of it. But still, why didn’t we do anything about it?” He sounds incredulous. “It’s just weak. I have no excuse.”

After Mr Show ended, Odenkirk flailed for the next 10 years, making some fairly awful films and other projects that never materialised, alongside small parts in great stuff such as Curb Your Enthusiasm (he missed out on the lead in the US version of The Office to Steve Carell). “When you have that much failure – and I had a long list of failed projects – you start to wonder whether you have anything left in you that is of any value,” he says. He had stopped caring so much about what he was making. “Part of that is a safety mechanism of like: ‘I just want to protect myself, because if I care too much, and it fails, I’ll feel bad.’ And part of it was a fraudulently misplaced disrespect for showbiz: ‘Oh, who cares? It’s just a movie.’ You can’t do that. I mean, I cared so much about Mr Show, and I think you’ve got to do that.” By this point, he’d also had two children and – the total opposite of his own father – he was devoted and present.

Still, in terms of work, it was a hard few years, he says, until Breaking Bad came along. It was Mr Show that led to Breaking Bad – creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould had been fans – and strip mall lawyer Goodman, with his wisecracks and garish style, brought a levity to the show. Casting Odenkirk was inspired, but he found this shift into drama, with Saul’s fast, dense dialogue, intimidating. When he started shooting Better Call Saul, playing struggling lawyer – but good guy – Jimmy McGill who becomes the amoral Goodman, he asked Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad’s lead) for tips on how to be a “real actor”; in the first weeks of shooting he lost his voice, which he thinks was due to stress. The show, he writes, “beat me up and left me by the side of the road, gasping for breath, but I gave it everything I had”.

When we speak, they are a week away from finishing Better Call Saul. “The other day, I kind of had a little breakdown on the set, where I got pretty emotional. I couldn’t do the scene.” But he says the series ending hasn’t really hit him yet, and that’s true of the way his emotions work in general. “I don’t know what to do about it,” he says with a laugh, then a sigh. “My brain is like: ‘Fuck it. What else we got? Think about something else.’”

Until Better Call Saul, Odenkirk had been in, or around, giant shows – Saturday Night Live, a role on The Larry Sanders Show, Breaking Bad – but remained on the sidelines, resolutely fringe. It suited him. He was relieved, he says, to have been in his 50s when proper fame came his way. “I certainly had a feeling of: ‘Oh my God, if this happened to me when I was 24, that’ll mess you up.’ Somehow I don’t think I have to worry about being too famous now. I’m 59, I don’t have that much time left.” He laughs. “I had a fucking heart attack!” he shouts. “I mean, come on.”

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