Total freedom: Interview with Bob Odenkirk

Jesse Hicks

Derek and Simon is about two guys -- and now it's expanded to include some of their friends -- and their search for women to sleep with.

Bob Odenkirk began doing comedy in college, with a show on Southern Illinois University's student radio. He joined the Chicago comedy scene as a stand-up comic, before moving on to New York to write for Saturday Night Live. He won an Emmy for that show, and another for the ill-fated The Ben Stiller Show. He is best known for his work with David Cross on Mr. Show With Bob and David. The series ran for four seasons on HBO in the mid-'90s and has since become an alternative-comedy hit. On 16 May, Bob Odenkirk returns via a new venue, the website Super Deluxe, and a new show, Derek and Simon. Odenkirk talked via phone about his comedic sensibility, his hopes for the new venture, and what he's learned about Hollywood.

How did you decide to take this show to Super Deluxe?

I've been working very hard to work my way into feature films, and it's been very challenging and a little bit unpleasant at times. It's just so hard to get a movie made. Making a show like Derek and Simon is like marking Mr. Show: it's what I find funny, done the way I want to do it, immediately, and a great time to work on. I couldn't be happier to make stuff like this. It's only because of places like Super Deluxe, that are willing to take a chance on people and their visions, that you get to make this occasionally in your life, you know?

Why don't you introduce us to Derek and Simon?

The show is about two guys -- and now it's expanded to include some of their friends -- and their search for women to sleep with. They're very normal guys. Simon is kind of an intellectual, sensitive guy and Derek is clumsier, more common, but also a sweet guy. They're out trying to meet girls and we've included some of their friends now. As a group they're hanging out at bars, asking girls out, and making huge, huge mistakes. They come from us sitting around trading stories about relationships and situations that we've had in our lives or that we've heard about. We cook up little stories based on those things. Some of them are things we create while we're on the set. There are stories we pitch around right on set.

It has a looser, more improvised feel than Mr. Show.

There are scripts, sometimes half-complete. A challenging scene, where a lot of information has to come across, we'll write that out. Others we'll leave unscripted; we know we can improvise through those.

Do you feel like Super Deluxe has given you more room to do that? What was the appeal of going to the Internet?

Total freedom. It's the same appeal you used to have at HBO years ago, and I think HBO still supports people that way. But there aren't many places that don't meddle with your work. Super Deluxe is a new place that'll give you the money to make something very inexpensively, then let you make it the way you want to make it.

I'm curious about what seems like a turn in your comedic sensibility.

I understand what you're saying. It's not high concept. It's about relationships and trying to get laid. Mr. Show is about ideas and social commentary. Honestly, though, I've done both of these things. You haven't seen much of the quieter, more "human" work I've done, but I did a pilot at HBO called Life on Mars, after I did The Ben Stiller Show, before I did Mr. Show. That was just me and Andy Dick and Janeane Garofalo having the kind of relationships and situations we had at the time. That didn't go to series. I did Melvin Goes to Dinner and a show called The Near Future, that had this element to it, of guys and girls trying to hook up. I love the movie Husbands and Wives; one of my favorite movies is The Celebration.

If you shoot this way and get good actors, you can really surprise people. You can make them laugh and be direct with something strong. The thing I was most proud of with Mr. Show is that we got genuine, hardcore laughs out of the audience. People always compliment the ideas and the structure, all of which is great, but I'm most proud that we did sketches that made people laugh really hard. That's about dealing with ideas in a very direct way, and having some great writers.

How did your aesthetic as a writer come together with your style as a director?

I find movies extremely challenging, and they're something I work very hard at. But I find it very hard to get the control. Melvin was the only movie where I got to make the movie any way I wanted. And that's because it was my money, mostly. Each project I take on its own merits, for different reasons. I think sometimes when we do these interviews, you're asking questions about my overall approach. I can't always say. I'm just trying to make a living and do work that I like, and move it to some challenging areas. In the course of doing those three things, it can go any number of ways. It's hard to get them all to line up, where I'm doing something I like, I'm getting paid, and I'm getting left alone.

You mentioned Super Deluxe planned to give you money for initial scenes for the Mr. Show movie.

Yeah, we were talking about that, and I think we're going to do it. David [Cross] and I wrote a Mr. Show movie that's very funny. We've wanted to do it for years, but we can't get the financing for a feature. What we're going to do, if we can do this deal with Super Deluxe, is shoot a scene for them. If it goes well, we'll shoot another scene for them. And then we'll shoot another. If those three go well, maybe we'll make a feature with them. But we'll just do it one piece at a time. Sound good?

Sounds great. Do you think that's the way you'll be working for the foreseeable future?

No, I have movies at all kinds of studios, projects I'm working on in all kinds of different places. I'm going to continue doing a variety of things from a variety of ways. That's the only way to do it, you can't rely on anything. I certainly can't. I just have to keep pounding away at every angle to get things to happen.

Let's talk about some of those other angles. What would you like to say about The Brothers Solomon, the new film you're directing?

The Brothers Solomon is a really sweet and funny script that Will Forte wrote. I don't know if you've seen his stuff on SNL, but Will writes really silly, really absurd pieces. It's got that element to it. I had a great time making it. Will Arnett's fantastic in it, as are Kristen Wiig and Chi McBride. What we didn't see coming was that it has this very sweet side to it, you start to like these guys a lot. By the end it's a very warm movie. I enjoyed making it, and I think it was much closer to my sensibility than, say, Let's Go to Prison, but it's still not me. It's still not something I wrote. I'm happy to have done it, and I'm proud of it, and I hope it goes well.

Do you see yourself moving toward more directing, writing, or both?

I think that I have to take more control of the movies, even if someone else wrote them. Because I'm probably more limited than I wish I was, and in order to know that what I'm doing is going to be an artistic success, I have to have a real strong grip on what it's saying, what's funny about it. I'd like to continue to write and try to produce, and I'd like to make scripts that other people have written.

Not to bring up bad memories, but was Run Ronnie Run [shelved for two and a half years] a learning experience?

Yes and no. What went on there was very bad and you couldn't have predicted it. It really was just a choice that one person made that no one could have seen coming. It didn't match up with anything that'd come before, and I don't know that you can draw strong conclusions from it. The only way to avoid that situation would have been if David and I had demanded that we be producers of that movie. Where we were at then in our lives, and given our relationship with the director [Troy Miller], there's no way we would've demanded that. We'd known him for five years, and we'd been through everything with him. The notion that he'd say, "Leave, I don't need you anymore," was crazy.

That happens, I hear. So you've recently contributed to another project, Comedy by the Numbers, forthcoming from McSweeney's?

One small passage, yes. It was written by Eric Hoffman, a Mr. Show writer, and Gary Rudoren, a guy I know from the Chicago comedy scene. It's really funny, maybe the funniest book I've ever read. I just love it. Of course, I'm a comedy writer, so the subject matter's something I already find funny: the idea of breaking comedy down, having rules directing you on how to be funny simply by filling in the blanks, following these steps. I'm going to do everything I can to promote it, including making some short films for Super Deluxe using the Comedy by Numbers book.

Anybody else out there who's caught your eye? You've mentioned the Straitjacket Comedy Group.

Well, Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job! is great. And I like Chris Lilley, an Australian performer who did a show called The Nominees. He plays six characters who are in the running for Australian of the Year. It's really good.

So, Internet venues like Super Deluxe help bring alternative comedy scenes from L.A. and New York to a wider audience.

Not only do they offer way more exposure, but people have a place to go and to learn. It's a place to practice and to grow as artists. Look at these actors in Derek and Simon, how good they are. Normally you'd see these guys in sitcoms, doing corny bull-crap, or in movies doing lame character pieces that're completely unreal. But look how good they are! It's a place for people to perform and do stuff that's worthy of their talent. It kind of makes me sad and gross inside to think about how hard it is for these people to get a chance to show what they can do. But the internet is a place for that.

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