And he got them, in a series of now classic sketches. If oily, shallow but charming lawyer Saul Goodman is your only contact with Odenkirk, his Angry Young Man phase is worth tracking down. You could start with some classic “Mr. Show”: “Lie detectorin which Odenkirk’s character is hooked up to a polygraph and confesses to a series of absurdly escalating transgressions. Or “mafia mathematiciansin which he plays a mob capo shouting goons wondering if 24 is the highest possible number. Or “Blow up the moonin which he plays a patriotic country singer in a pamphlet about headstrong American populism. The latter is landing even better now than he did in 1997.
Although the 59-year-old Odenkirk has been very successful, “Comedy” is largely a study in the paradox of the sad clown, a story about brooding tenacity in the face of fear of failure or failure itself. same. Growing up in suburban Chicago, Odenkirk was enchanted by the city’s robust comedy scene, which in the ’70s and ’80s was orchestrated by improv coach and impresario Del Close. Odenkirk was caught off guard by Close’s use of all sorts of intoxicants, but he loved the culture of comedy. Kind of sort: 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 harder I tried.”
So “Comedy” isn’t exactly meant to be ha-ha funny, although it sometimes is. More often than not, it seems Odenkirk wants to fire some flares at the comics who might want to follow in his footsteps. Sometimes that means learning from the objects of tragic cases like his SNL colleague Chris Farley, whose rapid decline was witnessed firsthand by Odenkirk. He remembers seeing Farley at the height of his glory but near death, partying in a limo and beyond help. “Should I have grabbed him by the lapels and yelled at him, ‘You throw it, man! … I thought about it. But I also knew he had heard it all, so many times…I watched the limo drive away and a few weeks later we all had a funeral,” he wrote. “What a stupid story.”
But mostly, his frustrations involve the more down-to-earth limbo of what he calls “the devil of development.” “Mr. Show” ended in 1998, and Odenkirk didn’t land the role of Saul Goodman until 2009. That means he spent more than a decade wandering the Hollywood wilderness, and “Comedy” suggests he worked every second to pull through. He made films that didn’t take off. He did pilot after pilot that was not picked up. He auditioned for the role of Michael Scott in “The Office”, ultimately losing to Steve Carell. There, and everywhere else, he is stubborn and depreciates in defeat. “I had so many plans to shove in the mud,” he writes. “A trick to surviving Hollywood’s defeat is to keep creating new things despite every ‘no’.”
Perhaps inevitably, “Comedy” becomes less interesting as Odenkirk becomes an actor who hears yes more often. His hunger and fear of failure are still palpable: he embraces the advice he received from ‘Breaking Bad’ frontman Bryan Cranston, who told him he just needed to commit, to do effort: “Working all the time”. But the last pages of the book are made of more bland things. Working with Steven Spielberg on “The Post” was awesome, having a cameo in “Little Women” was awesome, playing an unlikely action hero in “Nobody” was awesome.
Beneath this placid surface lurks sad clown stuff, despite Odenkirk’s best efforts to compartmentalize it. In a first chapter, “My Funny, Angry Dad”, he sketches a portrait of his father as a boring, often absent, suburban drinker. “A story as old as time. Father issues. The end,” he wrote. Except not: Dad’s tricks keep coming back to memorabilia as a jump scare. Odenkirk imagined Saul Goodman as “a hollow man, like my dad and his buddies”. A failed pilot was about “a dad commenting on midlife life in Central America.” Another spoke of a “grumpy, alcoholic and estranged father (my father)”. “Nobody” is a revenge story in which he plays a “good father” with a vengeful streak.
At the end of the chapter on dads, he sighs, “Can I be done with ‘darkness’ now?” You tell us, Bob.
Of course, a deep dive into dad issues isn’t what readers expect from a comedian’s memoir. The sad clown paradox requires you to tone down the sad part, even when your job is to talk about your inner life. Towards the end of the book, as Odenkirk describes the landing of more serious acting gigs, he philosophizes about how actors work. Some “consciously use their own particular version of the method of action”, he notes, while others “simply have a disastrous internal life which they let leak onto the screen, transforming their inner turmoil and their fragility into sweet dollarinos. I’m a bit of both. It would be nice to hear more about that hustle and how he successfully channeled it. Luckily, he’s here to say it, if he wants to .
Mark Athitakis is a Phoenix critic and author of “The New Midwest.”
Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama
Random house. 304 pages. $28