DECEMBER 12, 2014
COMEDY ON AMERICAN TELEVISION can be a rather tribal thing. Talent disperses itself along diasporic lines: Sid Caesar had Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, the Reiners; early SNL made stars of shaggy-dog comedians from Canada and Chicago and New York; in the past 15 years, Judd Apatow’s contingent of slacker-comics has been on the ascendant — even if the Freaks and Geeks cast now tends more toward film than TV. Bob Odenkirk is a quieter kingmaker, but his influence will perhaps prove more pervasive than Apatow’s. On Mr. Show with Bob and David (1995–’98), Odenkirk helped launch Sarah Silverman, Jack Black, Patton Oswalt, as well as co-creater David Cross, while subsequent projects had Odenkirk boosting Fred Armisen and Zach Galifianakis.
In terms of idiom, Odenkirk’s impact may be yet greater. His and Cross’s brand of coitus-interruptus, self-collapsing humor remains the principal model for CollegeHumor, Funny or Die, and other viral comedy outlets: sketches with wild premises and implausible catchphrases that swerve entropically only to find another sketch nesting just inside. More simply, the show had the dual grace and misfortune to be ahead of its time. In 1995, Jerry Seinfeld made obscene piles of cash writing brilliantly contained farces about layabout denizens of Manhattan; Odenkirk and Cross, meanwhile, free from the exigencies of network television, were writing uncontainable farces about crack, hungry babies, and Taint magazine (spinoffs of this fictional publication include T’wasn’t, T’werent, Under Your Balls Quarterly, and the film Taint Misbehavin’). Both shows thrived on awkwardness, but Mr. Show was equally eager to dismantle the fourth wall, to create rather than merely to evoke discomfort. In this sense, and especially on the web, Odenkirk’s impact may have outlived Seinfeld’s.
As commercial failures go, Mr. Show was about the most influential flop on TV. If you talk to Armisen or Tim Heidecker about Odenkirk, the response is likely to verge on the devout.
Odenkirk’s A Load of Hooey (McSweeney’s; $20.00) captures the comedian’s self-effacing (and self-defeating) sense of humor as well as any book really can. It’s a slim volume, digestible in an hour or so, after which sensible readers will spend several hours on YouTube watching highlights from Mr. Show. Odenkirk’s exuberance for non sequiturs and formal fuckery has greater scope on the screen, and his non-TV writing can feel half-realized, like a bop trumpeter finding himself confined to three notes.
In general, the memorable bits are moments, or riffs, rather than chapters: Jesus of Nazareth performing drag comedy as “Geez Louise”; several grim Mad Libs in an obit for the creator of Mad Libs; a tribute to Phil Spector that reassures the reader: “I have been revived — brought back from the dead — every single time Phil Spector has killed me”; and so on. Odenkirk is equally pleased to address politics. Todd Akin is on his mind in “I Misspoke,” wherein Rod Blogbert, candidate for the Senate, backpedals on certain rapey comments:
Rape is an awful act. The other day, in a TV interview, I misspoke. I used the wrong words — guilty, and pleasure — in the wrong way, and for those words, in the order they came out of my mouth, I apologize. The letters in the words were also at fault for having lined up in such a manner as to form those wrong words, but since I am going to need those letters to deliver this apology, I’ll go easy on them — this time…. I am sad to say that my mouth is not alone in its dastardly malfeasance. My lips formed many of the consonants I used in my interview, but they could not have done so without the cooperation of my teeth and tongue.
(The virtuosic non-apology apology.) Elsewhere, we learn that by 3012, all food has been freed of gluten, largely in the interests of efficiency: “The amount of time people save by not having to ask — or answer — the question ‘Is that gluten-free?’ when ordering food has lengthened every individual’s life span by an estimated fourteen hours.” Equally powerful are the author’s instructions for his posthumous memory:
I already told my kids: when I die, no parades. No parades and no holiday, either. Keep it simple. I just want a simple statue. A simple, life-size statue, to scale — except in the crotch. Give yer pops a boost there for old times’ sake, and mount that statue on a simple granite base in the foyer of the White House.
To enumerate the volume’s further delights might ruin the effect, but I should say that Odenkirk’s sketch about Paul McCartney composing “Blackbird” and sarcastically putting down the other Beatles is worthy of Mallory Ortberg’s “dirtbag” series on The Toast. In 2014 terms, this is high praise indeed.
“At home,” Odenkirk muses in one of the later chapters, “I learned about love, and how to dole it out in tiny increments that never deplete the wellspring of self-involvement.” In his professional ventures, Odenkirk exudes less self-involvement than boosterism; even as he prepares the first season of the Breaking Bad spinoff Better Call Saul (in which the actor reprises his role as a lawyer whose comb over is nearly as greasy as his soul), Odenkirk continues to gather around him new generations of corrosively intelligent comedians. (That Odenkirk has on various occasions lost his temper with studio execs, or been called an asshole by other studio execs, says less about character than about commitment to his projects.)
On my last trip to Los Angeles, I met a baby-faced new arrival from the East whose jokes about his supposed prepubescence stole the show at Comedy Living Room, where rumors circulated that Odenkirk had signed the lad to collaborate on a comedy LP. The quiet Odenkirk empire, then, advances apace (note this flowchart from Wired, tracing his influence). Odenkirk’s most memorable characters, on screens large and small, are portraits of American sleaze. His facility in these roles belies his greatest gift to American comedy — his role as the node of a rotating and widening circle of comedians whose sensibilities he helped form and whose careers he continues to make possible.