Moving Pictures
May 16, 2024, 06:27AM

The Work of Bob Odenkirk

In his prime, Gen-X comedy icon Odenkirk avoided easy laughs and cheap cliches like the plague.

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If you’ve not read Naomi Odenkirk’s excellent and long out-of-print Mr Show - What Happened?: The Complete Story and Episode Guide, remedy that oversight tout de suite. Alongside hundreds of pages of interviews with the show’s cast and crew, Naomi prompts her husband Bob to explain the creative pulse behind HBO’s Mr. Show, capturing a comedic philosophy that not only influenced my sense of humor but also my understanding of what comedy should be (she also does a far better job of getting him to cut to the chase than he does in his rather workmanlike autobiography). In the most revealing section of What Happened?, Odenkirk—fed up with lame comedic pablum like SNL, for which he once wrote “thumbsucking” sketches—declares that relying on topical comedy and recurring characters is like saying, “Oh, I want to do this guy again!” It’s a blunt rejection of easy laughs and a salute to those who dare to innovate each time the curtain rises.

Odenkirk’s artistic audacity was not merely a choice but a statement. He viewed the reliance on recurring characters as “a self-indulgent, egomaniacal thing to do,” and instead chose the steeper path where each sketch was a reinvention. This approach demands more from its audience but also respects them more, asking them to engage anew rather than coast on familiarity. For a Generation Xer like me, who believes comedy should slap you awake, not tuck you in, Odenkirk’s words resonate: “It’s just fucking boring that people repeat their crap, and just because it will get a laugh.”

By sidestepping the shortcut of recurring characters, Odenkirk likely slowed his own career trajectory: “We did Mr. Show for ourselves. And as it turns out, we’re the only people who saw it.” This line isn’t just self-deprecating humor; it’s a testament to the purity of his comedic vision. The strength of strength, as I defined it, is this adherence to one's core values over superficial gains. Odenkirk’s ethos demonstrated that the real measure of success is not the width of the audience but the depth of the impact.

Odenkirk's strategy demanded more from himself and his writers: “When we recur characters, they either service the sketch or they are entirely new extensions of that idea and what that character does in his world.” His approach ensured that Mr. Show was a forge for creativity, where every sketch was a beginning and an end in itself. Such a legacy taught a generation to value the sharp edge of comedy—a tool to dissect society, not just to soothe it.

This philosophy of austere simplicity also encompassed a disdain for the distractions used to prop up lesser material: “You emphasize the costumes, the excellent sets, you have a guest star who’s a musician who’s acting, you have all these diversions that keep you from going: ‘You know what, this sketch sucks.’” By stripping away these layers, Odenkirk argues for a purer form of comedy—one that stands or falls on the strength of its writing and performances alone.

Odenkirk explicitly contrasted the aesthetic of Mr. Show with that of more traditionally-staged comedy sketches, pointing out that, “One thing about the Monty Python sets was the walls would shake. Which is what we wanted. We asked for that. We said, ‘We want things to be plain, we want walls to shake, we want it to be cheap.’”

This desire for simplicity wasn’t just about budget—it was a creative choice that emphasized the comedy itself over the trappings of its presentation. By ensuring the sets weren’t too polished, Odenkirk and his team kept the audience’s focus squarely on the sketches' content and performance. The integrity of a sketch, according to Odenkirk, shouldn’t rely on set design or production values but on the fresh and genuine humor it brings each time.

Odenkirk's choice to prioritize raw, authentic comedic expression over aesthetic perfection was risky but ultimately shaped Mr. Show into a distinctive and enduring entity within the comedic landscape. This ensured that the humor was always front and center, unobscured by potentially misleading high production values: “We were trying to do a great comedy show, one where you would watch it over and over.”

In weaving these principles into the fabric of Mr. Show, Odenkirk didn’t just make a TV show; he minted a new currency in the economy of comedy. One where the value lies in the genuine laugh, earned fresh in the moment, without the inflationary pressure of callbacks, catchphrases, and topical gags. For those of us who caught on to what Odenkirk was doing, the impact was profound—a clarion call to appreciate, and demand, more from our comedians and ourselves. Only a handful of subsequent sketch shows, most notably Trevor Moore’s Whitest Kids U'Know and Sam Hyde and Nick Rochefort’s Million Dollar Extreme, have come anywhere close to approximating this level of comedic rigor.

Bob Odenkirk’s tenure at Mr. Show stands as a beacon for the purists in comedy, the ones who believe that the strength of a joke lies in its first impression, not its echo. This principle guides my understanding of comedy: a relentless pursuit of originality, and a refusal to settle for the comfort of the known. It’s a tough room, but as Odenkirk showed us, it’s the only one worth playing—even if it often means you’re the one who ends up getting played.


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