Bob Odenkirk exudes comedic confidence, and with good reason. He spent time as a writer on Saturday Night Live before getting some screen time on the short lived Ben Stiller Show (and was the lead in what I think are the best character skits from that show – Charles Manson) then went on to become a comedic cult god alongside David Cross on HBO’s Mister Show. Along the way, Odenkirk had small parts on many a great comedic film (Waiting for Guffman, The Cable Guy) and television series (News Radio, The Larry Sanders Show, Curb Your Enthusiasm). Odenkirk has also played a role in the rise of some truly great comedic acts including Tenacious D.
Odenkirk’s full length directorial debut, Melvin Goes to Dinner, is more Woody Allen then it is Mister Show, and shows just how much the man has learned over the years; if you haven’t seen it, I can’t recommend it enough. His second film, Let’s Go to Prison, is not for everyone, but has some inspired moments. I was lucky enough to be born into the same family as Devin and when no one else from CHUD able to make it I got to do a a set visit for The Brothers Solomon, Odenkirk’s newest comedy, written by Will Forte who also stars along with Will Arnett.
The day in question, I sat in a hospital room with Odenkirk while a scene consisting of Arnett and Forte making a pact to have a child before their father dies is filmed in the next room over. Odenkirk sat in what he claimed was the most comfortable chair ever made with a monitor stationed in front of him; there was barely enough room in the area being filmed for the camera and actors, let alone anyone else. Over the course of the day, during which we discussed foreign films, Tom Goes to the Mayor, the pros and cons of long shots in comedy and how Rob Schneider kind of isn’t funny, we would often stop to watch dallies from other scenes or look at various props for the film.
When I’m introduced to Bob, he takes a moment to think on the name CHUD, then remembers where he’s heard it before, "You guys have been great to me". This is the kind of person Odenkirk is, he is complementary, easy going and doesn’t try to be funny. That last bit may sound odd, but think about how annoying it must be to try and talk to Robin Williams when you’re trying to interview him, then imagine the exact opposite and you have Bob Odenkirk; the man is serious about comedy and film. He has a deep respect and understanding of what has come before and doesn’t try to get you to laugh, you laugh because what he says is funny and interesting. Also, he loved my recorder, which made me feel better about buying the thing just for this.
Bob – Thanks for coming down. I’m really enjoying this movie. I filmed Let’s Go to Prison last year and it was a real dark comedy; this is a much lighter comedy. Prison was really dark and you have to keep your head in that frame for a year, where with this, its light comedy and the characters are sweet; they’re lovable. I mean, they’re socially retarded but they’re sweet. I want to define them by their innocence more then by their stupidity; that’s always been my goal. We got Lee Majors to play the dad, he’s a great guy too and he’ll be here soon. I love talking to him. He has an incredible career. The guy had five popular shows. That’s years in front of the camera.
Bob is quick to show us a prop for the movie, a toy baby that he absolutely loves. Every time he looks down at the baby, he lets out a little laugh and its easy to see why. They face of the baby is filled with that overabundance of joy that dolls always have, but brought up to a level that is almost unsettling.
Bob – Isn’t this thing great. It looks so sweet. It’s such a happy toy baby; I love him. He has a hollow head. I’m keeping this baby; I can tell you that, with this happy hollow head on him.
How did you come across the script?
Bob – Carsey-Werner produced Let’s Go To Prison, so I worked with them on that and they had this script from Will Forte who was a writer on a few of their shows. So towards the end of Lets Go to Prison they gave me the script and I really liked it. Its just really funny. Its funny as shit.
What do you think is the key of bringing across comedy on the big and the small screen?
Bob – When I was working on Saturday Night Live Robert Smigel used to talk to us about what is the core joke. What’s the key joke of a scene and taking the premiss and coming at it from different angles. So you think about the premiss and what is really going on in the scene, how to create tension and keeping the key core relationship of the characters in the scene. You know, you ask me that and I think back on the comedy I’ve done well, but I also think of the times I fucked it up, so really, you shouldn’t be asking me. I mean, every joke is different and every situation is different. Tension is important; creating that tension and knowing when to break it.
A lot of the time on sit-coms, they’re working so hard for a laugh. The laugh is written into the lines which is to say that the set up doesn’t give you much or they don’t know how to make much out of it so they have to create retarded mistakes or over-write the situation or over state the characterization as opposed to something like Curb Your Enthusiasm. With Larry David’s stuff you play it real. It’s a ludicrous situation but its small stuff so it works on that level. Like, and I point this out because its a real thing and Larry David points these kinds of things out; I was at my brother’s house in the Valley; his new house. He has this new air conditioning system that cost fifteen grand, its expensive air conditioning. It was hot out, like a hundred and ten, hundred and fifteen, super fucking hot and his air conditioning breaks. It starts pumping heat and they couldn’t get it to turn off. That’s crazy bullshit that can be funny; hottest day in the summer and your heat is blasting and you can’t turn it off. Like the episode of Curb I was in, I played a porn actor and who wouldn’t want to hear a porn actor’s stories? I mean you would have to look at a situation like that and think ’this may be the only time I’ll ever be in this situation, tell me some crazy shit’. And yet the stories these guys have are horribly gross. You can’t learn from watching Larry David. What he does isn’t from teaching, it’s from being gifted, by having amazing talent.
My friends have become obsessed with Tom Goes to the Mayor.
Bob – Really?
Yeah, they love it.
Bob - Those guys at Cartoon Network are the best, they’re like how HBO was ten years ago. These guys go out of their way to make the audience feel like they’re part of the gang of creators and shit. They aren’t full of themselves in any way and it makes it great to work with them.
How did you get involved with Tom Goes to the Mayor?
Bob - I got sent this DVD and I usually don’t watch that kind of stuff when I get it, but I checked it out and on this DVD there was a Tom Goes to the Mayor segment and I loved it. So I started working with Tim and Eric and we got it to Cartoon Network and Mike Lazzlo liked it. No matter what we all do, people who create stuff, if there aren’t guys like Mike who will back you, you can’t do much. You need guys like Lazzlo who will support you. And the marketing is great, they have balls. The billboards they did for Tom Goes to the Mayor were great. Like the Forty Year Old Virgin poster, that was great marketing. When I first saw that poster I knew that movie would be funny. His face tells you everything you need to know about that movie; its funny and has a good heart behind it.
The Weinstiens would argue that posters don’t sell tickets at all.
Bob - That is retarded. That Forty Year Old Virgin board made that movie a hit before the movie came out. What sells tickets then?
They say it’s TV ads.
Bob - Well, there is truth to that, but I think a good poster can really make a movie. I think there is still a portion of the public that decides on the movie they’ll see on Friday night on Friday and it may be decided by a billboard. Especially when it comes to comedies, even shitty comedies like… should I name names? Like your Rob Schneider movies. A good poster and you have to come up with a good one. I think people want to go see the good movie, the interesting movie, but its the end of the week and you’re tired. Like, I like a lot of foreign films. I really do like them, I mean I’m not trying to impress my wife anymore after ten years and hope she’ll think I’m smart. I just bought a box set of Louis Malle films and they’re subtitled and she won’t watch them at night because she’ll fall asleep because she’s tired. I think people think like that and they end up just seeing the comedies because they want to laugh and not have to work at all. And that Forty Year Old Virgin promised laughs, just Steve Carell’s face and you know it’ll be funny.
At this point, Bob shows us some dailies. The first scene is Will Arnett and Will Forte looking over a rack of porno magazines at a sperm bank and trying to choose which one will be best to masturbate into a cup to. Both of them are playing the scene nervous, like when you’re looking at the porn mag rack at a corner shop with your friends when you were in eighth grade. The scene would make for a great skit on Saturday Night Live if Saturday Night Live could have lines like "this one shorts you on vagina".
The second clip we see is Arnett and Forte trying to adopt a baby. Once again, the childish aspects of the characters are easy to see. They argue over who the father of the baby will be and have a list of baby requests including color, eye shape and intelligence of the baby. From these dailies, its easy to tell that Arnett and Forte work well together. They play off each others movements and tone to a point that you would think they had been working side by side for years.
Bob - You know, this movie, Brothers Solomon, I’ve been having so much fun on this. This is the highest praise I think I could ever give something, but its true; there have been times where its been as good as Mister Show. I think that this is as funny and as well played as Mister Show was and there’s nothing I’ve had since Mister Show that has made me feel like this. I mean, Mister Show was hard, we worked really hard but we always felt that it was pure and that it would work great. Like that scene I showed you of Arnett and Forte at the sperm bank looking at the porn magazines, I think that scene works great and its all in one shot what you saw. We’ll use a few different angles when we edit it together, but it works in one shot.
I’ve always felt that comedy works best with fewer cuts. I think one shot works great for jokes.
Bob – You know I think you’re right and I hate saying that because it makes me think of all the mistakes I’ve made, but its true. When you stay in one shot, you feel the tension and you feel yourself with those people. Like that shot of them in the adoption agency is great isn’t it?
It is. I’ve always felt that the longer you hold the shot, the more the audience can feel the tension rise and they get to see the actors change with the tension.
Bob – You know what I’m thinking? I have an angle for the adoption agency that you didn’t see where it closes in when Arnett and Forte whisper to each other, but from the shot you saw, you could hear them whispering and be looking at the adoption agent’s face thinking ‘Are they really saying that?’ It may be better to stick with that angle and not come around. And how fast they did that? They went through those lines real fast when they’re whispering because they didn’t think that stuff would be used in that shot, but it works. They do it fast but not artificial, like they’re talking fast and quiet hoping thinking that the adoption guy can’t understand them. I think that will work.
If the scene in the movie is all one long shot, I have officially made my mark on film and can die happy.