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If Bob Odenkirk had won the role of Michael Scott on The Office (he was in the running), mainstream America might’ve heard of him a lot sooner. But his moment came later and in a different kind of office on the second season of Breaking Bad. In the years he spent not being a household name, he was busy building an influential comic legacy likely to endure long after Saul Goodman launders his last dollar.
Odenkirk is a textbook case of career inevitability. As a kid, he entertained the dinner table with impressions of anyone who’d crossed his path during the day; he wrote sketches for middle school assignments and then took them on the road to other classrooms with the school’s encouragement. In college, he worked as a DJ, where he created the late-night comedy show that formally launched his writing ambitions. Those ambitions were soon tested in the big leagues with a gig in the notoriously ego-withering, flop-sweat-drenched writers room of Saturday Night Live, an environment that made him question his skill. Feeling more confident as a performer, he decided to pursue that route instead. But despite working on well over 100 TV shows and films in the following two decades, he never gained widespread notoriety—nor did he ever stop writing.
That’s where the legacy comes in. In 1995 Odenkirk and David Cross created the iconic—if cult—Mr. Show with Bob and David, which ran on HBO for three deplorably short years. Mr. Show in turn created a showcase for emerging, edgy talents like Tim & Eric (Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Good Job!) Patton Oswalt, Jack Black, Sarah Silverman, and became the genesis for many future alt-comedy shows. Rolling Stone ranked it third on its list of the most influential sketch comedies of all time (behind Odenkirk favorite Monty Python’s Flying Circus and SNL); Wired magazine said of Mr. Show: “Without [Odenkirk], a certain strain of modern humor—a kind of sketch comedy that’s rigorously silly, intelligently designed, and more than a little self-aware—likely wouldn’t exist.”
So why did Mr. Show and many of his other past and current projects (The Birthday Boys, Tom Goes to the Mayor, Let’s Do This!) remain confined to relatively small, if critically acclaimed circles? Well, alternative comedy has been defined (probably by some comic) as comedy most people just don’t get. But Odenkirk keeps writing, presumably because he keeps thinking—about things that make him laugh, things that make him angry, and the world’s never ending supply of hypocrisy in constant need of lampooning.
Never has a career so matched a roller coaster for its ride of hits and flops, obscurity and fame. And it will likely continue that way, because Odenkirk is a compulsive attempter. He admits he’s not always easy to work with, but what perfectionist is? His work is to find new and absurd ways to question, challenge and critique, never sparing himself in the process. He shakes us awake from the mild sedative that most screen comedy has become, and in that calling, we find nothing to mock. He’d probably say we’re just not trying hard enough.