SXSW Panel: A Conversation With Bob Odenkirk

Two legendary comic voices shoot the shit with warmth and sincerity

The inspired pairing of Bob Odenkirk and Fred Armisen in an hourlong chat unexpectedly begot intimate results for the hundreds assembled at SXSW on Sunday.

Fred Armisen and Bob Odenkirk at SXSW 2017 (Photo by Jana Birchum)

If the festival brochure is to be believed, the discussion was intended to focus on Emmy Award-nominee Odenkirk, the comic co-mastermind behind Mr. Show With Bob and David and the acclaimed star of AMC’s Better Call Saul. But the writer/performer’s relationship with Armisen, they explained, went back nearly 20 years to when Armisen first began circulating VHS tapes of him acting out at SXSW. In fact, the Portlandia co-creator credited Odenkirk for jump-starting his career by casting Armisen in Next!, a failed sketch-comedy pilot in 2002. Their conversation became less about Odenkirk’s resurgence into national recognition with roles in Breaking Bad, Fargo, and Saul, and more about these friends’ mutual experiences in the cutthroat world of entertainment.

Armisen, who somehow managed to attend despite three ongoing television shows (Documentary Now!, Portlandia, and his bandleader gig on Late Night With Seth Meyers) was quick to point out the divergent paths his or Odenkirk’s careers might have followed. After referring to their shared experiences on Saturday Night Live (Odenkirk was a writer in the late Eighties, Armisen a longtime performer), the two traded stories of creative experimentation. Odenkirk pointed out that his colleague had appeared in, written jokes for, or produced hundreds of projects, and was “much funnier than me.”

But he also admitted that “when we do any of these projects, it’s always a risk,” regarding the many films and programs they had each developed in the wake of their SNL years. Odenkirk recalled his tenure, his earliest experience in show business, with some sadness: “I wasn’t that helpful there … It was really unpleasant for me, Fred. It’s like a steamroller. Very little that you do feels meaningful.” However, he did manage to glean life-changing tips from the A-class comedy writers that worked on the show at the same time, like Robert Smigel, Jim Downey, and Al Franken.

To his credit, Armisen refused to let Odenkirk fully obscure the lessons he learned there, given that they led to Odenkirk co-creating the beloved Mr. Show with David Cross. Armisen showed what he called, “no exaggerating, my most favorite, funniest sketch of any show ever,” a bit starring Jay Johnston called “The Story of Everest.” That clip marked the funniest point in their conversation, which afterwards returned primarily to Odenkirk’s work portraying lawyer Saul Goodman on Breaking Bad and its critically-hailed spinoff.

AMC provided clips from Better Call Saul’s first season as well as a new, exclusive look at the forthcoming third season. Even in brief, Odenkirk’s remarkable embodiment of the complicated attorney trading barbs with Michael McKean was apparent, putting the crowd into the euphoric spasms that come with such sneak peeks.

For this ongoing chapter in Odenkirk’s roller coaster career, the actor self-effacingly credited Saul co-creators Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan. He concluded the conversation affectionately, describing how he learned to recognize he was in the hands of geniuses: “In really good writing, you know because even the secondary characters have some arc – a journey.”

A Conversation With Bob Odenkirk

Sunday, March 12, Austin Convention Center

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SXSW, SXSW Film 2017, Bob Odenkirk, Fred Armisen, Better Call Saul, Mr. Show

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