Episode 423: Bob Odenkirk, Dana Schwartz, Jason Mott

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(L to R) Rhea Seehorn, Bob Odenkirk on location for "Better Call Saul"
(C) Bob Odenkirk’s Personal Collection

Bob Odenkirk talks about his incredible journey from Mr. Show to Saul Goodman. Also, Dana Schwartz returns to dish on her historical novel, “Anatomy,” about the shady side of medicine during the 1800s. And Jason Mott on his National Book Award-winning novel, “Hell of a Book.”

Featured in this Show

  • Comedian, dramatic actor, action hero: Bob Odenkirk excels in every genre he tackles

    Bob Odenkirk has enjoyed a chameleonesque career. He was a writer for “Saturday Night Live” and “The Ben Stiller Show.” He went on to co-create and co-star in the groundbreaking HBO sketch comedy series, “Mr. Show with Bob and David.”

    After proving that he could easily make people laugh, he transformed into a solid dramatic actor as James Morgan “Jimmy” McGill (alias the amoral lawyer Saul Goodman) on what critics consider to be one of the greatest TV series of all time, “Breaking Bad.” Odenkirk then went on to star in the show’s spin-off and prequel “Better Call Saul.” Most recently, he’s morphed into an action movie hero in “Nobody.”

    Odenkirk writes candidly about his incredible career in his memoir, “Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama.”

    “I’d been at Second City (in Chicago) doing a one-man show in the ETC Theater thanks to the kindness and generosity of Joyce Sloan, a famous den mother of Second City,” Odenkirk said.

    This one-man show was called “Half My Face is a Clown.” Odenkirk co-wrote the script for an Eric Bogosian/Bob Newhart mashup he’d always wanted to do. Odenkirk performed the show in the summer of 1989 and it received a good review from “The Chicago Tribune.” He was already working as a writer for SNL.

    “Chris Farley was invited in (to Second City Chicago) also abruptly, not really going through the program, but he was so funny, so undeniable,” Odenkirk said. “And then one night he was improvising, playing a coach, and we were doing an anti-drug improvised speech to a bunch of high schoolers. And that character, the way he moved, the things he talked about, it just stuck in my head.”

    “And I went home and that night sat alone and wrote on a legal pad, the sketch, ‘The Motivational Speaker,’ and I’d probably written a couple thousand sketches in my life and only a few of them, did I write exactly the way they were played,” he continued.

    Odenkirk won an Emmy for his work on SNL and “The Ben Stiller Show” but he really came into his own when he joined forces with David Cross to create the HBO sketch comedy series “Mr. Show with Bob and David” which debuted on HBO in 1995.

    The two became a perfect pair. Odenkirk referred to Cross as “a troublesome, angry, anarchic, very funny, very smart person who also wanted to make a sketch show with all the same attributes that I was after — kind of mixing in absurdity, moving from one sketch to the other without breaking, without stopping down, and a kind of an angry kind of social commentary.”

    Together Cross and Odenkirk found a “clarity in the writing and in a kind of a smartness and a surprising quality so that the sketch didn’t get dragged down into a repetitive beat.”

    In January 2009, Odenkirk got a call from his agent. The agent pitched him a role as a lawyer for a TV drama series called “Breaking Bad.”

    “Not many people had seen ‘Breaking Bad.’ This was the second season just starting actually halfway through shooting. The first season was cut short by a writer’s strike. It was only seven episodes long and very few people had seen it. And I called my friend. I said, ‘What do you know about the show ‘Breaking Bad’?’ And he said, ‘That is the best show on TV. I love it. Oh my God, you have to do that role.’”

    Odenkirk says the role was described to him by the show’s co-creator Vince Gilligan as “a sleazy bus stop bench ad lawyer.”

    As Odenkirk read his first “Breaking Bad” script, he said he had an epiphany.

    “This is an opportunity to act, to not just do a performance that is kind of half me, half comic character, but to really lose myself in a person written by someone else that I don’t really know,” Odenkirk said.

    “So I was just about to make another note and, you know, thinking about making the phone call and saying, ‘Hey, guys, I got some ideas.’ And I thought, you know what? I don’t think a real actor does this. I think a real actor does the script as written. I think they learn the lines. And it occurred to me quickly that because Saul is scripted … It would just make it a more unique person to play if he was literally speaking in cadences and terminology that I would never use.”

    “Breaking Bad” wrapped production in 2013. Several months later, the show’s creators Gilligan and Peter Gould pitched the spin-off “Better Call Saul” to Odenkirk at the Chateau Marmont in West Hollywood. Odenkirk told them they would have to make Saul’s character more likable for the series to be successful.

    “What I love about playing Jimmy/Saul/Gene Takovic (when he’s in hiding in the Cinnabon) is I do think we all have some version of that. We have some version of the public persona. Maybe we’re a little more strong-willed, we throw our opinion around a little louder. Then there’s the family version of ourselves where we’re talking to our spouse and maybe our kids,” he said. “And then there’s the version where you’re alone, and we see that somewhat too in ‘Better Call Saul.’ And when you’re alone, you’re yet another version of yourself. And maybe that’s the place where you most are vulnerable and you feel your self-doubt.

    Most recently, Odenkirk has reinvented himself as an action hero in the movie, “Nobody.” He said he’s tickled by the idea that was able to pull it off.

    “It’s so crazy that I would do an unironic, vengeance-filled, anger-filled action movie.”

    One of the inspirations for making “Nobody” were two break-ins that his family experienced.

    “That was very traumatic for us. And I was left with a lot of feelings of anger that didn’t go away for a long time,” he said. “And I thought I could use those feelings to power this performance. It was a real challenge and in so many ways. And I wanted that challenge and I also thought it would never get made.”

    The tagline for “Nobody” is “Never underestimate a nobody.” And we’d like to add another tagline: “NEVER UNDERESTIMATE BOB ODENKIRK.”

  • Dana Schwartz writes the novel she always wanted to read

    When writer and humorist Dana Schwartz was 22, she visited Edinburgh, Scotland for the first time. Inspired by the castles and cobblestones, she tells WPR’s “BETA” that this ideal European gothic backdrop inspired her to write a novel around her lifelong fascination on the early medical history of the era.

    “I’ve been fascinated with the macabre side of medical history my entire life, just the dawn of pre-anesthesia surgery and how kind of gruesome it was. But there’s also something romantic about the Enlightenment side of it and the dawn of modern scientific reason coming to the forefront. So, I’ve always sort of had that churning around in the back of my mind,” she says.

    The result of all that churning is her latest young adult novel, “Anatomy: A Love Story.”

    “Anatomy” is a (Mary) Shelley-esque nod to gothic literature, complete with grave robbing, tragic romance, premedieval medicine and its shady practitioners.

    “I had this idea inspired by ‘Frankenstein’ — the idea of putting together a human body and what that technology would look like. Basically, if ‘Frankenstein’ technology existed and was real, what other applications could it have and how might someone have discovered it in a different way with a different goal?” Schwartz says.

    The novel — which was recently named to Reese Witherspoon’s YA Book Club — is set in Edinburgh, Scotland in the early 1800s. It follows an independent young woman, Hazel Sinnett, who yearns to be a surgeon, but runs against the era’s sexism in the medical community.

    “I really wanted to make Hazel feel like a woman of her time. Even though she is a strong woman who’s more ambitious and pursuing a path that wouldn’t have been considered socially acceptable for a woman at the time, it was really important to me that she still feel very grounded and not like a 2022 protagonist who has just been dropped into the 1800s,” says Schwartz.

    Hazel comes from a wealthy but isolated background and is trapped in a predetermined marriage to her cousin. She’s lost her father and brother and her mother has become reclusive. With basically no role models to emulate, or perhaps better to prevent her, she takes the bold initiative to pursue medicine.

    “Hazel sort of has grown up very lonely and isolated, and so she has the sort of the naivete that comes from privilege where she thinks, ‘Well, yeah, of course, why couldn’t I do these things that I want to do?’ Because she hasn’t had the reinforcement of society knocking her down again and again,” Schwartz says.

    Outcast from the male dominated medical community — in an era where to advance and practice medicine, access to corpses is like a verboten currency — Hazel needs to discover another way to learn. So, she makes the acquaintance of a “resurrection man,” Jack Kerr.

    “This is a very real job that existed at the dawn of the 1800s. This was a period where there was no system of donating one’s body to science, and it was considered very sacrilegious to desecrate a corpse. And so, no one was going to willingly have their body dissected by doctors. But this was the dawn of Enlightenment era science when doctors needed to learn about the human body through dissection and study. And so, an incredibly lucrative profession sprung up of people called ‘resurrectionists’ or ‘resurrection men’ who dug up dead bodies and sold them to doctors who could dissect and study them,” Schwartz says.

    Hazel and Jack forge an at first uneasy partnership that eventually blooms into a budding romance.

    “Whereas Hazel is a character who is incredibly privileged and naive because of it, Jack is the opposite side of that. He’s someone who has only existed as having already fallen through the cracks and understands the challenges of reality in a way that Hazel doesn’t yet,” says Schwartz.

    Schwartz’s fascination with this era extends to her popular historical podcast, “Noble Blood” which recounts the tragic fates of monarchs and historical figures. Schwartz credits her podcasting work in spurring her research and focusing her writing for “Anatomy.”

    “I think from working so much on the ‘Noble Blood’ podcast, I’ve gotten really a love for historical research,” she says. “I got very confident at writing in the period, and I think I wouldn’t have been as comfortable writing in the early 1800s had I not already had a lot of practice doing it. ‘Noble Blood’ — even though it wasn’t a direct influence in terms of research — gave me that boost of confidence.”

    Schwartz, who is well known for playfully parodying the YA genre with one of her popular Twitter accounts, @DystopianYA, says that the podcast was a good first step in separating her public identity as a humorist from her writing persona.

    “In my head, I’ve always been this spooky, historical writer because that’s always the things that I’m interested in,” she says. “But I think that maybe audiences might have been expecting something funnier or snarkier. And so, I think ‘Noble Blood’ was a good halfway point of people to realize that I’m really interested in history and writing things that aren’t necessarily Twitter ready.”

    At a recent Q and A for the book, Schwartz was asked if she’d ever consider writing an adult version of “Anatomy.” She responded, “This is the adult version.”

    I found that the young adult market at this point in time is more willing to accept books that are mixes of genre without it being sort of relegated to the science fiction fantasy section of a bookstore. I always wanted ‘Anatomy’ to be a little gory and a little science fiction in the way that ‘Frankenstein’ was, and I found that young adult publishing was just a place where readers were willing to accept that,” Schwartz says.

    While she won’t consider the redundant rewriting of the book, Dana is interested in a possible screen adaptation.

    “I’ve had some experience writing for television, and I would love the chance to turn ‘Anatomy’ into a television show or film. I think it was a very fun world to write in and a very fun period and setting for me, and I think it would translate really well to the screen,” she says.

  • Jason Mott on his National Book Award-winning novel, 'Hell of a Book'

    Jason Mott won the National Book Award in fiction for his novel, “Hell of a Book,” in November.

    The novel — his fourth — follows an unnamed Black author who goes on a publicity tour across the country to promote his best-selling novel. The book also tells the story of a young Black boy named Soot who lives in a rural town in the not-too-distant past and a character known as The Kid, who might be imaginary.

    In his online acceptance speech, Mott dedicated the award “to all the other mad kids, to all the outsiders, the weirdos, the bullied. The ones so strange they had no choice but to be misunderstood by the world and by those around them. The ones who, in spite of this, refuse to outgrow their imagination, refuse to abandon their dreams and refuse to deny, diminish their identity, or their truth, or their loves, unlike so many others.”

    Mott told Wisconsin Public Radio’s “BETA” he enjoys stories that break out of the confines of traditional storytelling.

    “Don’t get me wrong. I really enjoy a very normal, straight A to B to C kind of storytelling,” he said. “But the ones that always come back to me in my memory are the ones that do things very differently and have these kind of creative flourishes. When I was younger in undergrad writing fiction, I did a lot of really unique, creative, strange stories, and (I) kind of got away from that, and I wanted to go back to that.”

    Fortunately, for Mott, he was not under a book contract at the time wrote “Hell of a Book,” so no one had any great expectations for this novel.

    This novel was just me and the page having fun,” Mott said.

    Mott has said “Hell of a Book” gave him the opportunity to play with language in a way that he hadn’t been able to before. This freedom was a result of not being beholden to a book contract.

    “It was a novel that I wrote for myself and the flourishes and the fun and the silliness, and then also the heaviness and the exactitude of the language and using film noir as a mechanic to tell the story about Black America,” he said. “It finally was just a place where I didn’t care about how the book was going to be reviewed by other people or the people I admire. It was just the book that I wanted to admire for my own reasons, and that helped me write it in the way that I wanted to write it.”

    Charles Yu, who won the 2020 National Book Award for his novel, “Interior Chinatown,” was one of the judges for the 2021 National Book Award. His comments on Mott’s work: “‘Hell of a Book’ more than lives up to its title. Playful, searching, raw, and necessary, this writing, this novel twisted me up and turned me inside out, dazzled me, surprised me, and moved me.”

    Besides the Black author who serves as the narrator, there are also two other very important characters — Soot and The Kid.

    Mott came up with the Soot character when he was just writing about his thoughts and emotions about being Black and some of his memories about growing up.

    “And it was just this hodgepodge of things — some of them real, some of them imagined,” he said. “The Kid just kind of appeared one day, almost as he does in the novel.”

    Mott was revising the scenes with the author because he’d written those scenes already. As he was making some revisions, The Kid suddenly appeared and started talking to the author.

    One of the most powerful storylines in “Hell of a Book” is the tragic police shooting of a young Black boy. The shooting airs repeatedly on the news, so it’s a recurring motif. Mott said these were some of the most difficult scenes to write.

    “Almost every day, there was a report of a new shooting. I set up a Google Alerts at one point to try to keep track of things, and it started flooding my email box,” Mott explained. “And so I wanted to mirror that. Writing those scenes was very difficult because it was forcing me to really face how often this thing happens and the feeling that I kind of have when you hear about these shootings. And they just don’t go away, and you try to ignore them because you become overwhelmed.”

    The narrator is an avid fan of film noir and often speaks in a hard-boiled noir style. Mott admits that he does see a connection between film noir and what it means to be Black in America. He said film noir is detached from reality, and it is a space where language functions in a very specific and unique way.

    “And I think that a lot of that is how America treats Black culture,” he said. “Black culture becomes this commodified thing where were people talk a certain way, and they walk a certain way, and they dance a certain way and all these things. So I think there’s a parallel in that of how film noir is kind of viewed as this one-off genre. And I think that, unfortunately, a lot of Black culture gets viewed as a one-off kind of thing that sits apart from American culture and American identity. So I think there’s some similarity there.”

    Mott also points out that when film noir was at its peak popularity, Black people in the United States didn’t have opportunity to be in those films or have their narratives shared through that genre.

    “So I think that’s where there’s a bit of dissonance and disconnect that I would love to see, which is what actually made the novel fun and interesting for me because it was kind of like the novel was trying to send this message that people don’t think of Black people as connecting with things like film noir or all these genres that we think of as very much Americana,” Mott said. “We don’t often times think of minorities and like Black kids somehow connecting with them. And they are and they do.”

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Technical Director
  • Bob Odenkirk Guest
  • Dana Schwartz Guest

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