WOODSTOCK – The Odenkirks are quite the talented family. Older brother, Bob, is star of AMC’s “Better Call Saul” and younger brother, Bill, is a comedy writer with credits on “Mr. Show with Bob and David,” “Futurama” and most notably, is heading into his 16th season on “The Simpsons.”
Bill Odenkirk kicks off the 2018-2019 Creative Living Series season for the Woodstock Fine Arts Association on Oct. 18. Odenkirk will discuss his journey to comedy writing, which started with a stint in science.
Lindsay Weber, Northwest Herald correspondent, chatted with Odenkirk via phone from his office on the Fox studio lot in Los Angeles before he dashed off to a table read.
Weber: How did you land on “The Simpsons?”
Odenkirk: Back in ’95, I came to L.A. and I originally worked on “Mr. Show” with Bob [Odenkirk] and David [Cross], which was starring my brother, Bob, and he played “Bob” on the show. I was a writer on that series and it was a great experience, and through that, I got to know other writers in Hollywood. One of them was David X. Cohen. He was developing “Futurama” with Matt Groening. Through him, and because “Mr. Show” had been so well-received out here in L.A., I got interviews and I got hired on the staff of “Futurama” and through that, I got to know some of “The Simpsons” people because there was a lot of crossover between the two shows. [“The Simpsons”] was a Matt Groening-created show, of course.
Then, down the road, “Futurama” had run its course after three years. I was fortunate enough to run into the “The Simpsons” showrunner several times in different situations. It was very much a coincidental crossing of our paths. I didn’t really know him. It seemed like a good time to try and put my name out there as someone being interested in writing for “The Simpsons” like almost every writer in Hollywood. I was lucky enough to find the right time to apply, and they had a spot open and through references from David X. Cohen and Matt Groening and other writers I had met along the way, I got the job. So, that’s sort of my entire career right there.
Weber: How long did it take when they offered it to you for you to accept?
Odenkirk: Once they stopped talking, I said “yes.”
Weber: I was going to say, “please tell me it was like two seconds.”
Odenkirk: It was an immediate yes. I was thrilled to get the offer. It was a high-prized position and it still is. I asked my agent to look into it as just sort of a long-shot.
Weber: You started your writing career in comedy, but was that always the path for you? Why comedy writing?
Odenkirk: I worked with my brother, Bob, a great deal, as he launched his career, which has gone on to a lot of dramatic acting now. But he was always a brilliant stand-up and worked in improv for a long time, none of which I did, but I sort of followed his career and helped out when I could and was thrilled to be a part of whatever he was up to, to the capacity I could be involved. He encouraged me to get into writing and I found that once I really started to develop myself to it, back when I was still in chemistry and a student, I found that I really enjoyed it and loved the people in it.
It was always something that I would say was dimly at the back of my mind even when I was a young kid. I knew about it and I thought it was very interesting and it was very appealing to me, like a lot of people, sitting around writing comedy. It wasn’t until I really confronted my other dream, which was in science, and realized that I wasn’t necessarily cut out for that from a personality point-of-view more than anything, that I really started to take the possibility of going into comedy writing seriously. I’ve been very lucky in that regard. That I had it very open to me and it was something I could approach very gradually until I had exhausted another avenue and decided, I’m gonna go this way and see where I can go with it.
Weber: That’s quite a leap, organic chemistry to comedy writing.
Odenkirk: You’d be surprised, perhaps, that there’s a lot of people who started their careers in law and science and all kinds of other backgrounds. There are a lot of people from law backgrounds that are comedy writers out here or drama writers. It’s a business that welcomes people from any background because they just want people who can do it and are motivated. They don’t want to go back to being lawyers or scientists or whatever it is. It’s not that unusual. My experience has been that I’ve encountered a lot of people who, you know, again, aren’t necessarily from a theatrical background with drama training. And it’s good to have a different background, you know from just maybe strictly improv or something, although those are good avenues to get into it and learn about writing and about comedy and how it works. As a writer, you want to be able to draw upon other experiences and other knowledge so I feel like people don’t need to do a full-on theatrical training. It is the type of thing that if you devote yourself to it you can pick up on it and start to learn the parameters and train yourself, to a degree.
Weber: You bring up your brother Bob a lot. I have to ask, do you ever call Saul?
Odenkirk: Ha-ha! Umm, I text him, more than anything. He’s in New Mexico a lot to shoot that show. They have a long season of production and of course, he’s at the center of almost every single scene. It’s a very demanding show. So I don’t see him really all that often. We’re sort of in different circles now and have been for a long time. He never really got involved with “The Simpsons” though he’s done a voice on it a couple of times as a guest star. But Bob was absolutely critical to me doing this career. I would not have done it otherwise. He’s much more than talented than I am and a lot braver than I am, and those are two things you really need to get into show business – talent and bravery. I sort of have enough talent and I’m stupid enough to try something like this, would be my characterization.
Weber: You weren’t with “The Simpsons” from the beginning, so how long have you been writing for the show?
Odenkirk: No, no, no. I’ve been here for about 16 years.
Weber: That’s quite a stint! You’ve been there for over half of the life of “The Simpsons” because they just premiered their 13th season on Sept. 30. How do you think they’ve been able to continue to be a constant and relevant part of television for so long?
Odenkirk: We are a show that is able to delve into all kinds of issues. I would say mostly their personal or family issues, but we can also do politics. We can do science. We can do all kinds of other issues. It’s a very flexible format and one of the things that we’ve been able to mine is the changes in the world that have happened as we’ve been a series. Which is a long time. I mean, cell phones were not a thing when we first started. The world keeps providing changes that we can sort of comment on or make fun of, or at least involve the family in and complicate their lives. So there’s been a lot of new issues for us to look at. But one things that’s surprised me, too, is that there are still basic stories we can tell about a family or at least a society through the town of Springfield that are basic to any time period in any culture really. They’re just human stories that are fun to look and make fun of. I don’t know how much more time we have but I still feel like there’s still plenty for us to comment on.
Weber: How much longer do you think the show has?
Odenkirk: It’s hard to say. With the changes happening at Fox, with the sale to Disney, that’ll be in the hands of other people pretty soon, I think. Right now we’re confident the show has a lot of life and we still love it; love thinking about it and love working on it. From our point of view, we’re not tired of it at all. We hope it goes on for a while longer. It’s a really unique thing to be on a show that’s this flexible and can look at so many aspects of human life and society in such a fun way. That’s just not something you can say about most television shows and we’ve been able to do it for a long time. It’s such an open creative space. We recognize how unique that is.
Weber: If the show were to end tomorrow, what would be the next move for you?
Odenkirk: Well, like all writers in Hollywood, whether they have a job or not, you’re always working on other things. No one becomes a writer to write one thing. And as much as we love the show, everyone is always working on other projects. You always have stuff in work that working away from the concerns of the show. It’s an important thing to do to have a long-term career and also for your own sanity. You want to think about and create other things. So I’ve worked on a drama idea for a long time and some comedy ideas. Nothing in animation right now. I think that you work on the format secondarily to the idea. You know, if it seems like a animation idea, then that’s what it is, but I’m not driven to think about animation ideas necessarily.
Weber: Do you think you’ll ever do another project with your brother?
Odenkirk: I don’t know. We’ve gone our separate ways and as much as I love him, it’s often hard to work with someone you’re so close to. We’re both very difficult people. It would be great if we could, but sometimes I find it surprising how different our sensibilities are. And also, I feel like with Bob, it’s sort of like saying, “Do you think you’ll ever work with Paul McCartney?” Well Paul McCartney doesn’t need me and you know every single minute you’re with Paul McCartney you’re like, “What am I doing here? Can I just leave and let you do your thing and I’ll go do something else.” I often have that feeling with him [Bob]. You don’t need my participation. So there’s people he likes to work with and is great with but I think for right now, and the near term, we’re fine in our worlds here.
Weber: My sister is my hair stylist and even that’s hard enough!
Odenkirk: Bob is not my hair stylist. That’s the last thing I want him to do.
Weber: What’s it like writing for a cast that never ages?
Odenkirk: We actually do jump ahead. We do shows set in the past and we’ll do shows about them set in the future, so we have flexibility that way. Our preference is to stay in the current timeframe and work with that family but if the show demands it, we will go into the future. We’ve done a couple 20 or 30 years out. I don’t feel like it’s a restriction. We love it. We love that family and we love the kids that age and Homer his age. It’s not that constraining.
Weber: You’re from Naperville. Does growing up in your hometown of Naperville ever come through in your writing?
Odenkirk: (Long pause.) I don’t know that I think about Naperville in those terms but I think having grown up in a small town, I feel like I know what Springfield is kind of like. Though I know it’s a lot more interesting than Naperville was. I don’t feel like if I’d grown up in some crazy city I wouldn’t understand the dynamics and life of the people in Springfield. I don’t know. If it comes through it’s a subconscious thing of what small town life is, and Springfield is not that small a town. We often will push it into a small city feel sometimes. So I don’t know that it informs my writing in that regard other than to say that there’s perhaps a subconscious impulse that comes through.
But no, Springfield is a very flexible place much like the universe of that show and, so it becomes what we want it to be. It can be a rinky-dink little town that has no money to a small city if we want it to be. We can make that town pretty much anything. We have a Ukrainian area that we’ve pulled out for some shows. It is what it is and we have enormous fun with the creativity that it affords us.
So this a long way to the word “no” I think. It’s another form of the word “no.”
• For information on this season’s Creative Living Series speakers and tickets visit www.woodstockfinearts.org/cls.html.