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Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama: Bob Odenkirk’s memoir is funny and unsentimental

Enlightening account of a life in laughter’s vanguard may test patience of Breaking Bad fans

Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama
Author: Bob Odenkirk
ISBN-13: 978-1529399332
Publisher: Hodder Studio
Guideline Price: £20

Early on in Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama, Bob Odenkirk offers a chilling lesson to the reader. “I tried just as hard at the stuff that didn’t work as the stuff that worked,” he says, in a statement both proud and weary, and one that sets the tone for his memoir’s paean to stubborn, dogged persistence, however likely the chance of failure.

This book is a resolutely unsentimental look at the career, and very occasionally life, of a comedy writer and actor with a chip on his shoulder the size of Manhattan, and enough self-awareness to make this part of his own schtick. Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama is inflected with the cheery patter of an old-timey showbiz memoir, offering intermittent life lessons rendered in italics, and with liberal use of exclamation marks and parenthetical asides to the reader.

This mostly proves a winning style, that of the veteran thesp surveying his career, dropping names like hot ash from a cigar the size of a rolling pin. Until we reach the book’s climactic chapters and meet Bryan Cranston and Steven Spielberg, the names we’re left to pick up are those of people many readers will not have heard of, though bright stars within the firmament of ’80s and ’90s alternative comedy they may be. As it happens, I’m a big fan of most of these people, which made the book’s “up and coming” sections a particular delight.

From total obscurity in Chicago theatre (which Odenkirk loved but left him broke) to writing for SNL (which he hated but got him paid), to working with long-term partner David Cross on their magisterial HBO sketch series Mr Show with Bob & David, these chapters chart a lineage of ’90s comedy of which Odenkirk was a central part. His experiences trying to jostle for attention in a packed field, of writing with and for ascendant stars such as Chris Farley, Conan O’Brien, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Tenacious D and Tim & Eric are riveting, and in Farley’s case, truly emotional.

But most of Odenkirk’s focus is on the work itself, on the crafting and refining of comedy as a matter of life-or-death seriousness, and occasionally outright rancour. He openly admits to being a cranky purist, and not always the best collaborator. He’s candid when discussing his failures – not just ideas that didn’t work, but those projects which he specifically made worse, or whose improvement he hindered through his own pig-headed intransigence.

At several points Odenkirk expresses sincere regret in how he treated people, or failed to provide uplift to others, particularly women and minority voices. In a memoir that contains a lot of bluster and snark about bad comedy and his own superiority of vision, these islands of self- laceration help to leaven the overall tone of I Was Right And Here’s Why that the book might have largely been without them.

Even with that caveat, it’s clear Odenkirk believes his comedy during that part of his career was just better than almost everyone else’s at the time, which can raise a few eyebrows here and there, but provides the book with all its most strident and illuminating passages. Lines such as “Keep in mind, NO ONE wanted a sketch show! Sketch shows are full of ideas! Yech! People don’t watch television for the ideas; they watch for the commercials” may be sneering, even a little obnoxious. But when taken with Odenkirk’s ability to lament his less successful ventures, they at least come off as honest self-aggrandisement, where so many similar books might shoot for collegiate bromides about the audience always being right. Give me a misanthrope any day.

The language is sometimes clunky, in that breathless “The year was 1986!” way of all cultural retrospectives. At one point, Odenkirk describes the ailing state of Saturday Night Live thus: “Expectations for the show still remained high, but expectations were dropping fast.” He also has a particular quirk for using quote marks in ways that can be difficult to parse.

Often this use is clearly schtick, a way to offer withering comment on those things he’s describing: “comedy”, “material”, “jokes” and “cult hits”, etc. At other times, it seems altogether more random, as when he refers to “devices”, “rotten tomatoes” or, say, “bottles” in ways that suggest he’s merely riffing on his own overuse of quote marks, or arching towards some other secondary meaning of said words that evades any reasonable reading of the text.

Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama might test the patience of people hoping to get an insight on Breaking Bad, which makes its first proper appearance in chapter nine and lasts just 12 pages. And it is undeniable that the speed-run through Better Call Saul and his subsequent movie work, which forms the last two chapters, lacks the anger and urgency of his days beating himself over the head in dimly lit writers’ rooms. It is, after all, easier to write of struggle than success. But this is an enlightening and funny trip through a life lived mostly in laughter’s vanguard, and even where it fails to hit the spot, it’s not for want of trying.