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October 10, 2012

A Deep and Intricate Prodding into the Soul of Bill Odenkirk

by Andrew A. Lee

On Friday, October 5th, the uneventful lives of Centennial High School students were forever changed when Bill Odenkirk, Emmy award-winning writer of The Simpsons, Futurama, Tenacious D and Mr. Show, graced us with his presence. In his presentation, he revealed the secrets for writing comedic scripts, screenplays, and novels, while simultaneously charming everyone in the room with his wit, intellect and humor. During his lunch break, The Centinal was lucky enough to interview Mr. Odenkirk to get a deeper look into his writing process, what makes something funny, and his high school experience.

The Centinal: How have you enjoyed your time presenting at Centennial High School so far?

Bill Odenkirk: …Two stars… For my presentation. Four stars for my treatment. I’ve enjoyed it. It’s been good, it’s been very nice, the students have been very interested, and asked really good questions. I enjoyed it.

The Centinal: What was your personal experience in high school? What did you enjoy and not enjoy?

Bill Odenkirk: I didn’t enjoy high school…Yeah, I hated high school, and a lot of people. I suspect everyone hates [it], but no one admits it (Laughs).There’s a certain group that admits it and a certain group that doesn’t. No, I didn’t like it. I liked college. It was sort of when I started to do well in school, and in other ways as well. It’s a difficult period for most people and I had a very good school in Naperville, but still, it’s a very tough period in many people’s lives, but it got better. College was great, and right now, this minute, is pretty good.

The Centinal: Where did you go to college?

Bill Odenkirk: I went to Loyola University in Chicago, and then I went to University of Chicago.

The Centinal: How much of a writer were you in high school and college?

Bill Odenkirk: Not at all. I didn’t think I was going to be a writer. I wanted to be in science; that’s what I did in graduate school. I was aware there were people writing for television shows. I remember Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall”. He [Woody Allen’s character] is a television writer in that movie, so I knew about it as a profession, but I didn’t think I’d do it. I was interested in science. Now I made some Comedy tapes in high school, and my brother was way into doing stand-up Comedy, and he really got into comedy writing, so I feel like I needed to be convinced that it was a real thing to pursue. Once I saw him doing it and [started] working with him, we worked all the time in college and in graduate school; I was on the phone with him twice a week at least, and writing stuff for Saturday Night Live. I would go out to New York and work on SNL, then I’d get on a plane and I’d be back at school. And I loved it, I really loved it and once I started [working] with other people around him, such as Conan O’Brien, it was great. I started to feel “well, maybe I can do this” and I think I needed to be convinced that I could. And the fact that he [Bob Odenkirk] wanted to work with me gave me that window and also the confidence that I could. In graduate school I really was not happy with Chemistry and the fact that it wasn’t really suiting my personality, and I had this thing that I could possibly do that I really love.  So I finished my degree, but at some point I decided to try comedy writing. I’m very fortunate to have this sort of thing sneak up on me that I was very interested in it and I wasn’t being pushed. I sort of came to it gradually, even though it seemed to be a crazy jump from Chemistry to Comedy. And I know a bunch of people with advanced science degrees at The Simpsons and certainly at Futurama. And a lot of writers are lawyers, Harvard lawyers, and they have really advanced degrees and could be doing many things, but they got into this and love it and so this is what they are doing. You have to go with what you love doing if you’re fortunate enough; it’s always the case with people.

The Centinal: What would you say is the most rewarding part of the writing process?

Bill Odenkirk: Its becoming less and less rewarding… No, I can’t complain. I guess creating the story, creating a story that you know is funny and works, and just writing lines that people will like. Those are the two big ones, the two big things you do in Comedy. You need to come up with a funny story that is coherent and will go somewhere, and its more satisfying to write a line that a character says that people will laugh at, because often times you are writing sequences when they are realized on-screen they are kind of funny and they’re goofy and stuff, but you’d never get the feedback of “Wow, that was so funny” like you get with a great line.

The Centinal: How much freedom do the executive producers of “The Simpsons” and “Futurama” give you on what you can or cannot write?

Bill Odenkirk: The only thing that really dictates that is once in a while we go “oh we had two big Homer stories, we need a Bart episode”, and we’ll have an episode or a couple of episodes where Lisa’s barely featured and has one or two lines. That happens, it’s not the actor’s fault, but if Lisa and Bart, who are down to about two lines in an episode, not that often but it happens, and you go “let’s have a Bart story or a Lisa story and we’ll start thinking along those lines.and we are all sort of cognitive of servicing the other characters. The only thing that might dictate our thinking about these stories other than that, which doesn’t happen very often because we are sort of conscious about it, is obviously Homer and we tend to have more stories that focus on him. Maybe news items. Stuff that happens in the world, and so we may jump on stuff like that, even though the lag time is enormous, because it takes a year to a year in a half before you even see the episode. That’s just the nature of it. Hopefully, the way were depicting whatever the issue may be, that the issue may last, it’s gonna still be out there, and that what we’re doing is not so specific that whatever issue we’re talking about is not too late. It does happen though. On Mr. Show we did that too; we’d find something in the news that’s big and ask ourselves “What is this thing about?” We take the issue and instead of going “Lets write something crazy about FOX news”, maybe about conservatism or a news station having a particular viewpoint. Which is great, because that’s where the substance is of the whole issue, it’s not like “Hey, we’re making fun of Bill O’Reilly this week” because who cares? It’s what is he doing that’s important, and if we can take that and do something similar or parallel that maybe doesn’t even feel like it necessarily, and make it more timeless. It’s a great way to go, “Here’s the thing that’s crazy about the human race and we are going to depict it in this way”, and not make it so specific to the time and place. I think that show did it pretty successfully.

The Centinal: The shows you’ve worked on, such as Futurama, The Simpsons and Mr. Show, are very collaborative television series, with many writers all working on one thing at the same time. So what would you say is different about writing in a room full of people versus by yourself? What would be the pros and cons?

Bill Odenkirk: In a room, there’s so much less pressure, because it goes without saying, you’ve got a room full of people pitching all kinds of great stuff, and there’s so much less pressure to produce. Writing on your own, there is just a lot more freedom to do whatever you want. Of course, on all those shows that stuff is going to be rewritten, so you hope your writing something that’s gonna stick around too, and not just to push some sort of envelope and change The Simpsons into “Moleman Show” (Laughs) or something like that. Mostly the difference is in one case when you are alone you’d have to produce more stuff really fast, and it’s on you, and in a group you’d have to be more in tune with what the other writers are trying to do with the show, and the story they wanna do. It’s not to say there’s an enormous amount of freedom working on your own, it’s just that you have a lot more flexibility on how to get to that. The hardest part is the fact that it gets rewritten. You’re like “Gee, I’d to see this story get put up on its feet in front of me, and see whether people like this or not, and a lot of times you don’t get that feedback, and that’s the hardest part of that writing in a room scenario. You never get your material like a playwright, where you write a play and that’s your thing, you must have a much better opportunity to learn at least how you can better your writing in that dynamic as opposed to “Okay, here’s a script I wrote”, and all kinds of changes and then this other thing comes out that people see. It’s just the nature of writing for comedy, that’s just the way it’s always been, more so than it used to be.

The Centinal: Who is the funniest person you’ve had a chance to work with and do you have any stories about him/her?

Bill Odenkirk: Geez, I’ve worked with so many funny people. Conan O’Brien is really funny. He’s crazy. I mean I can’t get through a conversation with him. I think he changes his attitude a little bit when doing his show, and he’s aware he can’t just bulldoze people, it’s like talking to a cartoon show when talking to him. I’m sure he’s different now, I mean I knew him when he was first starting off that show. But he’s hilarious and brilliant, just brilliant. Some of the best writers are kind of quiet. And wouldn’t show off all the time, but they’re brilliant and really funny. They could be very withdrawn and quiet, and then there’s very loud people who are not funny at all (Laughs), which I know a lot of. I wish I could have a single person I could say. I just feel when I think about that, people who always come up with brilliant lines, are just people I know who work on The Simpsons, and you wouldn’t necessarily know their names, but that’s who I really admire. Someone that’s really calculated and brilliant and funny and writes for the story and we have a bunch of people like that on the show.

The Centinal: What would be the most important piece of advice to give to someone who would want to make a living writing and/or in Comedy?

Bill Odenkirk: I’ve gotten in the comedy scene through a strange door, sort of working with my brother and seeing him develop, so I am always a little wary about giving advice. A lot of the successful people I’ve seen [start off] doing stand-up or improvisation—which is great because it is more telling than stand-up—and it helps you work with other people. So those are two things you can do that’ll help you at an early stage of a good comedy writer. My best advice, which is not always an easy piece of advice to take or to follow, is to find people who are much better than you and to work with them. Or try to at least be around them and follow them. That’s the hardest thing: to really pay attention to what really develops and to follow what really talented writers are doing. Not to imitate them necessarily, but to know “here’s how you approach a subject, an issue, or a problem”, and if you are really lucky, which I was, I was able to bring material to them and say “here, read this story idea that I have, or this script idea that I’m going to write or I want to write. What do think about it?”, or “here’s a couple story ideas. Which one do you think I should pursue?” and really take some time to the approach, instead of just typing away madly and producing something that’s the right page numbers, but really isn’t worth anything. I would say try to work with people who are much better than you, and learn from what they’re doing. It’s really true of anything and is certainly true of Comedy and writing. Because you’re just not going to–unless you’re a genius, which there are some—you’re not going to possess the attitudes and the internal rules and things. You are not going to have the right taste you develop as you go along, unless you pay attention to people who are much more talented than you are doing.

The Centinal: Last but not least, if Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie had to fight to the death, who would emerge victorious?

Bill Odenkirk: Bart. No, I think my answer is Mr. Burns. He’d somehow come out on top. Even if he wasn’t invited.

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